A slim, posthumous book, a couple dozen poems by a young poet of obviously unusual talent and attractive imagination, has elicited my admiration recently. As luck would have it, I happen to be tutoring another young man for a course on Game Theory, when I read the following poem on page 13 of this book:
The young sergeant says, "War is like it";
Generals nod gravely, in agreement.
The single woman says, "Dating is like it,"
Referencing male intentions, and their concealment.
The college counselor says, "Applications are like it,"
Meaning plan ahead, if you want to be collegiate.
All these people know chess? Hard to believe.
To the players it means the game itself.
When it's over, they tend to get up and leave.
I found in those nine lines a neat, elegant way of explaining the reason I find Game Theory repulsive: taught to thousands of business and economics students in this country, they are led to believe that being rational implies that life should be conducted by strategies in all one does, under the overarching assumption that, as Dostoevsky's Underground Man put it, a single drop of my fat is worth thousands of other people's lives, and that nobody tends to get up and leave, or is, in any case, to be trusted. Matthew's social critique is as sharp as it is serenely ironical. Vulgar opinion has it that chess masters are the ones obsessed by strategy; our young poet inverts it: we are, the chess-bungling rest of us.
The final poem in the book, "Coming to Larkin by Way of Auden," is the closest Phillips comes to a personal poetic manifesto:
Coming to Larkin by way of Auden,
You drive a long road and turn right.
In your rear-view mirror is history,
Books with footnotes, religions,
Large moral decisions
And armies; they have gathered
And you should pick a side.
But then you drive in,
Open the door. Nothing is arresting anymore,
Just the ordinariness of having a life,
Of being yourself; you know you couldn't be happier
Without being someone else.
Despite the despair patent in the last four lines, a nutshell characterization of Larkin's art, my reading ear feels, rightly or wrongly, that Matthew was more inclined to Larkin than to Auden: the young poet's language register is Larkin-demotic. And I say this despite Kierkegaard's categorical observation that no one can possibly prefer to be someone else—but then, Kierkegaard's are books with copious footnotes, not to mention quite a load of religion. Matthew, as we read in the back cover of this book, was studying Near Eastern history and politics when he composed these poems; the moving Foreword is by Professor of Judaic Studies Allan Arkush, who taught Matthew at Binghamton. Can we be surprised by Matthew's rejection of the maxim he attributes to Auden: the armies have gathered and you should pick a side? Not between Israel and Palestine.
The thoughtful, talented young poet died in 2011, at twenty-six. His twin brother, Ian, edited this book and designed its cover. The work of his father, the poet Louis Phillips, has appeared frequently in Offcourse.
R. Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse