Listening to ‘The Sea-Elephant’
Williams has remained a foundational poet for me for decades: the exuberance, variety, and transparency of his formal experimentation; the surprising eloquence amid his sometimes bumptious democratic stylistic affirmations; the complexity of the political-formal negotiations throughout Paterson; his unflagging honesty — there are many ways his writing remains of the greatest interest. However, during the decades I’ve been reading and rereading his work, there have always been the lesser moments in poems I value very highly, the not particularly notable pieces, and even some downright clunkers like “Tract”: “I will teach you my townspeople / how to conduct a funeral —” My intuition is that the problems are quite closely bound up with the strengths.
“The Sea-Elephant” has moved from somewhere in clunker/not-interesting territory to become a poem I find quite fascinating. This is not due to any perspicacious reading on my part; rather, it’s because I listened to Williams reading it.
This experience has split “The Sea-Elephant” into different objects. As a poem on the page, its quatrains enact the typical Williams tussle between syntax, prosody, and lineation. The four-line boxes display a visual metric that has little relation to the sound, at least as Williams himself voiced it in the recordings we have:
the strangeness of the sea —
a kind of
Ladies and Gentlemen!
sea-monster ever exhibited
Here, as throughout much of Williams’s verse, we can see (i.e., read) his polemic, as he uses democratic American materials to attack that doubleheaded ogre of his poetics, England, an opponent that was both passé (sonnets, iambic pentameter) and more fashionably advanced than Williams’s own work (think The Waste Land). After decades of Williams’s quasi-hegemonic influence on American poetry, such quatrains may look normative to us, but line breaks such as “a kind of / heaven” and “exhibited / alive” were unfathomable for many readers at first.
Much the same polemic can be detected in the oral performance, but in that medium “The Sea-Elephant” takes up the battle quite differently, dramatizing Williams’s American (anti-Eliotic) poetic principle in a suite of voices, with what I call a ‘poetic’ voice recurring amid interruptions from a circus carny, the sea-elephant, a fussy woman, and ending with the poet breaking out in a sarcastic parody, halfway to a falsetto [MP3].
It takes only the briefest introspection to be reminded of the foundational difference between listening to a poem and reading it. To bracket the complexities memory would bring in, let’s make it a poem read or heard for the first time. I will bypass the complexities of neurological processing and speculations about the tangled relations of sight and sound. I am concerned here with the middle ground of human perception.
Reading is voluntary, whereas with listening there’s a basic passivity. While I can listen carelessly or even with hostility and thus I have some control over how the sense is being made, nevertheless, this control is secondary: the speaker’s words, affect, timbre, timing, volume, pitch-contour, and intonation are inescapably primary physical facts. But with reading nothing happens unless my eyes activate the poem, and any instant that desire flags, reading ceases. On a bad day, with a poem I’m not interested in, my reading-motor may stop every few seconds. It’s not exemplary behavior, I grant. But whether it stutters or not, reading provides a more capacious temporal vantage than listening. While construing the clumps of letters at the focal center (i.e., reading words), my eyes simultaneously receive a sense of the words and spaces on the rest of the page or screen. It’s an unfocused sense, but it means that in a bare way to read is to see a bit into the near future (and, symmetrically, the near past). When listening I’m more confined to the present, though there is some sense that holds the sound from the near past together while syntax and semantics are being construed. (Again, I’m ignoring the case of re-hearing a piece where I can sense a future vantage as I anticipate certain passages I know will be arriving next.)
Beyond such simple facts of sensory processing, in my experience there’s been a most basic difference: my emotional set toward what I read is critical, hard to please, while much of what I hear I tend to like or accept. Am I home to two distinct sensory beings? Or does reading push in the direction of privacy (autonomy, solipsism) while listening is irreducibly social?
