Search Party: Collected Poems

Overview

When William Matthews died, the day after his fifty-fifth birthday, America lost one of its most important poets, one whose humor and wit were balanced by deep emotion and whose off-the-cuff inventiveness belied the acuity of his verse. Drawing from his eleven collections and including twenty-three previously unpublished poems, Search Party is the essential compilation of this beloved poet's work. Edited by his son, Sebastian Matthews, and William Matthews's friend and fellow poet Stanley Plumly (who also ...
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Search Party: Collected Poems

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Overview

When William Matthews died, the day after his fifty-fifth birthday, America lost one of its most important poets, one whose humor and wit were balanced by deep emotion and whose off-the-cuff inventiveness belied the acuity of his verse. Drawing from his eleven collections and including twenty-three previously unpublished poems, Search Party is the essential compilation of this beloved poet's work. Edited by his son, Sebastian Matthews, and William Matthews's friend and fellow poet Stanley Plumly (who also introduces the book), Search Party is an excellent introduction to the poet and his glistening riffs on twentieth-century topics from basketball to food to jazz.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Like his beloved jazzmen, Matthews tried to make his craft sound easy; sometimes he succeeded too well. As the introduction to Search Party explains, a truly collected Matthews would include more than 800 published poems; this volume has just 165, with 26 previously unpublished in book form and 139 from his 10 earlier books of poetry, including the posthumous ''After All.'' Even in this selection by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly, the poems (especially those of the 1980's) become disconcerting in their professional fluency: Matthews, like a busy touring musician, completed each performance, and then moved on. — Stephen Burt
Publishers Weekly
With 11 books of verse in less than 30 years, Matthews (1942-1997) established a secure reputation as a witty and trustworthy commentator on a particular bandwidth of his generation. His poems-most of all the touching semi-sonnet sequences of A Happy Childhood (1984)-spanned his own experience, from an Ohio small town to Manhattan literary life, with attentive excursions from Maine to Hawaii. Matthews had a way with quotable sayings: "Is love the reward, or the test itself?" His unpretentious free verse and his all-American topics recall slightly older poets such as Philip Levine, Donald Hall and Matthews's friend Gerald Stern. His work stands out, however, for his commitment to jazz, whose giants (most of all Charles Mingus) Matthews commemorates and imitates in off-kilter lines, most of all in 1989's Blues if You Want : "Music's only secret is silence," he wrote there, "It's time/ to play, time to tell whatever you know." His sudden death left a cluster of shocked admirers (including many literary gatekeepers), a posthumous manuscript (After All, 1998) and many uncollected poems. Maryland poet Plumly (Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me) and Matthews's son Sebastian (whose memoir Norton will also release in January) have teamed up to produce what is, despite its title, not a complete poems but an attractive selection, what Plumly deems "the best of" this wry and likable poet's work. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
It's a real tragedy to have lost Matthews in 1997 at the relatively young age of 55, but at least we have his poems as consolation. There was always an edge beneath his insouciance, as evidenced by this magisterial collection. (LJ 1/04) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618565856
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/5/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 338
  • Sales rank: 1,414,368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

