Matthias, John (Edward)

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MATTHIAS, John (Edward)

Nationality: American. Born: Columbus, Ohio, 5 September 1941. Education: Ohio State University, Columbus, 1959–63, B.A. 1963; Stanford University, California, 1963–65, M.A. 1966; University of London (Fulbright Fellow), 1966–67. Family: Married Diana Adams in 1967; two children. Career: Assistant professor, 1967–73, associate professor, 1973–80, and since 1980 professor of English, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Visiting professor, Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1976–77, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, summer 1978, and University of Chicago, spring 1980. Awards: Columbia University Translation Center award, 1979; Ingram-Mer-rill Foundation award, 1984, 1990; Society of Midland Authors poetry award, 1984; Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature poetry prize, 1986; Slobadan Jovanovic literary prize, 1989; George Bogin memorial award, Poetry Society of America, 1990; Lily Endowment grant, 1991–92; Ohio Library Association poetry award, 1996. Address: Department of English, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556–0368, U.S.A.



Herman's Poems. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1973.

Turns. Chicago, Swallow Press, and London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1975.

Double Derivation, Association and Cliché: From the Great Tournament Roll of Westminster. Chicago, Wine Press, 1975.

Two Poems. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1976.

Crossing. Chicago, Swallow Press, and London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1979.

Rostropovich at Aldeburgh. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1979.

Bathory and Lermontov. Ahus, Sweden, Kalejdoskop, 1980.

Northern Summer: New and Selected Poems 1963–1983. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, and London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1984.

Tva Dikter. Lund, Sweden, Ellerstroms, 1989.

A Gathering of Ways. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1991.

Swimming at Midnight: Selected Shorter Poems. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1995.

Beltane at Aphelion: Collected Longer Poems. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1995.

Pages: New Poems and Cuttings. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000.


Reading Old Friends: Reviews, Essays, and Poems on Poetics. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1992.

Editor, 23 Modern British Poets. Chicago, Swallow Press, 1971.

Editor, Five American Poets. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Editor, Introducing David Jones. London, Faber, 1980.

Editor and Translator, with Göran Printz-Påhlson, Contemporary Swedish Poetry. Chicago, Swallow Press, and London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1980.

Editor, David Jones: Man and Poet. Orono, Maine, National Poetry Foundation, 1989.

Editor, Selected Works of David Jones. Orono, Maine, National Poetry Foundation, 1993.

Translator, with Göran Printz-Påhlson, Rainmaker, by Jan Östergren. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1983.

Translator, with Vladeta Vuckovic, The Battle of Kosovo. Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, and Buxton, Derbyshire, Aquila, 1987.


Critical Studies: "John Matthias: Crossing" by William Sylvester, in Credences (Buffalo, New York), spring 1981; "The Poetry of John Matthias: Between the Castle and the Mine" by Vincent Sherry, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), fall 1984; "Crossings and Turns: The Poetry of John Matthias," in The Presence of the Past, by Jeremy Hooker, Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1987; "The Poems As Quest" by Willard Spiegelman, in Parnassus (New York, New York), 17(2) and 18(1), 1992; World Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias edited by Robert Archambeau, Athens, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1998.

John Matthias comments:

It is probably best not to say very much about one's own work. The background to mine includes a brief, early, but intense period of study with John Berryman and three years at Stanford University in the middle 1960s when I first became acquainted with a group of poets—all at that time students of Yvor Winters—whose work is now well known: Robert Hass, John Peck, Robert Pinsky, and James McMichael. I still feel a considerable affinity with these four poets. In the late 1960s I began spending long periods of time in England. The prehistory, history, and geography of East Anglia have been crucial for my writing, both as background and foreground, during more than fifteen years. More recently the direction of my work has been shaped by a short but very significant period of time spent in Fife, Scotland, and by several years of collaboration with Göran Printz-Påhlson translating contemporary Swedish poetry. Though I am an American poet, most of what seems to me my best work has been written in Britain, often about British subjects. Stylistically I consider myself an eclectic and would defend eclecticism. Like Robert Duncan, I can say that much of my work is derivative without feeling unhappy about it. I, too, then would be glad to "emulate, imitate, reconstrue, approximate." My deepest, and in some ways contradictory, enthusiasms among English-language poets of our century are for Pound, David Jones, early Auden, middle Lowell, middle Berryman, and Geoffrey Hill. The fictions of Guy Davenport have also meant much to me.