It’s tempting to dramatize this difference. William James writes that the separation of one mind from another is absolute: “Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.” Can James’s dramatic, eschatological language apply to a more intimate, counterintuitive breach: the breach within a single mind between the eye and ear, reading and listening? Perhaps so; but then again it’s a breach that is constantly traversed in commonsense discussion. As we listen to the poet read the written poem, we can attend to slips and surprising emphases, but these are simply matters of performing a score; any distance between reading and hearing is continually normalized by the fact that we’re forced by the language we use to say “The Sea-Elephant” is the same sequence of words whether it’s read or heard, i.e., the same poem. Still, it will be more interesting here to explore the different territories of listening and reading than to map the two onto one another.
Listening has fundamentally changed my judgment of the poem, not only adding qualities I had simply missed in reading it but eliminating an irritating fuzziness that only existed on the page. Reading (at the “high end” at least) is in the service of exact reproduction. Take two quite different examples from both the arts that can be perceived by reading, music and poetry: there is Olson’s familiar claim that the projective poet is to use the typewriter to make the page a score, thus unifying the written and spoken poem; and there is the antique anecdote I picked up in my days of reading record jackets that has Brahms being asked if he’s going to the concert and him replying, no, he’s just read the score and heard a perfect performance of the symphony in his head; it would only get botched in the concert hall. Brahms and Olson are quite distinct, I’m sure we all agree, but both are asserting that reading is an exact activity. The guarantors of this exactitude are the poem on the page and the musical score, both of which insist on perfect, reproducible performance.
My initial reading experience of “The Sea-Elephant,” as I try to reconstruct it, was hardly perfect. But its imperfection supports my sense that reading aims at exactitude. As far as I can remember, I never would actually finish reading the poem. My reading eye would always bump off it, noticing only the quatrains, mostly two- or three-word lines with single-word lines appearing unsystematically, reinforcing my sense that Williams’s line breaks were always a seat-of-the-pants operation. The only specific that stands out in memory is an irritant: “Blouaugh!”
I had never liked reading Williams’s nonlexical moments. Poem XX of Spring and All: “The sea that encloses her young body / ula lu la lu”; the 10/30 entry from The Descent of Winter: “To freight cars in the air / … / pah, pah, pah / pah, pah, pah, pah, pah”; “The Trees”; and “For a Low Voice,” among others. And of course not to forget the locus classicus from Paterson: “And, derivatively, for the Great Falls, / PISS-AGH, the giant lets fly! good Muncie, too.”
These moments were all downers, but “Blouaugh!” seemed especially annoying. Some non- or quasi-linguistic sounds are more favorable to transcription than others. “Ula lu” and “pah” at least look precise — one knows what they’re supposed to sound like. But how is “Blouaugh!” pronounced? One syllable or two? Was it “Blow” + “augh!” or was it more like a stretched-out “Blog!”? Not being able to tell instantly (and “Blouaugh!” appears three times in the poem) would always push me on to some other poem.
But listening to the “The Sea-Elephant” changes that. “Blouaugh!” is no longer an ungainly phonetic blur to vex the exacting lone reader: its differing manifestations are key parts of the oral narrative of the poem. “The Sea-Elephant” is a publicly performed tragicomedy of poetics.
It’s as if the technologies of sound reproduction have reversed the moment of Pisistratus (the tyrant of Athens who, the lore has it, instigated whatever process it was that got Homer written down, transforming the Iliad and Odyssey from variable oral poems into fixed texts). But now, the fixed letters of the text can be performed variously as the following versions of “Blouaugh!” [MP3].
Just as the three instances of “Blouaugh!” differ, one performance of the poem can differ greatly from another. The one I will be focusing on is from an MP3 (1:52) made from a Williams reading at Princeton in 1952, followed by Williams’s comment (1:39) that is at least as interesting as the poem, if not more so [MP3].
Here, I will be a phonological docent for this performance, one that, as I say, completely changed my idea of the poem, making it into a specific event, more capacious and less self-similar than the printed poem.