William Matthews won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995 and the Ruth Lilly Award of the Modern Poetry Association in 1997. Born in Cincinnati in 1942, he was educated at Yale University and the University of North Carolina. At the time of his death in 1997, he was a professor of English and director of the writing program at the City University of New York.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The poems in this collection represent the best of William Matthews’s ten original books of poetry, almost thirty years’ worth, beginning in 1970 and including the posthumous After All, 1998. There are some hundred and sixty- five poems here, twenty-six of which are from work previously unpublished in a book. In the course of his remarkable career, Matthews placed in various magazines—from the ephemeral to The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker—more than eight hundred poems. He was prolific, but he was also selective. When it came time to assemble a new volume, he was severe. Either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or it didn’t. Fewer than half the poems he wrote made it into books.
With the help of Michael Collier, Houghton Mifflin’s poetry consultant, and Peter Davison, Matthews’s longtime friend and editor, Sebastian Matthews and I have followed the author’s model in producing a collection we feel he would be proud of, a selection he himself might have made. Matthews died on November 12, 1997, the day after his fifty-fifth birthday. He had, just days before, sent off the completed manuscript of After All, in accordance with a creative schedule that presented a new book of poetry every three years. Added to this calendar were any number of critical essays, commentaries, memoir pieces, reviews, and interviews, many of which have been gathered into Curiosities (1989) and The Poetry Blues (2001).
Matthews’s marvelous letters make up yet another category. His correspondence with the world, through his masterly poems and graceful prose, was rich and varied; his correspondence with his friends and acquaintances was loving, engaging, and always on point. All of Matthews’s writing, regardless of genre, reveals the man, both the persona he wished to disclose and the person he almost successfully kept to himself. His brilliance and volubility are inseparable from his reserve—the tension between them is the core dynamic of his kinetic mind and demanding language. His announced self and secret self parley not only the precision of his diction and imagination but the spoken music of his sentence. 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.
To paraphrase, however, is only to suggest Matthews’s depth and resonance as a poet. The implicit chronology of this careful selection of his poems conjures a narrative of work that moves from the imagistic, aphoristic seventies to the more directly autobiographical eighties to the more meditative, introspective nineties. All the while the poems grow in size, texture, complexity, darkness, and acceptance of the given situation—or, at the least, a reluctant reconciliation. The full heart behind the poems becomes more and more available to the luminous mind making them. Too often honored for his wit alone, the Matthews throughout these pages is a poet of emotional resolve, enormous linguistic and poetic resources, and, most especially, a clarifying wisdom. Here he is reinforced as a writer of responsibility to form and tradition as well as irony and idiom, whether that heritage refers to literature, jazz, and epicurean delight or elegiac testimonies for those he has loved.
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.
For all the normal changes in his writing, as Matthews matured he never surrendered his talent for the fragile, mortal moment that quickens the feel of things. At times his tone may have sharpened—he loved Byron as much as he loved Martial—but he never gave in to the fragmentary, the broken, the piecemeal hard emotion. He was continually a writer of the controlled but complete embrace. I think the soul of his work is closer to the toughness and sweetness of Horace, to the passions of mind of Coleridge, and to the nocturnal blues melancholy of all those jazzmen he revered. He grew up in Ohio, within the margins of both country and small city, pastoral and postwar urban. His father worked for the Soil Conservation Service. He rode a bike, had a newspaper route (the Dayton Daily News), went to the county fair, played baseball and basketball, moved back to Cincinnati (his birthplace), then later to a larger, eastern, Ivy League world. A not uncommon midwestern American story. Yet he never lost his sense of humor about himself nor forgot where he came from. His complexity combined the Ohioan and the New Yorker, the boy and the man, beautifully in his poetry.
In the transitional sixties, when he was a graduate student in Chapel Hill, Matthews met Russell Banks, also in graduate school and also starting out as a writer. They soon collaborated on what became one of the exceptional small literary magazines of its era, Lillabulero. The collaboration would fade but the friendship would last a lifetime. Matthews’s commitment to the small magazine would not fade. It says everything about him that a good portion of the poems in this collection first appeared in journals of often very short shelf lives. 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.
It is still difficult, for many of his friends and admirers, to believe that he is gone. 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.
STANLEY PLUMLY

