William Carlos Williams Part III
Monday, July 23rd, 2012
At the spur off 71 to 271 up to Erie there’s an old billboard sort of faded for something called Ashbury Estates, with a U, but still. So, thought experiment. What would modern poetry look like without William Carlos Williams. Let’s just put our thumb over him in the picture, photoshop him out. With no Williams, what do you have, let’s look at the immediate impact on his cohort. H.D., Pound, Moore, Eliot. Are there people in the background who would take a greater prominence without Williams. Nobody is coming to mind. Does the Harlem Renaissance increase in importance without Williams. Not exactly the same timeframe but not not either. What about international influences. Was there a way in which Williams’s Americanisms blocked international poetries from taking a greater significance among Americans. Don’t know, don’t think so. What role Williams does fill, he advocates, he’s known for, it’s still the story people tell, but I don’t think it’s the interesting story. That he’s the advocate for plain, direct American speech, he’s against British verse forms, he’s against backward-looking imitation of previous styles.
But it’s clear that he’s imitating Keats. There are others, but that’s the main influence. There’s a strong undercurrent of iambs, Keatsian sonnets and themes. And Keats is the example of the medical student become poet. And absolutely in favor when Williams was, not the paragon but definitely had a great moment and was widely admired, so would have been a safe model for Williams. What’s the main interest of Keats and how does Williams improve upon it. With Keats it’s a focus on the aesthetic as a life and death matter. And with Williams there’s aesthetics and there’s life and death but there’s also a real strong will to survive. Keats, you don’t want to blame him for dying of stomach cancer but really it’s the aesthetics more than the survival. As with Shelley there’s some glorification of the romantic collapse. There’s no such glorification with Williams. No belief in the beauty of the sacrifice. With Williams beauty is surviving and thriving. Not what you will.
An improvement upon Keats in Williams is not willing an object into existence so much as following where attention goes on an object. Following the path of greatest attraction, least resistance. I think that’s much more interesting about Williams than plainspoken American speech. I think part of the reason, two reasons critics minimize Williams are that they take him on his word that he’s the person who brings plain American speech into poetry, which is something but not in itself an extraordinary achievement—it’s an epochal shift and it’s a narrative you can explain, so it works in a critical-historical system, and Williams seems really to have believed in these systems and it seems he wanted to understand in a rigid systematic way what was going on and how he could do something different—but he’s also a very good artist, you do get strong feelings from his work without necessarily knowing how you’re getting them. And that’s not something an artist can accomplish by identifying an opening in art history and walking through it. That’s important if you want to win, and Williams did want to win. His rivalry with Eliot has been identified as a major factor in his development but Eliot also was a great artist and also found ways to prompt feelings as he walked through in art history that he identified.
The reason we look for the new in art is not that we are novelty addicts. It’s not that the new is progress. It’s that it’s a lot easier to write something worth going back to if you’re writing from your own idea and are not simply imitating what’s come before. As Harold Bloom explains, you have to imitate and misunderstand, or have a new idea, whichever way you want to look at it. Williams imitates and misunderstands, or he has a new idea. The art historical change is a way to have an idea, and therefore to write something that has all of your personality, all your energy everything you observe in it. But just having an idea does not mean you have written something that has all of you in it. It means you’ve had an idea. Ideas can be terrible. There are writers who have not really had a new idea who’ve written marvelously and whose work is still read.
All right, who’s an example of that. Who’s a writer who didn’t really have a new idea whose work is marvelous whose work we still read. James Schuyler, hard to say what his new idea is. He’s a gifted mimic of the styles of the generation before his: Auden, not so much the rest of MacSpaunday. But something else, his contemporaries. He learns a lot from O’Hara and Ashbery. He’s not a great innovator. He’s a beautiful writer, is widely admired and will be for some time. His innovation is getting it just right. Hard to say about Schuyler, isn’t it. But with Williams there is an idea, and there is the full force of the personality. One of the limitations on Williams’s reception is that he did put so much on this idea, did make so much of his reception contingent on the proposition that he had a new idea that was significant. Some critics assess the idea and say this is a new idea, it is not as significant as he has made it out, therefore. That’s one thing.
