Several years ago (in the American Scholar, Summer, 1978), Paul Breslin delivered a powerful attack on a group of poets, including William Matthews, whom he called “the new surrealists.” In Breslin’s view, these poets are imprisoned in a rigidly Jungian view of the poem as an interior journey, by a Jungian predisposition to refer poetic symbols to archetypes prior to the context of a particular poem and to the personal history of a particular poet, and by a stock poetic diction. Breslin’s lexicon of the new poetic diction should sound distressingly familiar to inveterate readers of contemporary American poetry; words such as stones, silence, water, light, absence, sleep, and darkness are the stock of much of the going trade. The favorite word of these poets is stone; for stone, Breslin argues, is a symbol of the collective unconscious. Breslin’s new surrealists reject, implicitly, the ego of Freudian psychology, and participate in a solipsistic, dehumanizing irrationalism, treating the unconscious as a mysterious god.
Although Breslin’s essay is brilliant and challenging, many of his generalizations will not stand up when applied to the work of the poets he censures. Such is certainly the case with William Matthews. Matthews’ poems from the first have been uncommonly good; since Broken Syllables (1969), he has been a good poet getting better, with a variety of tones and subjects at his command. Some of his poems are interior journeys, to be sure, but—others, dramatic, narrative, descriptive, lyric—are public, outward gestures. To reread his earlier books is a pleasure, and one will find in them only a few poems that accommodate Breslin’s thesis: for example, “Goodbye Again” (in the 1975 collection Sticks & Stones), a poem typified by lines such as these:
In one pocket the stonesare laying their eggs.I throw my breathover my shoulder.
In any case, Flood shows that Matthews has emerged as a major poet whose work transcends (and to some extent contradicts) the terms of Breslin’s argument.
A specifically personal past, implicitly—and at times explicitly—understood from a Freudian perspective, has always been important in Matthews’ poetry. In an early poem, “Psychoanalysis” (in the 1970 collection Ruining the New Road), Matthews trolls the surface of the past in a “glass-bottomed boat . . . letting down/ the line” to where the “parents and siblings lurk/ among the coral with thick eyes” in the hope that “it will come up slick/with significance, laden/ with the sweet guilt you can name.” Much of Flood is reminiscence; one memorable poem, “Housework,” describes the poet’s boyhood room. There “the tiniest socks ever knit/ are crumpled on a chair.” The boy the poet was sleeps “like a cat in a drawer,/ in this house memory is always dusting.” The poem itself is the act of dusting, a saving act because reminiscence is a “lie of memory unless it be made clean.” Far from fleeing from the ego and its guilts, as Breslin describes the central impulse of his “new contemporary poets,” Matthews seeks to encounter a historical self and to understand the predicaments that make such an encounter difficult to achieve. Thus, he remarks in “Our Strange and Lovable Weather,”
anyplace lies about its weather,just as we lie about our childhoods,and for the same reason: we can’tsay surely what we’ve undergone,and need to know, and need to know.
Perhaps there is something self-consciously Frostian in Matthews’ repetition of...
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