Few Were As Devoted to Poetry and Friendship as Harry Mathews
Arlo Haskell Remembers An Iconic Writer and Dear Friend
Poet, novelist, and essayist Harry Mathews died in 2017 at the age of 86. Literary Hub spoke with author Arlo Haskell, a longtime friend of Mathews’, on the occasion of the release of Mathews’ Collected Poems, 1946-2016. Read two poems from the collection, here.
Literary Hub: Can you tell us a little about Harry the man, what was he like?
Arlo Haskell: I first met Harry when I was a student in John Ashbery’s poetry workshop at Bard College 20 years ago, and he came to give a reading. John introduced us, which is when I learned that Harry was living in Key West, where I’d grown up. Five years later, back in Key West, I bumped into Harry at the Cuban coffee shop down the street from his house. I reintroduced myself, and soon began to know him as a friend.
Harry was enormously intelligent, as if he had somehow lived for 300 years and gained firsthand knowledge of epochs and artists that had long passed away. Imagine if Google was your brain—he just seemed to know everything.
For all his learning, there was something deeply youthful about Harry’s character. Even as he spoke in the mid-Atlantic accent that is now nearly extinct, and which instantly gave away the wealth and privilege of his youth, he had an essentially boyish quality, even a rambunctious one. Harry loved designing rules to follow, and that’s what drew him to the Oulipo. But what he loved most about rules was the chance to break them. In fact, one of his rules was that you could only break a rule if you didn’t have to. You had to be able to succeed within the rules, first. If you could do that, then you could break the rule simply to provide a little extra thrill.
None of this would have been the first thing that you noticed about Harry, however. What made an instant impression on me when I met him was a kind of capaciousness of spirit—a warmth and a generosity, and the way his friendship bloomed into a vote of confidence for my endeavors, especially writing, especially poetry.
LH: Some people may only know Harry from his novels. How does his poetry compare with that body of work?
AH: Harry was a poet first, and I don’t just mean that he started writing poetry before he wrote fiction. He was a poet first and foremost. His novels are the novels of a poet. They seem propelled by an internal, unseen logic, and much of the pleasure of reading them is focused outside of the plot, in the richness of his language and in the strange web of associations that holds his characters and settings together.
In his poetry, Harry’s work finds its essential form. Entire cosmologies are distilled into poems just a page or two in length. They can be read a hundred times, and remain fresh with every reading.
Writing poetry (and reading it) is almost a form of worship. It’s a variety of love, a way of paying attention that blurs the line between ourselves and the object of our attention, as a newborn baby is said to make no distinction between its mother and its own self. “I’m devoted to devotion,” Harry writes in one poem, “Like a baby / to the mother.”
This way of practicing poetry was essential for Harry, I think. Poetry was “the only way that I could ever know / Life, the only color, the only form.” Is that taking things too far? Harry always did: “I don’t claim to be reasonable, I just can’t stop.”
LH: The collection covers many years. How does the work change and develop over those years? What are the breaks and continuities?
AH: Once Harry had arranged everything for Collected Poems, I was struck by how consistent the work was. Here are poems written from the time Harry was 16 to the time he was 86. Their themes are the devotion and eroticism of love, the pain and transmogrification of loss, and the absolute thrill of discovery—along with a vivid joyfulness in the human capacity for imagination and invention.
Early poems seem weathered, wise, world-weary. Later poems seem youthful and innocent. Harry was the rare poet whose poetic maturity is on display in his first book (Elizabeth Bishop is another poet this applies to), and so you can read his poems forward and backward as if they’re on a kind of continuum.Harry Mathews’ poetry will make you think twice about what you know. It’s the perfect antidote for certainty, which we have far too much of today.
That said, Harry’s first book, The Ring, shows an overtly experimental quality that he would later move away from. For example, the long poem “Comatas” includes dozens of lines of fragmented syntax and transcribed sounds, strings of letters and words that are more analogous to notes in a musical composition, or colors in a painting, than to units of comprehensible speech.
This kind of formal experimentation can be very challenging to a reader. It’s radically different from what we expect books to do, and because of that, a poem like “Comatas” is more memorable for its formal qualities than for its content. Harry’s previous editions of selected poems emphasized this more experimental side, and so I think many people will be surprised to discover that the “late style” Mathews of The New Tourism (2010), with its relative lucidity and incantatory quality, is just as present in work that first appeared in The Ring (1970).
LH: In short, for people unfamiliar with his poetry, why should people read Harry today?
AH: Harry’s poetry will make you think twice about what you know. It’s the perfect antidote for certainty, which we have far too much of today. As Daniel Levin Becker says in the introduction, Harry “unites the liberation of rules with the discipline of desire.” Imagine that. Rules that make you free. Lust that requires determination and perseverance.
LH: Tell us about one of your favorite poems from the collection, and why.
AH: Harry’s third book, Trial Impressions (1977), is a series of permutations or rewrites of a work by the English Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563-1626). The concluding poem of this long series, part XXX, is a sestina that, like Robert Frost’s great poem “Birches,” is essentially a defense of the merits of earthly love—an argument for earthliness and carnality as superior to what may be promised in the heavenly or spiritual realm.
“Earth’s the place for love,” Frost wrote: “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” And here, Harry reprises “You make earth earth: who needs heaven?” I wish I could ask Harry about this now. I never heard him talk about Frost, but when Harry remarks on the cherished faith of a lover, “Which I could no more break than I could fly to heaven, / Except that once I did,” I find it impossible not to think of Frost’s boy swinging on birches.
It all reminds me of a conversation I once had with Richard Wilbur (who used to play anagrams with Harry in Key West), where he talked about the dialogues that poets carry on with one another throughout the ages. In fact, “Birches” was one of the poems Wilbur talked about, as an example of Frost having a conversation with Percy Bysse Shelley, who was having a conversation with John Keats.
So I read this poem partly as Harry’s own contribution to that conversation, about the devotion to carnal love that is part of what makes a poet a poet. “Others felt this way,” Harry reminds us: “they invented heaven.”
The Collected Poems of Harry Mathews, 1946-2016 is available from Sand Paper Press.