Archambeau, Robert, ed. Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias. Athens: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1998. Hooker, Jeremy. The Presence of the Past: Essays on Modern British and American Poetry. Bridgend, United Kingdom: Poetry Wales Pres, 1987, pp. 97-105. Sherry, Vincent. "The Poetry of John Matthias: Between the Castle and the Mine." Salmagundi 65 (fall 1984): 132-145.
MAXIMUM SECURITY WARD RAMON GUTHRIE (1970) Maximum Security Ward, published when Ramon guthrie was 74 years old, is one of the last masterpieces of modernism. In this work Guthrie echoes the allusiveness and renaissance humanism of Ezra pound's the cantos, the voices of T. S. eliot's the waste land, and Wallace stevens's (and Eliot's) obsession with the loss of religious certainty. Like The Cantos and Charles olsons maximus poems, Maximum Security Ward is a long poem made up of smaller individual poems (see long and serial poetry).
Although Maximum Security Ward is a poem of many voices, the dominant one is that of Guthrie's own persona, identified with Merlin, Marsyas, Ishmael, and others who dared to defy the gods. It is a witty, self-conscious, mocking, and tender voice, trying to find a moral center without God and believing in love even in the face of painful death. The voice is given authority not only by the immediate suffering of cancer treatment in an intensive care ward he mockingly calls the Maximum Security Ward, but also by the human suffering caused by the series of wars that mutilated the 20th century. The poem suggests that life teases us with the possibility of beauty, justice, and liberty, only to defeat us in the end by taking away all three. But life does not, just tease us the poem goes on to say, but leaves us to create and affirm meaning, in spite of our ultimate destruction.
Characteristics of the poem include the elements of modernism that Guthrie took from Pound and Eliot (in addition to the love of the medieval Provençal trouba-dors), allusions to contemporary science played against mythic references, and a reliance on fragments and quick cuts similar to cinema clips or voices on a radio. All these help to give a sense of the upheaval that followed World War I through World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. A key theme is embodied in the line "Human I never would have chosen to be," which appears several times, including in "This Stealth," where he says that even though he would not choose to be human, he respects that humans, in spite of "all frustration," try to "push . . . beyond" their limitations. Angry at Christianity's self-righteousness and Americas paternalism, Guthrie nonetheless believes in righteousness, as embodied in "lovers of liberty, beauty, justice" ("And the Evening and the Morning"). Those three touchstones—liberty, beauty, and justice—make Guthrie's work less evasive than Eliot's or Stevens's and more sharply focused than Pound's.
A poem about a man dying of cancer may sound depressing, but Maximum Security Ward is an exhilarating and uplifting book, full of honest emotion and wonderful fun, with a tight network of cross-references and allusions.
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