Another item is that he published a great deal and much of it is unsuccessful and sufficiently like the successful work to confuse the question of when his work is and is not working. Writers do not always know when their work is or is not working. Writers also wish to feel alive and as though they are circulating and will publish sub-standard work if somebody’s not telling them not to. That can be themselves, an assistant, a friend. Once there’s demand for the work the writer will go and create a supply or will regard their inventory as containing more saleable work than is prudent. In Williams’s case it’s the lack of prudence that is upsetting or leads some to reject him out of hand. Another issue: his successors, his fans, are often mediocre. Are unclear about what it is that is valuable in his work, and where Williams is hit and miss they are a little hit and a lot of miss. So the historical record is smudged and blurred by the presence of this substandard work in imitation of his work. Part of it is being repelled by people who take up a writer’s work.
So what I see in Williams’s work is Shakespearean insistence on the importance and truth and beauty of what is being said. This is a ballsy Mohammedan insistence that carries its own force. Just saying over and over, this is it. OK, so what is it. What is this that’s so important. So much depends. Something Urgent I Have To Say To You. Power phrasings. Life and death. Making aesthetic matters into life and death issues. Something you have to deal with Williams is, he’s telling you I wouldn’t be telling you about this if it weren’t incredibly important. And that’s an innovation in itself. That’s the most dangerous of his legacies, playing with this Shakespearian intensity. But it works. It’s true for anyone, and that is the liberating aspect of it. It’s not that he William Carlos Williams says it’s incredibly important, but if anyone says it you owe it to them to figure out if it’s true and they’re worth listening to. That’s the burden, where judgment comes in. Where we would all do well to pray for guidance and judgment. More than anything else. To know when our time is being wasted and when it isn’t. I don’t believe Williams is wasting his time but as I say he did publish a fair amount of work that is unsuccessful imitation of his successful work.
An interesting aspect of Something Urgent I Have To Say To You, Herb Leibowitz’s book on Williams, is that he rejects most of the work. He’s interested mostly in the late work, at which point Williams is trying to reconcile himself to a number of things. To unresolved anger at his mother. To guilt at having been a philanderer. To his having devoted his life to the bet that his poetry was good and not having that much to show for it. There’s a lot he’s coming to terms with in the later work. And for Leibowitz that’s the interesting struggle, not the aesthetic innovations of the early work, not the focus in his work on stressing the importance of anybody’s speech and attention, and stressing the importance of beauty wherever anybody sees it, feels it. That for him is not significant. That seems perverse and faulty to me—seems like an error in judgment. But it is a judgment.
For me the significance of Williams is in recognizing that beauty is where you find it. That it’s what gives you a feeling consistently. Aesthetic—it’s in the name. You breathe. You are inspired. It changes you. It’s not perhaps binary on off as arousal by pornography but it’s not completely different either—there’s a change, an inspiration, you feel some spirit when there is beauty. And that it seems to me is a greater contribution to letters than that of any of his peers. And I will be accused of perversity here—with the exception of Marianne Moore. Who makes the same intuitive leap and holds it to a higher standard. Has a much lower percentage of noise in her work. With her it goes beyond beauty. Whatever holds the attention rapt and is surprising every time you look at it, that is the object of aesthetic interest. I think perhaps Moore makes the greatest contribution to letters, of all the modernists. I don’t think anybody gets quite as much into their work as she does. Many others have greater wider ambitions but their ambitions are unrealizable. She may have had a more modest ambition but it is completely realizable and it just works. You have to have a lot of energy and time to devote to developing this sense of attention but there’s nobody who gets it quite as much as Moore. Williams is close. Stevens is close. Stevens, the problem slash saving grace of Stevens is that he believes that one of the things you pay attention to is the wandering of your own mind. And that’s a very significant insight, not just your attention, not just what you are thinking about but how your thinking changes the subject. Williams is not quite interested in that. Moore is only interested in it when it changes the subject to something greater than what she was already thinking about. Stevens is willing to take modulations for the sake of an eventual staggeringly surprising whole, a unity. And this leads directly to John Ashbery and the deliberate shorting out of keeping the attention on the same subject because the way the mind wanders is actually the subject.
Brainard Road. It’s a New York School highway, basically. I’m outside Cleveland and I’m passing the Brainard Road exit.
