See William Matthews's obituary in The New York Times, November 14, 1997.
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.
Editor's Note: William Matthews died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack, on November 12, 1997, the day after his fifty-fifth birthday, at his home in New York City.
October 29, 1997
William Matthews's experience as a poet is exemplary of his generation. He was born in Cincinnati in 1942 and was educated at Yale and the University of North Carolina. He has taught variously at Wells College, Cornell, the University of Colorado, the University of Washington, and the College of the City of New York, while also visiting at Houston, Brooklyn, Bucknell, Iowa, and elsewhere. He has edited literary magazines (notably Lillabulero, which he co-founded with Russell Banks), served on juries for prizes and poetry publication series, chaired the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and served as president of the Poetry Society of America. His books of poetry include A Happy Childhood (1984), Blues If You Want (1989), and Selected Poems and Translations, 1969-1991 (1992). In 1996 he received the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for his tenth volume, Time & Money, and in 1997 the Ruth Lilly Award of $75,000 from the Modern Poetry Association. His work has appeared numerous times in The Atlantic Monthly. It seemed appropriate, in Matthews's fifty-fifth year, to go to New York and have a talk with him.
PD: You have done a lot of translation, from Latin, Greek, French, Hebrew. What do you learn from the poets of other languages?
WM: There's always a gap between the two languages, between the time at which the original was written and the time when the translation was done, between what the translator can feel and what the translator can bring across.
PD: What have you specifically learned from Horace, from Martial?
WM: Horace and Martial are interested in how humans interact. What matters to these poets is what is most vivid to us and what energizes us most on a daily basis -- a life defined by the ways in which humans are social animals, the ways in which we suffer from being social animals. From Martial, I learned foremost how important it is to find ways to be angry with human folly and failure and to be forgiving of it 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. They don't need to be compared to anything. You don't need to go through the masquerade of the Renaissance, for example, in which romantic love is important because it imitates divine love. Love is important on its own terms and because of its own experience, and that's an end to it. Horace's bemusement with the elaborate construction and parody (at the same time) of his own persona is a spectacle. Horace's way of understanding what it means to be Horace is so much more complicated and richer than most of what our culture makes available to us that it's tonic.
PD: Could your poetry be described as the poetry of experience? In what sense?
WM: Well, it's certainly not the poetry of innocence. What happens to us is, I suppose, interesting because it happens to us? No, actually I don't think that. Life happens to us whether we have the good sense to be interested in the way it happens to us or not. That's what it means to be alive. Paying attention to it and trying to figure out what it does and doesn't mean (and what's wrong with seeking for meaning in experience?) -- these are opportunities. I would like to think that in my poems I am as interested in and bemused by and willing to follow and question simultaneously those opportunities as I am while I'm being a civilian -- while I'm just being alive without the slightest thought that a poet lives his or her life differently than somebody else with another vocation.
PD: Your poems show a good deal of admiration for Freud. In what sense?
WM: Well, I'm unqualified to admire Freud as a clinician. 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! Though if it happens to us all the while perhaps it deserves a less medical term than "psychopathology." There's much else. Many of Freud's papers and individual essays and other books are glorious. We live in a period when a great deal of Freud-bashing is fashionable: the feminists want at him; the deconstructionists want at him; anybody who has a specific theoretical axe to grind wants at him. But Freud is somebody fascinated and appalled by the power of the human imagination to deceive itself, to save itself from peril, to hide from itself exactly what it needs to save itself, to hide from itself exactly what would destroy it -- all of these things seem to me great imaginative curiosities, and I love and admire Freud for having them.
I've lived in a century much determined by Freud's vocabulary and Freud's curiosities. I suppose I have ambivalent feelings toward him, the way we have ambivalent feelings toward any power that controls us in ways we don't fully understand. I admire his courage, his nuttiness, his obsessions. I like particularly his moments when he admits he doesn't know what the hell he is doing, and I love those moments when he's crazedly certain what he's doing, some of which have held up far less well than others. Though I certainly don't have fluent German and am not in a position to judge him as a prose stylist in German, I do feel that I have some ability to judge him as a writer, as a maker and shaper of tales. He is a great exemplary figure, and I wish that those people who are so eager to diminish his achievement would take the trouble to go back and reread him before they continue on their quest.
PD: A friend of yours once told me that you rather relished the attitude of sprezzatura, as the Italians call it -- an air of faint disdain toward your own importance. True?
