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.
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.
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.”
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,