William Matthews's poetry has earned him a reputation as a master of well-turned phrases, wise sayings, and rich metaphors. Much of Matthews's poetry explores the themes of life cycles, the passage of time, and the nature of human consciousness. In another type of poem, he focuses on his particular enthusiasms: jazz music, basketball, and his children. His early writing was free-form and epigrammatic. As his career has progressed, he has adopted a more formal structure and garnered growing praise. A couple of his poems have been likened to "deep image" poems, which allow one strong image to dominate each poem and to evoke many strong feelings and associations. Writing in the Bloomsbury Review, Christopher Merrill identified Matthews as "one of our most alert and engaging poets."
Matthews's first major collection, Ruining the New Road: Poems, was described by Paul West in Book World as a group of "terse but ripe little poems. . . . It exposes, it warms, it warns." West identified Matthews's appreciation of nature and his unflinching view of human foibles as outstanding features of the book. "Matthews is ever conscious of the risks we run in life and his meter and his metaphors take the kinds of chances real poetry needs if it is to succeed," declared a Virginia Quarterly Review contributor. The reviewer also noted that Matthews, "with a distinctive lyric sense and literal toughness, confronts the almost hidden terrifying aspects of life around us." Poetry commentator F. D. Reeve, however, found Matthews's style in Ruining the New Road only partly successful. "Images weave back and forth among the poems, picking up associations which, sharp in separate poems, do not easily translate," Reeve observed. For instance, he pointed out, ashes are gloves in one poem, but are pulled over the eyes in another.
The understated nature of Matthews's early verse elicited comment from many reviewers. Jack Hicks reported in a Carolina Quarterly essay on Ruining the New Road: "His voice is unique, personal, but one not heard immediately or sharply. Because he does not knock you down, he requires reading and rereading—and even then his work does not announce itself. . . . Readers who insist on a poetry of ecstasy, one that frays or strokes nerve endings, will likely rush through and by these poems." Matthews's understatement proved deceptive to Dave Smith, who confessed in an American Poetry Review piece on the poet's 1979 collection, Rising and Falling: "Perhaps too hastily, I thought his earlier poems had the odd property of losing substance upon rereading. This new collection has singular depth, weight, and clarity. Everything in it is touched with intensity and taken care of with integrity. . . . The poems of Rising and Falling do not glitter or dazzle, but shed a steady light." Peter Stitt, writing in the Georgia Review, was similarly enthusiastic about the collection, declaring that "there is a richness of image and metaphor in this volume that shows itself everywhere—in complete poems, in passages, in single lines. . . . Matthews does indeed have a magical way with words, an agile, graceful style; this is the best book yet produced by one of our most articulate younger poets."
The 1982 collection Flood, full of water imagery, reflected further refinement of Matthews's craft, according to some critics. Georgia Review's Stitt commented that the poems showed greater structural discipline than Matthews's previous work, indicating "the operation not just of a free and surprising imagination, but of a powerful and controlling intellect as well." In Poetry, Bonnie Costello observed another development in evidence in Flood: "Matthews moves from outward observation to inward questioning. But his objectivity . . . never compromises lyricism." In a later summary of Matthews's career, though, Contemporary Poets contributor Jay S. Paul called Flood "marred by repetitive imagery, trite conceptions, and thematic confusion."
In A Happy Childhood, Matthews set out to investigate the psychological aspects of human life, using the theories of Sigmund Freud to inform some of his verses. Freud is in fact "the muse of A Happy Childhood, " according to Washington Post Book World contributor David Lehman. Matthews "renews Freud's metaphors . . . or propounds new ones. . . . Most of all, Matthews emulates the poet in Freud, fastening on our errors and dreams and accidental patterns as badges of enchantment, clues to a mystery that retains something of its inscrutability even as it fosters new forms of revelation." In the Georgia Review, Stitt was less positive in his assessment of the collection, finding it somewhat "solemn and pompous; the poet is preaching at us, repeating the cliches of our age (accurately called by many the Age of Analysis) as though they were spontaneous revelations. Far too much of the book is like this, a heavily worked up burden of wisdom the reader longs not to have to bear." John Lucas, contributor to New Statesman, identified Matthews's poems as part of "that very self-conscious American tradition of the child as holy innocent," and found them full of synthetic sentiment. Lucas described some of the poems as "gooey," others "gruesome," and one, "Civilisation and Its Discontents," offensive for its borrowing from Robert Frost. New York Times Book Review writer David Kalstone, however, lauded A Happy Childhood. "These poems restore some sense of mystery and play to Freud's explanations and challenge the easy fictions people make of them." He praised the poems' "counterpoint of assurance and irrationality," in which "the skillful, elegant analyst becomes as comically self-deluding as the rest of us." He concluded that A Happy Childhood is "Mr. Matthews's writing at its strongest, open to the interplay of narrative and song."
In Foreseeable Futures, Matthews gave readers thirty-six poems, thirty of them written in the same form, with five tercets each. The swift passage of time and the weight of mortality are dominant themes, but J. D. McClatchy advised in the New York Times Book Review that "it would be misleading to call this a gloomy book. . . . Mr. Matthews finds human joys brightening the unlikeliest places—a plate of pasta or Bach's skeleton—and wants to juggle them with dark truths." Poetry reviewer Robert B. Shaw commented on a detached quality in the work: "Matthews sounds equally distanced whether he is writing about music, spring, a plane crash, or a vasectomy." This quality is not necessarily desirable, Shaw said, but noted some poems in the collection break out of this pattern, such as "Recovery Room," showing a "real fierceness," and "Photo of the Author with a Favorite Pig," which the reviewer dubbed "charming" and deceptively lighthearted.
In Blues If You Want, Matthews focused on jazz, with many poem titles taken from favorite jazz tunes. Kenyon Review contributor Fred Chappell thought the collection was occasionally marred by "self-indulgence," but on the whole "warm" and "genial." In the Bloomsbury Review, Christopher Merrill pointed out the poet's exploration of the relationship between music and language, and lauded Matthews's "curiosity" and "wit."
"Things that don't last" are the subject of Matthews's 1995 collection, Time & Money: New Poems, according to a Publishers Weekly writer. The more than forty poems gathered here range from meditations on a visit to New York City by Ronald Reagan, to reflections on the death of Matthews's father, to a eulogy for jazz musician Charles Mingus. Several reviewers noted the ironic voice Matthews expresses in the poems, with notably different shadings from one piece to the next. Donna Seaman in Booklist, calling the works "fine, quietly furious poems," also praised Matthews for the linguistic gifts evident in the collection.