Remembrances Of William Matthews And Thoughts On His Search Party: Collected
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/11/09
I am going to open this essay by doing something remarkable, and that is
admitting to the relationship I had with this essay’s subject. I do so because
one of the worst things that occurs in literary criticism is the pretense of
objectivity. This is especially so since easily over 95% of published pieces of
criticism on literature, and especially the recessive demesne of poetry
criticism, are merely acts of cronyism, intellectual incest, or blatant whoring
of talentless individuals by ex-teachers, ex-lovers, and often a combination of
ex-teachers who were ex-lovers. Such is the state of Academia today, and I will,
later in this essay, detail the worst of this sort of criticism.
As for Matthews, here is the dope: and I will digress a bit on how and
when I knew the man before I have to take apart both his, at best, mediocre
verse, and the stunningly banal cribbed criticism from his former friends,
students, and lovers, and, in fact, even his son, Sebastian, who, in a display
of all that is wrong with the state of modern publishing, a few years ago got a
meager memoir published about his father; ostensibly the recollections of a bad
poet about his inheritance of a penchant for debauchery from his slightly
poetically better father, whose own debauchery thus became fair game for those
of us loath to pile on the dead. Now, it’s not that I have anything against
the Mommie Dearest like revelations of someone famous. After all, it is
an interesting fact that the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who crafted
some of the most breathtakingly spiritual poems of all time, was, in his private
life, a scumbag- a terrible husband and father. It is interesting to read of all
the psychic travails of a great painter like Vincent Van Gogh and wonder the
connection between them and the sometimes astounding canvases he crafted. It is
interesting to read about the stunning mundanity and poverty of the life of
Franz Kafka- a writer who got zero earthly reward in his lifetime yet is
lionized for his imagination and craft in death. But, these sorts of revelations
need to be properly backgrounded. First, one has to recognize that there needs
to be a separation of the art from the artist. They simply are not the same.
Yes, in the end, when we speak of Shakespeare or Picasso or Mozart we are
generally not referring to what remains of them. The corpse under Avon (gay or
not, Shakespeare or not), the ugly little Spanish misogynist, and the daffy
German musical prodigy are not what we are referring to. We are referring to
their works, and we do so because the overall body of their work passes a
collective bar into the realm of greatness in writing, visual arts, and music.
Thus, when we hear revelations of their personal flaws, foibles, and
follies, there is the natural human social instinct to try to connect these
manifestly human traits with those of us who are untalented and uncreative
since, let’s face it, most plumbers, teachers, nurses, and firemen are not
going to produce The Tempest, Guernica, nor The
Magic Flute. So, the connection of the person to that great work they
produced has, in itself, the reasonable human desire to improve oneself by
association of the mundane to the great. Exposes on the lives of Rilke, Picasso,
Shakespeare, or any of the others then has some intellectual justification, even
if it is likely futile to try to connect a personal quirk with the brilliance of
an enjambment, the alluring thickness of a glob of paint that invokes an
ineffable gasp when viewing a painting, or a hook note or lyric in a song that
reminds one of a space in time from decades in one’s past. But, and here is
the point that is often missed in all bits of criticism. A piece of criticism
simply is not about explication. Exegesis is not criticism. Criticism can
explain meaning, and attempt to explain intent (another questing beast), but
criticism is always about evaluation. Does the thing examined work or
not? Is it good, bad, or in between? In short, criticism without evaluation is
not. It is not only not criticism but it is merely propaganda. And, to move away
from the act of evaluation, there is the fact that once an evaluation is made
there comes the judgment- what to do next? If the work is not good, bad, or
horrid (which probably more than 95% of art is- and I am truly being generous)
that is an easy proposition, you dispose of it quickly, efficiently, and with
totality. But, greatness is a wholly different beast. First, greatness is its
own company. By that I mean that great works of art have more in common with
each other than they do with lesser works of art, even if those lesser works of
art are by the same artist. Practically speaking, one can look at a great poem
by Hart Crane, Tu Fu, or Pablo Neruda and see, within them, connections (i.e.-
the depth of metaphor, alliteration, internal rhyme, etc.) that link the great
poems these different poets wrote with each other. By the same token, when one
looks at the mediocre or lesser poems that each of these poets penned, and then
compare, say Neruda’s horrible political poetry with his majestic love poems,
one is stunned to think that the same creative mind could even conceive of such
qualitatively disparate things, much less enact them through volition. Yet,
compare Neruda’s great lyrics with those of Crane and they are much more
consonant than with those banal political pieces of tripe that he penned.
This leads into the next major point about greatness, especially in the
arts. Not only is greatness its own company, but the logical corollary to that
is that greatness is not merely a difference of degree, but a difference of
kind. In other words, when one looks at all the silly schools of thought and art
that have been propounded in the last few centuries- all the infamous –isms,
the fact is that there is little intellectual thread that binds them, and what
thread there is is inevitably cut by the very artists that create them. The same
is not true with greatness. One can look at a great Impressionist or Cubist
painting and, as with the great poems of Crane and Neruda, see threads that
connect. But, look at a great Braque painting, then gander at that of a lesser
imitator, and there simply is not the same reach into the self that the great
works have. In fact, as a work improves it does so not on an arithmetic level,
but it progresses on a geometric level. That is to say that, if one uses a 1-100
scale of excellence, with works that rate a 95 or above being great, those 90-94
being near-great, 85-89 being excellent, 80-84 being very good, 75-79 being
good, 70-74 being mediocre, 65-69 being passable, and all else being varied
degrees of shit, a four degree difference between 90 and 94 is not the same
degree of difference as between, say, the difference between 72 and 76. First,
even though the difference in the lesser examples spans two distinct bands of
excellence and the second does not, each degree of difference, as one gets
higher on the scale starts doubling and tripling in the greatness factor, until
one gets to a point of almost ineffable qualitative excellence. In short, even a
difference of one degree, from say 96 to 97 is a greater qualitative gap than
that between, say a 55 and an 88. This is because that is how art works- almost
like the rise to the speed of light where infinite energy is needed to push mass
to it; the higher someone pushes the excellence the greater the difference in
steps until each steps becomes geometric in its rise.
But, getting back to the original point about revelations about artists;
any of the points I’ve made concern great artists, and none of this applies to
the non-artists, and/or the bad artists. William Matthews was most certainly not
a great artist- he was a rather banal and unoriginal poet, in the extreme.
Granted, his best poems were better than those of a Robert
Bly, James Tate, Mark
Doty, or hundreds of other of the Dead White Male detritus that infest
Academia, but….so what? Herpes is a better thing to have than chlamydia or
AIDS. That does not mean it’s actually a good thing to have. At his best, as I
will show, William Matthews’ poems were barely passable, and this is because,
from personal experience, the man simply had no fundamental understanding of art
nor poetry. And this is because, like most Academics, he pursued the art for
other reasons, which I shall extrapolate; not because he was impelled to create
art to benefit others.