Typical of many an oral performance, Williams makes a mistake in the reading, dropping the “too-” from “too-heavy,” but that fact is of little note. Much more significant are the social, sonic, and rhetorical dimensions clearly dramatized by the soundscript. A second performance of the poem is available on PennSound, from a reading in 1955 at UCLA where Williams sounds much more damaged, still a trouper, but forcing the sequence of social tones and dramatic turns through a voice that can’t pronounce or modulate all that well. Nor does it sound like he’s seeing the page very clearly [MP3]. This less felicitous version makes clear how much one performance may differ from another, but it also reveals Williams performing the same soundscript (i.e., the same sequence of voices and the same schema of accentuation in the phrasing). The second version takes longer: 2:15, and is tough sledding, especially if you go on to listen to the long comment (7:40) where Williams slowly discusses the variable foot and his invention of the stairstep line (which “The Sea-Elephant” does not use) then rambles on about the need for American poets to overcome iambic pentameter, which he tries to define but gets wrong [MP3]. It’s interesting evidence (if any more were needed) about how central an obsession metrics were for him from pre-WWI Imagism to the end of his life, although listening to the earlier reading (i.e., turning back to the 1952 recording) must remind us of the crucial fact that his practice would often, as it does here, far outstrip his theory.
Somewhat analogous to the Homeric situation, where you could hear a sketch (a barebones narrative with basic ornamentation [epithets to fill out the meter]) or you could order the full-dress elaborated performance (I wonder if they charged by the simile?), I’m proposing, tongue not totally in cheek, that we consider the performance here (poem + comment) as a more complete version than the printed poem. While this is an homage to a favorite performance moment, the temporality of the situation is multilayered. The poem was written in 1929; Williams is reading and commenting in 1952, post-WWII, post-stroke, and post-heart attack; and we are retrieving his voice via twenty-first-century technology. To my ear, this version resolves some of the awkwardness of the poem, redeeming its touching openness from the bumpy satire it keeps falling into.
To underline my interest in the comment, I’ll print it at the end of this piece, lineated to mime the printed poem. The transcribed comment contains almost exactly the same number of words, so my lineation works nicely until the last quatrain. Embedded in the playfulness of my gesture is a serious proposition concerning Williams: I want to dramatize the distance in his work between text and voice. The two frames are not opposed, but they are doing very different things.
In giving my sense of the 1952 performance, I will be counting in the bits of audience participation that are audible; for instance, the satisfied surprise and shock of the listeners dissolving into screams and laughter as they re-hear the second, louder and louder, “Blouaugh!,” Williams and the audience both expressing wants and fears via the lower half of the phonological apparatus without much syllabic fuss at all from tongue, teeth, and lips. Their instantaneous oral negotiation is audible: a sturdy play-contract has been established, on the fly: it’s as if the poet has said, I’ve scared you again, but you’ll recognize that there’s nothing scary, I’m not a sea-elephant, you’re not a fish, you’re not a victim of the raging appetite whose crudity I’ve forced you to hear again. The audience laughs and screams like kids at Halloween, shocked into a skittish glee by the unpredictable irruption of the now-recognizable monster [MP3].
To one whose knowledge is produced and ratified by reading, the sonic medium is elementary and vague: [MP3]. In the sound universe we no longer read Williams for line breaks with all the (scholastic) drama of those decisions: quarrels over metrics are replaced by social agons. Nor are poems machines made of words as Williams’s oft-repeated claim has it; rather than the word, the phrase becomes the unit, with contestatory foregrounding of various social voices, some pushed more toward quoted presentation: [MP3], some more thoroughly caricatured: [MP3]. We no longer hear Williams railing against he once called the medieval masterbeat, iambic pentameter. In the history of Anglo American modernism, to iamb or not to iamb was a charged matter — “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” — but in the sonic universe of “The Sea Elephant” such battles cease. [MP3] is a particularly well-balanced floating stretch of regular beats, which could be a snatch of iambs, or trochees, indifferently.
