A Celebration of William Matthews Poems on Music



William Matthews (1942-1997) published twelve widely-acclaimed books of poems in his lifetime, including Time & Money, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as two posthumous collections. He was the recipient of many honors, most notably the Ruth Lilly Prize, one of poetry’s most prestigious. His work is lucid and witty, quirky and passionate, bursting with intelligence but utterly unpretentious.

Matthews lived intensely, exuberantly, fearlessly. Of all his passions, music was foremost. His oeuvre features dozens of poems about music: jazz, blues, opera, and reggae. Even as a twelve-year-old, not-very-strong clarinet student, he “knew the way music can fill a room, / even with loneliness, which is of course a kind / of company.” Obsessed with music, particularly jazz, by age seventeen he was a regular at the Showplace during the six months that Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop was in residence.

Mingus, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk—these were Matthews’ heroes, and he also has poems about Verdi, piano lessons, and Janis Joplin, as well as poems entitled “A Night at the Opera,” “The Accompanist,” and “Bob Marley’s Hair.” Often his lines about music could just as well refer to poetry: “But what’s inside The Bass wants out. . .You must release as much of this hoard / as you can, little by little, in perfect time, / as the work of the body becomes the body of work” (“Mingus in Diaspora”).

In an interview with Sascha Feinstein in 1996, Matthews said of Mingus: “Well, he lived to be fifty-six, older than many of his contemporaries, but still he died far too young.” Matthews died of a heart attack almost exactly one year later, at fifty-five, as he was preparing to go to the opera.

Presented in collaboration with SmithArtsFest