Newton Smith

To Bill Matthews

Ave atque vale; hail and farewell dear friend.

When William Matthews died on November 12, 1997, one day after his 55th birthday, writers and friends everywhere grieved that we had lost the wisest, most generous, most intelligent, and most genial poet of the second half of the twen­tieth century. You may grieve again as you read this book, but if you listen to the voice in these poems you will realize that Search Party: Collected Poems is a celebration. It is a paean to life and its pleasures, its fleeting delights, and all our contradictions even as it is a memorial to Matthews. Matthews lived intensely, exuberantly and fearlessly as if looking over his shoulders in defiance at death’s approach. His acquaintance with death and loss honed his attention so that everything he did, everything he experienced, and all that he wrote was vivid and honest and pure even if it laid ruin to his own body.

Richard Hugo wrote “we become the strong people we want to be because Matthews reminds us and teaches us how to survive the natural process of fragmentation that results when we neglect what we really are and what life really is.” Matthews’ poems on the surface were light and detached, but throughout he was brutally honest about his own life and his failings. He was known as America’s most witty poet and delighted us all by his light-hearted awareness of his own and all of our failings as humans, creatures ruled by our bodies, our lusts, our failure to love, and our betrayals. Matthews was our Jeremiah, but a genteel and witty one. What ruin awaits us now that he is gone?

Matthews was a bemused moralist. He used his wit, irony, and detachment as a device to trick us into seeing what we most want to avoid — our mortality, our squandered lives, and our self-betrayal. He was like that in person, often leading his companions in seemingly casual talk unwittingly over the edge to see what we had not suspected or wanted to see about ourselves. I remember him as the most brilliant conversationalist I have ever known. He could dominate a room with his remarks so dead on, so witty, yet so tinged with pain at our human foibles that they would take your breath and take over your mind for days on end. At times over beer or especially wine, his conversations were almost virtuoso performances, and yet his repartee was always focused on those he was with, as if his listeners were the ones who were feeding him his lines.

Matthews’ poems, like his conversation, were a dance of intelligence, a kind of “erotic thrall / of work as restraint against despair.” They were improvisations by a master who delighted in the apt turn of phrase but who was aware that intelligence was always being overtaken by mortality. That is why it is too easy and wrong to simply classify Matthews as a wit. Underneath it all he was aware that time was running out, that the line would soon end, and that the music would finally stop. His focus is on the ordinary life, our shared losses and lusts, our fears and feasts, our pains and passions. Basketball, jazz, wines, his own children, food, marriage, Viet Nam, politics, psychology, and lust, were some of his favorite themes. But the poems are really about life as it is worn away, as it slips from our grasp by merely living. He rarely abandons the ordinary, yet what he sees takes us beyond the quotidian and is almost always a surprise.

Some of Matthews’ poems are aphoristic and ironic, but his bon mot act as personal confessions that embrace the very flaws he exposes in himself and us. He knows we are helpless and cannot help ourselves; we try, we aspire, but we fall short of the mark most of the time. He forgives us with a smile, and himself too. But what makes Matthews’ poetry wise is his attention to pleasure and those moments when we escape for a moment our fate. He is an epicure who opens a bottle of wine and serves up a meal for us even if Death is one of the guests soon to arrive. For Matthews life is a pickup basketball game. Much of it is dribbled away. But occasionally we have an opening and a shot at the goal, and then for an instant our bodies, our minds, and the very fuse of our lives come off the floor, and we become a part of the universe, graceful, and alert, and attentive to the life in us. And at the moment the ball leaves our hand we know where it will fall, know that if we are outside ourselves and into the universal flow that the ball will shish through the net. That feeling and sound is what a typical Matthews’ poem is like, a net ball.

In his abbreviated life, Matthews published ten books of poetry, including Selected Poems and Translations, 1969–1991; a book of essays and prose, Curiosities (1989); and two books of translations, A World Rich in Anniversaries (prose poems of Jean Follain, 1981) and The Mortal City: 100 Epigrams of Martial (1995). The day before he died he had sent the manuscript for After All (1998), his last book of poetry other than Search Party: Collected Poems, edited so ably by Sebastian Matthews, his son, and Stanley Plumly, one of his life-long friends. Three other books by Matthews have been published since his death: The Satires of Horace (2002), Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Unbound” in Aeschylus, 2: The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, Prometheus Bound (Penn Greek Drama Series) (1998), and The Poetry Blues: Essays and Interviews (2001). The last book he saw to publication, Time & Money (1995), won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 1997 he won the Modern Poetry Association’s Ruth Lilly Award for After All: Last Poems, published posthumously. He was a former chairman of the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts and a former president of the Poetry Society of America. Since his death the City College of New York, where he taught for 14 years, has sponsored the annual William Matthews Memorial Readings in his honor. According to Sebastian Matthews, other publications are anticipated.

