Tag Archives: william Matthews

Feb 6, 2012 [roman numerals: it’s what’s for titular]

With translation, it’s hard to know if the smart-aleck is the “original” writer, or the translator. We’ve seen this dilemma, for example, when the impish Paul Muldoon translates the somewhat heavier verse of Nuala Ni Dhomnaill from Irish to English. Today we have the Roman poet Martial coming to us via the typewriter of William Matthews. I’m guessing the modern pole in this dyad has something to do with the smart-ass nature of today’s selections, given that he himself created a book of poems called “one-liners.” But then I know nothing of the source material, so perhaps today’s special guest reader, or another MV familiar, can straighten us out. Anyway, these don’t need much preamble for enjoyment: they’re like getting a text message from Leon Jacobson. -ed.
VII, lxxvi:
“Tell me the truth, Mark,” you insist,
“What do you really think?”
When you recite your poems or plead
a client’s case, you cry,
“You can be candid with me, pal,
what do you really think?”
I won’t refuse you now. I think
you’re asking me to lie.
XI, xciii
Ted’s studio burnt down, with all his poems.
Have the muses hung their heads?
You bet, for it was criminal neglect
not also to have sauteed Ted.
VI, xii
That plush hair Fabulla wears?
It’s hers, Fabulla swears.
I’ve no reason to deny it:
I saw Fabulla buy it.
X, xxxi
You sold a slave just yesterday
for twelve hundred sesterces, Cal;
at last the lavish dinner you’ve
long dreamed about is in the pan.
Tonight! Fresh mullet, four full pounds!
You know I’ll not complain, old pal,
about the food. But that’s no fish
we’ll eat tonight; that was a man.
V, xlv
You announce that you are beautiful
and insist that you are young;
Bassa, if either claim were true
you’d hold your blowsy tongue.
V, xx
Old friend, suppose luck grants to us
days free of fret, that shadow life,
how would we live then? No foyers
to stall in, no butlers to schmooze,
no lawsuits, not one working lunch,
no ancestral busts. Instead:
strolls, bars, bookshops, the fields,
shaded gardens, cold baths from the Aqua
Virgo and warm baths from the others–
these will be our office and our work.
We toil too much for others. Days
flicker by and then are billed,
one by one, to our accounts. Since we know
how, let’s start really living now.

Oct. 31, 2011 Drizzle

A Halloween poem would make sense, but since when is this column required to make sense?
Last weekend a couple friends mentioned that they particularly liked “The Workingman’s Friend,” and my mind was blown. But it turned out it was the crisp, jaunty rhythms and rhymes they liked, and that got me to thinking: maybe I should be offering more formal verse. It’s not as if it doesn’t exist! But I do tend toward the contemporary Americans, and so there’s less of it in my reading sources.
So I thought about how to go about finding some, and the inspiration came, as usual, in booze. That is, I was reading last week’s NYTimes food section and enjoyed the article on martinis and not neglecting the “wet” ingredients of them. The author even had a cocktail of her own, which she calls the GHAZAL (reprinted at end of poem – cheers). Damned if it doesn’t sound good. Alas I haven’t kept gin in the house for years. Two years to be exact.
A ghazal, you will recall, is an ancient verse form, dating from 6th century Arabic verse. Ghazals have been written in Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Persian, Bengali, Turkish, and Gujurati, and of course, later, in English. It is a classic type of lyric verse, and as such well-suited to our forum. It might be compared with the Petrarchan sonnet in terms of its formal stringency, and like the Petrarchan sonnet, its most popular theme is love–particularly erotic love. Which makes Paul Muldoon’s “The Little Black Book” a historically precise contemporary version. Now, I could say that I know the definition just like that, but instead I’lll just credit what I’ve cribbed from poets.org:”The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets—and typically no more than fifteen—that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. Each line of the poem must be of the same length, though meter is not imposed in English. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet’s signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet’s own name or a derivation of its meaning.”

The ghazal is hard to translate, and so today I’m going with an American version by a newish favorite of mine, William Matthews. Here he makes the trick perhaps even harder by using, homophonically at least, the same word to end all his stanzas, instead of the same rhyme.



Baudelaire: “The dead, the poor dead, have their bad hours.”
But the dead have no watches, no grief and no hours.
At first not smoking took all my time: I did it
a little by little and hour by hour.
   Per diem. Pro bono. Cui bono? Pro rata.
But the poor use English. Off and on. By the hour.
   “I’m sorry but we’ll have to stop now.” There tick but
fifty minutes in the psychoanalytic hour.
Vengeance is mine, yours, his or hers, ours, yours again
(you-all’s this time), and then (yikes!) theirs. I prefer ours.
Twenty minutes fleeing phantoms at full tilt and then
the cat coils herself like a quoit and sleeps for hours.

I created this drink, which is named after the ancient Persian poetic form, to pair with Middle Eastern snacks. Rosewater enhances the cucumber-and-rose infusion in Hendrick’s gin. A good measure of fresh lime juice brightens it up with acidity, and mint adds more flavor.

5 parts Hendrick’s gin
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 part rosewater
Mint leaves.

1. Fill a mixing glass with ice and one mint leaf per serving.
2. Pour in the gin, lime juice and rosewater.
3. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe and float mint leaves on top.

Dec. 13, 2010: A LIFE OF CRIME (William Matthews)


In the past 6 months I’ve put 15,000 miles on my odometer, moved
across 7 states twice, seen the Pacific Ocean, been to the dead center
of the Midwest, thrown in NYC, DC, Nashville, and NOLA for good
measure. Here’s a poem for all of us in our far-flung climes,
hunkering down for the winter, but knowing all our old acquaintances
are as close as we remember them.

Born in Cincinnati, William Matthews went to Yale and then on to UNC,
and served as a writer-in-residence at many colleges, including
Boston’s Emerson. Critics think that his poetry is not of a
knock-you-down sort, and while it does not glitter or dazzle, it sheds
a steady light. He died too young at 55. -ed.


Frail friends, I love you all!
Maybe that’s the trouble,
storm in the eye of a storm.
Everyone wants too much.
Instead we gratefully accept
some stylized despair:

suitcoats left hanging
on folding chairs, snow falling
inside a phonebooth, cows
scouring some sad pasture.
You know the sort of landscape,
all sensibility and no trees.

Nothing but space, a little
distance between friends.
As if loneliness didn’t make us
responsible, and want accomplices.
Better to drink at home
than to fall down in bars.

Or to read all night a novel
with missing heirs, 513 pages
in ten-point type, and lay my body
down, a snarl of urges
orbited by blood,
dreaming of others.