In the naive, echoey world of sound, what does it matter if we hear TRUN dled / FROM the / STRANGE ness / OF the / SEA — catalectic trochees (final syllable missing) — or TRUN / dled FROM / the STRANGE / ness OF / the SEA — acephalous iambs (first syllable missing)? Either way, [MP3] is a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by stresses, which is then followed by its inverse, [MP3], a symmetrical stretch of stressed/unstressed syllables enclosed by non-stresses. What could sound more sea-like, womb-like (trundle bed, bundle of joy), than the sum of these two phrases with their syntax withholding the subject of the sentence and thus reinforcing the sense of unending suspension? [MP3]
The subject of the sentence then bursts upon us, fulfilling, in some technical sense, the syntactic contract. The sentence-construing listener is owed one subject (something is trundled from the sea, but what?), which is then provided. What the ear hears, though, is not syntactic completion but the brash interruption of a different intonation. At least, that’s what’s in the soundscript: Williams himself doesn’t initially realize he’s inhabiting a different speaker until he’s halfway through the phrase.
No more saline, womb-like undifferentiation; we are now gendered beings, and are addressed as such: either ladies or gentlemen, fractions shied through Life’s gate, as Melville had it. And the fractures don’t stop there; we’re customers, we’re classed (we’re at the circus), and we’re regional (as the Bronx/Jersey nasality informs us). Via accent and denotation, the carny’s voice has made it clear that the greatest sea-monster ever exhibited alive, the gigantic sea-elephant! [MP3] is, precisely, not Moby Dick.
But the poet cedes no ground. He grabs the mic back (so to speak) and using a slightly lower pitch and a non-nasal seriousness pronounces the fact that although the poem has just quoted commercial speech it nevertheless it has serious designs on articulating the poetic sublime.
The carny-voice was using the American commercial vocative: the address to the customer. In reaction from this, Williams’s poet-voice addresses the sublime using the Latin vocative [MP3] (and there’s a real argument to be made that “O” in that construction is not English, but Latin). But once we take the part of the sea-elephant (something the vocative suggests that we do), how do we feel about what the voice is saying to us? The tone seems concerned, but we hear, first thing: [MP3] — that’s not a compliment. But then again, no, it turns out that a solicitous question is being asked: [MP3]. But no, again, without warning another insult: [MP3].
Throughout the poet’s speech the rhythmic emphasis is earnest, as is the tone and the speed of assertion: everything hinges on the series of stressed words the poet punches out, fraught with insistence. An odd sequence when they’re listed in print: WALLOW FLESH FISH APPETITE STUPIDITY SICK SMALLNESS LEAVES LIEF ENORMOUS SEA SPEAK! Note the dying falls, not just on APPETITE or SMALLNESS, but the monosyllables, too: SICK, LIEF.
In one way, the poet and carny are saying similar things: for both the sea-elephant is monstrous. But where the carny offers mastery for just a quarter, the poet is making complex, not to say contradictory, demands:
A lot is being asked of the sea-elephant here. On the one hand, he’s a sublime wallow of carnality, Pig Cupid’s big brother. He’s an ally in the fight against The Waste Land; a monster to use against some genteel April which often seemed to Williams to have Eliot’s copyright on it. Eliot’s well-known “April is the cruellest month” is, of course ironic, but Williams seems to have disregarded this to give vent to his annoyance here and in poems such as “April Is the Saddest Month,” which depicts the aftermath of dogs mating.
Beneath his undeniable cynicism Williams shows himself (here as so often) capable of being jejune, smitten with spring, Keats-ish. Via a sonic pirouette (leaves = lief), what were the trite symbols of spring, [MP3], become a site of his own desire as he insists that [MP3]. “Lief” is a word, though not one the ear hears much at all, an odd, rusty adjective, adverb, even an obsolete noun (= dear, sweetheart), but mostly used in “I had as lief …” Here and elsewhere Williams uses it as his own idiosyncratic noun to indicate some sort of utopian leafy permission. In “Asphodel” he writes: “A thousand tropics / in an apple blossom. / The generous earth itself / gave us lief. / The whole world / became my garden!”
