Russell, Herbert K. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Sigrid Kelsey

MATHEWS, HARRY (1930- ) Harry Mathews is better known as a novelist than as a poet, but in both guises he has exerted a decisive influence on the experimental tradition in American letters. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mathews became close with many of the key figures in the new york school of poetry, especially John ashbery, who led him, Mathews writes, "to discover the possibility of 'modernism'—a world where I was allowed and in some sense obliged to invent what I wrote" ("Autobiography" 137). Since the early 1970s, Mathews has been associated with OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of potential literature), a French group of writers and mathematicians dedicated to exploring the use of formal constraints in the writing of novels and poems. As the only American member of the group, Mathews has functioned as a cultural emissary between the French and American avant-gardes.

Mathews was born and raised in New York city and attended Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a degree in music in 1952. Between 1953 and 1978 he lived in various European locales, spending most of his time in Paris. From 1961 to 1963 he edited the legendary magazine Locus Solus, along with Ashbery, Kenneth koch, and James schuyler. In 1973, after befriending the French novelist Georges Perec, Mathews was asked to join OuLiPo. Mathews received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction writing in 1981 and an award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991. His novel The Journalist won the America Award for fiction in 1994.

In his early poetry, represented in the volumes The Ring (1970) and The Planisphere (1974), Mathews exhibits a comic surrealism and a mercurial range of tones, from breathless exuberance to solitary despair. The poems tend to cohere thematically rather than as narrative situations. For example, "Deathless, Lifeless" (1971) meditates on a loosely related set of images of human death and separation and on their analogues in the natural world: "Someone who is complete became the fragment," "Oaks erect themselves as casually."

After joining the OuLiPo, Mathews became increasingly preoccupied with formal experimentation. The poems that make up Trial Impressions (1977) consist entirely of contemporary variations on a love lyric by the Elizabethan poet John Dowland: "Deare, if you change, Ile never chuse againe" becomes "Deep, if you charge, I'll never chug again" and "If you break our breakfast date, I'll go begging in Bangkok." Mathews has called the sequence "an experiment in discovering how formal pretexts lead into intimate experiences" ("Autobiography" 160). The phrase neatly sums up his continuing poetic project. The elaborate surface constructions of Mathews's poems repeatedly reveal themselves as attempts to articulate the deep truths of desire and loss by oblique means.

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