The basic reason was that Matthews, like many other male academics, did
not really give a damn about art, but cared about power and using his position
to feed his ego and, let’s face it, get sex. I know, because I saw it up
close. In 1987, I was a young man who paid for a week at the well known
Brockport Writers Forum, in upstate New York. It was during the summer and I was
staying in one of the deserted dorm rooms. For the sake of brevity, let me quote
from one of my True Life
…. there were visiting professors in the assorted disciplines being taught- poetry, fiction, journaling/memoir, etc. The visiting poet was doggerelist William Matthews. That’s his real name, my reader. If reading these memoirs within a decade of its initial publication that name will have slight resonance. If reading this at a later date he’s lost to literary history. I use his real name because a few years ago he died, therefore he cannot falsely sue for libel, as the dead cannot be libeled. Before I get into his more unsavory aspects- shared by every male professor I’ve met & heard tales of- let me tell you how unqualified Matthews was as a teacher, writer, & critic.
To anyone reading my poetry or poetry criticism it’s obvious I wasn’t a Dead White Male before becoming 1 in flesh. I was a great poet whose forté was humor. As for advice I gave? I don’t recall. I was getting paid handsomely to show up, go through the motions, &- best of all- score fresh coed poon! After 3 days the poetry class students got to meet 1 on 1 with the Master, to discuss a poem submitted for my review. Dan gave me Desert Meanderings- a solid poem, in the Whitmanian vein, with potential. It was 1 of the better efforts from the class, although nowhere near my published works. His callowness showed:
detritus on a scale above,
scoria in a Goliathon view:
naked aridity finds no haven in this otherdom
long removed from pleasurable fixations
as one delves into the novelty
of searing breath drying the lungs,
of the opacity of heat waves easing distortion into a
of the rumors of life, the twitches under moist
rock-bottoms where scorpions wait to strike,
of steadfast jagged rocks secreted in vast openness yet
hardily anchoring the reality misplaced in the fever of this verse,
of vapor lightly sprayed of dried remains swallowed in
the massive disc of the sun crashing onto a butte watercolored in this
incomplete canvass of a disinterested artist gone to paint another world,
of an open tomb slowly eroding into the future till
present overlaps memory which overlaps the declivity of all things corporeal and
ethereal (save descent alone),
of contemplation a thousand times purer in the squeak of
unknown insects than in the rush of daily translucent dolor,
of a sun indelibly pressed to denigrate the supreme
sterility and nothingness that it weakly waves over,
of sight so distended that to look, you look at yourself
looking at yourself looking at yourself looking at yourself looking at yourself
in an endless projection of ego,
of a boundless view of death beckoning and hope
glimmering and loathing both extremes,
yet starkly entwined in my fate
flailing mute as the thought of rites and procession
abhorrent as a dewdrop,
o render me material!
This is a later, slightly altered, & better version of the poem Matthews read (the 1987 version is lost to time). There’s much to admire, given its limitations & debts. Matthews didn’t comment on anything in that realm. He fixated on a fact bizarrely deemed salient.
Matthews: Dan, have you ever been to a desert?
Matthews: I thought not. Dan, deserts aren’t arid like that- they abound with life.
Matthews: Yes. This poem’s a fiction- there’s no desert like that you describe.
Me: Isn’t all poetry & art a fiction?
Matthews: (flustered) No- I mean, yes. In a way- but it MUST reveal truths, be based in truth.
Me: Even if it means the poem is worse for it?
Me: Yeah, why?
Matthews: Because all art’s that way.
Me: Isn’t that a tautology?
Me: Yeah. Because I’m not writing about any desert.
Me: I’m writing about my desert, & my desert’s exactly as I described it. See?
He didn’t. Matthews was nonplussed. He had no easily cribbed answer from his rote catalogue of indoctrinated views on poetry & art. I was a quarter-century his junior, but- despite being years from poetic greatness- far beyond him. He couldn’t grasp the simple concept art involves imagination- NOT a search for THE TRUTH- that varies with the artist. Art entertains, hopefully enlightens, but I failed on both scores- to him. I recognized the flaw lay with him, not the poem, despite knowing it needed revisions.
Over 3 days I established myself as a poet with potential….To understand poetry’s mechanics before able to enact it augured not only greatness, but a singular place in the art’s firmament. Matthews viewed our 1-on-1 as a way he could ‘straighten me out’. He failed. I was unlike students he’d encountered. After our exchange I detected coldness & condescension from Matthews at Thursday’s workshop. The afternoon poetry events were canceled in favor of a trip to a local gallery….I’d walk the mile down the long road from town to dorm….A male college kid on crutches joined me to eat supper, then headed to a bar. He asked me to come along. I declined. I disliked bars & didn’t drink. About 10 pm I heard loud thumping from a few floors above. Having gone on morning walks through corridors I was aware of no 1 on the floors above, 1 sexy blond in a room down the corridor from me, the lunar menses babe & a roommate at the far end of the 1st floor. If I shock you with what I’m about to tell you’ve never been a 1) man in his early 20s, &/or 2) read my 3 prior memoirs, for, despite my deep attraction to Xxxxx, I got laid twice in Brockport- neither time with Xxxxx. The 1st was with the blond in the dorm room, whose name is long gone but whose face is pasted over by another nameless blond- a Finast cashier I asked out but was rejected by- except the dorm girl was prettier, with a better figure.
It was a Tuesday night. I was in the lounge watching tv, when this blond
guy with glasses came in. The show was boring, we started talking. He was really
smart & that was a turn on. He loved the new The Cult album Electric.
I had the CD- it was a big hit that summer. He came to my room to listen to
it. I rolled a joint & offered him a toke. He declined, but said he needed
to check something in his room. I think he sensed he was gonna get lucky &
got a condom. I danced on the bed, swinging my hair across my face. I said, ‘Wanna
fuck?’ He nodded. He soon had me out of my spandex & V-cut top. We
fucked brutally as Wild Flower roared. I played the Memphis Hip Shake
& we did it in rhythm to the song until he came.
It was good, but in the 2 days since she just said hi the couple times we met. In college, I supposed, sex is easy & no strings are allowed. She was high, wanted cock. I was horny, wanted pussy. She offered. I accepted. That’s as simple as human relations get. But, this night, as the noises thumped, she was nowhere around. The noise wasn’t music so I went upstairs, checked a couple floors. I forget which floor it was but there was a racket & dim lights emanating from the open door of a room. I slowly approached. I had dreams of long dark corridors as this & they didn’t end well. I was wary. As I peered in the room I did a doubletake- it was William Matthews, & a naked college girl in flagrante delicto, doggying her asshole as they bent over a chair in that floor’s lounge. The sight of an out of breath middle-aged man was not enjoyed, but she was a redhead with an incredible body. I’d seen her & other girls hanging over Matthews earlier at the gallery. I stood in the doorway as he pumped her. Matthews- with pants & underpants about his ankles- retained his cool. He laughed, between huffing, over being caught as he cupped the redhead’s luscious breasts from behind. ‘I’ll give her an A!’ he joked. ‘How about me?’ another female voice chimed in. I’d not noticed another buxom, ½ dressed coed, from the gallery, was seated in the corner, waiting her turn to get stiffed. She was a sandy blond, who walked to the table in the center of the room with a mirror. She’d been cutting coke in the corner. Matthews & the redhead stopped. The redhead chided him for not coming. He told her he would later, but it was Cindy’s (the coke-cutting blond’s) turn- after a line.
It’s unfair to reveal this tryst considering I’m dead. Anyway, after
snorting I invited Dan to join us- drugs helped my creativity. He declined. As I
pumped Annabelle I regaled her & Cindy with the desert conversation Dan
& I had. They agreed with me. That’s when Lianna entered. Smaller than the
others, with Mediterranean features, I could see she was Dan’s type. She came
from the dorm office with keys to rooms so we could proceed with more privacy.