But if the battle is to rescue modern poetry from old-fashioned docility (descriptive seasonality), the cry [MP3] is an odd-sounding call to arms. If the goal is to bring poetry and the present into closer alignment, then wouldn’t the carny be more contemporary than the poet? Perhaps the would-be modern poet, tangled up in disgust and desire by long e’s in [MP3] had better turn the mic over to the sea-elephant:
Does one hear this as rebuke, release, self-satire, or affirmation? If we imagine a scale of earnestness stretching from the religious awfulness of the Eliotic Thunder’s DA to a bad boy pretending to puke on the marble floors of culture, just how solemn-sarcastic is [MP3]? The primary aggression could be directed at the carny (O blasphemous venality of the commercial world, [MP3]), or Eliot (O pedantic smallness of poetic ambition, [MP3]), or himself (O overblown poet commanding the enormous sea to speak, [MP3]). Each alternative sounds plausible:
The poetic voice’s subsequent elaboration will not resolve any ambiguities. It begins in the first person as if the poet were ventriloquizing the sea-elephant, but quickly switches perspective to the poet observing the sea-elephant.
Just as it is not easy to tell if [MP3] was a cry of ejection or incorporation, desire and disgust are not disentangled here. Is this eating or spitting up? Authoritative, kingly appetite or childish puking? This equivocation extends even to the idiosyncratic verb “gulching back”: the sea-elephant’s gullet is an insatiable gulf that vomits fish back out.
As if to comment on such gorging messiness, another voice is heard:
On the page, the enclosing parentheses, “(In // a practical voice),” is meant as a stage direction for voicing. Awkward though it may seem on the page, it demonstrates that Williams was thinking of the poem as a soundscript, to use my earlier term. For the listener, however, the phrase is simply redundant. Here, the sarcasm of Williams’s tone is dominant, and it’s hard not to assimilate this woman to a stereotype of the anticorporeal matron (second cousin to Loy’s English Rose, say, in “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”). This sense is quickly reinforced by repetition, as we soon hear the woman again, a little bit more emphatic in dismissing the historical mysteries of the sea-elephant, the old gender-bending mermaid.
Having set up this woman as a satirical target, Williams then uses the full volume of the sea-elephant against her. There is no ambiguity here: this is the sea-elephant as emblem for Williams’s rejection of domesticity.
As if the sea-elephant had just spoken for him, the poet uses the beast’s undifferentiated massiveness to dismiss all craft and cleverness. The immediate referent for the following would seem to be trained seals (Williams wrote “The Sea-Elephant” after a visit to the circus in 1929); but on the page these lines seem emblematic of Williams’s lifelong struggle with line breaks.
Swing — ride
on wires — toss balls
contort yourselves —
Rather than engage in such prosodic cleverness, why not just bellow one’s own presence? You other trained, contorted poets may worry over the damn line breaks, but for me it’s all desire, all the time. At least, that’s what poet-as-sea-elephant is saying. In fact, the actual line breaks are an excellent species of Williams’s own prosodic contortions.
As I mentioned earlier, here Williams ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as Aphrodite, rising from the sea.
But if the sea-elephant is the poet’s democratic love-goddess of insatiable appetite, then the third “Blouaugh!” becomes the approved cry of triumph, appetite asserting its priority:
Positivity is harder to pronounce. Sea-elephants can interrupt poems, but they don’t seem to do as well in writing them. Williams tries to make the sea-elephant emblematic of his own poetic enterprise, indulging in a small fantasia of hetero carnal bliss:
But the bounty of such triumphant identification proves ephemeral and the poem suddenly switches without warning back to literary polemic. The target is some vague bolus of Pound (whose catchy but ultimately nondescript satire is quoted: “Winter is icummen in”), Eliot, and ye-olde Britishness. The poem ends with finicky, aggressive sarcasm:
This makes the audience laugh (of course, the “Blouaugh!”s, the carny, and the woman had softened them up). Throughout the reading, Williams seems to have had a strong hold on the listeners. (This will become even clearer in the comment.) It’s not that much of a stretch to compare Williams’s repertoire of vocals manners in the poem to the carny’s behavior: both are examples of “aggressive outreach,” call it. The product the carny is urging on the public is a sighting of the sea-elephant; with Williams, the product that is recommended so sharply is his poetry. And if we remember the context of Williams’s career at the time of the writing, this final sarcastic turn can sound rather sour, a grumpy realization of his secondary position. Rather than an omnipotent male disporting in the sea, the poet is a married man in New Jersey, probably taking the kids to the circus. Aggrieved masculinity chafes within petty rituals of renewal. It’s 1929, and poets still have to write about Spring.