WM: By and large, true. I don't think my life story is interesting because it happened to me. A story that's interesting because it happened to the person it happened to is by definition unlikely to be interesting to a second party. I'm not a particularly autobiographical poet. There are circumstances and urges and emotions and quandaries and recurring problems which of course come through my work. I'm an autobiographical writer, therefore, to the extent that no writer can avoid being autobiographical, but I'm not a systematic and relentlessly autobiographical poet to the extent that, say, James Merrill was. Merrill had perhaps a more interesting and exemplary story to tell. I am to some extent bored by the story of my own life, with its repetitions, its recurrence of the same problems, its long dawdle periods, its spikes of embarrassing melodrama. That doesn't mean that I've ignored it when my life required me to write about it, rather than the other way around -- that is, when my life as a writer offered me the opportunity to write about my life. Furthermore, I like to think that the attention I have to pay to the world is acute and large; but in fact while you're concentrating on being, you're probably seeing rather blurrily. The idea that I would spend much of my life paying attention to the details of my own life, rather than trying to understand what it would feel like to be someone else, someone different, someone born in a different body, born as a member of a different sex, born in a different time or a different place -- the curiosity you can spend on being yourself in spades rather than being someone else -- well, it's clear that I've consistently preferred the former to the latter.
PD: Your poems concern themselves a lot with pleasure -- music, wine, love, language -- yet with a difference.
WM: I don't think there's been nearly as large a body of poetry that concerns itself with pleasure as there has been that concerns itself with other emotions -- despair, sexual jealousy, terrible intrafamilial battles, etcetera. Of course, the circumstance under which the poet chooses to pay attention to one thing rather than another never means that he or she believes it is more important. You don't take on subject matter because of an objective sense that one sort of subject matter is more important than something else. You take on what you can handle, what you can transform, what you can make your own, what you can make explicable and clear to somebody else, the reader who might stumble across the poem and recognize his or her life in that cloudy mirror.
What would the "difference" that your question suggests mean? I hope it means that I have been willing to consider the possibility that pleasure in itself, with regard for it as something that lessens our suffering, offers a consolation, a relief -- I wanted to be able to avoid a vocabulary that insists on the secondariness or the tertiariness of pleasure. I would like to say that one of the primary reasons for being alive is to experience the pleasure of being alive. I would like to write as if it were a given to rise and look out the window on a particularly beautiful light on a summer morning, or on one of those winter mornings when snow has fallen and made the whole of New York City quiet, or you name your favorite such sight. 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. Pleasure is in itself and by itself valuable and important.
Of course a perception is, to someone who is by habit a writer, first of interest in itself, but then it's interesting because it's very hard to describe, and the job of a writer is to describe it. If there was ever a moment (and I don't know for a writer that there is) when that perception existed independent of that writer's deep investment in language, the question of translating that perception from the five senses to what for any writer is the sixth sense -- language -- immediately becomes the valuable, possible, infernal, never-perfect-enough, and absolutely fascinating next work-to-be-done.
PD: Can you tell me a little about "Dire Cure" [October, 1997, Atlantic]?
WM: I was married to a woman who got a disastrous cancer. It took her over a year of treatment to know whether she was going to be able to fend it off. It took her a couple of years after that to begin to think that it might stay away. She is, I'm happy to be able to report, still in good health, and the cancer, a particularly aggressive one, has shown no signs of coming back.
Almost everybody invites you to think about your experience in terms that are not helpful. People describe you as the Caregiver or the Helpmeet. None of the categories make any sense. People aren't imposing dopey categories on you out of malice; they don't know better. I wouldn't have known better in their place. I wouldn't have known a vocabulary even for talking about the subject. One of the reasons you wind up writing a poem is not because cancer is such great material for a poem; I think it's very intractable material for a poem. Material that has a great deal of melodrama built into it -- murder, cancer, rape, child molestation -- once you mention the subject everybody knows the poem. The child-molestation poem will have footsteps, for example. The footsteps are like mood music in a horror movie or a gothic novel. The problem is to write a poem on child-molestation in which footsteps don't occur -- as, for example, in Linda Gregerson's good poem on the subject ["For the Taking," (November, 1993, Atlantic)]. That's hard work.
It's not easy to write a poem on these subjects. I didn't write a poem because I thought it would be useful material. On the contrary: I noticed all the way through that neither I nor anybody else has much of a vocabulary for talking about my experience, or talking about Pat's experience (to the extent that I could guess what that was, or hear her tell me).
PD: Would you call it an act of witness?
WM: Yes, it's an act of witness, but I needed to write the poem to invent a vocabulary, because it's a matter of pride for me not to be linguistically inadequate. We are all rendered mute and stupid by our experience from time to time, but the point of being a poet is that you have redress. I felt particularly challenged in this instance. It seemed to me a matter of pride -- I hope I don't mean puffed-up pride, but the pride that a good cook takes in knowing how to save a curdling sauce. It was also an act of trying to rescue an important part of human experience from imaginative failures and thinness of vocabulary and failures of empathy. You can't give up to the forces of silence. They mean us harm.
PD: You have served the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, and numerous other arts agencies and associations. Do you regard these as the necessary chores of a good citizen?
