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:

 

SMART MONEY

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:

 

OFFICE LIFE

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.


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  1. jonathan law on Monday 29, 2012

    Why have I never heard of this guy? He’s obviously damned good. I can’t find out much about him except that he loved jazz, loved baseball, drank too much, and gave up smoking just before dying of a heart attack in his 50s. Anyway, here’s another one of his that could be a sort of manifesto for most of us Dabblers (love that “morose at dances and giggly in committee”).

    Fellow Oddballs

    The sodden sleep from which we open like umbrellas,
    the way money keeps us in circulation, the scumbled lists
    we make of what to do and what, God help us, to undo —

    an oddball knows an oddball at forty or at 40,000
    paces. Let’s raise our dribble glasses. Here’s to us,
    morose at dances and giggly in committee,

    and here’s to us on whose ironic bodies new clothes
    pucker that clung like shrink wrap to the manikins.
    And here’s to the threadbare charm of our self-pity.

    For when the waiters, who are really actors between parts,
    have crumbed for the last time our wobbly tables,
    and we’ve patted our pockets for keys and cigarettes

    enough until tomorrow, for the coat-check token
    and for whatever’s missing, well then, what next? God knows,
    who counts us on God’s shapely toes, one and one and one.

  2. Nige on Monday 29, 2012

    Oh wow yes – thanks for that Jonathan! Fellow Oddballs indeed – his subject…