She did a line. I offered Dan to join in the sex, if not the drugs. He declined,
but Lianna seemed to like him. As I’d not fucked her yet Dan took a shining.
She seemed angry with me over being last. Telling her I didn’t know if I could
handle Cindy, I told the 2 kids to have a good time, then finally came in an
exhausted Annabelle. Lianna dangled the keys in front of Dan, but he wanted to
go to his room. Lianna grabbed Dan & swiftly pulled him down the hall to the
Soon, a couple floors were between us & Matthews’ debauchery. If I asked the brunet her name I’ve long forgotten it. The sex was spectacular. You can better imagine than I can describe. Whether it was the coke or her own nature I don’t know, nor care. The next morning I woke, she was asleep. I showered for the last day’s workshop. When done she was waking up. As with the blond down the hall, the brunet seemed at peace with last night. I accepted this as a wonderful feature of college- great sex, horny babes, no commitment. She got dressed, kissed me, said goodbye, & I never saw her again.
Matthews was a wreck, coming an hour late to the morning workshop, with bloodshot eyes & a foul disposition. I’m not sure he recalled last night.
The upshot of it all was that Matthews came to Brockport for one reason only, the expectation (very likely) of sex with barely legal girls. Well, that and the free food, free booze, and pay. He certainly didn’t come to give anything back to younger poets. As I, and several others could attest, he simply did not give a damn about helping other poets, and as I learnt, even if he wanted to it was simply beyond him. About the only thing I’m a bit unsure of is whether Matthews’ sexual invitation was because he wanted sex with me (was he bisexual?), or was he just so high he had no idea what was going on. Not that it really matters, because despite his debauchery, the bigger overall point about Matthews was that he simply was no one to approach with questions about art.
So, why then, does Matthews’ latest book of poems, Search Party:
Collected Poems, contain such glowing tributes from critics and endorsements
from other writers? Well, aside from the obvious critical fellatio, cronyism and
nepotism rampant in Academia, there’s the fact that the quid pro quo is you
blurb for me and I’ll blurb for you.
In reviews of the book online, Publisher’s Weekly writes:
His work stands out, however, for his commitment to jazz….His sudden death left a cluster of shocked admirers (including many literary gatekeepers), a posthumous manuscript (After All, 1998) and many uncollected poems.
Note, as in many reviews that deal with bad work, the thing that is lauded is something aslant from the actual work. What, however, does Matthews’ love of jazz (ye gods, another dull, middle aged white Academic trying to be cool by being black!) have to do with his verse’s competence?
The Booklist review, at least, addresses the actual work in its review:
Culled with great sensitivity from his 10 books of poetry, beginning in 1970 and including the posthumously published After All (1998) and an invaluable set of previously uncollected works, this is a stunning volume. Naturally, Matthews' poetry evolved over the decades, gradually shedding the imagistic exuberance of his early works for an increasingly classical mode, an approach that creates a profound tension between the intensity of feeling and the rigor of form. It makes sense that one of Matthews' favorite jazz musicians was saxophonist Lester Young, because, like Young, he is spare in his phrasing, letting silence speak as resonantly as words, and letting the breath guide his rhythm and lines. A master of the understatement, Matthews is wryly philosophical and self-deprecating, but he also evinces surprise and gratitude for the arrival of perfect metaphors.
But, really, does this say anything? What sensitivity is shown in the selection of poems? And, are we talking intellectual or emotional? The book evinces no dominant emotion nor intellectual heft. And, no, the Matthews of the 1990s was still the déclassé James Merrill wannabe that he was a quarter century earlier. And, yes, I have earlier volumes of Matthews’ work, so know whereof I speak. There is no rigor of form. In fact, the volume points up how hit and miss the man was. A good solid poem will be followed by a dozen mediocre to bad ones. A poem where technical skill reigns will be followed by poems with anomic enjambment, pointless melodrama, and poor metaphors. We then get the inevitable jazz throwaway comparison: he is spare in his phrasing, letting silence speak as resonantly as words, and letting the breath guide his rhythm and lines. Need I point out this sort of bon mot is applied to almost every poet who has a professor’s gig? We then get this sort of line: evinces surprise and gratitude for the arrival of perfect metaphors. Now, read this carefully. This is really saying that Matthews had no clue about his poetry, nor any control over it, since he would feel surprise and gratitude over a work which he was the supposed master of. This is called ‘reading between the lines.’
Let me now annotate a bit of the introduction, written by Stanley Plumly, another published poet and mediocrity- at best. Ok, here we go:
His poetry, like his prose, can seem impromptu, when in fact it is written in astute, rehearsed internal conversation within a form itself being addressed. Matthews’s buoyant feel for analysis, his restless curiosity, his refreshing range of knowledge, his quirky, often sardonic take on memory, his insistence on the invisibility of his craft- these elements and more set him apart as a maker.
What Plumly is really stating is that Matthews’ poems have no overarching structure, then hides that banality with: within a form itself being addressed. We then get the clichés: restless curiosity and range of knowledge.
Reading Matthews you get the impression that his insights and images and
the syntax created by his inevitable ear have traveled great distances to the
page. They have. They arrive distilled from a metaphysics in which thought is
not only feeling but a coherent language, a language that must be mastered
before it can be made. Snow Leopards At The Denver Zoo, from the
seventies, is an early example.
Snow Leopards At The Denver Zoo
There are only a hundred or so
snow leopards alive, and three
of them here. Hours I watch them jump
down and jump up, water being
poured. Though if you fill a glass
fast with water, it rings high to the top,
noise of a nail driven true. Snow
leopards land without sound,
as if they were already extinct.
If I could, I’d sift them
from hand to hand, like a fire,
like a debt I can count but can’t pay.
I’m glad I can’t. If I tried to
take loss for a wife, and I do,
and keep her all the days of my life,
I’d have nothing to leave my children.
I save them whatever I can keep
and I pour it from hand to hand.
The connections in this poem easily surpass discrete metaphor to become the total medium—submersion—through which they move: from the snow leopards to water to snow to fire to consuming debt to loss; from jumping to pouring to filling to counting to pouring . . . the concentric circles derive from and return directly to their common center of gravity in a flow and speed almost preternatural. Then there is the touch of the "nail driven true," the exquisite understatement of the soundlessness of the leopards, landing "as if they were already extinct," and the reality of taking "loss for a wife." The fragility of the poem is also its subject, the balance of saving "whatever I can keep" against the perishability of losing it all. Behind the poem is the certain knowledge—which is a theme in Matthews’s poetry- that it will all, always, slip through our hands. This genius for turning the most familiar materials into something extraordinary- both smart and moving at once- comes from his gift for making connections and exploiting them to the limit their language will bear.
So, Plumly starts off with more burble, like Matthews’ ‘inevitable ear.’ Question- does Plumly even know what the word inevitable means? If so, then why use it so adjectivally poorly? We then get generic pseudo-intelligent crap like: a metaphysics in which thought is not only feeling but a coherent language, a language that must be mastered before it can be made. How often must metaphysics be invoked where clearly it is not needed? And, every human being must master language before making it. This is like praising a painter for learning to stand bipedally in order to free his hands to hold the brushes!
