"Life happens to us whether we have the good sense to be interested in the way it happens to us or not. That's what it means to be alive."
William Matthews' connection to Ohio was that he was born here, in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, little is published about his personal life until young adulthood -- perhaps because Matthews has purposely avoided the topic in most of his writings: "I'm not a particularly autobiographical poet…I am to some extent bored by the story of my own life."
Matthews earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a master's from the University of North Carolina. He began publishing books of poetry in 1970, at the age of twenty-eight (Ruining the New Road), and continued through 1996's Time & Money, which "won the National Book Critics Circle Awards and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize."
Matthews supplemented his poet's income by teaching and visiting at numerous schools and universities throughout the country: Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; the University of Colorado in Boulder; the University of Iowa; the University of Houston; and the University of Washington in Seattle. Matthews also served as writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston.
He also received four different fellowships during his distinguished career, from "the Guggenheim and Ingram Merrill foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund." In his last year of life, Matthews was awarded the $75,000 Ruth Lilly Prize for his poetry.
William Matthews learned more than he wanted to know about the business side of the arts while serving as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. "The poetry world is very unfair," he said after his experience there. "There are many talented people who have never been, and will never be, sufficiently rewarded for the value of the work they have done."
In 1997, William Matthews died suddenly of a heart attack just one day after his fifty-fifth birthday.
If to die is to lose
All detail, then death is not
So distinguished, but a profusion
Of detail, a last gossip, character
Passed wholly into fate and fate
In flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.
(excerpt from the poem "Spring Snow," William Matthews)
At the time of his death, Matthews was an English professor and director of the creative writing program at New York's City College. He had published eleven books of poetry and one book of essays.
An additional book of his poetry, titled After All: Last Poems, was published in his name, in 1998. Every year, the Friends of the City College Library and the Simon H. Rifkind Center for the Humanities and the Arts (also at City College) sponsor the "William Matthews Memorial Reading"; poets come to City College every spring to give a poetry reading. Past readers have included American Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky (Laureate 1997-2000) and Billy Collins (Laureate 2000-present).