One Poem by Harry Mathews

Black and white side profile drawn portrait of Greek god Eros with head tilted down and chin on shoulder from Shakespeare's Sonnets

Head of Eros (Cupid), from the antique. Printed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1883).

Note to “The Politicians’ Antic Spoil”

Following Harry Mathews’s death in 2017, his widow, Marie Chaix, provided me with two folders containing drafts and notes for an unfinished poem: “The Politicians’ Antic Spoil.” The notes describe a plan to “double” the traditional sestina form that had long fascinated Mathews, in which six six-line stanzas, plus an envoi of three lines, share the same six end-words in a preordained mathematical arrangement.

To complicate matters, Mathews established the novel constraint that, within the first half of the poem, the end-words would be transformed by subtraction with each repetition. When the end-words from the first stanza “reappear” in the second, they’ve lost a letter, and the surviving letters are rearranged to make a new word. Another letter is excised at each turn, as the words driving the poem forward grow smaller. In the envoi concluding the first half of the poem, just one letter remains. The second half of the poem would reverse this approach, building the end-words back up, one letter at a time.

Unfortunately, Mathews never finished his double sestina. His drafts support a nearly complete first half (four-and-a-half stanzas of the necessary six completed) and an envoi which, as it does not perfectly adhere to the mathematical structure, may only have been a first draft. No evidence has surfaced of the proposed second half. Given Mathews’s love of puzzles, and the hold that this one had on him during the preparation of his collected poems, it seemed fitting to publish the poem in its current state, incomplete though it may be. Readers of Mathews and puzzle solvers will, I hope, enjoy its challenges and possibilities.

—Arlo Haskell is the editor of Harry Mathews’s Collected Poems: 1946-2016 (Sand Paper Press, February 2020).

Text of Harry Mathews poem The Politicians Antic Spoil

Purchase Collected Poems: 1946-2016 by Harry Mathews here.

Harry Mathews was born in 1930 in New York City and studied musical composition at Princeton and Harvard. He lived for many years in France, where he co-founded the influential journal Locus Solus with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler in 1961; joined the Oulipo in 1972; and served as Paris editor of The Paris Review from 1989-2003. His novels include The Solitary Twin; My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973; The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium; and Tlooth. His short stories and essays are collected in The Human Country and The Case of the Persevering Maltese. Other books include 20 Lines a Day and Singular Pleasures. He also translated works by writers including Georges Perec and Marie Chaix, the French novelist whom he married in 1992. Mathews was honored by the French government as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters and earned awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts. He died in 2017 in Key West, Florida, where he had vacationed as a boy, and where he had lived since 1991.

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