Matthew Welton (b. 1969) is a British poet who lives and works in Nottingham, where he is a Lecturer in Writing at Nottingham University. His published works include the poetry collections ‘The Book of Matthew’ (2003), and ‘We needed coffee but we’d got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we returned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind’ (2009), both published by Carcanet Press, Manchester.

Welton’s poem, ‘I Must Say That At First It was Difficult Work’, and his Note on the writing of the poem in relation to Raymond Roussel’s compositional method, both reproduced below, indirectly inspired the exhibition of the same name at Kunsthall Oslo.


‘I Must Say That At First It Was Difficult Work’

A malaise that affects the demented at first
A masseuse with a thirst for delicious liqueurs
A monsieur who’s inferring that discipline hurts
A mosquito, a butterfly, a tickler, a worm
A mouse with white fur was sick in the water

A mushroom that occurs in deciduous woods
An assailant who’s certain of judicial mercy
And I’m saving the termites for further research
And most of the term he was dead to the world
And my cousin whose burps are not typical burps
And myxomatosis has stiffened its fur

Aramaic inverts the intransitive verbs
As potatoes emerge from the depths of the earth
I’m arranging excursions to disparate worlds
I’m assured there’s a version that’s technically worse
I’m a surgeon who’s working with domicile birds
I’m elated to learn I’m in step with the herd

I’m OK but I’ve heard that there’s dozens who weren’t
I’m the same as my father who entered the church
I’m untrained but alert to this miniscule surge
It’s my serious aversion to the demands of women
She masqueraded as a desperate girl
The inmates of the infirmary weep deeply for her

The Mercedes is hers but she drives in reverse
The messiah was the worse for discussing the waitresses
The mezuzahs affixed to the dayanim’s walls
The mistake of resuming indifferent rehearsals
The mist and the frost – devastating white
The muscular flirt with the definite curves

The music in the verse is a discordant waltz
The music, rehearsed with different words
The music station in Amherst was affected the worst
The mystery woman is dispatched to the wardrobe
Unashamed and impertinent, distant, unnerved
Unassuming and furtive and stiff and absurd


‘I must say that at first it was difficult work’

‘I must say that at first it was difficult work’ is a comment made by Raymond Roussel with regard to his method of prose composition. Specifically he is discussing his way of constructing a text by taking a word which occurs in one sentence, finding a word loosely homophonic to that word, and then building a subsequent sentence which in some way incorporates the new word. The new sentence, then, will include another word which will form the basis for the next sentence, and so on. And by continuing this principle of one-step-forward-one-step-back, an entire novel eventually comes to be written.

This method is described by Roussel in his book How I Wrote Certain of my Books, and the example he gives is from his novel Impressions d’Afrique, where a sentence deploying the word billard (billiard table) leads on to a sentence which uses the word pillard (plunderer). Or rather, this is how Roussel’s description of this method of composition is given by Michel Foucault in his study Death and the Labyrinth – the World of Raymond Roussel. And, more specifically, it is how Foucault’s version of Roussel’s description of his method is conveyed in Charles Ruas’s translation of Foucault’s book. The point, of course, is that in deriving one sentence from another – or in arriving at an account which is a translation of a paraphrase of a description which may or may not be entirely accurate – the outcome might be less a distortion of the original than a text with an originality of its own- And maybe it is significant too that this method should feel more like a game of chinese whispers than a traditionally poetic use of rhyme.

So the phrase ‘I must say that at first it was difficult work’, which is both the title for my piece and the grounds on which it was written, comes not from Roussel, as such, but from Ruas’s version of Foucault’s version of Roussel. Even so, when I came across the phrase it seemed to have an attraction of its own, which may be why I departed a little from the method described. It was certainly a phrase fruitful enough to provide the basis for the thirty-six sentences I eventually derived from it. And whether or not writing this piece was in fact difficult work is a matter which probably shouldn’t detain me here.

Matthew Welton, 2009
First published in ‘We needed coffee but…’, Carcanet Press, Manchester