William Carlos Williams Part I
Thursday, July 5th, 2012
Editor’s Note:The following text, written mostly via dictation on Routes 84, 80, 76, 71 and 70 as they carve through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio, responds to the New Directions 2011 facsimile edition of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 Spring and All and “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” Herbert Leibowitz’s 2011 biography. Originally conceived of as jottings toward a compact review, these ideas took on a life of their own, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on them before they were cut and pared to review-size. Finding much purchase and suggestion in Jordan’s interstate thinking, I have decided to present these thoughts in their associational state. An informed thinking-through rather than a writing-about here feels apt. Directly related to Williams’ improvisational gestures, this notational manner of engagement circles around the question of how to respond authentically to an iconic author and text, while also taking on such topics as modernism, tradition, and originality.
This is the first of three installments.
* * *
No one seems to know why (let alone how) to read William Carlos Williams anymore.
Maybe nobody ever did.
Everyone is free to read anyone they please.
Isaac Babel’s grandmother to the contrary, you don’t have to know everything.
Cue Bill Cosby on reverse psychology.
If you tell poets they have to read something they won’t, unless they think you know something.
If you tell poets they shouldn’t read something they will, unless they wouldn’t anyway.
Some of the reviews of Herbert Leibowitz’s recent biography of Williams mentioned Randall Jarrell’s introduction to Williams’s selected poems, which is collected in Poetry and the Age, which I think they must give to everyone who included the words “poet” or “critic” or “agrarian” in a successful application to Harvard.
Jarrell really liked Williams, if that introduction is honest. Since he’s not a Whitman-imitator, a verse-liberator, or a teller of homely truths, though many have said so and been satisfied with that. He goes a lot farther toward bringing demotic American speech into poetry than anyone did before him, but so what. A landfill goes a lot farther toward bringing the real substance of American culture into one place than anything else, but the smell! He was famously opposed to Eliot and the sonnet, but that doesn’t account for his frequent successes. Jarrell is quite good about the presence among those successes of incomplete and slightly off material, and I’m pretty sure this is where readers unsympathetic to Williams’s aesthetics and politics are relieved to disqualify him—too many clunkers, they say, and head off to read any of the hundreds of cautious imitators of Williams who’ve found wider immediate success (Pinsky, Levine) or the dozens of imitators even more reckless than Williams whose work stands a chance of being read a hundred years from now (Ginsberg, Lowell).
(And who says there’ll be anywhere safe to read anything a hundred years from now.)
The problem of describing Williams is not unlike the problem of calculating the area of an irregular curved polygon before calculus. There are incomplete answers: is he the president of plain speech, is he the czar of post-iambic pentameter prosody, is he the good doctor, the Chekhovian doctor-short story writer, is he the folksy opposite number to Eliot as a suitor for Pound’s approval. But there are very few accounts of Williams’s affect. He’s the Keats imitator, the Merleau-Pontyesque phenomenologist of attention, the cubist Williams, the D.H. Lawrence-inflected Williams, a Whitmanish Williams. There are a number of ideas. He changed dramatically and quickly in the years running up to the 1923 publication of Spring and All. Poems is 1917, Sour Grapes is 1921.
This is still charged work. This still causes some confusion and hostile response ninety years later. People are still angry about the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow, out of context, is about being out of context. But that’s not really what Williams is saying. Williams is not really only about decontextualized aestheticized objects as art. It’s about tense almost unverbalizable desire. Acting in his own interest without regard for anything else. Pure id and desire. Will.
He’s so excited about these glass shards, which actually show up way before “Between Walls,” which is the great aesthetics poem (they’re all great aesthetics poems). The first appearance of the glass shards in Williams’s work is in a poem in Al Que Quiere. An account of taking young children for a walk, and their arms turn blue, it’s too cold. Flossie is cooking breakfast and it’s taking a while. So he takes the kids. He does these things that don’t necessarily make sense except as spur of the moment depression-defeating impulsive actions. He records these heart-pounding excitements. The girl with the leg over the railing. This is a brothel, wouldn’t it be?
Well, mind, here we have
our little son beside us:
a little diversion before breakfast!
Come, we’ll walk down the road
till the bacon will be frying.
We might better be idle?
A poem might come of it?
Oh, be useful. Save annoyance
to Flossie and besides–the wind!
It’s cold. It blows our
old pants out! It makes us shiver!
See the heavy trees
shifting their weight before it.
Let us be trees, an old house,
a hill with grass on it!
The baby’s arms are blue.
Come, move! Be quieted!
He’s aware that his idea of entertainment has an edge of really being not-ok, unsuitable.
The first appearance of the broken glass—maybe it’s not true, maybe I misread it—maybe it was grass? There are pebbles through the water, broken leaves. I know there was broken glass here somewhere.
If I get the chance before writing the review I’ll go back and see if there is in fact broken glass mentioned. What is certain about the earlier books is there is a scaffolding that surrounds the work that is coming away in Spring and All. The work is almost finished. The first poems book, The Tempers, is real apprentice work. It might be called Keatsian. Let’s leave that alone.
Al Que Quiere and Sour Grapes are indispensable for understanding the chaos and the withdrawal of context in Spring and All. A number of poems in Al Que Quiere addressed to his child his wife his father his mother the townspeople (a memorable figure in his work). A surprising number of poems about sexual desire, failure to act on same, the desire of trees. This intense awareness that sex sells. A poem difficult to visualize, called “Virtue,” in which some
orange and purple flame
feather twists of chrome
on a green ground
funneling down upon
the steaming phallus-head
of the mad sun himself—
What exactly? in what now? what is this orange purple chrome green thing, and why is it performing a sex act on the sun. Not explained. But the poem does transition to something possibly taking place in a brothel:
the smile of her
the smell of her
the vulgar inviting mouth of her!