Copyright © 2004 by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly. Introduction copyright © 2004 by Stanley Plumly. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
The Search Party 3
Psychoanalysis 5
Blues for John Coltrane, Dead at 41 6
Coleman Hawkins (d. 1969), RIP 7
Jealousy 8
Moving 10
Lust 11
Faith of Our Fathers 12
Why We Are Truly a Nation 13
On Cape Cod a Child Is Stolen 14
Driving All Night 15
Oh Yes 16
Old Girlfriends 17
What You Need 18
Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 1959 19
Yes! 20
Directions 23
Sleeping Alone 24
Driving Alongisde the Housatonic River Alone on a Rainy April Night 25
Another Beer 26
Night Driving 28
The Needle's Eye, the Lens 29
An Egg in the Corner of One Eye 30
The Cat 31
Talk 34
La Tache 1962 35
Snow 36
Sleep 38
Letter to Russell Banks 40
The Portrait 45
Mud Chokes No Eels 46
Beer after Tennis, 22 August 1972 47
Bring the War Home 48
The Waste Carpet 49
Sticks & Stones 54
Spring Snow 59
Moving Again 60
Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo 62
The News 63
Strange Knees 64
Living Among the Dead 65
Left Hand Canyon 67
In Memory of the Utah Stars 69
Bud Powell, Paris, 1959 71
Listening to Lester Young 72
The Icehouse, Pointe au Baril, Ontario 73
The Mail 75
Taking the Train Home 76
Waking at Dusk from a Nap 79
In Memory of W. H. Auden 81
Nurse Sharks 83
Long 85
New 89
Cows Grazing at Sunrise 90
Housework 91
Bystanders 92
Twins 94
Our Strange and Lovable Weather 96
Descriptive Passages 98
Good Company 100
School Figures 102
Pissing off the Back of the Boat into the Nivernais Canal 104
The Penalty for Bigamy Is Two Wives 106
Bmp Bmp 107
Nabokov's Death 109
On the Porch at the Frost Place, Franconia, NH 111
The Cloud 115
Eternally Undismayed Are the Poolshooters 120
The Drunken Baker 122
Leaving the Cleveland Airport 123
Dancing to Reggae Music 124
Gossip 126
Iowa City to Boulder 127
Lions in the Cincinnati Zoo 128
A Walk with John Logan 1973 129
Clearwater Beach, Florida, 1950 130
Jilted 132
Good 135
Sympathetic 139
Whiplash 140
Bad 143
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life 147
Loyal 149
A Happy Childhood 150
Civilization and Its Discontents 156
Familial 158
Right 159
The Theme of the Three Caskets 163
Masterful 166
An Elegy for Bob Marley 167
Wrong 169
Fellow Oddballs 175
April in the Berkshires 176
Photo of the Author with a Favorite Pig 177
The Accompanist 178
Herd of Buffalo Crossing the Missouri on Ice 180
Caddies' Day, the Country Club, a Small Town in Ohio 181
Dog Life 183
Recovery Room 184
Black Box 186
Vasectomy 187
Nabokov's Blues 191
39,000 Feet 194
Mood Indigo 196
Housecooling 198
Homer's Seeing-Eye Dog 199
The Blues 201
Moonlight in Vermont 203
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes 205
School Days 207
Little Blue Nude 208
Onions 212
Straight Life 214
Grief 221
The Wolf of Gubbio 222
Mingus at The Showplace 223
The Bear at the Dump 224
My Father's Body 226
Time 228
President Reagan's Visit to New York, October 1984 232
Mingus at The Half Note 233
Men at My Father's Funeral 235
The Rookery at Hawthornden 236
Note Left for Gerald Stern in an Office I Borrowed, and He Would Next, at a Summer Writers' Conference 238
Cheap Seats, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959 240
The Rented House in Maine 241
Mingus in Diaspora 243
Tomorrow 245
Money 247
The Generations 251
Cancer Talk 253
A Night at the Opera 254
Another Real Estate Deal on Oahu 259
Slow Work 261
E lucevan le stelle 262
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Clarinetist 263
Debt 264
Condoms Then 265
Condoms Now 266
Phone Log 267
Driving Through the Poconos, Route 80, 1:30 A.M., Snow 268
The Buddy Bolden Cylinder 269
The Memo 270
Grandmother Talking 271
Grandmother, Dead at 99 Years and 10 Months 272
Names 274
I Let a Song Go out of My Heart 276
Mingus in Shadow 279
Rescue 280
Truffle Pigs 282
Manners 283
Promiscuous 285
Sooey Generous 287
Oxymorons 290
Dire Cure 291
Umbrian Nightfall 295
The Cloister 296
A Poetry Reading at West Point 297
People Like Us 299
Frazzle 300
The Bar at the Andover Inn 301
Big Tongue 302
Bucket's Got a Hole in It 305
Misgivings 306
Care 307
Index of Titles 309
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