WM: I've had a lucky poetry life. I've never had to carry one of my manuscripts from publisher to publisher, suffering many disappointing rejections and finally stumbling upon a solution for publishing a particular book that I was not happy with. Instead, for most of my life I've had one excellent editor and, accurately or not, the official world of poetry has offered me a fellowship here, an award there. If you have dined well you should do the dishes. Yes, these are the chores of a good citizen. On the other hand, I don't want to sound selfless. There's something I learned from being president of the Poetry Society or Literature Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. I learned how the poetry world worked in terms of finances, publicity. I learned more about the intersection between the world of poetry and the world of the imagination and the world of ordinary life, business, journalism, publicity, rentin' the hall, gettin' the crowd out -- I learned more about that than perhaps I was temperamentally prepared to learn any other way. In some cases I learned that I had the worst possible temperament for fundraising. I had no idea how to ask people for money. The fund-raising gene had just been omitted from my DNA. I was wired wrong at the factory, and there was nothing to be done to remedy this. There were things I would never be able to do. I learned other things I didn't know I knew, I learned some lacks in myself. I don't want it to appear that all of it was good citizenship and I gained nothing from it.
The poetry world is very unfair. There are many talented people who have never been, and will never be, sufficiently rewarded for the value of the work they have done. There is something to be said for making sure that people who care about poetry, who operate all its readings, all its endless conferences, all the various dates and occasions that call people who care about poetry together -- it's important that there be mechanisms whereby these people can be known to one another and that these opportunities be made available. We live in a big country. It's not Belgium, where all the poets in the country can get on trains and be in Brussels in half an hour. There are lots of good American poets who are doing what they do in comparative isolation from one another. Keeping a network of information and opportunity and emotional support, to the extent that that can be offered, is an act of corporal mercy and it needs to be done. There are people out there with a longing to find a relationship between their emotional life and language and the way they live in and understand their world. Anything we can do that accidentally makes that easier for anyone is a human good and needs to be done.
PD: Are there guardians at the door, and are they the right ones?
WM: The situation of the arts is two-faced. One face is the face of equal opportunity. Everybody gets a try: equal opportunity. To that face there should be no guardian at the door -- it's open admissions. The other face is the face that deals not with opportunity and hope but with the quality of the actual work produced and the extremely high standards that are required to sort out the very most enduring and emotionally useful work from the next level down, and the many other levels below that. That doesn't require a guardian. It requires time, which sorts these things out, cruelly, but with a terrible efficiency.
Both faces are required, particularly for an American. We must try to live up to the glorious rhetoric of the founding fathers and mothers of our country and say, Listen, everybody gets a shot at this, nobody is excluded from it, there's nobody at the door. Later on, time is at the door, erosion is at the door, forgetfulness is at the door, oblivion is at the door. These are worse than any three-headed dog ever.
PD: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
WM: Well, I was on the edge of saying something earlier about the extent to which poetry is subject to pressures from the larger culture. We treat poetry as though we were all living in an orchid plantation -- in one of the greenhouses, too. But in fact the general weather infects us, and when people complain, as is so fashionable to do, about the supposedly small audience of poetry and by that the perilous health of poetry, I never find that I recognize the world they are talking about. They are talking about a world in which marketing is much more important to them than it is to me. I'm thinking about Dana Gioia's piece ["Can Poetry Matter?" (May, 1991, Atlantic)], which is largely about marketing. We get the high-modernist grumpiness about the "poorly educated and highly absent audience." As Sol Hurok (or was it Yogi Berra?) said, "If they want to stay away in droves, you can't stop them." Berating the audience is silly.
We forget that 150 years ago what you did at night in a house in the Midwest (where I grew up) was to sit around the piano or read. Now I have in my living room extraordinary performances in a wide range of music, the sort of stuff that a hundred years ago you couldn't hear unless you lived in a major city and had a lot of disposable income. There's interesting stuff on television. I live in a city famous for its ability to distract its citizens with interesting cultural and entertainment events. The competition for the attention of people who pay some attention to poetry, and might pay more, is at an unprecedented level in human history.
I don't think that anyone can look around and see Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine and W. S. Merwin and Yusef Komunyakaa and Josephine Jacobson and say that American poetry is not doing very well. Two thirds of the poets who interest me in the generation younger than I am are women. These are the people who have been absent from the table for the last couple of generations, and it was a scandal. Now poets are at the table from all over the place. I think American poetry is very healthy. I don't understand what it is that gives people pleasure in pronouncing it ill or prematurely dead, but I wish they'd stop. However it is we're bumbling along, we're doing okay. Let's have less talk about what can be done for the patient. Most of those pieces are self-serving. They are written by a doctor who has a better technology, and they are essentially self-serving pieces. Let the health of poetry go along in its own ad hoc way, because whatever we're not doing, it's good for us.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.