the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Spring 2011



William Matthews: A Well Spoken, Worldly and Ironic Gentleman
by Melinda Thomsen

William Matthews

Photo by Ted Rosenberg

After my first poetry workshop with William Matthews back in February 1997 at City College, I remember feeling that my decision to change careers and go back to graduate school had been a good one. In that first class, I realized that Bill Matthews had a certain kind of grace that had basically been nonexistent in my former line of work as a fashion designer. I also had the good fortune to meet other student poets who were kind and supportive as was Bill. I always found it surprising that I would find a person such as him with good manners, class and intellectual prowess up in Harlem, teaching at the affordable City University of New York.

In fact, as I thought about my old teacher and his work, the ironies just kept piling up. For example, why would a well known, highly accomplished poet endure students who submitted papers to him of the sort that asserted, "Evolutionary speaking, the development of the anus was a breakthrough (Poetry Blues, 89)?" As I think back over some of the poems he had to read of mine, I cringe. It wouldn't have shocked me if his students drove him to write "Mingus at the Showplace."

Mingus At The Showplace

I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat

literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th st., and I sat at the bar,

casting beer money from a reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but as it happened they were wrong.

So I made him look at the poem.
"There's a lot of that going around," he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He glowered
at me but didn't look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they'd plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children. Of course later

that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.

"We've suffered a diminuendo in personnel,"
he explained, and the band played on.

(Search Party, 223)

On the other hand, it seemed that his empathy for us resulted from his own poetic journey. He knew that he had written bad poems early on, too. So, writing junk was not a crime and his ability to help his students through those early growing pains was something I always admired and appreciated.

This empathy governed his writing life. One of his essays in the collection CURIOSITIES includes "Dishonesty and Bad Manners" (65), where he quotes W.H. Auden as saying, "A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs, which its author never felt or entertained." Auden then goes on to define a bad-mannered poem:

In art as in life, bad manners, are the consequence of an over concern with one's own ego and a lack of consideration for others…. Readers, like friends, must not be shouted at or treated with brash familiarity. Youth may be forgiven when it is brash or noisy, but this does not mean that brashness and noise are virtue. (Curiousities, 65).

Matthews wrote poems that are steeped in description, and in that way, they reflect the subjects as honestly as he sees them. Even though they may not be such flattering portraitures, as we will see shortly in his "A Night at the Opera," I find it refreshing that a poet of his generation was so acutely concerned by good manners. This definition of honesty and good manners also links to his view of writing. He says,

To write of the experience of these things without any instinct to translate them into a relationship to humanism or God or philosophy or any idea but simply because these impressions or perceptions were part of what it means to be human and maybe because they are as close as we come to understanding the relationship of the human to the divine. That would be fine. I would love to be able to do that (Poetry Blues, 162)."

In THE POETRY BLUES, which was published after his death, there's a chapter called, "Journal Entries," which gives insight into what drove this strong attitude towards good manners and ultimately made him a great teacher. For not only do bad manners signify an excessive concern with one's own ego, they affect behavior in workshops. Matthews gives this example,

I think your poem doesn't take enough risks," one kind of workshop student will say. But nobody ought to be allowed to visit that kind of moral blackmail on a fellow student. The teacher should require the student to say exactly what kinds of risks and exactly where in the poem they should be taken and exactly where his or her gall and boorishness came from" (Poetry Blues, 140)."

Matthews realized from Richard Hugo that humor helped address that sort of "workshop talk" for Hugo "knew that funny criticism was easier for a student to accept than pontifications" (Poetry Blues, 42). Hugo believed that writing was "emotionally crucial," when the poet was at a vulnerable moment. He said, "Writing puts you in dialogue with the world as you try to express your existence to others." The poet Alan Dugan responded in a 2001 NPR interview that he read several hundred manuscripts a year and said "most people write autobiographically because we live in a mass society, [so] people write [poems saying], "Here I am, I exist, Do you exist too (NPR, 2001)?"

Here is an anecdote on how Hugo side stepped that vulnerable moment for the poet. Just before Hugo died, Matthews accompanied him to conduct a workshop in Seattle where a student had the following line in his poem, "I want to hold you forever." Matthews was about to give the student a lecture on clichés but Hugo cut in and simply said, "What if you wanted to pee (Poetry Blues, 42)?"

Matthews found the disarming use of humor the way to address an issue like cliché by separating the fault in the poem from the writer so the writer sees the problem as an issue of the poem, not as a comment on the writer's ability. In my classes, Matthews used humor the same way to move the discussion away from a particular poem and writer to more general issues.

