Harry Mathews (1930-2017) and the New York School of Poets

Biographical note from An Anthology of New York Poets (1970)

Very sad news for lovers of the New York School and contemporary literature: the novelist and poet Harry Mathews passed away this week at the age of 86.  Mathews is best-known as an experimental fiction writer who was one of the only American members of the Oulipo, the avant-garde French movement devoted to the use of playful procedures, mathematical games, and constraints, whose most famous members were Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau.

Mathews also played a central role in the formation of the New York School of poets: after meeting John Ashbery in France in 1956, Mathews became a key figure in the New York School orbit.  Meeting Ashbery proved to be a crucial moment for his life as a writer – as Mathews recalled in his interview with the Paris Review:

What I think of as my writing life began when I met him. He had already published his first book. But he never spoke much about poetry. He was very proper, though he led another life at night, when he drank and carried on. He told me about modern French poets like Pierre Reverdy and Henri Michaux. I hadn’t read any of them. A couple of weeks later, I gave him a poem. He read it and said, I see you read all those poets that I recommended to you. But I hadn’t. His mentioning them and briefly describing them were enough to transform my writing.

Ashbery also fortuitously introduced Mathews to the work of the eccentric French writer Raymond Roussel, who would exert an enormous influence on his work:

Yes, thanks to John I began reading Raymond Roussel. Roussel had methodical approaches to writing fiction that completely excluded psychology. In the American novel, what else is there? If you don’t have psychology, people don’t see the words on the page. What was really holding me up was this idea that you had to have character development, relationships, and that this was the substance of the novel. Indeed, it is the substance of many novels, including extraordinary ones. But I had tried writing works involving psychology and characters and all that, and the results were terrible. In Roussel I discovered you could write prose the way you do poetry. You don’t approach it from the idea that what you have to say is inside you. It’s a materialist approach, for want of a better word. You make something. You give up expressing and start inventing.

When Mathews received a large sum of money in 1959 upon his grandfather’s death, Ashbery suggested that he put some of the money towards a new literary journal.  Together, they founded the journal Locus Solus, naming it after Roussel’s strange and wonderful novel of that name.  As Mathews told the Paris Review:

My grandfather died in 1959 and left me twenty thousand dollars, which is like a hundred and forty thousand now. John said, Why don’t you use some of the money to do a magazine? So I agreed to put five thousand into Locus Solus, little knowing what I was getting into.

In founding Locus Solus, Ashbery and Mathews deliberately set out to create a space that would showcase the work of those in their circle, New York School writers like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, as well as Ashbery and Mathews themselves.  Mathews later recalled the origins of the magazine in an interview with Lynne Tillman:

It came about because we, all of us, wanted to be published more.  We did this sort of self-centered thing, we published ourselves and our friends. I hadn’t yet found a publisher for The Conversions, my first book. I’d published a few poems here and there, John had published his first book, Kenneth had published one or two books and Jimmy had published, I think, a novel and a book of poems. But we were all anxious to see more of what we wanted, not only in terms of publishing ourselves, but of seeing writing we liked published.

Mathews acknowledges creating a journal for this purpose may have been a risky and self-centered venture, but as he wryly noted in the Paris Review interview: “Of course, it turned out this little circle had three future Pulitzer Prize winners.  Don’t look at me!”  Locus Solus was to last just four issues (over the course of 1961-1962), only folding because, as Mathews explained, “the five thousand dollars were gone.”

In his Paris Review interview, Mathews also reflected on the utility of the “New York School” as a label, and made some helpful comments on what these writers shared, even if they weren’t a school with a coherent program:

We were all categorized as belonging to the New York School, but there was no school. There was little in common between the writing of John, Kenneth, Jimmy, and me. But I do think that what Mallarmé invented—deliberately putting the locus of meaning in the effect rather than in the sense of words—is a notion that we all would have subscribed to. And there was a kind of unavowed doctrine amounting to: no aesthetic bullshit. Stay clear of cute embellishments, like the onomatopoeia of “the moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmur of innumerable bees.” By extension, pay no respect to traditional rules. John and Jimmy wrote a novel called A Nest of Ninnies in which they violated much received opinion. For instance, Auden had once said that it’s impossible to describe meals in contemporary fiction. So there is an endless number of meals in the book.

The first two issues of Locus Solus featured lengthy excerpts from Mathews’s Roussellian first novel, The Conversions, alongside work by O’Hara, Schuyler, Koch, Ashbery, William S. Burroughs, and many others.

Upon receiving that first issue, O’Hara wrote (in an unpublished letter) to Ashbery “I love the contents. Your own poems are divine and I loved reading Harry’s prose – I do hope the (I) after the title means that it will be continued in future issues… That piece of his is really extraordinary, it’s so nice to have something really interesting and peculiar going on in prose that one can look forward to seeing more of, jaded jade that I am.”

Although Mathews went on to gain renown as an experimental novelist and member of Oulipo (with books like Cigarettes, Tlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium), he continued to write poetry as well.  Although he was always on the periphery of the New York School of poets, he did consider himself an “honorary member,” as he told one interviewer.  Indeed, Mathews’ work was included in one of the first gatherings of New York School poetry, An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett in 1970 (see photo above), and his poems often shared his fellow New York poets’s love for artifice, arbitrary rules, surrealism, and humor.

One of my favorite Mathews poems is an elaborate sestina called “Histoire,” which pulls off the remarkable feat of using “militarism,” “Marxism-Leninism,” “fascism,” “Maoism,” “racism,” and “sexism” as sestina endwords.  Here are the opening two stanzas, which you can also hear Mathews reading here:

Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
“O.K.,” she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day’s specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

In 2014, Poetry magazine published another dazzling sestina by Mathews, which indicates just how playful and subversive and New York School-esque he was to the end.  As I wrote in an earlier post on this poem, Mathews’s poem gave an Oulipean twist to the sestina’s already byzantine requirements.  In “Cool gales shall fan the glades,” he adds a letter to each end word, each time it reappears, so that “at” becomes “fat,” “fast,” “feast,” and so on as the poem progresses.

Harry Mathews, an endlessly creative, prolific, and enigmatic force within contemporary literature, will be sorely missed.  For more on Mathews’s passing, see here (from the Paris Review), here (the TLS), and here (the Poetry Foundation).  I’m sure more tributes and obituaries are to come.

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This entry was posted in Barbara Guest, French poetry, Harry Mathews, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Locus Solus, Raymond Roussel, Uncategorized, William S. Burroughs. Bookmark the permalink.

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