I don’t think Stevens’s contribution is as significant as Moore’s or as Williams’s. I do think it is easier to make good poems that derive from Stevens’s insights than it is from Williams’s or Moore’s. But facility really doesn’t tell you anything. Quantity doesn’t tell you anything. I think the intensity of Williams’s and Moore’s work is more valuable…There aren’t really unsuccessful poems with Stevens—they all work, they all do the thing he seems to have wanted his poems to do, and they remain satisfying. So Stevens has accomplished something neither Williams nor Moore nor Eliot nor Pound nor H.D. could.
Well now it says Mayfield Road.
Roger Tory Peterson Memorial Bridge. Turkeys, geese, duck flying over the bridge. Then I come to a billboard that says Meat Loaf Mad Mad Mad World Tour, and I remember I am in fact in New York State.
The poorer the region the easier it is to see gymnastics studios from the highway. I don’t actually know if this is a poor region.
Anyway, Williams. I’m developing a resistance to Williams at this late date. Because what I’ve identified as his main contribution is also something I find very susceptible to capture by people with no judgment or invidious designs, which is namely to create a sense of urgency by declaring a state of emergency. [Vis De Man on the early moderns and crisis.] You look at Spring and All it’s creating chaos by declaring an emergency, and how do we feel about that. Not so good. Though, in the run up to World War II, in the aftermath of the Great War, this is a pretty astute warning.
It’s pretty beautiful up here. Doesn’t look poor. Looks like a landscaping center.
Williams: seeing what’s there and acting accordingly is the principle from which everything else derives. A diagnostic principle, as opposed to a prescriptive first principle of how everything must be. Oh, I’m just making a note—
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July 23rd, 2012 at 9:25 pm
It’s so nice to have your rich and thought-provoking insights in quick succession—and making me think again of Williams to boot. More road trips! An absolutely brilliant insight about the sense of emergency, tying it to De Man and Keats. I agree that Williams’ primary influence is not with the plain speaking that people would have discovered anyway, but with the idea of capturing and valuing beauty as it emerges, in whatever form it emerges. That’s certainly not the programme of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, to name a few, and it’s a powerful intoxicant that has led to lots of bad poems in the hands of the academic courtiers who run and have run these things.
I take minor exception to the idea that “so much of [Williams’s] reception [is] contingent on the proposition that he had a new idea that was significant.” My limited understanding of Williams’ life is that he had such extreme difficulty getting published between 1924 and 1948 that he adopted a pro-actively defensive explanation so people would actually take what he was doing seriously. That this explanation took on a life of his own (much like Olson’s Projective Verse) says much about the relative importance of theory to poetry in terms of influence, less about the value of Williams’ poetry per se.
On your other point, the relative merits of the modernists, here’s how I look at it: after ten readings of a Williams poem, I’ve pretty much gotten all I’m going to get out of it, the same (despite the differences in required erudition) with Pound and Eliot and Yeats. With Crane, I’m not quite there, but I’m well on my way to understanding it. With Stevens at this point, I’m just realizing that the next layer of meaning is the actual starting point. That’s a testament to how wide the visions of Stevens and Crane are, how much they include. That and the obvious incantatory music makes their work resonate at a level far beyond Williams and Moore, neither of whom hypnotize or call forth the urge to stare at a wall for 20 years. Ashbery actually gives up on the better part of what obsessed Stevens, limiting his almost unlimited creative power to the mind and the senses. Bronk and Strand play a little in a more engaged way with the Stevens toolkit, but there are few who can, for the hermetic mysticism of the early modernists has completely collapsed into scientific materialism except for a few stray souls like Fanny Howe. The non-linearity of television and electronic communication has infected poetry for better or for worse. I have a feeling that Williams if he were alive would be working to chart a course out of that.
July 25th, 2012 at 11:09 am
Thanks again, Bill, for staying with me to the end of the series, and for your generous reading along. Now for the banter: I take your point when you connect Williams’s defensiveness to his obscurity. The NYRB piece on the Leibowitz bio clarifies for me the long-term consequences of a defensive posture — you get stuck that way.
As for the relative merits, I’m always interested in “next levels” of interpretation, especially when they’re built on the solid foundation of saying something worth hearing in the first place. On that accounting I’ll take Williams, Moore and Stevens most of the time, pangolins, firecats and all. I’ll admit to preferring work that doesn’t claim to be all-encompassing. Twenty years of looking at one wall, even if it’s a Michelangelo fresco, sounds like prison to me.