Why a poet of Matthews' caliber could feel as comfortable surrounded by students who were just learning as he was with poets at the highest level of accomplishment was another incongruity. Perhaps his knack to meet people on a human level with a mutual respect for existence resulted in poems which were filled with humor, intellectual creativity and wisdom.

In his essay, "Durations," he includes a quote from Stanley Plumley confessing that his mother had a crush on Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic candidate for President in 1952 and 1956 but Eisenhower defeated him both times. He tried for the Democratic nomination in 1960 but this time Kennedy defeated him. Stevenson had a reputation as an eloquent and intellectual liberal. Matthews said his mother adored Stevenson too, probably because he was a "well spoken, worldly, and ironic gentleman (Poetry Blues, 7)." After I read this passage, I realized that Matthews seemed to be the Adelai Stevenson of poetry, a "well spoken, worldly and ironic gentleman" because these three attributes don't just describe him, but his poetry, too.

First of all, let's look at where this "well spoken, worldly, and ironic gentlemen" learned this approach to life, and again, we are surprised. He credits two poets from 2000 years ago in Rome.

From Martial, I learned foremost how important it is to find ways to be angry with human folly and failure and to be forgiving at the same time, because you know when your turn to be riddled with folly comes around that you'll do a great job.

From Horace, I learned that pleasure in itself and friendship in itself are valuable subjects, period (Poetry Blues, 159).

According to Baron Wormser's essay, "When in Rome: The Poetry of William Matthews," we find a twentieth century poet who is "uncommon in American poetry — a poet with instinctive and cultivated affinities with the Roman world (Florida Review, 165)." Wormser says that Matthews was significantly different from other poets of his generation for his beliefs in what poetry is and what it does, for he believed that the "genius of humor was every bit as important as the breathy seriousness that typically distinguished poetry (165)". Matthews saw the individual as completely ingrained with society. This dilemma often made Matthews respond with wit. Unfortunately, according to Wormser, "The world in which Matthews found himself was far from esteeming such wit. Sincerity has been the peg that most souls — religious and secular — have been glad to hang from (173)". For Matthews, his wit resulted from his way of reasoning and making connections (171). For example, Matthews found the "greed, arrogance and self admiring complacency" of the Reagan era gave birth to "lobster bisque doused liberally with sherry" being prepared in the kitchen. It was a contradiction with no way out. If you give up one, you give up the other. In this way, he felt that enjoying life made us complicit with the miserable state of current events (173). Matthews continuously navigated between these extremes, and by doing so, the ironies he faced gave forth the poetry, which in his later books, offer up the wisdom attained by all this living (165).

In order to better understand the distinction between irony and humor, I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in the fall of 2010, mostly to hear Kay Ryan and Billy Collins talk about humor and their poetry. When they asked if anyone had any questions, I shot up my hand up like a terrific nerd and asked them if they could clarify the relationship between irony and humor. At one point during the response, Kay Ryan asserted that she was not an ironic poet. I was a little surprised as I thought being an ironic poet would be a compliment, and when I asked my friend who was sitting next to me, she too, said, "Oh, I would never want to be known as an ironic poet!" So, I thought that my idea of irony must be different from how other people understood it.

From the Merriam-Webster definitions of irony and other terms, which employ some form of irony, irony is above all a response to incongruity and we use it as a way to understand meaning when language expresses something opposite from its literal definition. Matthews had loads of examples for he was fond of tossing them out to us, like "jumbo shrimp," "friendly fire," and "living wills." In fact, his favorite oxymorons found their way into one of his last poems, "Oxymorons."

Perhaps, ironic is a less desirable term than humorous because stances like sardonic, satire, and sarcasm all involve or incorporate irony. The ironic thing was that Kay Ryan preferred the term humorous, but humorous is also defined by incongruity just as irony is. In fact, at the end of the talk, Billy Collins said there was a new anthology out called, Seriously Funny and Kay Ryan remarked that she wasn't included in it. Billy Collins said, "Well, that is funny," and after a brief pause he added, "and ironic."

In "A Night at the Opera", Matthews addresses the irony of beauty, which isn't the only odd thing about this poem. According to his son Sebastian's memoir, IN MY FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS, the night he died of a heart attack, the day after his birthday, he was getting ready to go to the opera.

A Night at the Opera

"The tenor's too fat," the beautiful young
woman complains, "and the soprano
dowdy and old." But what if Otello's
not black, if Rigoletto's hump lists,
if airy Gilda and her entourage
of flesh outweigh the cello section?