The poem, “Poetry Reading at West Point,” from After All: Last Poems defines and replicates how Matthews worked. It begins with him reading to the entire plebe class, each carrying his book as assigned. Matthews characteristically turns aside to the reader with amusement, “What would my / shrink say, if I had one, about / such a dream, if it were a dream?” We notice immediately the kind of protective phrasing we all might use if we wanted to dispel any suspicions about our mental health: “shrink … if I had one,” and “such a dream, if it were a dream?” During the question and answer time a cadet asks, “why do your poems give / me a headache when I try / / to understand them?” Matthews puts us there on stage with him as he struggles with the answer:

“I try to write as well as I can
what it feels like to be human.”
I started, picking my way care-
fully, for he and I were, after
all, pained by the same dumb longings.
“I try to say what I don’t know
how to say, but of course I can’t
get much of it down at all.”
By now I was sweating bullets.
“I don’t want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth.” Silence hung in the hall
like a wet fabric. Now my
head ached. “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you, sir.”

Each word in this late poem seems almost casual, conversational, as if narrating an event off-handedly. But look at the choices he is making with line endings: “care- / fully,” “after / all,” “say what I don’t know / how to say,” “but of course I can’t / get much of it down at all” and “Now my / head ached.” His reference to a shrink and dreams refers to his own frequent musings about Freud and the dream life. Here is a mind improvising, dodging, feinting, and waiting for the perfect moment, aware of the syntactical yearning for closure and certainty but unwilling to give us anything that obscures the uncertainty in poetry, in life, or meaning. Matthews is famous for his play on words and his wit. Here his metaphor deliberately skirts a cliché. He makes us feel like we are on the spot with him, but when he says, “By now I was sweating bullets,” we have to laugh, given that he is at West Point. It is only when we look back at the poem that we realize that he has made our head ache with the labor that is poetry and life, and that it is we who should yell, “Thank you, sir.”

I met Bill in 1967 at Chapel Hill in graduate school. He had come from Yale and had grown up in Ohio. We immediately began to talk about contemporary poetry, railing against what we deemed academic poetry, calling it drugstore poetry, written like a prescription that was illegible and mostly designed to put you to sleep. Bill was passionate about Bly and Wright, and I was a fan of Snyder, Olson and Creeley. Soon Russell Banks, Bill and I were starting Lillabulero and sharing almost every waking moment we could spare, corresponding with writers, reading manuscripts and learning to print on a Multilith 1000 offset printing press upstairs in the old Y. After our first issue that we sold in the cafeteria and through the mail, we were suddenly getting manuscripts from everywhere, sometimes as many as 40 poems a day and 10 or 12 stories.

There were parties and intense literary conversations from those on campus and off. When Robert Morgan would come, we would be immersed in his discussions of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine and his tales of Fred Chappell as well as his store of mountain folklore. We talked about Viet Nam, Johnson, Nixon, politics, marriage, travel, and poetry. We printed radical flyers and handbills for the Weathermen, CORE, SDS, and the Black Panthers. And all through those times, Matthews was acerbic, sharp, and self-aware. In some ways that became his style, the conversational thrusts and retractions, the feints and rushes to make points and then the withdrawal so as not to offend or draw too much attention to his art.

One summer Bill and I had to take an intensive class in Latin as a part of our program. We each had had some Latin, but this was the sort of class where if you dropped your pencil, you would have missed an entire declension. The professor recognized us as the editors of Lillabulero and asked if we would prefer translating poetry instead of the exercises in the text. Soon we had turned our Latin class into a sort of contest like a pickup game of basketball. He almost always had a better translation of Horace and Martial than anyone. And he continued his translations throughout his life.

In an interview in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring/Summer issue 1997, Matthews said, “I had read enough of the Roman poetry in translation to know that if I could stick with the Latin long enough I would be able to read some of that material in the original and so it was the translations which led me to study the language long enough that I find myself now spending a lot of time translating from Latin poetry in my late forties and early fifties.” He added, “Translation is, for a book person, the equivalent of travel, and is equally powerful, and has the same power to take you to some place that you couldn’t imagine by yourself and allow you to make comparisons between that place and what’s familiar and homey, and even a little homely…”

Matthews did a lot of translating from French, Latin and Greek plus several translations of contemporary Bulgarian poets. I wish Search Party had included a few of his translations, especially selections from his The Satires of Horace, finished just before he died. Horace became a deep influence on Matthews beginning with the book, Blues if You Want, 1989, especially the satires and letters. We see in both poets an urbane wit, a conversational style, a delicate balance between pain and self-mockery, a delight in the simple pleasures of life, and a refusal to be morose. Matthews had already begun thinking about translating Virgil before his death.