But, credit where credit’s due; Plumly does one good thing in his Introduction, he excerpts Matthews’ best poem. Of course, after this one it’s all downhill, but so be it. Yet, when I state that it is Matthews’ best poem, I am not stating it is Archaic Torso Of Apollo. It is to Matthews what Donald Hall’s The Man In The Dead Machine is to his canon- a pretty good anomaly in a sea of generic spume. Of course, Matthews is a bit better poet than Hall, overall, but you get the idea. But, of course, Plumly seems to be clueless as to why or why not the poem is good.
Plumly writes: ‘The connections in this poem easily surpass discrete metaphor to become the total medium- submersion- through which they move: from the snow leopards to water to snow to fire to consuming debt to loss; from jumping to pouring to filling to counting to pouring . . . the concentric circles derive from and return directly to their common center of gravity in a flow and speed almost preternatural.’ Well, preternatural, no. The enjambment is actually rather lazy. There is no metric (although all intelligent lovers of poetry know meter is a fallacy) nor syllabic reason for the line breaks. Look at lines 2 and 3:
snow leopards alive, and three
of them here. Hours I watch them jump
Now, here is good enjambment:
snow leopards alive, and three of them
here. Hours I watch them jump
Why? Well, look at the original enjambment by Matthews. The first line ends with three. It is a poor choice because three adds nothing to the image of the living leopards. A good line break either completes an image or metaphor or leads the reader on with the expectation of something about to happen in the next line- something that can be fulfilled or subverted. The original break does neither. So, looking at the break re: line 2, it’s a poor break. But, there is the second line, and the original break does not complete the image in that line, either. Nor does it allow for a separate alternate reading. Often, the best poems will have a meaning that exists in a run of, say two sentences enjambed over three lines (i.e.- the grammatical meaning of the words), but they will also be able to be read as three discrete ideas or images over three lines; and these ideas or images may contrast or play off of the strictly grammatical rendering.
Here is the original line 3: of them here. Hours I watch them jump. This literally looks like a fragment leading into another idea or image. But, if one breaks it as I do, not only does line 2 benefit, as I described above, but line 3 also benefits: here. Hours I watch them jump can be read as a discreet sentence apart from the grammatical rendering: Here, hours I watch them jump. This is nonexistent in Matthews original enjambment. In short, and having experienced the man’s poetic grammar, he simply was incapable of either recognizing this sort of sophisticated wordplay and/or he may have recognized it but been incapable of rendering it. That said, there is no arguing that my proposed enjambment is superior to the original. Plumly, of course, also misses this, and, in fact, that even such an obvious little tweakable error appears in this poem, speaks much to Matthews’ general poetic laziness and stolidity. And, this is such an obvious flaw that I almost feel like Frank Lloyd Wright pointing out the flaws in a kindergartener’s Lego or Tinker Toys creation.
But, Plumly misses this in favor of the usual critical fellatio: Then there is the touch of the "nail driven true," the exquisite understatement of the soundlessness of the leopards, landing "as if they were already extinct," and the reality of taking "loss for a wife." Well, let’s examine that claim. The lines in the poem are:
fast with water, it rings high to the top,
noise of a nail driven true. Snow
Now, the rings in the first quoted line could be an aural sound, but it could also be the physical ringing/clinging of water at its pellicle to a surface, due to surface tension. Matthews does get points for the synaesthetic moment evoked; even if, given the hit and miss nature of his work, the moment is likely evidence of dumb luck, not the residue of design. But, Plumly actually misses why the metaphor/image actually works, and that is the anomic good luck of Matthews’ enjambment at the end of this line, by the line’s ending with the word snow, which grammatically is the first word in the animal’s name. But, here is where a device that is often overlooked comes into play, and that is off rhyme. Let’s look at the line: noise of a nail driven true. Snow. Here’s how a good portion of folks hearing that line will take its meaning: Noise of a nail driven through snow. Now, why is this important? Because recognizing this allows a good or great poet to undermine a cliché by giving a reader the comfort of a cliché while subverting its meaning with the use of a rhyming word which subverts the cliché. In this case we have to cliché to subvert, but the mishear of true for through adds to the line, as well.
Also, noise of a nail driven through snow implies real silence. Not Plumly’s platitudinous and critically masturbatory silence, for when he writes, ‘Then there is the touch of the "nail driven true," the exquisite understatement of the soundlessness of the leopards,’ Plumly is thinking that the soundlessness is of a nail driven true- which only shows that he’s done little carpentering, when it really refers to the implied sound (or its lack) of a nail being driven through snow- real soundlessness. Again, these two last points that I’ve made are not the sort of thing that most poets even recognize, but that great poets and critics are aware of. That Matthews, via his very poetic hit and missness, and Plumly, via his critical obliviousness, are clueless, bespeaks why this whole collection is so emblemic of all that is wrong with the publishing industry and Academia, for Matthews, at the very height of his powers, barely grazed the underside of mediocrity, and more often than not grew fat on banalities; many of which I’ll further elucidate whole exploring his poems which all bear these same systemic poetic flaws with the occasional random good moments that appear with utter randomness.
But, before that, let me finish off Plumly’s rank Introduction. Quoth:
He became one of the premier poets of his generation, yet he remained faithful to the idea of where literature can find its first expression. His democratic instincts never failed him. Matthews was preeminently fair-minded, and this egalitarian spirit informed every part of his personality and permitted him to serve vital roles in American poetry culture at a vital time, from the Poetry Society of America to the National Endowment for the Arts. And his tireless support of younger writers, it goes without saying, began with his superb teaching.
Now, I guess all this hagiographizing could be true, except I have firsthand knowledge of Matthews, as a man and pedant, and none of it was true. Granted, I, and the others, were only in Matthews’ aegis for a week, but I don’t recall a single one of the poets feeling that Matthews helped them at all. What I do recall is much grousing over how ripped off many of them felt vis-à-vis the obvious time and attention lavished on the fiction writers by the writer who was brought in for that purpose. As for Plumly’s claims, in order: Matthews was never considered a premier poet, in any way, shape nor form. Death has not altered that reality. Despite his becoming almost the sine qua non of the out of touch Dead White Male MFA writer, Matthews was never mentioned, rightly or wrongly, with such ‘name’ writers as Robert Bly, James Tate, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and the like. It’s always a giveaway as to how little writing ability a writer has when he is praised for such non-quantifiable things as ‘democratic instincts’ and an ‘egalitarian spirit;’ as if philosophic kinship with the Founding Fathers excuses bad poetry. We then get the obligatory nod to just how irrelevantly Matthews spent time he should have used honing his writing talents: the Poetry Society of America to the National Endowment for the Arts. Then the coup de grace: his tireless support of younger writers, it goes without saying, began with his superb teaching. Point in fact, a couple of the days that I was at the Forum, Matthews missed the morning sessions completely, and they were run by the university’s own poet-in-residence. The rest of the time he was late, as I mentioned in the memoir excerpt. Hardly the type of support one could call ‘tireless.’ Again, it was only one week, but given so much of the other claims Plumly makes are demonstrably false, what’s the likelihood that Matthews really was such an advocate? And, in the off chance he was, is the tireless energy of a clueless poet wannabe really anything to laud?
