An American poet

by Andrew S. Hughes

*p. ‘New Selected Poems’ gathers something old, new by Matthias

  • p. SOUTH BEND — John Matthias opens and closes his latest book, “New Selected Poems,” with two poems set in the American Midwest, “Swimming at Midnight” and “Swell.”

It’s a deliberate attempt, he says, to assert his identity as an American poet.

“There’s a passage in ‘Swell’ about my travels where I say it’s taken me a lifetime to prefer ‘here,’ " Matthias says. “I think that as one gets older, one circles back into the direction of one’s starting point. … That sort of parallels my recent experience. I had thought the shape of my life was fairly permanent, that I would write in England and do my teaching here. When I really returned here to stay, Midwestern themes began to emerge again.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1941, Matthias graduated from the writing program at Stanford University in 1966 and moved to England. A year later, Ernest Sandeen hired him to teach poetry and literature at the University of Notre Dame, so he and his wife, Diana, moved to South Bend. During the ’70s and ’80s, Matthias and his family split their time between East Anglia in England, where Diana was born and raised, and South Bend. For the most part, Matthias wrote while in England and taught while in South Bend.

“My career has been peculiar given that I spent so much time writing in England and dealing with English and European subject matter and historical themes that sometimes seemed remote from American readers and sometimes even got me reviewed as an English poet,” he says. “The body of work is obviously by an American poet who has traveled a lot, and the subject matter is not always typical of an American poet, but it is by an American. I wanted to make that obvious by way of the structure of the book.”

*p. A box set of poetry
  • p. “New Selected Poems” functions much like a box set by a musician: It’s not a complete collected works, but it does provide a comprehensive overview to a 40-year career distinguished by Matthias’ highly literate but ultimately quite personal voice as a poet. Lyrical or experimental, original or a translation, playful or scholarly, Matthias’ poetry engages readers in a lively and exacting investigation of history, the arts and his own life.

For “New Selected Poems,” Matthias wanted to include both short and long poems, something he didn’t do the last time he selected poems for this type of book. “Swimming at Midnight” contained his short poems only, while “Beltane at Aphelion” contained long poems only. It was a tactical error, he says: The former sold well, and the latter didn’t.

“Clearly, the question of length is a factor when you sit down to read a poem,” he says. “If it’s a page long, you’re more likely to read it. Without a degree of dedication to a poem, you’re not as likely to read a long poem. It requires a different level of engagement. If you put them all in one volume, the likelihood is greater that the reader will be tempted to give the long poems a try because of the short poems.”

Most of all, Matthias says, he wanted to include most of 1991’s “A Gathering of Ways” because it had never been published in England, and “New Selected Poems” would be published there as well as in the United States.

“I think it’s the most important of the long poems,” he says. “Then came the question of how to include it. It’s over 100 pages long. Put it in the middle, or spread it around? I decided to spread it around.”

Aside from the inclusion of “Facts From an Apocryphal Midwest” from the 1980s in the first section, “New Selected Poems” follows a chronological and thematic structure. The last third of the book includes new poems that have never before been published in book form “scattered” among other recent poems.

“The poems are not in the same order they were in the original books” Matthias says. “They were written at about the same time, but I’ve shuffled the poems so that they begin to talk to each other.”

*p. A grand collage
  • p. A writer, Matthias says, has the “ability in poetry to control and manipulate sound,” a prime motivation and pleasure for him as a writer.

“This can be done in prose as well, but not to the same extent, unless you happen to be (James) Joyce or (Samuel) Beckett,” he says. “Poetry, before anything else, is sounds. A lot of nonsense has been written about ‘the music of poetry,’ but unless there is a music, a compelling rhythm of some kind, you really don’t have a poem before you but something else. There are hundreds of different ways to make such rhythms, but the pleasure of making them sustains the mind and emotions with a strange kind of paradoxical joy even in the midst of engaging difficult and painful material.”

Many times, Matthias has been tagged as a poet of place, a description that skims the surface of his work.

“You don’t want (references to places) to sound like nostalgic laments for the old homestead,” he says. “I hope none of them has sounded that way. … If you look at the poems, they’re not landscape poems. They’re all history poems. I’m interested in what happened someplace.”

The same reading applies, Matthias says, to his many poems about musicians.

“They’re poems about people’s lives,” he says. “The biographical impulse is another factor that isn’t too often remarked upon. A lot of the poems are poems simply about interesting people. I think good biography, and of course there’s a great deal of bad biography and popular biography, is perhaps the most profound expression of a life.”

Matthias’ most recent poems use his family life as their starting point but, typically, incorporate external subjects and themes. “Letter to an Unborn Grandson,” the newest poem in “New Selected Poems,” borrows from William Carlos Williams and serves as “a kind of homage to him as an American poet.” “Swell” begins and ends in a fishing boat on Walloon Lake in Michigan, a place where Matthias and his family vacationed when he was a child and where he and Diana visited in 2000. The poem, however, is about Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Goethe, and America in the 1950s and England in the 1960s, among other subjects.

“I’m not actually ‘against’ personal or family poems when I say there are too many being written; it’s just that one should be aware that one’s family photo album may not be terribly interesting to other people,” Matthias says. “It all depends on what you do with the material, how interesting you make it and whether or not the context gives it some resonance.”

In arranging the poems in “New Selected Poems,” Matthias says, he considered the placement and juxtaposition of poems so that his objective, historical poems would give his personal poems a context within his body of work.

“In putting together a ‘Selected Poems,’ one is making a kind of grand collage where poem talks to poem and a version of one’s self at 20 talks to a version of one’s self at 60,” he says. “In some ways, the historical poems exist as a critique of the personal poems, and the other way around. And certainly the poet at 20 and the poet at 60 are very suspicious of each other.”

*p. The rewards of teaching
  • p. Matthias plans to retire from teaching in May and dedicated “New Selected Poems” “to my students at the University of Notre Dame 1967-2004.” It’s his students who come to mind first when he reflects on his experiences as a teacher.

“Initially, looking back at a career that’s nearly 40 years old, I think of the students I’m in closest touch with and whose careers I’ve followed and who have published books,” he says and lists new books by former students, including Joe Francis

Doerr, Robert Archambeau, Kevin Ducey, Jenny Boully and Beth Ann Fennelly, as examples.

“The one thing I’ve consistently had is excellent students, and as one gets older, one’s former students become your closest friends, perhaps more so than your current colleagues” because of differences in age between him and younger faculty members, he says. “The dedication is to be taken seriously.”

At the moment, Matthias is beginning to block out a poem inspired by his wife’s maternal grandfather, who joined the British navy at the age of 12 as a midshipman and eventually retired as an admiral.

“This is again a biographical interest, but the poem won’t be exclusively about him,” he says. “That’s not the only thing I’ve been thinking about.”

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