William Matthews died abruptly from a heart attack on the day after his fifty-fifth birthday in 1997. As a poet accustomed to producing a new book approximately every three years, he was both prolific and critically well regarded: His book Time and Money (1995) won the National Books Critics Circle Award, and in 1997 he received the Modern Poetry Association's Ruth Lilly Award. All told, for close to thirty years Matthews's enigmatic but increasingly accessible and entertaining poems earned him a substantial reputation. In the course of his career he received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and he taught creative writing at Cornell University, the University of Washington, Columbia University, and the City College of New York.
Raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Matthews graduated from Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His early poetry collections such as Ruining the New Road (1970) and Sleek for the Long Flight(1972) reflect the political and aesthetic ferment of the 1960's and the early 1970's, but all of his work displays a connoisseur's bent for the good things in life. He appreciated classic blues, jazz, gourmet food, and wine, and these topics often serve as poetic tropes in his works. His poetic themes include postmodern self-reflection on the nature of poetry, the landscape as a kind of text, and the nature of identity in relation to love, death, and loss. His philosophical and witty poems tease the reader with hints of personal crises that he was reluctant to expose. As editor Stanley Plumly writes in his introduction to Search Party: “[Matthews's] brilliance and volubility are inseparable from his reserve—the tension between them is the core dynamic of his kinetic mind and demanding language.”
Search Party's organization is unusual for a volume of collected poems because its two editors exclude so many of Matthews's previously published work, both in books and in periodicals. While the poems are arranged in chronological order with two samples of uncollected poems, the contents do not comprise a complete collection. For instance, the title sequence of poems included in Flood (1982) are not included. In his introduction, Plumly explains that he and Sebastian Matthews (William's son), tried to edit the collection in accordance with Matthews's strict selective process in which “either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or it didn’t.” In effect, the editors’ selection of poems streamlines and unites Matthews's corpus. In his introduction, Plumly charts how the poems move from the “imagistic, aphoristic seventies to the more directly autobiographical eighties to the more meditative, introspective nineties,” but what comes through the most is their consistency. While the resulting collection is admirably cohesive, the quality of Matthews's poetry leaves one wishing for more.
In earlier works such as Sleek for the Long Flight and Sticks and Stones(1975), Matthews's poems tended toward the surreal with their dreamlike associations. They are often shorter, more imagistic, and thus harder to follow than the later work, with many of these poems reflecting on the aesthetic choices that underlie them. The prefatory poem to his first book, Ruining the New Road, “The Search Party,” establishes how Matthews anticipates his readers’ interpretations. As soon as his narrator tells the story of participating in an anxious search party for a lost child, he turns on the reader: “by now you must be sure/ you know just where we are,/ deep in symbolic woods./ Irony, self-accusation,/ someone else's suffering./ The search is that of art.” He denies this interpretation, however; it is a “real” search party, and the searchers eventually find the child alive. With its ironic shifts, “The Search Party” questions the set of assumptions the reader tends to bring to a poem. By calling attention to his poetic strategies, Matthews wants to have it both ways.
Matthews's poetry often reflects on the functions of art, the role of the poet (as he writes in “The Search Party,” “I’m in these poems/ because I’m in my life”), and the relationship between art and life. Matthews liked to view landscape as a kind of poetic text. For instance,...
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