The introduction ends this way:
The poems represented here are alive in ways and at depths that most poetry can at best aspire to. The intimacy is never too familiar, the conversation never too friendly, the imagination never too busy, the wit never too sterling. The fault lines of heartbreak are everywhere, yet they map an intact emotion. Every gesture, every turn, every reverse is guided and governed by a classicism that values moderation, generosity, and, at just the right moment, an utter truth. Timing, indeed, is essential to Matthews’s internal music: he knows just when to smile, when to open the window, when to change the pace, and when the last line is the last line. And he knows he knows, without display. Reading this collection, front to back or intermittently at leisure, we love his mind, we celebrate the skill that lifts the quotidian to meaning. And we love, even more, the man whose life was so much at stake in the words.
More banal blurbery on truth, generosity, etc., and, to again give credit where it’s due, Plumly stumbles upon the best possible one word description of William Matthews as a poet: quotidian. Amen.
Of course, Plumly is not the only Academic to write nonsense about
Matthews. In a
review, online, at another of the endlessly pointless Academic mags-cum-website,
poetaster David Wojahn (an honorary member of the Dead
White Davids)- a poet that makes both Plumly and Matthews look like Masters,
is in full on fellatio mode. Here are just a few of his comments, with retorts:
Although Matthews was something of a ubiquitous figure on the literary
landscape of the 1980s and early ‘90s, recent anthologies have ignored him,
and his work has attracted little critical attention. Perhaps this has to do
with Matthews’ early death from a heart attack in 1997, but I suspect that it
has more to do with the writing itself: Matthews’ mature style remains
blissfully indifferent to most of the prevailing literary fashions.
The reason Matthews is ignored is because he was a minor poet with less
of the connections than many other ‘name’ poets had, He is equally mediocre,
at best, yet, the same playing field that allows him to get a Collected Poems,
at minimum, declares that he is not ‘big’ enough for the attention given to
poets like James Merrill or John Ashbery, the two poets whose Matthews’ oeuvre
is most like, and whose work, like his, was stoic and bland. The real
difference, though, is that Merrill had moments of excellence, here and there,
while, for a brief period, in his mid-career, Ashbery crested into greatness,
before spending decades merely aping his former glories.
Wojahn goes into critspeak, wherein, if one really knows what the words written
mean (their bitchy undertones, not their overt sunniness), one knows that the
critic is really damning what he pretends to praise; save for giving himself
plausible deniability, should someone else on a granting committee charge the
critic with the heresy of actually saying a poem or poet is bad. Wojahn writes:
….I found myself once again trying to determine what gives these
easygoing and genial poems their capacity to suddenly shift tone, deepen their
intensity, and startle us with their gravity and wry insights. In this respect,
the modernist forebear who Matthews most resembles may be Frost, whose influence
on Matthews does not emerge in the form of those bland pastorals that make up
the work of so many of those contemporary poets who claim Frost as a master….
Putting aside the absurdity that anyone would compare the tight, formal,
agrarian darkness of Frost with the loose, free verse, intelligentsia
masturbations of Matthews, note some of the terms Wojahn uses: easygoing and
genial poems. This translates to poorly structured (as I showed above, and
will below) and unchallenging. Suddenly shift tone, deepen their intensity,
and startle us with their gravity and wry insights. Since this is the least
expected of any good poem, what Wojahn is really saying is that he could find
nothing specific to Matthews’ own work to set him apart from his
contemporaries, so he’ll fall back on generic banalities, and hope to fool a
few younger, more naïve readers, into thinking he’s saying something profound
about Matthews’ specific poems. He’s not.
Then comes the obligatory fellatio disguised as ‘criticism,’ just so
Wojahn, again, has the plausible deniability to claim that he was ‘rough’ on
the poet in question. But, seriously- just compare Wojahn’s nebulous critique
to the very straightforward specifics I give in damning Matthews’ work:
Matthews’ limitations, like that of so many other good poets, derive from those very things which give his voice its piquancy and charm. His banter can at times grow benumbing, like that of a loquacious dinner guest whose wit starts to fail him by the time the bottles of wine have been emptied and dessert is served. Furthermore, like Auden (another of Matthews’ most important masters, and the subject of one of his elegies), Matthews’ rapacious curiosity and discursiveness can sometimes seem self-protective. Although we suspect that many of his poems arise from a great emotional vulnerability, his stance is at times frustratingly detached and guarded. I suppose that Matthews himself would attempt to put a bit of spin on these criticisms, noting that reserve and self-protection are qualities which we admire in the work of classical poets such as Martial and Horace, both of whom Matthews rendered into English. But sometimes stoicism is the wrong kind of reserve, which is to say that while Matthews always delights and engages me, it is only more rarely that he moves me.
Note, unlike the very specific technical flaws I show, Wojahn’s
critique is basically that Matthews’ has ‘the best of intentions,’ and his
poems only slightly suffer because of runaway goodness in Matthews’ person,
not deeply lacking skills as a poet. Matthews’ flaws are because of his ‘piquancy
and charm,’ not his utter inability to innovate nor understand the mechanics
of enjambment and duplicity of meaning. Wojahn writes: ‘His banter can at
times grow benumbing, like that of a loquacious dinner guest whose wit starts to
fail him by the time the bottles of wine have been emptied and dessert is served.’
In other words, Matthews had no clue on how to edit and revise his poems.
Matthews, simply put, never understood the power of concision, or the ‘more is
less’ doctrine. Wojahn is, of course, correct on this core, because it is so
obvious a failing of Matthews, so why not just come out and state the obvious,
that Matthews was not skilled at the art of revision? More Matthews writerly
flaws stem from the trite claim that he had a ‘rapacious curiosity and
discursiveness.’ This is like claiming Stalin had a ‘rapacious desire
to liberate his subject peoples into the joys of Socialism,’ while
ignoring the caveat, ‘and was willing to kill them into such bliss.’
Then we get this bit of self-revelation from Wojahn, one which reveals just how
callow and shallow a mind and artist he is: ‘while Matthews always delights
and engages me, it is only more rarely that he moves me.’ First, what
Wojahn is really saying is that Matthews is a fluffy and light poet, not a deep
thinker. This is true. But in his desire to disguise his criticism of Matthews,
to keep his Academic cred, Wojahn makes a serious logical solecism. The poor
choice of the word ‘moves’ rather than ‘stimulates,’ which implies a
more directly intellectual movement, means that Wojahn’s whole stated response
to Matthews is one of like or dislike- a subjective axis, rather than good or
bad- an objective axis. Clearly, the phrasing of that last sentence is Wojahn
trying to differentiate Matthews’ work along emotional and intellectual lines,
but he is so poor a critic/writer, that he gets caught in his own PC briar
patch. Why? Because while he uses the emotionally loaded term ‘moves’
rather than ‘stimulates,’ it forces the reader to reckon that Wojahn, just a
few words earlier used the terms ‘delights’ and ‘engages.’ Both of these
are likewise emotional terms. So, the net result is that, technically, although
Wojahn is trying to differentiate his emotional and intellectual responses to
Matthews’ work, he ends up contradictorally ignoring the emotion/intellect
schism, and literally stating that he has minor emotional reactions to Matthews,
but no deeper ones. In other words, while attempting to state that Matthews is
too cerebral a poet for his taste, Wojahn actually literally ignores Matthews’
intellect (not a hard thing to do) and instead declaims him as a poet who can
barely emotionally move a reader, as well. The irony is that Wojahn’s bad
critical and writing skills actually allows him to stumble into a pretty good
revelation about Matthews- that he lacks intellect, and barely registers on the
emotional scale for readers. Wojahn thus answers his own review’s opening
posit, as to why ‘recent anthologies have ignored
him, and his work has attracted little critical attention.’ Bingo,
Another minor poet and critic, Edward Byrne, also tackled Matthews’
book. Here is an example of
The selections in Search Party from the first three books by Matthews provide examples of these types of weaker works as well. For instance, Sleek for the Long Flight (1972) contains the following one-line poem, ‘The Needle's Eye, the Lens’: ‘Here comes the blind thread to sew it shut.’ Another, slightly longer poem (a mere four lines in length) from the same collection is "Night Driving":
You follow into their dark tips
those two skewed tunnels of light.