In fairy tales, the prince has a good heart,
and so as an outward and visible
sign of an inward, invisible grace,
his face is not creased, nor are his limbs gnarled.
Our tenor holds in his liver-spotted
hands the soprano's broad, burgeoning face.

Their combined age is ninety-seven; there's
spittle in both pinches of her mouth;
a vein in his temple twitches like a worm.
Their faces are a foot apart. His eyes
widen with fear as he climbs to the high
B-flat he'll have to hit and hold for five

dire seconds. And then they'll stay in their stalled
hug for as long as we applaud. Franco
Corelli once bit Birgit Nilsson's ear
in just such a command embrace because
he felt she'd upstaged him. Their costumes weigh
fifteen pounds apiece; they're poached in sweat

and smell like fermenting pigs; their voices rise
and twine not from beauty, nor from the lack
of it, but from the hope for accuracy
and passion, both. They have to hit the note
and the emotion, both, with the one poor
arrow of the voice. Beauty's for amateurs.

(Search Party, 254)

Through the specific details of the opera singers, Matthews tries to make sense of the beauty of the music with the apparent ugliness of the vehicles that transport this beauty to the audience. The singers are almost comic and we have all seen these opera singers but when the poem moves to the lines:

In fairy tales, the prince has a good heart,
and so as an outward and visible
sign of an inward, invisible grace,
his face is not creased, nor are his limbs gnarled.

We see that this idea of beauty is not what we have in life, only in fairy tales does inner and outer beauty appear in one fluid movement. So, as Wormser mentioned, Matthews takes what life throws him and finds the beauty that bubbles to the surface. When the "beautiful young woman complains that the tenor is too fat," Matthews places our culture right in our face. Our culture insists that beauty belongs to the young, fresh and thin. But as we read through the poem, and all the details we discover the ignorance of that opening statement, for if the tenor had been skinnier, it would have probably made it impossible to not only carry off the weight of his costume, but could jeopardize the quality of his voice, too. The mystery is in how all these things can come together at this one moment to hit that one note with "one poor arrow of the voice."

In the following poem, "Onions," Matthews tackles the irony of happiness.


How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.

This could mean soup or risotto
or chutney (from the Sanskrit
chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions
go limp and then nacreous
and then what cookbooks call clear,
though if they were eyes you could see

clearly the cataracts in them.
It's true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease
from the taut ball first the brittle,
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,
for there's nothing to an onion
but skin, and it's true you can go on
weeping as you go on in, through
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on
in to the core, to the bud-like,
acrid, fibrous skins densely
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most
pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare

and rage and murmury animal
comfort that infant humans secrete.
This is the best domestic perfume.
You sit down to eat with a rumor
of onions still on your twice-washed
hands and lift to your mouth a hint

of a story about loam and usual
endurance. It's there when you clean up
and rinse the wine glasses and make
a joke, and you leave the minutest
whiff of it on the light switch,
later, when you climb the stairs.

(Search Party, 212)

American culture is of course obsessed with happiness. From the start of our nation, we stated one right as the freedom to pursue happiness. We frequently ask ourselves and others, "Are you happy? Am I happy?" The surprise in this poem is its insistence that happiness surrounds us, if we only stop to notice. The poem opens with the poet chopping onions and the assertion that this is how it starts. As the onions start to transform by the heat into translucent squares, their texture not only reminds the poet of cataracts but the tears in his eyes prevent him from seeing clearly, too. Even though the onion appears to be skins all the way to its core, the inner stalk of the onion is the most pungent. So, the deeper the poet goes in the onion, the stronger its essence — the one that causes the most weeping. This domestic perfume of onion aroma AKA happiness is what he tries to clean away by washing his hands two times, but it is impossible. Happiness is pervasive, similar to the last poem where beauty is there all the time.

In comparison, there is a Billy Collins' poem, "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of Three Blind Mice." In this poem, we see the poet chopping parsley when the song, "Three Blind Mice" starts on his stereo. Here, chopping parsley coincides with this song playing, which triggers the poet to ponder this odd situation:

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
If not,
if each came to his or her blindness separately,

how did they ever manage to find one another?
Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse
to locate even one fellow mouse with vision
let alone two other blind ones?

