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Poet of the Week – 8: Steven Matthews


Steven Matthews is a poet and critic who was born and brought up in Colchester, Essex. He has been a regular reviewer of poetry for London Magazine, Poetry Review, and the TLS, and Poetry Editor for Dublin Quarterly Magazine. Waterloo Press published Skying, his first collection of poems, in 2012; On Magnetism, his second collection, appeared from Two Rivers Press in 2017.

In 2016, Steven was one of three inaugural poets-in-residence at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford, and created new work for the residency anthology Guests of Time (Valley Press). Filmed readings of the poems are archived online here. A poem from the residency was set as the final part of a song cycle for soprano and string quartet by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Those Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which was premiered in October 2019. As part of his work on the creative-critical response to Wordsworth’s The Prelude published as Ceaseless Music, Steven collaborated with The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, on to a two-month exhibition at Dove Cottage, ‘Sounds of Wordsworth’, together with composer Paul Whitty. Aspects of this work, including ‘Stepping Stones’, a new sequence of open sonnets, are archived here.

Steven Matthews writes:

Perhaps because of the current situation, I have been thinking a lot again about the powerful hold that my Nana’s memory has over me, and the role that she played in tuning me in to poetry. We met up with her and granddad outside about twice a year, for a walk by the river at Mistley. Otherwise, Nana would be found always settled deep in her brown armchair at her council house, her photos of family by her side. But, from that armchair, she seemed to govern the district; people were constantly walking in the always-open front door to ask advice, seek opinions on feuds or marital disputes.

Nana always kept her strong-clasped handbag by that armchair, and would fish out sweets for us, endless tissues for the endless colds; but, sometimes when she did so, small newspaper-clippings would drop out. She scoured the local and national papers for bits of verse that she wanted to keep by her. After her death, granddad started his days by reading some of them out loud for her; I have her favourite in my desk drawer here. To Nana, poems clearly offered some sense of the possibility of saying something which she could not herself have put into words in this intense and concise way. That they were always, unbeknownst to most of us in the family, carried carefully folded away in her handbag makes me think that she saw these poems, however sentimental, as constant companions, always there as possible ways of interpreting whatever, in a normal day, might befall her; the poems offered what sense of understanding it there was.

I’ve always thought that that first moment encountering poems showed me everything about what they can do in a life, and what we are trying achieve in making them. They abide with us, and inform us in the literal sense. Even when they seem most ‘impersonal’, they are finding ways to figure, and figure out, what most moves and explains us. I’m struck by the fact that the male poets from my lifetime who I most admire share what might loosely be called a labouring or working class background (W.S. Graham, Les Murray, Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney); but they find very different technical solutions to framing their background on that spectrum from personal to impersonal. (The woman poets I most admire are notably free of that class implication: Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Paula Meehan).

My own sense of creating shapes in and through poems is of trying to pull something through to a telling, and hopefully memorable, conclusion. A friend who reads much of my work before it is printed tells me she thinks I’m too hooked on endings; but I do feel that that moment when hopefully you sense that things have been brought into single focus, what Yeats called the ‘click’ of the closing box of the work, is the one that we are all looking for.

David Hockney has recently advocated that we all ‘look hard at something and then think about what we’re really seeing’. Poems do that if they work, combining both the looking and the thinking – because they are set to a different kind of time, they create time where we can think differently, time where we can commune in different ways. Time, the time poetry takes, and the time poetry makes happen amidst the accelerated happenings around us. Time as what binds us, as what poetry especially alerts us to; the time of poetry as a necessary way of talking to, and about, what could not otherwise be said.



Five harsh days of hard frosts,
the canal path a glistening ribbon
of solid mud, the canal’s crystalline
surface parading
the canal-bed’s detritus –
logs, branches, a bike frame,
rocks of clumped earth,
a tracery of skeletal leaves
bolted into the solid substance.

Only when you began prising
small pebbles out of the path from
their thumb-print mud pebble-beds
and skimming them swiftly across
the frosted canal surface, was life
to be re-heard:
dull-zingings, light dashes of sound
sounded deep through the canal’s base
echoing beneath and beyond
the canal bridge,
the out-of-their depth, ice-bewildered
geese to clatter into air.

[from On Magnetism]



A skilful artist,
her fine ginger hairs
were her deft paint brush,
as she danced the air
dabbing pollen grains
pink blossom to pink
blossom, tree to tree.

The finger-nail sheen
inside snail shells glowed
as she layered rose
petals for her nest,
then laid an egg there,
bunged each shelter-hole
with chewed clots of soil,
all to incubate.



Steven Matthews reads “Sounding the Canal”:

Steven Matthews and Naomi Wolf in conversation about the importance of poetry in these times of climate crisis:

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