Nige discovers an overlooked gem – the poet William Matthews, who wrote sonnets about basketball, getting old and office life…
Opening Don Paterson’s anthology 101 Sonnets at random, I came across this beauty, by William Matthews, an American poet I had never encountered before (he died in his 50s in 1997, having never been fashionable). This sonnet, loosely Miltonic, vividly evokes (for me anyway) that awful bleak loneliness of the adolescent male (the boy ‘in molt’). It’s simply, often monosyllabically worded, but exquisitely crafted, and towards the end the conversational tone rises into a higher register – ‘for I knew none by name among that hazy company’ could be Edward Thomas – bringing the sonnet to a strong, sad finish.
CHEAP SEATS, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959
The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two nights out of three, like us, they’d lose.
But ‘like us’ is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And ‘we’ is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clocks running down, and mirrors.
Intrigued by this, I dug out a couple more Matthews sonnets. Here’s one taking a very different, disenchanted look back:
We talk about – what else? — the old days.
It was time we complained about then:
“What’s your poison?” the barkeep would say,
and we all knew. Now we’re on the wagon,
which, these days, as then, doesn’t travel far.
How did the old joke go? “Driven to drink?
It’s only half a block. Why take the car?”
No way this was the road to hell – succinct,
unpaved, a scuffle of blurred dirt. We sat
like drowsy money in a bank, the mold
of interest growing on us, minus
some paltry fees, minus taxes, minus
the unexpected costs of growing old.
And then our ship came in, and we were it.
And here’s one that will surely resonate with anyone whose working life is spent in an office:
Drab bickering, the empire dead and tax
reports alive, paperwork, erasure,
the grime on the philodendron leaves
since who tends everybody’s plant?
It’s the triumph of habit over appetite,
like comparing the stars to diamonds.
We make copies. We send out for food. Food
arrives. We have spats and tizzies and huffs.
Isn’t it great being grown up, having
a job? We get our work done more or less
and go home. How was it today? we’re asked
and don’t know what to say. It’s like wet soot,
like us, like what we feel: stuck on itself,
as, from here, starlight seems stuck to its star.