In contrast to the Matthews poem, the irony suggests another subject for the poet, how the mice became blind, instead of the coincidence Collins' title proposes. In "Onions," the irony inherent in the title is exhaustively explored. Sure, the onions trigger the happiness but the connection between onions and happiness is addressed. In the Collins poem, the contemplation moves from the moment to the music and the three blind mice story as he cuts, but Matthews reflects on his situation, and as Wormser says, "He was not afraid, unlike the Romans were wont to do, of turning the knife on himself (Florida Review, 165)." Matthews lets the reader come into his personal world where he arrives at wisdom about the onions and happiness, while in the Collins poem, by the end, we get a glimpse of the poet unable to know what is causing his tears, the music, the story, or the onions:

By now I am on to dicing an onion
which might account for the wet stinging
in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard's
mournful trumpet on "Blue Moon,"

which happens to be the next cut,
cannot be said to be making matters any better.

The nuances of the moment are not fully examined, and we are prevented from overhearing the inner dialogue of the poet addressing his struggle with this weird coincidence of having a knife in the hand at the same time as music about mice getting their tails chopped off plays. Instead, the poet steps away from the messy situation by turning his attention to the next song on the disc, which is ironically a cut, too. There is so much in this poem to contemplate but it is left in the hands of the reader, whereas in "Onions," Matthews leads the reader through the multi-layered discoveries of the poem and the exploration occurs together.

It is also interesting to compare Matthews and Tony Hoagland. Hoagland's book DONKEY GOSPEL is a book I read when I first started writing poetry. His clear voice and amusing poems kept me thoroughly engaged. But, Matthews' poems have a deeper richness, even though, at times, they can be as sardonic as Hoagland's poems can be. In "On The Porch At The Frost Place, Franconia, N. H." Matthews writes about his connection to Robert Frost.

On The Porch At The Frost Place, Franconia, N. H.
for Stanley Plumly

So here the great man stood,
fermenting malice and poems
we have to be nearly as fierce
against ourselves as he
not to misread by their disguises.
Blue in dawn haze, the tamarack
across the road is new since Frost
and thirty feet tall already.
No doubt he liked to scorch off
morning fog by simply staring through it
long enough so that what he saw
grew visible. "Watching the dragon
come out of the Notch," his children
used to call it. And no wonder
he chose a climate whose winter
and house whose isolation could be
stern enough to his wrath and pity
as to make them seem survival skills
he'd learned on the job, farming
fifty acres of pasture and woods.
For cash crops he had sweat and doubt
and moralizing rage, those staples
of the barter system. And these swift
and aching summers, like the blackberries
I've been poaching down the road
from the house where no one's home —
acid at first and each little globe
of the berry too taut and distinct
from the others, then they swell to hold
the riot of their juices and briefly
the fat berries are perfected to my taste,
and then they begin to leak and blob
and under their crescendo of sugar
I can taste how they make it through winter….
By the time I'm back from a last,
six-berry raid, it's almost dusk,
and more and more mosquitoes
will race around my ear their tiny engines,
the speedboats of the insect world.
I won't be longer on the porch
than it takes to look out once
and see what I've taught myself
in two months here to discern:
night restoring its opacities,
though for an instant as intense
and evanescent as waking from a dream
of eating blackberries and almost
being able to remember it, I think
I see the parts — haze, dusk, light
broken into grains, fatigue,
the mineral dark of the White Mountains,
the wavering shadows steadying themselves —
separate, then joined, then seamless:
the way, in fact, Frost's great poems,
like all great poems, conceal
what they merely know, to be
predicaments. However long
it took to watch what I thought
I saw, it was dark when I was done,
everywhere and on the porch,
and since nothing stopped
my sight, I let it go.

(Search Party, 111-112)

One of the ironies is Frost's personality. You would suppose him to be impassionate, but instead he spews nastiness like a dragon — the opposite of what one would expect of a detached New Englander named "Frost." The other irony in this poem is when the poet realizes that as he stands on that porch, eating blackberries, a sour taste permeates his own mouth, perhaps his own bitterness. He begins to understand what it meant to be Frost, that they both were there on that ridge, overlooking the landscape until everything went dark. They were linked in place, season, and attitude by that porch.

In Tony Hoagland's poem, "Lawrence," we see another kind of irony. It is the irony of a writer not being able to defend another writer whom he admires. In the Frost poem, Matthews explores the mutual experience between two writers. In Hoagland's poem, the poet defends another writer, but at the expense of the critics. The poet takes aim at the small mindedness of the critics and begins with a confession:

On two occasions in the past twelve months
I have failed, when someone at a party
spoke of him with a dismissive scorn,
to stand up for D. H. Lawrence…

but unlike Matthews, he doesn't take personal responsibility for this inability, but includes all people, the critics too, in this cowardly behavior when the poet moves the focus from himself to "certain other people." Furthermore the poet asserts that this inability to defend his idol is a minor offence compared to his other sins, he says,

…and it's a sorry thing when certain other people
don't defend the great dead ones
who have opened up the world before them.
And though, in the catalogue of my betrayals,
this is a fairly minor entry,
I resolve, if the occasion should recur,
to uncheck my tongue and say, "I love the spectacle
of maggots condescending to a corpse."