Listening to the poem, this intense deformation of the poet’s voice at the end makes an odd conclusion. The emotional level — what old-fashioned terms the sonic universe seems to bring to mind! — seems not far from grade school sarcasm. Perhaps some of Williams’s polemic is directed toward his own practice as a poet: he is conflicted about his own partially repressed Keatianism, but is the aggressive inarticulation of the sea-elephant any way forward?
Before I turn to the comment, I want to reflect on the temporal issues of my procedure. “The Sea-Elephant” was written in 1929 in the midst of Williams’s polemic over the place of his vision of poetry in America and Europe. He had, at that time, only equivocal evidence that he wasn’t losing that fight. By the time he read the poem and commented on it in 1952, he was a few years into the physical battering (strokes, heart attacks, bouts of depression) that would unravel him, but he had also begun to live the life of the acclaimed poet, reading at universities, being listened to, etc. And here I am, belatedly realizing that new technologies make for new ways of writing and reading. Still, I find the comment quite a concentrated example of the qualities that seem to remain most useful for poetry.
The way the audience picks up the vulgar suggestion in Williams’s nearly whispered rumination shows how closely they’re listening:
This was not an isolated trope for Williams. Discussing another reading (NYU, 1949) where “he had read one or two confessional pieces that had not intended to read, he told the friend who had arranged the reading that he felt like he had been ‘talking into a felt mattress.’ Confessing in public felt as if you have pulled ‘back your foreskin (if you have one) in public.’”
But the moral here, to my ear at least, is not that Williams was an unreconstructed phallic monster. “The Sea-Elephant” can certainly be read as a phallic attack on femininity/feminization. But in the comment Williams finds his wife’s remark informative, and it leads him to a complex perspective on his own aggressivity. To be “rough” is, finally, to display one’s “timidity”:
Semantically, what follows is a non-sequitur: [MP3]. Logically, this explanatory “Because” is puzzling. The intertwining of masculine display/fear is caused by arguments over poetic decorum? But on the emotional level, such sudden leaps into the arena of modernist authority have been occurring throughout the poem.
In what follows, Williams begins with an earnest attempt at decorous discussion:
The key word here is “belittle.” Williams is not (ostensibly) belittling them; but they, as we will hear in a moment, have already belittled him. Meanwhile, as he warms to the rage he’s about to vocalize, he shouts out his most paradoxical poetic credo:
I find this very moving, if endlessly complicated. One can take this as another version of the real language of people, but that doesn’t account for much of the substance of the poem, not to mention the framing. The audience is the poetry, but needs the poet (apparently in a superior position) to sublate them. I won’t attempt to untangle the complications of this. Again, my intuition (the same faculty that saw Williams’s strengths and flaws as a baggy unity at the beginning of the essay) suggests that this may be an unresolvable knot.
The poet may be in a superior position, lifting the audience up, but, typical of Williams’s sudden reversals, his next position is low indeed:
The audience’s loud laughter is ultimately as impossible to parse as “Blouaugh!” But it strikes me as entirely plausible that one element animating their explosion of pleasure is some sense of the kinship of the sea-elephant and the worm. Both fit easily into the tragicomedy of phallic authority we’ve been hearing. Whether or not one grants this connection, the audience’s pleasure is a palpable fact and fleshes out Williams’s insistence that the audience is the poetry.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
there fish enough for
Flesh has lief of you
to let them glide down
a practical voice) They
is that woman’s
Swing — ride
contort yourselves —
hates to expose
more sensitive … feelings you
rough. At least it’s a
one as I am, at
belittle them — such as
an aura that
This project is an experiment in critical address for which I owe great thanks to Louis Cabri, guest editor of ESC, where a version of this piece appeared; and to Michael Hennessey, who started, and to Sarah Arkebauer, who completed, the process turning segments of the Williams MP3 into clickable sound-quotes. And that such MP3 files are available thanks are owed Charles Bernstein for assembling PennSound.