I think it is fitting that Matthews chose Martial and Horace. They were urbane poets who lived in the shadow of Virgil’s earlier accomplishments and whose careers had been buffeted by the politics of their times. They both spent time in the city as well as in the country — country mice and city mice as in Matthews’ translation of Horace’s “Satire II, iv,” where Horace relates the tale of the city mouse and the country mouse. In the Hayden Ferry Review interview, Matthews said,

I hope Martial would have liked my frank interest in social life, in human interaction and in human generosities and failures of generosities. … I think that Horace would find me not so skillful a versifier as he was, but then Horace was used to finding almost everyone less skillful versifiers than he was, so I hope he wouldn’t be too hard on me for that part. But I hope Horace would be pleased to find that all these years later, at least one poet finds pleasure in an interesting human subject, a subject that has always attracted me. There are other reasons to write about music. There are other reasons to write about friendships and love and travel. These are the kinds of things that are the occasions and settings for my poems.

But the notion that pleasure in itself is an interesting subject to human beings and need not be displaced by more serious subjects because there are no more serious subjects — there are equally serious subjects, but there are no more serious subjects — I would hope that Horace, forgiving some occasional technical and metrical clumsiness on my part, would be pleased by that. His big complaint about the Stoics and the Epicureans and so forth was they were interested in being right. Horace was not interested in being right; he was interested in cultivating the durable and nondestructive human pleasures. As soon as the Epicurean sat down and started discussing the right way to experience pleasure, he understood something stupid was happening.

In his translation of Martial’s “Epigram X, xlvii,” Matthews explains what makes us happy:

… no lawsuits, no togas, a restful mind;
a healthy body not racked by long work;
truth, tact and democratic friends;
good simple food, clear-hearted guests;
nights carefree, but not drenched by wine;
a bed not guilty nor a prude’s
and sleep that snips short the long dark:
let us wish to be none but who we are
and neither dread the end nor lean to it.

Those lines capture the way Matthews would want us to remember him. In Sleek for the Long Flight, the prose poem “Attention Everyone,” begins, “Gloom is the enemy, even to the end.” He continues in a mock manifesto:

I’m declaring a new regime. Its flag is woven loam. Its motto is: Love is worth even its own disasters. Its totem is the worm. We eat our way through grief and make it richer. …In my new regime Gloom dances by itself, like a sad poet. …The regime will start whenever you lift your eyes from this page. Here it comes.

We half believe him. Matthews is romantic enough to believe that love is worth even its own disasters, for his life was cluttered with failed marriages and liaisons, too much drinking, too rich food, and a body abused and battered. But even at the end he was writing erotic love poems as well as lines that speak of the woe that is in marriage. But in almost every case he stops himself from self-pity or gloominess. In this poem he is saying we suffer, and we eat our suffering to make it richer, but gloom is banished to go off by itself, like the sad poet.

In one of his earlier poems from Ruining the New Road, he takes up one of his recurring themes and passions, wine. “Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 1959” is about a Moselle wine and its cultivation. I quote it entirely:

After each rain the workers
bring the eroded soil
back up the slope in baskets.
When the freezing ground heaves
rocks up, they are gathered,
shattered, the pieces
strewn among the vines.
In the Moselle the sun
is a broken bottle of light,
same color as the wine.
When you drink it,
you pass through your body
a beloved piece of earth.
You are like the worm,
except you know it.
A door in the earth opens
and you go in, as guest.

Here in this early poem we see what Matthews meant by the serious celebration of pleasure in poetry. He delights himself and us as he describes the loving labor on the workers, the light in the Moselle valley, and the glitter of the rocks strewn around the vines. But I can almost see him now, licking his mustache at the memory of that fine wine, and slyly at the deft way he led us to taste the loving and beloved earth in the wine that we pass through our bodies. He deflects his delight in the phrasing as he says we are like the worm. And then the door opens and we go in as guest perhaps, as Horace’s guests might have. Those lines trace of the influence of James Wright and Robert Bly and the Deep Image movement, but unlike so many poems written during this time, Matthews’ last lines are concrete and the image of the earth opening its doors to us and serving us as guest is earned in his careful buildup to this point in the poem.

