A LIKENESS YOU DARE NOT DISOWN


THE AUTUMN-BORN IN AUTUMN: Selected Poems, Matthew Mead
(
192pp, 11.95, Anvil )


Matthew Mead is not as well known as he should be. I can recall the name from magazines and at least one anthology - Edward Lucie-Smith's British Poetry Since 1945 published by Penguin in 1970. There Mead is included in a section entitled 'Influences from Abroad' with poets like Michael Hamburger and Chrisopher Middleton, in which Middleton is quoted as saying Mead combines 'the tradition of experimental form and European political themes'. Then there was Penguin Modern Poets, shared with Harry Guest and Jack Beeching, also in 1970. As well as being a poet in his own right, Mead, with his wife Ruth, has, like Hamburger and Middleton, played an important role in translating modern German poetry. This, along with Modernist American poets like Wallace Stevens, has obviously influenced his own writing - though he claims to have avoided what one reviewer has called 'programmes of allegiances'. Like Eliot and Pound, he is a cosmopolitan: his perspectives are European, his concerns being the political events (what he himself calls 'psycho-politics') of the twentieth century. He has lived in Germany since 1962 and is now in his mid-eighties.

Mead has been publishing highly original poetry since the sixties, has five collections to his credit and was, for some years, editor of the magazine Satis
. Now we have this substantial Selected Poems, the more you read of which the more you recognise a hard-to-place poet, thoroughly independent-minded, completely his own man, but, once encountered, someone you can't ignore. In this he reminds me of other fine originals like W.S. Graham and Gael Turnbull.

Heaney has talked of 'the subversive and necessary function of writing as truth-telling'. It fits Mead's poetry. The truths are often uncomfortable, those of man's inhumanity to man. Eliot's question is pertinent: 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness? It is sometimes said that postwar British poetry failed or refused to deal with such matters...though it could be said to lie  at the heart of Plath's poetry: the question being how can a poet respond to the enormities of twentieth-century evil, to such huge-scale suffering and devastation.

Here is Mead:


   After Passchendale
   After Katyn
   After Auschwitz
   After Kronstadt
   We stand here

   After Asquith
   After Beria
   After Noske
   We stand here

   What footfall?
   What valley what field what forest
   What morning sun
   After the streets of Nagasaki?
   Mask, persona,
   Alias, pseudonym;
   We stand here.
         [from 'Identities']

This extract is bare-bones poetry working with material which is extremely difficult to articulate, as its cryptic and staccato style implies. It is has the look of being 'experimental'. But Mead's range is wider than this suggests. He can bring off technical feats: triolets and villanelles look easy in his hands; he can write lyrically, epigrammatically, and with biting wit. I think I admire him most when I feel he's in Wallace Stevens' mode. Take this, the first of four sections of a poem called Echo
:

   Except as I speak she is silent. When I speak
   She answere in no accent but my own,
   Makes her eply true to the last word
   Repeating nothing which I have not said.
   I speak and she replies. Yet her reply
   Lingers upon the word as if the word
   Awoke a memory of speech, of how to speak,
   Not as I spoke but as she might have spoken.
   I speak and she replies. My word is changed.

In a useful essay printed at the end of The Autumn-Born in Autumn
Dick Davis says 'His tone is unmistakable, and once encountered is never forgottn; certainly the reader feels that Mead's finest poems could have been written by no other poet.'  Davis is right.
           
    Matt Simpson 2009

w