The poet heaps insults on the critics (in a really colorful way) because they behave much worse than him, for he did not defend his hero but stayed silent while the critics, who are really evil, desecrated D.H. Lawrence. This is what Matthews would call "bad manners," for while the critics are attacked, the inability to defend Lawrence on the poet's part is not fully addressed, nor is the poet empathetic to the critics. If Hoagland had "turned the sword" on himself, so to speak, the poem would be wiser, as Hoagland may have found a more complex understanding of his own failings. In this way, the poet and reader would have emerged wiser about the part of our human nature, which often opts to criticize other people's success instead of celebrating it.

Hoagland's poem is more acerbic that the Matthews' poems we have been looking at so far, but Matthews sometimes did write with a sardonic tone. In "Job Interview" he looks at the irony of marriage through the agreements made when interviewing for a job.

Job Interview

Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife
He would have written sonnets all his life? DON JUAN, III, 63-4

"Where do you see yourself five years from now?"
the eldest male member (or is "male member"
a redundancy?) of the committee
asked me. "Not here," I thought. A good thing I

speak fluent Fog. I craved that job like some
unappeasable, taunting woman.
What did Byron's friend Hobhouse say after
the wedding? "I felt as if I had buried

a friend." Each day I had that job I felt
the slack leash at my throat and thought what was
its other trick. Better to scorn the job than ask
what I had ever seen in it or think

what pious muck I'd ladled over
the committee. If they believed me, they
deserved me. As luck would have it, the job
lasted me almost but not quite five years.

(After All, 36)

In this poem, the poet interviews for a job, much in the same way as he would woo a woman. He gets the job but in doing so, he realizes that the part he played to get the job would be the one he would have to continue to play for as long as he has the job. The tone of this poem is bitter, but on the other hand, it is not dishonest.

Kay Ryan's poem "Shark Teeth" is another example of addressing irony as it speaks about those tiny spaces of silence that make sounds even louder and sharper. It is strange that little snippets of silence make the noise even more pronounced, and the inverted image of the silence to noise is remarkable:

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth-
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it…

I found it interesting how "Shark's Teeth" compares to Matthew's poem "Care." The discovery in Ryan's poem occurs deep within her object of teeth but Matthews discovers his understanding from a lump of coal. It documents his relationship with his parents to a more mature understanding of himself as an adult. In my examples of poems by Hoagland, Collins, and Ryan, the personal is not the focal point. They also address ironies but not in order to explore how incongruity affects our life struggle. In this way, Matthews' poems are set apart for he is constantly grappling to understand his place in the world and by doing so, the reader gains the wisdom from his efforts.

I admire Freud as a writer, as someone who's interested in the making of meaning, the meaning of meaning, the ways in which the idea of meaning doesn't make sense. He's interested in how dreams are made, how jokes are made. He's interested in the 'psychopathology of everyday life' — a beautiful title (Poetry Blues,160)!"

In "Care," Matthews addresses the irony of love. In another poem "Happy Childhood," he works out at length the irony of a happy childhood, but here the poet looks at the gift of a hunk of coal he got from his girlfriend.


The lump of coal my parents teased
I'd find in my Christmas stocking
turned out each year to be an orange,
for I was their sunshine.

Now I have one C. gave me,
a dense node of sleeping fire.
I keep it where I read and write.
"You're on chummy terms with dread,"

it reminds me. "You kiss ambivalence
on both cheeks. But if you close your
heart to me ever, I'll wreathe you in flames
and convert you to energy."

I don't know what C. meant me to mind
by her gift, but the sun returns
unbidden. Books get read and written.
My mother comes to visit. My father's

dead. Love needs to be set alight
again and again, and in thanks
for tending it, will do its very
best not to consume us.

(Search Party, 307)

It is this love that the coal symbolizes, for unlike the orange, things are not always sunny. The coal carries the hidden fire deep within it. The unassuming outside breathes with the energy of love deep within. This poem symbolizes his search for beauty, love, happiness, and meaning for he finds it everywhere, lurking under the surface of things.