Ahead of you, they seem to meet.
When you blink, it is the future.
By the time of the publication of Rising and Falling in 1979, William Matthews had arrived at a new, higher level in his writing of poetry.
Now, to be fair to Matthews, all poets have a handful of small poems that they write, and while it’s fair to wonder why such banalities would be included in a de facto ‘Best Of’ collection, this is the worst he can muster as criticism, and Byrne gives the Excelsior wave to Matthews’ budding ‘genius.’ Most of the early part of the essay, though, does not detail Matthews’ work, but more or less is a compendium of ideas of Matthews’ poetry by Matthews and his acolytes, such as Wojahn. It is a festschrift or hagiography, not a real essay of depth. In the rare ‘analysis’ within the piece, note how Byrne proffers an explanation for Matthews’ failing at the end of the quoted selection:
As is characteristic of Matthews’s developing style and maturing poetic voice, after closing stanza three with a concluding statement ("Yet childhood doesn't end . . ."), a thesis that will become a continuing focus in future poems, "Spring Snow" goes on to more discursive language and abstract reflection in the lines of its final two stanzas:
. . . but accumulates, each memory
knit to the next, and the fields
become one field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is not
so distinguished, but a profusion
of detail, a last gossip, character
passed wholly into fate and fate
in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.
In his interview with Wojahn and Harms, Matthews speaks of an evolving writing style during the period he was working toward completion of Rising and Falling. At the time, Matthews was dealing with divorce, relocation, and the relationships with his two sons, which forced him into "a more urgent, considerable curiosity about childhood."
Now, aside from the fact that what Matthews went through or claimed to go through being irrelevant to the achievement, there is the plain fact that any critic worth his salt should know NOT to include such qualifiers from the artist. This immediately places the objective critic into the role of the subjective fan, and rents almost everything the fan/critic has to opine on. It’s simply not fair to the reader looking for information on the quality of the writer under review.
Note, too, that a snippet of poem is quoted, but never really analyzed, much less evaluated. So, I’ll do the evaluating.
to the next, and the fields
become one field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is not
distinguished, but a profusion
of detail, a last gossip, character
passed wholly into fate and fate
in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.
Before I hit the technical aspects, just note the utter banality of word
choices. This alone does not render the poem bad, but it gives one a frame of
reference about the state of the poet’s mind. This is especially helpful in
translation. A poem like this, no matter how well or faithfully rendered, is
still going to be arousing little in terms of the basics put before the reader.
No, consider Rainer Maria Rilke’s Archaic Torso Of Apollo. First,
Matthews’ lines are from a poem called Spring Snow. A fairly generic
title vs. Archaic Torso Of Apollo. Then, consider all the active verbs
and adverbs, modifiers and nouns in Rilke’s poem, and how, even a poor
translator, like Robert Bly, may lose the music, but cannot kill the essential
interest and passion the ideas the words, however poorly rendered, still
inspire. In short, a great artist not only has superior technical skills to a
mediocre or bad artist, but they think on a wholly higher plane of thought. This
is further proof of my claim that greatness
is not merely a difference of degree, but a difference of kind. Think of the
Rilke poem and compare its wording with Matthews’: die, death, field(s), fate,
dust, flour, snow. Again, this alone does not mean the poem will fail, but it is
highly indicative that it will be much harder for the poet to hit a home run,
because if all he can do is start out with tired ideas and words, his ability to
conjure them into something synergistically more, is suspect, at least, and
laughable, at most.
Now, let’s hit the
technical aspects. Here is the original phrasing:
to the next, and the fields
become one field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is not
distinguished, but a profusion
of detail, a last gossip, character
passed wholly into fate and fate
in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.
Now, let me break the lines more effectively:
the fields become one
field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is
not so distinguished, but
a profusion of detail, a last
gossip, character passed
wholly into fate
and fate in flecks,
like dust, like flour, like snow.
Were I to really be bold, and up this, I would trim some of the words, especially some verbs, but let’s compare just two of the line breaks I make vs. their originals. Matthews wrote:
become one field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is not
And I change it to:
the fields become one
field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is
Note how in quoted line one I end up with a grander statement: that the fields seen are somehow one, with all other fields or the cosmos or the percipient’s nature, whereas Matthews’ line lacks that. The second line then starts with field, which then modifies the grand statement down to a specific, but because of the enjambment the reader literally gets two statements in one- the grammatical and the linearly enjambed statement. The second line is more concise than in Matthews’ version, and the lines are more closely syllabically precise. The third line benefits by my dropping not to the next line, because in my version one gets the claim about death and its enjambed refutation. As I stated earlier, even with the banalities that lard these lines, a good or great poet or critic can easily up the intellectual anty for the reader with the rather simple skill of enjambment. Matthews lacked such simple skills, and critics like Wojahn and Byrne lack the ability to even discern such lack.
Instead, like Wojahn, Byrne praises Matthews for simply doing what all good poets should do, Of course, Matthews does not really do these things, or rarely does, but the very act of declamation by Byrne and others, of the most obvious things any art should do, actually reveals the poverty of the poet for what he does not do, and clearly does not do, since such bad critics cannot even bullshit their way into claiming he does move readers or engaged them intellectually with hew ideas or startle them with profound metaphors. Instead, her is the off the rack blurbery that Byrne posits:
The most persistent theme in Matthews's poetry becomes that of temporality, the unyielding progression of time as it weakens one's abilities and eventually ends one’s life, especially in dramatic or tragic instances where mortality shuts down the gifted artist. In ‘Living Among the Dead,’ Matthews tells of once discovering furniture left by relatives who had died before he was born, and how he ‘opened two chests/of drawers to learn what the dead kept.’ Similarly, he suggests that literature, as with any art that freezes moments in life to preserve them long after the participants have passed, blends the past and present for its readers and painfully reminds all of our mortality even as it enriches our lives.
Note, is anything acclaimed as Matthews’ purview anything that any poet or artist will NOT be dealing with? Again, this is like praising a refrigerator repairman for his basic knowledge of freon.
And, of course, while lauding Matthews for generics, Byrne ignores specific flaws, like Matthews’ poor enjambment. Quoth Byrne:
In ‘School Figures,’ Matthews describes the pre-dawn practice of a skater cutting figure eights over and over into a fresh ice surface, circling backwards to see where she has been and to measure her success or failure. The speaker seems to be commenting as much on poetry, when he offers his observation:
So much learning is forgetting
the many mistakes for the few
lines clear of the flourishes
you thought were style, but were
only personality, indelible as
And, as proof that Matthews had utterly no clue as to the power of enjambment, just look at these quoted lines. In line two, we get a very good enjambment after ‘few,’ only to have the utterly pointless breaks , a few lines later, after ‘were’ and ‘as.’
you thought were style, but
were only personality, indelible
as it seemed.
