on New Hope for the Dead: Uncollected William Matthews, ed. by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly (Red Hen Press)
Commenting on William Matthews’ Search Party: Collected Poems (2004), David Wojahn suggests that Matthews’ reputation may be more vulnerable than those of his contemporaries because his “mature style remains blissfully indifferent to most of the prevailing literary fashions.” But the other generational poets Wojahn names – Hass, Plumly, Bidart, Olds, Glück, Williams, Pinsky -- have not yielded to period enthusiasms such as the shattering of linear narrative and the smudging of tonal intention. However, they enjoy the visibility advantages of continuing to live. Matthews died at age 55 in 1997. I have no sense of the status of his “reputation.” My habits persist: I like some of his poems more than most of Williams’, and some of Williams’ more than most of Matthews’ and so forth. But since their poems service different sectors of my imagination, in a way they are not comparable at all. Their reputations are only as strong as my memory and lately I am more concerned with the latter. (Turn to Wojahn’s fine essay for a discerning and spirited summation of Matthews’ work.)
New Hope for the Dead creates a new occasion to recall the pleasures of Matthews’ poetry and the quotability of his essays and interviews. “Stanley Plumly and I hope to celebrate Matthews’ already rich voice by deepening it and widening it,” writes Sebastian Matthews, the poet’s son, in his introduction. If you are already a Matthews aficionado, then simply having more of his work on hand is a reason to celebrate. But even if there is no significant deepening and widening here, the editors have delivered 40 unpublished poems (from an eligible group of 200) in which Matthews’ voiceprint is clear, even when the slightness of the work isn’t dispelled.
DYLAN AND THE BAND, BOSTON GARDENS, 1974
They’re pros. They start on time,
one sentence of patter, no subject,
glad to be back in Boston, then
they play. Every song we want
to be an anthem, Dylan sings
violently different from the way
he recorded it, as if he means
to outlive his prophecies
that came true and especially
those that didn’t. How does it feel?
he gloats and everyone roars
but none of us knows. It feels
like an epidemic of music,
how music infects disbelief
and how that makes us happy,
even those of us onstage, and so
he says See you next year
and next year he doesn’t
come back, nor the Band, nor do we.
The poem features the Horatian qualities one associates with Matthews, as described by Wojahn: “good sense, wit, an insatiable curiosity, an affable authorial presence, and a slightly shambling quest for wisdom.” Matthews was a most social poet and a lively, erudite conversationalist as I discovered when he visited my wife and me in Madison during a reading tour in 1977. In a 1995 interview with Wojahn and James Harms included with four other lively Q&A’s in New Hope for the Dead, he fingered “a defect” in poems taking place “in an unpeopled landscape.”
Drab bickering, the empire dead and tax
reports alive, paperwork, erasure,
the grime on the philodendron leaves
since who tends everybody’s plant?
It’s the triumph of habit over appetite,
like comparing the stars to diamonds.
We make copies. We send out for food. Food
arrives. We have spats and tizzies and huffs.
Isn’t it great being grown up, having
a job? We get our work done more or less
and go home. How was it today? we’re asked
and don’t know what to say. It’s like wet soot,
like us, like what we feel: stuck on itself,
as, from here, starlight seems stuck to its star.
This sonnet is in the business of tending everybody’s plants through attentiveness. Sometimes I’ve wanted a clearer view of how Matthews tended his own plant. But he stubbornly resisted (and perhaps was somewhat fearful or at least skeptical of) “the gravid pull of emotional life against which any artisan or artist struggles to keep a work of art from being pulled routinely down.” This last comment is quoted from “Long Shadows,” an essay in his collection Curiosities, the best starting point for investigating his poetics. The eight essays in New Hope for the Dead are not quite as developed, but there are illuminating moments in a short piece on Richard Hugo, a chatty recounting of poets convened at “A Night at the White House,” a canny explication of Emily Dickinson’s “The Leaves like Woman interchange” (#987), a longer stretch on Martial, a reminiscence of a then recent summer, and “Poetic License” which stirs writing with cooking and includes five of his favorite recipes.
Wojahn observes that Matthews’ work affects an “affable détente with the world by a poet who refuses to make distinctions between high culture and low or the comic and the serious … Matthews aims less for satire than for small and querulous reckonings with contemporary culture.” He may set us up with humor, but the payoffs to his jokes are usually tonally and intellectually surprising (unlike Billy Collins whose funniness through a book becomes too familiar). Matthews has little need for Collins-like easeful, humorous melancholy. Although both poets rely on narrative momentum, Collins uses the charm of story to substitute for absent lyricism, while Matthews works the language, sidestepping prosiness through alert meter and, per Wojahn, “his snaking sentences, his surprising verb forms and similes, and an Audenesque penchant for unusual adjectives … a slightly wacky but exact approach to figurative language and analogy.”
Matthews knew the dangers inherent in narrative, as spelled out in another Curiosities essay, “”Dishonesty and Bad Manners”: “Things happen consecutively in narrative that happen simultaneously in psychic life, and there are many critics and poets who prefer the experience of consecutive time to simultaneous time because it makes moral discourse easier, and because causality and guilt are easier to assert as religious or quasi-religious principles in narrative than in any of the many other experiences of time.” His dream was for an upshot of psychic immediacy in the course of a riff, a disruption of the poem’s official time zone.
We talk about – what else? --- the old days.
It was time we complained about then:
“What’s your poison?” the barkeep would say,
and we all knew. Now we’re on the wagon,
which, these days, as then, doesn’t travel far.
How did the old joke go? “Driven to drink?
It’s only half a block. Why take the car?”
No way this was the road to hell – succinct,
unpaved, a scuffle of blurred dirt. We sat
like drowsy money in a bank, the mold
of interest growing on us, minus
some paltry fees, minus taxes, minus
the unexpected costs of growing old.
And then our ship came in, and we were it.
These uncollected poems don’t meet Matthews’ highest standards, but they point towards them and recall his sound sufficiently to refresh our appreciation of his best work. New Hope for the Dead also includes six unremarkable short stories and letters of uncertain value to and between Matthews and his friends Russell Banks, Daniel Halpern, and Stanley Plumly. The book ends with an appreciative essay by Edward Byrne mainly preoccupied with the themes and materials of Search Party.
Matthews wrote in “Dull Subjects,” “Oddly enough it is the incident that seems, at the start, already artistically shaped and full of feeling that is most likely to finish dull, perhaps because it conceals by its first appeal how much work can be done with it.” Usually recognized by its unabashed theming and variety of subject matter, Matthews’ poetry is made unique not by what it contains but by its slyly elegant containment. He seemed to lavish attention on his subject matter and then almost fail to discover anything in it. (Failure and decline were two of his favorite topics.) But he was actually practicing a flexibly elevated routine.
[Published October 5, 2010. 258 pages, $24.95 paperback]