Mingus and Matthews: A Moment in Time

Since April is National Poetry Month, I want to honor poets and poetry. Particularly poets like William Matthews, who may have slipped from our memory.

2013 National Poetry Month Poster

2013 National Poetry Month
Poster

Matthews would have been my age had he not died of  a fatal heart attack at age 55 just one year after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of poetry, Time & Money, in 1996.

Why does April (“the cruelest month”) bring us face to face with our own mortality? Perhaps because everything around us is so full of life, we are reminded of the brevity of it all. Poetry because of its brevity seems especially good at capturing those moments that pass by so quickly.

In “Mingus at the Showplace,” Matthews harkens back to that time in 1960 when he was age seventeen. He was listening to the music of double bassist and jazz composer, Charles Mingus, at The Showplace in New York City. At that point in his life, Mingus was 48 years old and at the height of his career. He, himself, would be gone in 1979 at age 57.

William Matthews

William Matthews

So I’m struck by the perfection of this moment in time when young poet and gifted musician come together. I’m also struck by how generous Mingus was to the young poet. “There’s a lot of that going around,” he says to the young Matthews about the poem Matthews has asked him to read.  Mingus certainly has standards because later that night Mingus, who was known for his temper, fired his pianist. Yet he is kind to the poet and continues to live in this poem.  “…and the band played on.”

Listen  (To hear the poem, click on this “listen” button.)

Mingus at the Showplace

BY WILLIAM MATTHEWS
I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat
literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,
casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.
And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.
So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,
and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought
bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot
to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children.   Of course later
that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.
“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.
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William Matthews, “Mingus at the Showplace” from Time and Money: New Poems. Copyright © 1995 by William Matthews. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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You can order the free poster above by going to: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/98
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Writing Jumpstart: A brush with someone of genius. Or a time when you were young, and you had a chance to rub shoulders with someone like Mingus.  Go for ten minutes.

 

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