Quotations by William Carlos Williams are from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
A version of this essay appeared previously in ESC: English Studies in Canada 33, no. 4 (2007): 37–53, as part of a special issue on poetry and sound edited by Louis Cabri and Peter Quartermain.
4. See Jay Bochner, “Mina Loy and W. C. Williams, the modern poetic line and the gendered city,” for a great account of the initial shock of Williams’s lines. In Bochner, An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 162–181.
6. Of course, one can read faces, paintings, skies, etc. And parole in liberta, calligrammes, the vast variousness of lettrist writing require quite other notions of reading. But for this discussion, I’m intending a plain denotative sense of reading: sequential processing of marks on paper.
7. The actual practice of Western music loosens or even attacks this precision: think of Cage and post-Cage procedures. This turning away from exactitude can be traced back to the sprechstimme of Cage’s teacher, Schoenberg. And prior to that there are the traditions of cadenza improvisation (Mozart, Beethoven) filling in figured basses (Bach).
13. See Eric Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) and Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
16. Pig Cupid is from Mina Loy, “Songs to Johannes” in The Last Lunar Baedeker, sel. and ed. Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 53. Williams’s sea-elephant is mostly male, though the gender story is tangled. Halfway through Williams mentions a beard (and that could be ambiguous); he next ventriloquizes the sea-elephant as female (if you accept the low-key allusion to Aphrodite rising from the sea); and then near the end the sea-elephant is triumphantly depicted as disporting with his harem, while always remembering to eat.
19. This is another Keatsian facet of Williams, who was never shy about hosting other consciousnesses: cf. one of Keats’s less famous sound bites on negative capability: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel,” from John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 74.
June 29, 1965
I was so glad to get your letter. We never did meet at Weequahic Park for lunch but they’ll be other times for that. I used to go to the park every day and write. Each day I’d write a few lines of what I thought was a complete poem. Then I put them all together and called it The Green Lake Is Awake.
Anita is crying now. Paul is sleeping and Rosemary is getting ready for bed. She has it pretty rough being with them all day long. We seldom get out. Sunday we went to the movies of 8th St. N.Y. and saw The Red Desert by Antonioni. It’s a beautiful film about a woman or women in general, and how they are so confused in this world or the anti-nature world that man trys [sic] to make for himself. Sometimes it’s such an unnatural world where none of his real feelings come through. On the way out of the movie we met Ted Berrigan going in. He is publishing my long poem and it will probably be out next month. Rosemary made a beautiful cover for it. It’s called FITS OF DAWN. I’m starting to get nervous and excited about it.
I read your poems a number of times. Of the three little ones I liked “What do you say, bank named for a cripple” etc. best. Of the long one part I I liked better than part II. In fact I found something nice in all of them but sometimes a line or word brought me down and I couldn’t get with the reality that you must have felt. What I mean is at the sacrifice of making it a sure poem, you may have taken something from it. What I felt most was Part I.
I think I’m obsessed with reality, I don’t mean realism but that sense of reality, like “I’m really here and I feel it” even though I can’t explain it. Something like that. Which everyone feels and you recognize it when you see it in a poem.
As for my own poetry, I haven’t been writing much at all. Maybe it’s working inside me but who knows. Sometimes I think maybe I’ve done the best I could and everything [cut off in photocopy] through my head. I go to the clinic at 9:00 pm on tuesday night and talk to my psychiatrist for an hour. Many unsettled things. Who wants to transmit my neurosis to my children? or hold back love to my wife? I’ve had needed to go for a long time and finally I’ve done it.
I just can’t wait for my vacation. We are going down the shore. The Jersey shore is so beautiful. We went to North Wildwood last year and that water and sand and us playing in the sand is on my brain.
Tell me about where you are. Is Julie with you? I hope she’s all right. That was a pretty big experience she went through; and you too.