Throughout Matthews' poems irony engages the poet — both for its own sake and because it is a prelude to wisdom and insight. In his essay, "Dull Subjects," he says, "The ability to hold such opposites in balance without resort to mere paradox is a signature of our best writing" (Curiousities, 29). Matthews says, poets achieve this in the struggle to make something, once it is made, the poet needs to make it clear. For this new thing is expressed or pressed out of the subjective view of the writer. Once done, the reader and writer can look upon the poem as a curious new thing in the world (21). According to James Merrill, "You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep your eyes open… I'd go a step further. We don't know what we feel until we see it distanced by this kind of translation (21)."

Matthews shares Merrill's point of view and belief in serendipity —"Onions" for example, shows the speaker's elusive happiness depends on how it's defined. This searching and complex understanding makes Matthews' poems so unique. This poem further suggests that the poet is not ready for happiness as he tries diligently to wash his hands of it, which almost boarders on a Pontius Pilate image. Part of Matthews' originality of course derives from this but we can't leave it at that. Since his poems are inspired by "the psychopathology of daily life," it follows that his view of poetic forms would not fall into neat categories either.

But here is the problem poets face. The forms bristle with rust. Throw them wholly out, and you've asked yourself to start from prose and make a poem. But, if you're not suspicious of them and intelligently combative, they'll write your poem not for you but instead of you.

The purpose of the forms is to raise talk above babble, and the purpose of "talk" is to tether the severities of the forms to the mess of emotional life. It's a two party system, and each party needs a loyal opposition (Poetry Blues, 146)."

Matthews navigated the irony of poetic forms as he did life by harnessing himself with the conviction that good manners, or respect for others, controlled his poetry, along with intellectual curiosity, and a love to play with language, resulting in "well spoken, worldly, ironic and gentlemanly" poems.

According to his short essay, "The Complaint," Matthews himself may have felt uncomfortable with my appraisal of him and his poetry, for he wrote that people often categorized him as a poet with "an ironic skepticism, and a bruised worldliness (Poetry Blues, 167)." But those people did not get a chance to experience his kindness and humor, which his students and friends most remember. Rick Jackson sums it up, "What I remember the most is his democratic generosity: whenever he would see some stray soul wandering around, not being taken in by the 'crowd' he would invite the person over, introduce him or her, and make the person feel absolutely important." I will conclude with some of Bill's witticisms submitted by his students. These pithy remarks taught us how to improve our writing but most of all, they taught us about him.

Stephen Cramer:"Take all your doubts, draw a circle around them, and give them the finger."

"On describing the poetry of Billy Collins, It gives you a big wet kiss on the lips,
then slips you a ten dollar bill."

Meg Kearney:"This poem wants to be a bottle of wine, but right now it's only a photograph of a vineyard."

Estha Weiner:"A really good writing teacher wants you to write more and more like yourself, while a less good
teacher wants you to write like him or her — only slightly less well."

Elena Georgiou:"In the 80s, we went looking for ourselves, and found ourselves at the bottom of a glass of Scotch."

Jeanne Marie Beaumont:"The way out is through the door, why is it no one remembers that?"

Melinda Thomsen:"Don't worry about spending so much time writing bad poems because all the work you put into
them will show up later in the gift poem — the one that comes with no work at all."


"A false audience leads to false habits"

"Is your first stanza doing work or is it a 'pre-echo' of what's to come"

"Be careful of being on your best behavior. Tentative rhythm equals tentative thinking"

"The ear is related to your best thinking; your best thinking equals your best confidence"

("Mingus at the Showplace," "A Night at the Opera," "Onions," "On the Porch at The Frost Place, Franconia, N.H.," "Job Interview" and "Care" reprinted with permission of the William Matthews Estate.)


Brown, Kurt, Meg Kearney, Donna Reis, and Estha Weiner, eds. Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005. Print.

Collins, Billy. Picnic, lightning. Pittsburgh, PA.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

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Hoagland, Tony. Donkey Gospel: Poems. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1998. Print.

Matthews, Sebastian. In My Father's Footsteps. 1 ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.

Matthews, William. After All. New York: Mariner Books, 2000. Print.

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Melinda Thomsen's poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Alimentum, Heliotrope, The Same and the anthologies Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews, Spring from Gatehouse Press Ltd. in Great Britain, Token Entry — NYC Subway Poems and In the Black/ In the Red from Helicon Nine Editions. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Naming Rights in June 2008. Her next collection, Field Rations, will also be published by Finishing Line Press. She received her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2011. She is a contributing editor of the magazine.