The last stanza—it’s three, the first two are shorter than the third—is a list of men, a parade of men of very quickly sketched
cross-eyed men, a boy
with a patch, men walking
in their shirts, men in hats
dark men, a pale man
with little black moustaches
and a dirty white coat
etc. Starts with this incomprehensible sex act, goes in the middle to a picture of a woman, and just gets farther and farther away from the, changing of the camera angle? A very strange montage, a stag montage.
A few poems in later in Al Que Quiere, a poem called “Smell!” He’s addressing his nose:
souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
So he’s excited by the smell of a tree in spring, and theatrically takes his nose to task for this plant sex smell arousing him. There’s continual attention to arousal. Two poems addressed to the father, “A Portrait in Greys,” I think it’s the father it’s a little bit like a riddle. There is a riddle tendency, which will go away. Williams won’t actually want you to answer the riddle. In Al Que Quiere he still wants it to be resolved. What exactly he’s depicting.
Will it never be possible
to separate you from your greyness?
Some figure being addressed in a grey ground. It’s not until you get to the last third of the poem—again, many of these poems are formed in threes—
I see myself
standing upon your shoulders touching
a grey, broken sky—
but you, weighted down with me,
yet gripping my ankles,—move
where it is level and undisturbed by colors.
So this would then be probably the father. Supporting the idea, the next poem begins
You who had the sense
to choose me such a mother
and goes on to so say
went to some pains
to leave hands off me
in the formative stages,—
(I think you most for that
which is a strange way to talk about fatherhood—thanks for not interfering with my development—but the way he puts it is physical as in fighting and physical as in sexual, which is odd. And then he says
with an iron head, first,
fiercest and with strongest love
brutalized me into strength,
I have reached the stage
where I am teaching myself
take a walk with me.
This is a “beginning of a beautiful friendship” kind of poem to the father. Don’t know much about that relationship. The next poem perhaps is not about his mother, who we have no reason to believe is a miserable little woman in a brown coat:
I’ll sing you the while
a thing to split your sides
about Johann Sebastian Bach,
the father of music, who had
three wives and twenty-two children.
This is a dry remark to make to a woman possibly one’s mother. So. I think anybody who has skepticism about the value of Williams’s decontextualizations in Spring and All, the contextualizations are in the process of being reduced by the time of his second volume, Al Que Quiere. They are there and assessable. He’s not merely referring to his previous work, he’s not building on previous work here. He’s focusing on address, the shape of the poem, unlikely changes of subject and tone and finding something to force connections in among these changes of subject and tone. He changes tone least of all, and when he does it’s from an intensity of tone or affect to flattening of affect toward the end. This is a depressive process. I don’t know that there’s a thwarting of desire in these poems exactly, but there is certainly a freezing or a dissipating. (The natural progression of desire?)
“Mustaches” is a funny word he likes to use a lot in these early poems. “January Morning,” the poem Kleinzahler rips off for the title of one of his books, is in Al Que Quiere. This is the phase of Williams’s work that can be reworked for fun and profit. Spring and All cannot be reworked for fun, only for life destruction.
Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor
See comments by readers about this reviews 
July 6th, 2012 at 11:43 am
I love this! Criticism dictated on the road will be the future way to traverse the multi-bordered Williams (and all the others who live by the moment’s flash). “It’s about tense almost unverbalizable desire.” Indeed. And one could add to the descriptions Williams the Latino, Williams the social realist, Williams the humanist, Williams the radical, Williams the poor-man’s Pound as impresario, Williams the separated-at-birth brother of Wallace Stevens, Williams the cataloguer of the lost. It is this last quality that always strikes me in particular; I see it in “Virtue,” the way the almost sexual abundance of the earth breaks, shames and disfigures men, I see it in “A Portrait in Greys,” the way forgiveness comes finally out of the emptiness of being destroyed. But beyond these sublime manifestations of heart he would largely be a fussbudget were it not for the art, the odd metered 20th century stripping away the natural musicality of speech into a raggy whirl of withholding, like a chord forever unresolved, or a Miles Davis solo. This hides the eccentricity of his thought quite elegantly, turns the pathos almost into beauty, even as it causes the unpoetic among us to, as you say, “never forgive him” the nakedness of his images.
As for your grass pebbles, consider this from one of his less-regarded followers: “The scribes sank in wonderment. / This was not the hierarchical file to which / access had been deeded. It was something /
far more wonderful: an opaque pebble in the grass.” (John Ashbery, out of “A Litmus Tale” (A Worldly Country, 2007)). And so the strange accessibility of Al Que Quiere continues to move 100 years on.
July 11th, 2012 at 11:26 am
Jordan Davis, wow. I loved reading this. Thanks so much for writing about Williams. I am beginning to understand? a bit more. I’ll try to read more. I love this. Love following? your thoughts. Thanks so much for posting this.
July 11th, 2012 at 11:28 am
I know that poet Tom Clark is wild about Williams. I am learning more, perhaps, than I ever thought possible.
July 12th, 2012 at 1:32 pm
What a relief, Jordan. I am re-reading this slim blue Spring and All with joy and fascination after having finished at last Mariani’s biographical tome after having had to stop reading Leibowitz’s in annoyance. Such redundancy and such prurience! I found Mariani almost as irritating: WCW the sadsack, WCW the paranoiac, WCW the bluff midcentury pottymouth, WCW the monotonous mooner after magically sexy yet mind-free girls–but just no feel for the work.
Looking forward to parts II and III.