By breaking it as I do (above) you get the leading and active ‘but’ rather than the inert ‘were,’ thus propelling the reader to want to get to the next line, and you also get the reinforcement of ‘indelible’ ending a line, and commenting on the ‘personality,’ rather than the anomic and passive ‘as.’ This astonishing lack of poetic skill and knowledge in both poet and critic is what is common throughout the Academic world of the last few decades.
And, whereas Wojahn unwittingly damns Matthews’ poetry as bad (as I showed) Byrne avoids that manifest reality, and instead ascribes the only flaws about Matthews to be the personal ones, such as those I began this essay with: ‘Sometimes, Matthews’s seemingly reckless and self-destructive personal behavior trespassed upon his living as a college professor and his livelihood as a poet.’ This is a mild wink and nod rebuke about Matthews sexual and drug indiscretions. But, hey, what college professor has resisted the feel of fine young carpet, and if Matthews’ own son can pimp and whore his minor poet father’s debaucheries for a book deal, then Viva America! Long live capitalism, right? And, just in case anyone reading this essay will feign shock over my revelation of Matthews’ poor teaching skills, and lust for drugs and sex with coeds, Byrne further writes, about Sebastian Matthews’ memoir- one which I’ve skimmed in bookstores, but never wanted to waste the money on buying, even super cheaply online:
Sebastian Matthews reports his father’s troubles in the memoir. He relates how his father was confronted with official university charges and a filed lawsuit from a female student with whom he had an affair, suggesting the charges perhaps had been leveled by the young woman as a measure of revenge for the unpleasant ending of the relationship. Sebastian Matthews wonders why his father repeatedly risked such a highly-respected position at the university by engaging in a series of affairs with his students. ‘I know that he couldn’t stop himself. Was he a sex addict? A compulsive womanizer? I don’t know,’ writes the son. The trial eventually concluded without a verdict by a hung jury, and the charges were not pursued further; however, by then William Matthews had moved across the country to New York City.
In answer to the son’s rhetorical questions: yes, daddy was an addict, to sex and likely drugs, as well as, let’s face it, the power and position a professorship brings, and the willingness to abuse that power to satisfy his other addictions. This is no shock to anyone who spent more than an hour or two in the man’s company. Let’s be real here. But, to give Matthews a break, just as he was a generic, off the rack poet, Matthews’ flaws as a professor were merely those that the overwhelming majority of the male professorate suffer from, as well. In short, there was nothing in any portion of his life that set Matthews apart from his peers.
Byrne then spends most of the rest of the essay quoting lines from assorted Matthews poems, but offering no criticism:
Just as Matthews tries to unravel the twisted and tangled threads of time, he also hopes to show how the material nature of money may calculate the cost of living, the price we pay day after day:
Money’s not an abstraction; it’s math
with consequences, and if it's a kind
of poetry, it's another inexact way,
like time, to measure some sorrow we can't
That’s it. Now, really go back and compare how I detailed Matthews poor choice of words and utter inability to concoct good lines due to his utter lack of understanding about enjambment- one of the four or five most important tools in a poet’s arsenal. This is, in sum, what is wrong with not just poetry criticism, but with criticism in all the srta. There is little analysis (and when done it’s bad) zero evaluation, and thus next to nothing real criticism. Byrne’s piece, and to a slightly lesser extent, Wojahn’s piece, are thus mere advertisements for Matthews’ book. As Ray Carney, the film critic, claimed, most film critics are merely advertising stooges. Well, Byrne and Wojahn show that disease is not unique to the film critics of America, especially.
But, let me now turn to the thing that the Wojahns and Byrnes really should have been doing in their essays- actually discussing the pros and cons of the poetry of William Matthews, at least that which made it into the book in question. Let me state that writing this essay has been one of those things I felt I needed to do, because Matthews himself represented everything wrong with the current MFA, NEA grants-based, Academic system that churns out bad writers from their writing mills, and floods the marketplace with bad writing. This means that publishers have not the time to really sort through manuscripts, especially those actually worth publishing, the bad writers who do not get published, and alack any ability to discern quality, then get jobs in publishing, and publish friends and acquaintances whose work they like, because it is as good/bad as theirs, and they have no skill set to even determine quality writing, and so on. Ask yourself this- if you are a wannabe poet and see the trite prose broken into lines that a James Tate or Wanda Coleman gets published and lauded for, and see that it literally takes zero effort to fart out such junk, is it unreasonable to believe that the untalented will be convinced that they, too, have some talent? After all, they can literally claim that their poems are just as good or bad as Tate’s and Coleman’s? And the same applies for the deliterate prose of a Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, or James Frey? I mean, it’s bad enough when the Frieda Hugheses and Thomas Steinbecks of the world get published due to outright nepotism, but need the Donald Ray Pollocks of the world also get in because they are championed by an equally bad hack like Chuck Palahniuk? Need the dronings of a Nell Freudenberger be published just because a Richard Ford champions her work? And, does this represent the same sort of ‘caring’ for young writers that Matthews was notorious for? To expose this sort of corruption, there needs to be articles like this- many, MANY more. But, the truth is, I loathed doing it, primarily because someone like Matthews is deservedly obscure, and earned every bit of that obscurity. Yet, the system is so corrupt, that not only does a career mediocrity (at best- and, yes, I’d rather read Matthews any day over Tate or Coleman or Donald Hall- they are sub-mediocrities and atrocities) like Matthews get his Selected and Collected books of poetry published, but his friends and son publish his anomic prose, his letters, and his son even parlays that into a book deal memoir that reads like a déclassé Mommie Dearest called In My Father’s Footsteps. Not only that, but the son also started a now defunct literary magazine called Rivendell Journal. Odd, how, in the real world, where one must actually compete for the attention of readers, the son’s efforts resulted in a dead journal, whereas my website, Cosmoetica, unaffiliated, non-profit, and non –commercial, lacking all connections, has not only succeeded to find an audience, but has flourished to a point that only a handful of arts websites can be said to be on a par with it, popularity-wise, and none in terms of artistic quality. But, this is exactly why the MFA writing mills exist- to make people endebted to others for publication, rather than allow good writing to stand on its own merits. This is a bastardization of the idea of democracy, wherein all people are equally bad, therefore cronies get to decide publication and dissemination, even of people who are low men on the totem pole- like Matthews, because, well, at least they are on the pole. Thankfully, the Internet, despite its tsunami of irrelevant voices, will, in retrospect, prove to be the force that changes art and writing in the long run, when future critics and historians objectively cyber-paleontologically pore over the past.
Let me start with two examples of positives in Matthews’ poetry. On page 90 there is a poem called Cows Grazing At Sunrise. It is, as the title suggests, a pastoral. It’s not a great poem, but a good, solid one, 17 lines, and ends with a quartet, the last three lines of which are above anything some of the aforementioned poetasters ever wrote:
And isn’t the past inevitable,
Now that we call the little
We remember of it ‘the past’?
Granted, it’s not phrased metaphorically, but blankly. It is not greatly musical, but it doesn’t screech. In short, these three lines represent Matthews at his pinnacle- a good serviceable set of lines, enjambed well, if not spectacularly to complex the meanings of the lines, and a nice thought. One can imagine that a Rilke would have added in all the things I mention lacking, but, so what? If one accepts Matthews as a mediocrity who occasionally veered into goodness, lines like this, and the poem they are culled from, can be appreciated for their true essence.