*  *  *

The essential oddity and eccentricity of John Matthias's sensibility, and of his always interesting and inventive poetry, can be most easily suggested by pointing out that he is clearly influenced by two odd and eccentric poets who are also quite exceptionally different from each other, John Berryman and David Jones, on both of whom Matthias has written excellent critical essays. From the former he takes a proud, performing—perhaps even self-regarding—poetic self and a readiness to be painfully personal, and from the latter he takes a penetrating interest in the recovery of a history and a tradition from a particular landscape—in Matthias's case primarily the Fens—and a magpie hoarding of out-of-the-way information and anecdotes, which form the kernel of a number of ruminative poems. The combination of the American and the British influence seems a necessary one for Matthias who, American by birth, has strong British connections and family and who has lived in both countries, and the relationship between the two is signaled in the title of his book Crossing.

It is probably clear that any poet who feels himself capable of absorbing and assimilating two such potently individual voices must have a strong poetic personality and constitution, and this is indeed the case with Matthias, who rarely actually sounds like Berryman or Jones but who profitably turns their influences in his own work into an original kind of linguistic playfulness and daring. Through a number of very different kinds of poems, Matthias manages to establish and maintain a recognizable voice of his own: high-pitched and excitable; sometimes showily displaying its range of cultural references, but usually with a genuinely Berrymanic kind of urgency and enthusiasm that save it from the merely boastful; but often undermined by a distinct sadness, a profound sense of the transience of earthly delights, whether those of history and culture or those of the personal life, those of the world, or those of the flesh.

It is extremely difficult to quote from Matthias's work, since many of his best poems are lengthy sequences that explore a particular theme and worry about a particular set of circumstances or a historical occasion with an expansive experimental or exploratory breadth and energy. Music is obviously important to him. Composers and musical pieces are mentioned quite frequently in the poems, and some of the separate parts of his sequences have a kind of musical interrelatedness. Matthias speaks about the activity of writing these poems as "assembling certain kinds of structure." For example, "Turns: Towards a Provisional Aesthetic and a Discipline," the poem that gives its name to his volume Turns, provides an elaborate descant on the extraordinary "theme" of its opening part, a "translation" into Middle English of the opening sentences of Jude the Obscure. This zany toying and tinkering with different epochs and cultures are among the essential signatures of Matthias and are apparent in many of his most innovative sequences, for instance, "The Stefan Batory Poems" and "The Mihail Lermontov Poems."

Personally, however, I like most the long reflective poems, often addressed to friends or to members of his family, in which important personal memories or sensations are evoked and set in the larger contexts of the public and political worlds. In some of these poems the America of the 1960s, and especially the experience of Vietnam, is given an exceptionally vivid poetic presence. These immediacies and realities ground a poetry that is, perhaps, sometimes in danger of overelaboration and oversophistication and thus ripe for parody. But usually the extraordinarily recondite learning and allusiveness, complete with considerable annotation, function as genuine elements of style and vision and not as mere parade or decoration. Some of the excitement of reading Matthias comes from being kept on one's toes, but it is when the sophistication is firmly at the service of human emotion that his work gains its most remarkable effects. This is undoubtedly the case in one of his finest poems, "Epilogue from a New Home: For Toby Barkan," which is an apology to the wife of a dead friend for not being able to write an elegy. In apologizing, of course, a marvelous elegy does get written. This is the final stanza:

Oh, I remember you that day: the terror in
your face, the irony and love. And I remember
What you wanted me to do. That ancient charge: to
read whatever evidence in lives or lies appears,
In stones or bells—transform, transfigure then whatever
comedy, catastrophe or crime, and thus
Return the earth, thus redeem the time. And this:
to leave it all alone (unspoken always: look, I have
This moment and this place): Cum on, cum on my owyn
swet chyld; goo we hom and take owr rest...
Sing we to the oldest harpe, and playe.
. . Old friend,
old debt: I'm welcoming at last your presence now.
I'm but half oriented here. I'm digging down.

—Neil Corcoran

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Matthias, John (Edward)

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