William Procter Matthews

William Procter Matthews

Died November 12, 1997

An acclaimed poet and respected university professor, Bill Matthews was at the peak of his professional life when he died of a heart attack in New York City a day after his 55th

During his lifetime Bill published ten books of poetry, including Time and Money, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996. He also won the Modern Poetry Association’s 1997 Ruth Lilly Award for After All: Last Poems, one of two collections of his poems that were published posthumously.

A fellow poet, Karen Swenson, said of Matthews, “ He was one of the most distinguished personal poets of our generation. He wrote his life.”

In the Asheville Poetry Review, Newton Smith, a friend and colleague of Bill’s, wrote: “Matthews’ poems, like his conversation, were a dance of intelligence, a kind of ‘erotic thrall of work as restraint against despair.’ They were improvisations by a master who delighted in the apt turn of phrase but who was aware that intelligence was always being overtaken by mortality…His focus is on the ordinary life, our shared losses and lusts, our fears and feasts, our pains and passions. Basketball, jazz, wines, his own children, food, marriage, Vietnam, politics, psychology, and lust were some of his favorite themes. But the poems are really about life as it is worn away, as it slips from our grasp by merely living.”

At the time of his death, Bill was professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at City College of New York, where he had worked since 1983. After earning his master’s degree in 1966 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he held various positions at Emerson College, Wells College, Cornell University, the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Washington at Seattle.

According to his son, Sebastian, one of Bill’s favorite subjects was “ the wretched necessity of academia, which he called ‘a sort of methadone program for the depressed.’”

Bill grew up in Cincinnati, OH and entered Yale from the Berkshire School. He and his first wife Marie had two sons, William (1963) and Sebastian (1965). Their marriage ended in divorce, as did his two later marriages.

In 2004, Sebastian published a memoir titled In My Father’s Footsteps. In a chapter called “ Song for My Father,” he wrote: “…my father always seemed to me a bundle of contradictions – a ‘sad, happy man’ as a close friend once described him. A walking oxymoron, simultaneously generous and greedy, open and secretive, gregarious and shy, well dressed and unkempt. A loyal friend, who in his own estimation, failed completely in marriage. A generous and beloved teacher who hit on his students…A highbrow with friends in low places. A pack rat who threw things away. A wonderfully attentive father who could forget to put dinner on the table. An incredibly verbose, articulate and witty conversationalist and writer who often struggled to tell his sons how much he loved them.”

In 2005 The University of Akron Press published Blues for Bill an anthology of poems written by colleagues, students, friends and family in tribute to Bill. The book’s back cover reads in part: “This collection of poems ensures that the world will remember Bill himself: his graciousness, intelligence, knowledge, style, good humor, capacity for friendship, immense talent and wit.” In his forward to that book, Russell Banks wrote, “ Bill was the first of my particular generation of poets and writers to die while writing fully mature work, the first to enter the anthologies with two dates after his name and become thereby a part of ‘literary history.”’

John Schenck remembers:
Open to Everything
“To the second-best writer I know,”
he scribbled on the title page of my copy of
“Blues if You Want.”
Try to imagine something more flattering.

“What it sets out to accomplish,
it does very well,” he said
of an especially unambitious poem
I had just read in his workshop.

At Yale, he tooled around
in a sporty Datsun Fairlady.
Bill doted on the car,
although its name taxed his urbanity.

Despite an ostensible lankiness,
Bill was paunchy, not a graceful athlete,
but he’d play the occasional pickup game.
He moved well, for a poet.

He loved the subversive.

In his workshop the day after he died,
we tried to decide if Bill made us feel
inadequate or brilliant.
Some were awed by his intellect;
others empowered by his equable openness
to even the most awkward stanza.

In fact, he was open to everything,
and shared what he found.
Trockenbeerenauslese, for example.
Not so much the wine
as its Teutonic tumble of syllables.
His recipe for pepper shrimp
is on the menu tonight,
and though I’ve never quite penetrated
the mystery of Mingus,
I’m open to it.

From Blues for Bill, by Kurt Brown, The University of Akron Press, 2005