INTRODUCTION

The poems in this collection represent the best of William Matthews's ten
original books of poetry, almost thirty years' worth, beginning in 1970 and
including the posthumous After All, 1998. There are some hundred and sixty-
five poems here, twenty-six of which are from work previously unpublished in
a book. In the course of his remarkable career, Matthews placed in various
magazines— from the ephemeral to The Atlantic Monthly and The New
Yorker—more than eight hundred poems. He was prolific, but he was also
selective. When it came time to assemble a new volume, he was severe.
Either a poem played in concert with the concept of the whole manuscript or
it didn't. Fewer than half the poems he wrote made it into books.
With the help of Michael Collier, Houghton Mifflin's poetry
consultant, and Peter Davison, Matthews's longtime friend and editor,
Sebastian Matthews and I have followed the author's model in producing a
collection we feel he would be proud of, a selection he himself might have
made. Matthews died on November 12, 1997, the day after his fifty-fifth
birthday. He had, just days before, sent off the completed manuscript of After
All, in accordance with a creative schedule that presented a new book of
poetry every three years. Added to this calendar were any number of critical
essays, commentaries, memoir pieces, reviews, and interviews, many of
which have been gathered into Curiosities (1989) and The Poetry Blues
(2001).
Matthews's marvelous letters make up yet another category. His
correspondence with the world, through his masterly poems and graceful
prose, was rich and varied; his correspondence with his friends and
acquaintances was loving, engaging, and always on point. All of Matthews's
writing, regardless of genre, reveals the man, both the persona he wished to
disclose and the person he almost successfully kept to himself. His brilliance
and volubility are inseparable from his reserve—the tension between them is
the core dynamic of his kinetic mind and demanding language. His
announced self and secret self parley not only the precision of his diction and
imagination but the spoken music of his sentence. 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.
To paraphrase, however, is only to suggest Matthews's depth and
resonance as a poet. The implicit chronology of this careful selection of his
poems conjures a narrative of work that moves from the imagistic, aphoristic
seventies to the more directly autobiographical eighties to the more
meditative, introspective nineties. All the while the poems grow in size,
texture, complexity, darkness, and acceptance of the given situation—or, at
the least, a reluctant reconciliation. The full heart behind the poems becomes
more and more available to the luminous mind making them. Too often
honored for his wit alone, the Matthews throughout these pages is a poet of
emotional resolve, enormous linguistic and poetic resources, and, most
especially, a clarifying wisdom. Here he is reinforced as a writer of
responsibility to form and tradition as well as irony and idiom, whether that
heritage refers to literature, jazz, and epicurean delight or elegiac testimonies
for those he has loved.
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
jum 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.
For all the normal changes in his writing, as Matthews matured he
never surrendered his talent for the fragile, mortal moment that quickens the
feel of things. At times his tone may have sharpened— he loved Byron as
much as he loved Martial—but he never gave in to the fragmentary, the
broken, the piecemeal hard emotion. He was continually a writer of the
controlled but complete embrace. I think the soul of his work is closer to the
toughness and sweetness of Horace, to the passions of mind of Coleridge,
and to the nocturnal blues melancholy of all those jazzmen he revered. He
grew up in Ohio, within the margins of both country and small city, pastoral
and postwar urban. His father worked for the Soil Conservation Service. He
rode a bike, had a newspaper route (the Dayton Daily News), went to the
county fair, played baseball and basketball, moved back to Cincinnati (his
birthplace), then later to a larger, eastern, Ivy League world. A not uncommon
midwestern American story. Yet he never lost his sense of humor about
himself nor forgot where he came from. His complexity combined the Ohioan
and the New Yorker, the boy and the man, beautifully in his poetry.
In the transitional sixties, when he was a graduate student in
Chapel Hill, Matthews met Russell Banks, also in graduate school and also
starting out as a writer. They soon collaborated on what became one of the
exceptional small literary magazines of its era, Lillabulero. The collaboration
would fade but the friendship would last a lifetime. Matthews's commitment
to the small magazine would not fade. It says everything about him that a
good portion of the poems in this collection first appeared in journals of often
very short shelf lives. 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.
It is still difficult, for many of his friends and admirers, to believe
that he is gone. The 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.
STANLEY PLUMLY

Copyright © 2004 by Sebastian Matthews and Stanley Plumly. Introduction
copyright © 2004 by Stanley Plumly. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
Read More Show Less

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