Eleven pages later, a longer poem called Good Company, ends even better. The poem itself is a rather trite setup, but well wrought. Friends bullshit in pseudo-intellectual tones about life and the cosmos, while they scarf down wine (a real stretch of the imagination for a dilettante like Matthews, I know), and ends like this:
The doors, the stairs, the sheets
Aglow with reticence and moonlight,
And the bed full to its blank brim
With the violent poise of dreams.
Now, while the end of this poem is better than the last quoted poem’s end, the whole of the poem is not as good- too long and some dead spots in the narrative, as well as some trite moments. Nonetheless, the second line’s counterbalance of an emotion (reticence) with a physical thing (moonlight) hits at the mind’s coming creative power in night, the next line has a good alliterative feel, and a nice metaphor that gives way to the excellent end line, which balances the active idea of violence (foreshadowed in these lines and earlier in the poem) with the refrain of it with the word choice of poise.
But, these two poems, along with the earlier mentioned poem, Snow Leopards At The Denver Zoo, represent Matthews’ high water mark as a poet. To the dales we go! The book opens with the titular poem. I will mark off the poem’s flaws:
I wondered if the others felt
as heroic ***missing punctuation for no reason
as safe: my unmangled family – better to have broken with slept as the last word
slept while I slid uncertain feet ahead ***missing punctuation for no reason
behind my flashlight’s beam.
Stones, thick roots as twisted as ***purposeless break
a ruined body,
what did I fear?
I hoped my batteries
had eight more lives
than the lost child.
I feared I’d find something.
Reader, by now you must be sure
you know just where we are,
deep in symbolic woods.
someone else’s suffering.
The search is that of art.
***whole stanza’s breaking of the fourth wall could work if not so blatant with the ‘telling’ that we are breaking the fourth wall, for the earlier parts of the poem are not so greatly symbolic that most readers will even be aware of it; and this is not irony, since it is not lacking symbolism, either. This is showoffy masturbation
You’re wrong, though it’s ***purposeless break
an intelligent mistake.
There was a real lost child.
I don’t want to swaddle it
in metaphor. ***again, trying to have it both ways, and it fails because of it
I’m just a journalist
who can’t believe in objectivity.
I’m in these poems
because I’m in my life.
But I digress.
***This stanza is where the poem should end. By making the whole of the poem seem a digression from an earlier, unstated and presumably deeper sentiment, the poem would then erase some of the self-conscious backpatting from earlier. This would not make it a very good poem, but a passable one. Instead, Matthews shows he knows little of narrative, and gilds and kills the sickly lily he’s flowered
A man four volunteers ***bad break, needs punctuation to clarify
to the left of me
made the discovery.
We circled in like waves
returning to the parent shock.
You’ve read this far, you might as well
have been there too. Your eyes accuse
me of false chase. Come off it,
you’re the one who thought it wouldn’t ***purposeless break
matter what we found.
Though we came with lights
and tongues thick in our heads,
the issue was a human life.
The child was still
alive. Admit you’re glad.
A solid ending, but not a good poem, and it would be much stronger if it ended at the third stanza. It would have been deeper, richer, and more universal. But, again, these sorts of things were beyond the poetic ken of Matthews, as well as any mediocre or worse poet. Many of the worst poems in the book are the generic jazz poems that Matthews wrote. No, they are not poems that are supposedly written with a jazz beat, but crap directed in honor of certain well known jazz musicians of last century.
Then there are the poems that are just mind-numbingly bad, like a poem called (ugh!) Jealousy. Now, given the title, one would hope that terms and ideas like burning, love, death, etc., would be scarce. But no, Matthews ends his poem in this fashion:
I shall be warm
By my own fire
Though the sun come.
Seriously, if I have to explain why these lines are bad, especially in a poem with the title mentioned above, why the hell are you even kidding yourself that you know anything about poetry? And why are you even reading this essay?
Recall I earlier said Matthews is the sort of poet utterly clueless as to why something is good or bad? His poem Old Girlfriends proves it. It opens with a horrid line break:
I thrust my impudent
cock into them.
Forget even trying to aurally mistake impudent for impotent, the fact is that the break at impudent does nothing to entice the reader over to the next line, nor leave a whole image or metaphor that is memorable. Yet the poem ends with a well phrased image and good metaphor.
In love as in a well
I am the water of.
What bridges the two is fairly trite, but that Matthews can be so horrid and good in the same poem, and in other poems, shows that he was absolutely a dart tosser when it came to poetic quality. The poem Yes! is trite and poorly structured, and even in some prose poems Matthews cannot rise above liberally placed banalities. The proem An Egg In The Corner Of One Eye’s end seems almost a joke it is so bad, but having seen the qualitative anomy Matthews suckles, one depressingly realizes it is no joke. The proem The Penalty For Bigamy Is Two Wives is even worse, if only because it’s longer.
The poem Loyal, about the euthanasia of a family pet, is a depressingly bad poem, not because of the topic, but because it is filled with poorly wrought banalities like ‘we confuse love with longing,’ ‘I wanted to live forever, too,’ and ‘I’d had to eat pure pain.’ Seriously, this is wretched writing. Matthews should have been embarrassed to pen a poem like this, much less publish it, and Plumly and the son should feel disgrace over a poem like this wasting the pulp of trees. Compare this to a truly great poem, on a similar topic, like Robinson Jeffers’ The House Dog's Grave. Look at Jeffers’ poem’s conceit, tropes, and execution. It is truly moving without sentimentality, and lacks all of the clichés and bathos Matthews wallows in. This is the starkness of the difference between a great poet and a hack like Matthews. And, yes, Matthews was a hack till the every end- of his life, and this book, which ends with a poem called Misgivings, whose last lines are:
….Love needs to be set alight
again and again, and in thanks
for tending it, will do its very
best not to consume us.
Ah, love’s consumption, and the penultimate line’s bad line break. Well, if nothing else, one has to credit Matthews with consistency- bad consistency, but at least you knew the level of crap to expect in almost every poem.
To be fair, though, Matthews never quite sunk to the level of outright doggerelist, despite my memoir’s claim. But, in all his years on earth, he was never able to understand, much less produce, a poem of the good, solid quality that the poem I showed him in Brockport, written when I was a teenager, had. Lines like ‘naked aridity finds no haven in this otherdom,’ ‘of a sun indelibly pressed to denigrate the supreme sterility and nothingness that it weakly waves over,’ and ‘flailing mute as the thought of rites and procession/abhorrent as a dewdrop,’ were absolutely and constitutionally far beyond him, much less appearing in the same poem. Yet, the truth was Matthews was a better poet than Wanda Coleman or James Tate; but, realistically, this is akin to stating chlamydia is a better thing to suffer from than AIDS. True, but chlamydia is not a pleasant thing to endure. Put simply, as I’ve shown, it’s not even arguable that Matthews was a good poet. He was not, much less was he someone like a Rilke or Picasso, whose every fart is worth detailing. Let this be the last time he is ever seriously mentioned in an essay by a critic. As for his son? Sure, keep daddy’s memory alive….just, please, unlike your orgiast forebear, please keep it to yourself this time, ok?
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