Just as Matthews loved food and wine, he was a lover of the flesh even to the end with “Big Tongue,” a playfully serious exploration of the delights of oral sex when illness has made coitus impossible. At the end of the poem he goes to his “dressing room, to wipe off the drama / / and stare at the mirror, / met by ordinary fear.” Matthews’ poems trace both the pleasures of the erotic and the consequences. In “Yes” he describes his desire, saying, “I give you my love to use / and shake with fear you can’t.” The poem ends, “I know that love is life’s best work.” In other poems he talks of the bigamy he feels at having loved “Twins,” and “Old Girlfriends.” Later he talks of “Condoms Then” and “Condoms Now,” and how the world has changed in sexual terms. He writes of “Lust” and “Jealousy” and being “Jilted.” In all these poems Matthews is aware of the body’s slow slide into oblivion and the temporary stay the erotic can be.

Matthews knew what was said of him about his relationships and multiple marriages. In “Gossip” he recounts how his friends gave as an excuse for his “behaving so badly” that he “was miserable.” In a burst of irony he says:

But I was not miserable. The more the theory grew among them the more I grew secret — almost without effort, for they had given me an identity through which I couldn’t be seen. And I grew happy.

And so it came to me that they must be, because of their common error, miserable. Though I don’t suppose they know it. And I won’t say a word about it. I hate gossip.

In spite of all his struggles with love, Matthews is a romantic. In a late poem, “The Cloister,” Matthews describes an argument between his love and him in which “My love and I had hard / things to say and hear.” The poem ends, “I saw her fierce privacy, // like a gnarled, luxuriant tree all hung / with disappointments, and I knew / that to love her I must love the tree / and the nothing it cares for me.” In the very last poem of the book, “Care,” after receiving a coal lump from his lover, Matthews says, “Love needs to be set alight / again and again, and in thanks / for tending it, will do its very / best not to consume us.”

Memory was another of Matthews’ themes. He often returns to the scenes of his childhood, as in “Housework” where he returns to his childhood home, shrunk from his adult perspective, wondering how he could have lived his boyhood there. In a remarkable set of lines he begins “to rub / the house like a lantern until you came back / and grew up to be me.” In A Happy Childhood, we see him reconstruct a life thinking about “Good” and “Bad” and “Right” and “Wrong.” In the title poem, he says, “It turns out you are the story of your childhood/ and you’re under constant revision.” Later in the poem he says,

There’s no truth about your childhood,
though there’s a story, yours to tend

like a fire or garden. Make it a good one
since you’ll have to live it out, and all
its revisions, so long as you all shall live,

for they shall be gathered to your deathbed….”

Matthews saw death leaning forward in almost all that he did. His life, filled with loss and disease, and the deaths of those he loved, led him to seek life even as he saw death approaching. In an early poem about a dream and childhood memory of his father he says, “I begin / following but my legs are too short, death is my father, / this is my body / which will fall apart.” The poem ends, “…if I could watch my body sleep / it would glow, / growing antibodies / to eternal life, / growing the lives we give away / when we sleep.”

Of all the pleasures Matthews loved, music was his favorite: jazz, blues, opera, and reggae. The titles alone tell the story: “Blues for John Coltrane, Dead at 41,” “Bud Powell, Paris 1959,” “Listening to Lester Young,” “Dancing to Reggae Music,” and “Elegy for Bob Marley,” among others. In “The Blues” he relates how at twelve he wanted to play the clarinet but couldn’t master it and how now he sees his future with that boy “tied like a bell around my throat, / a brave man and a coward both / to break and break my metronomic heart / and just enough to learn to love the blues.” In “The Straight Life” Matthews speaks in the voice of musicians in the smoky rooms and on the road. “The Accompanist” again is from the voice of an accompanist relating how music is a consolation “the way pain and joy eat off each other’s / plates.” At the end of “Mingus in Diaspora” he says about the music as much as about his poetry, “You must release as much of this hoard / as you can, little by little, in perfect time, / as the work of the body becomes a body of work.”

Increasingly, as we read our way through his life, his poems, we realize that Matthews is singing for us, a keening for life even in the face of encroaching death. I can think of no better way to thank the editors of Search Party for their gift of Matthews’ collected poems than to close with his previously uncollected poem taken from the aria in Tosca, “E lucevan le stele”:

And the stars shone, and the earth unstoppered
its perfumes, the garden gate scrinched
open, footsteps lisped along the path
and they were hers, and she was mine.

And my hand shook the more slowly
I unwrapped and dawdlier I kissed her,
and her aromas rose, and the hour fled,
which is the way with hours.

And I’ve unveiled myself of any hope,
and death’s steps rasp along the path,
and, like any star, I have nothing
to burn but the life I love.