You know, when a book of “uncollected” work is published from someone who died well over a decade ago (technically, in another century), it’s safe to say that few to none are paying attention. That may be a safe enough assertion about any book, whether or not the author was primarily a poet. I’m writing this to say: Even if you are not primarily a poet, and even if you’re not already familiar with William Matthews, this book is a rich resource.
I met the co-editor, Sebastian Matthews, in the fall of 2006 at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop, a gathering of writers here in Chattanooga that William Matthews himself was a part of, originated by Richard Jackson in 1986. Regardless of our relationship and my admiration both of his father’s work, and also of Sebastian’s, I didn’t honestly expect this “Uncollected Matthews” to be all that “great.” What I mean is, my expectation, as I assume most readers’ would be, was that I was about to read some leftovers, a hodgepodge collection of what wasn’t previously good enough for one of the late great’s collected–and living–efforts. I was wrong. Now, to be clear, I am not the Matthews aficionado that many are, and a little under a year ago, Ron Slate wrote a review for New Hope for the Dead which seems incisive, broadly knowledgeable about Matthews’ work collectively, and he comes to the conclusion that the poetry (40 poems chosen from 200) is not quite as powerful as his other focused collections.
My approach here is to simply suggest that this book does offer a broader appeal than may initially meet the eye. While New Hope for the Dead does, in fact, feature a hodgepodge of various genres: poems, stories, essays (with a sprinkling of recipes at the end), reviews, letters, interviews, miscellany, and an afterword, I have to say that, like an airplane, it is more than the sum of its parts. I suppose I probably agree with Slate that the stories section is the least remarkable, although I disagree that the letters are of “questionable value.” More on that in a moment. Other than the poems, which I think comprise a remarkable collection in and of themselves, the most rewarding parts of this book for me have been reading the essays and reviews sections, followed closely by the letters. The essays feature some helpful insights into Richard Hugo’s work, a thoughtful exegesis of Emily Dickinson’s #987, as well as a wonderful discussion about the effective, necessary and appropriate use of satire (with its ensuing parallels between then and now), as well as how Martial was ironically used by other poets in history, in “Martial’s Darts.” “Martial’s enemies ought to be everyone’s–hypocrisy, emotional stinginess, gaud, sanctimony, prigs and dullards,” the essay begins. For whatever the precise reasons for a lack of critical (or meaningful) commentary–of reviews on poetics–there is a noticeable absence of it, and has been for many years now, which is why a short piece “On Reviewing” is as helpful as it is. The beginning offers us broad perspective:
The life of American poetry is too often obscured by such essentially sociological distractions as grants, anthologies, most reviews, teaching jobs, etc. All of these enterprises contribute to the literary climate, to be sure, but usually in the ways that matter least; too, these are enterprises that have traditionally proven equally distracting to writers whether they are well or poorly administered. The envy and competitiveness these distractions encourage are more often fed than opposed by local poetry sccenes and by most small magazines and little presses. In the midst of such distractions, one way to care for your share of the literary climate is to sit down with some poems, read them as intelligently and passionately as they and your own limits as a reader will allow, and to describe accurately to yourself you affections for and distrusts of those poems….To do this in public is to write a review.
He goes on to say that there is too much “automatic praising in our reviewing” and that we ought to take our craft more seriously and contribute to our field by way of this public discourse.
Finally, the letters from Matthews to Russell Banks, Daniel Halpern, and Stanley Plumly offer a deeper insight into the “self-conscious, skilled, and controlled” William Matthews, known also for his “erudition and wit,” but who in these letters is “candid and self-revealing,” sometimes a little insecure. With Sebastian’s own analysis of the letters–coupled by his examination of a photo of the four of them, which opens the section–and spanning the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the letters open a door into the “life” of the writer, and also of certain aspects of the poetry community and literary life in general during that time. In all, I find New Hope for the Dead offers a rich tapestry of skill, erudition and wit, which could work as well in the collection of a young writer, as for the Matthews aficionado.