A Music & art form. It sounds great. Or is it — not as good as it sounds. That word I obliterated was “boring.” I didn’t want to give you any ideas. But I can’t really imagine it.
1. Newark reservoirs are very low. Everyone is walking around dirty.
2. Paul is always dirty but gets a bath every night and a shower.
3. Every time the weather is really hot the fish in the lake keep jumping out and you think you saw something but it was real.
4. Rosemary is almost finished with therapy. Her husband is just starting.
5. No amount of wisdom or learning can make a person live in the present. He just has to live.
6. The west does not understand the east.
7. Nor does the east “ the west.
8. They are both the same — naked.
9. Poetry is a flock of geese flying out of formation being in formation.
10. This news is bullshit. But it was real?
Regards to Julie. Love from Rosemary.
Sending you some poems. They are in John Perreault’s new magazine called Elephant. I’ll ask John to send you a copy when I see him. If I had an envelope I’d send you my copy but I want to get this letter off early in the morning.
*Send me more poems. If you don’t want criticism just write “NO CRITICISM” just like “HANDLE WITH CARE.” Besides, criticism can be boring and I like to read poems more than I like to criticize them.
Joe Ceravolo’s poems are like the old lady who helps a boy scout across the busy street. They are also like the truck driver who stops his truck to let them cross safely, toots his horn and waves. They are also like the nickel in the boy scout’s pocket that was not bent by being run over by the truck.
Previously published in Kulchur 5, no. 18 (Summer 1965): 105.
I wrote this little appreciation in 1976 for the Poetry Project magazine The World. I’m pretty sure it was the second piece of prose about poetry I had ever done. This was a special issue (#30) of The World devoted to reviews, interviews, etc. For all the poetry written and published around The Project from the late ’60s through the mid-'70s, there was little interest in criticism or poetics, both of which smacked of the Establishment. I know that I absolutely loved the poems of Joe’s that I had seen, the three early collections plus a few in magazines like Locus Solus, Art and Literature, and Big Sky, and I remember wanting to do a lot of quoting.
To me, Joe had a miraculous decade when he was one of the most original poets writing; Fits of Dawn (C Editions, 1965), Wild Flowers Out of Gas (Tibor de Nagy, 1967), and Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia U. Press, 1968) still belong with the best poetry of the past fifty years. I didn’t get to know Joe till the 1970s, but it’s clear that in the ’60s poems burst out of him, torn up and beautiful in Fits of Dawn, a little more connected (though by no means coherent) and beautiful in the others. I happened upon the Tibor de Nagy chapbook first and it bowled me over. When a couple of years later someone xeroxed Fits of Dawn for me, its explosions of language, feeling, meaning, and non-meaning (I’ve always suspected that a fair amount of the book was generated by fake translation), bowled me over anew.
When six of us got together twenty years ago to put together a Selected Ceravolo for Coffee House (Larry Fagin, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Paul Violi and I), I remember how exciting and inspiring it was — not just batting things back and forth but reading the poems and hearing them read aloud. Unsurprisingly to me, we wound up choosing almost all poems from the ’60s. Clearly Joe did extraordinary work after that too, and some of his later poems — though I would argue, more often parts of poems — are up there with the early ones, more of which saw the light of day with the publication of Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste, 1979). I remember going through a whole bunch of Joe’s very short poems that same year with Paul and choosing things for INRI (Swollen Magpie) beginning with “O moon / How ghost you are,” which is as magical as anything Joe ever wrote.
Joe Ceravolo and I read together at the NYU Loeb Student Center in a Sunday afternoon series organized by Kenneth Koch. Joe read his poems over excerpts from Italian opera played on a small cassette player. I read from a long poem in progress, subsequently lost, that included snippets from that morning’s New York Times Book Review. (I recall Ted Berrigan laughing loudly in one of the front rows as he recognized the phrase “just one more piece of gone goop.”) Afterwards, Edwin Denby came up to Joe and me in the hallway and said, “How unusual — two young poets interested in history.”