Published September 29th 2016 by Carcanet
Author: Matthew Welton
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
“Whatever I was thinking it was almost right”
The Number Poems occupies the playful middle ground between tradition and experiment. An innovative and unconventional poet, Welton presents us with poems which fuse techniques like rhyme or iambic metre with a playfully postmodern aesthetic, creating new forms that unfold as sets of variations. Fascinated by poetic form but bored by the idea of writing sonnets or sestinas, Welton peppers his poems with extreme alliteration and crazy mathematical vocabulary to give us a selection box of experiments in working within formal constraints.
If this collection of poetry has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a fine line when it comes to strict form. This book almost treats poetry on the same level as architecture, with careful planning and placing of words and lines in relation to each other to create something that is structured.
It is split into two sections: ‘The Book of Numbers’ and ‘Melodies for the Meanwhile’. I enjoyed the first section, as there are variations with each poem. They all play with a specific form and structure, but are different and keeps the reader thinking.
However, the second section, which runs from page 53-90, features poems that differ, but are all within the same structure. The last phrase “we do it without thinking, and when we speak it’s as if we’re unsure we’ll be heard” finishes each poem, and there are other phrases that are repeated. The situation and content surrounding these phrases is what changes, but ultimately the poems follow the same length and form. I’ve no doubt that it’s clever, and impressive to have a collection so precise when it comes to its poems…but after the first five I started to wonder when this particular form would end.
Then I flicked forward, and checked the list on the contents page and realised that this form would take up the rest of the poems in the book, for the whole of the second half. It was at this point I put the book down.
I like variation in poetry, I like not knowing what comes next when I turn the page, but because of the sheer amount of poems written similarly, the words started to blur and I didn’t register with them the way I would have done if I was coming to a poem of this form for the first time. So, the first in the second half was fine, I enjoyed it, and I loved the final phrase. By the end of the book, the phrase had lost that impact. It’s still a good line, and I won’t be forgetting it for a while, but I just feel like this form was done too much. But I get that that’s the point of the collection. It just didn’t work for me.
But, if you do read it slowly and concentrate on the different phrases and what changes each time, then they are enjoyable. This is what I tried to do when I picked the book back up after a few days away from it. I came back to it less fed up, more alert, and ready to digest the poems in the way I assume the author intended them to be digested.
The collection lends itself well to wordplay, which I always love, so putting my criticisms aside, it’s a book of poems worth looking at even if it’s just to see an example of what can be achieved when you stick to form, and see what you can do with it. I particularly enjoyed the section ‘A note on the title’ after the book has finished. This is written almost like a poem itself, and then we have ‘A note on the note on the title’ at which point I realise this section is almost like the short extras you get at the end of a film. And I quite enjoyed that bit, and it went a long way to making me appreciate what I’d just read, even if it did do my head in at times.
Link to the book on Goodreads: The Number Poems