In 2009 and again in 2010, I invited six poets — each year, so twelve total — to teach one poem each to high-school juniors and seniors. Each session lasted twenty minutes. And we preserved all twelve sessions as video and audio recordings. Go here to watch or listen to them. The poems were:
1. John Ashbery, "This Room" 2. Erin Moure, "The Frame of the Book" 3. Harryette Mullen, "Trimmings" 4. John Keats, "[This living hand]" 5. Yvor Winters, "At the San Francisco Airport" 6. William Carlos Williams, "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" 7. Lorine Niedecker, "[I married...]" 8. Robert Creeley, "The Sentence" 9. Helen Chasin, "The Word Plum" 10. Frank Sherlock, "Wounds in an Imaginary Nature Show" 11. Harryette Mullen, "Zombie Hat" 12. Basho, selected haiku; John Ashbery, "37 Haiku"
Paul Wilson was born in Lacombe, Alberta and in addition to his five collections of poetry, has contributed to his city of Regina, Saskatchewan and beyond as a key cultural worker, editor, and publisher.
Scott Peterson, an ophthalmologist, was a student in my open online course on modern and contemporary poetry last fall (“ModPo”). We studied William Carlos Williams’s poem “Smell!” in that course, and naturally there was a lively discussion of WCW's nose and its various meanings and functions. Scott then told me that since college he has been passionate about collecting Williams-related items. His undergraduate work on Paterson was published “way back in 1967,” as he puts it. Among his Williams holdings are a bronze bust of the poet (Scott cannot remember the artist’s name) and Emmanuel Romano's well-known portrait in oil. Scott has kindly given me permission to publish images of the sculpture and the painting.
Paul Mariani in his biography writes several informative paragraphs about Romano's painting — and the brief connection between the painter and the poet. Williams sat for the portrait in September of 1959. One of Romano’s reasons for doing the portrait was to get Williams to write a statement about his paintings for a one-man show in New York scheduled for that December. Mariani notes that in this painting the poet's “face was angular, almost fractured in a style recalling Cezanne.”
In Williams's poem “Self-Portrait” written in 1959:
No time for any- thing but his painting.
Romano wrote in his own diary (entry of September 27) that he was “disturb[ed]” by “the reflection of the light in [WCW’s] eyeglasses.” Take the glasses off, the painter thought, and he would lose the look of “boyish enthusiasm” and would also lose, Romano felt, the look of the poet’s mother's “silky independence” and her dark Caribbean features which the painter felt “revealed themselves” in the portrait.
Mail received the other day from Joe Milutis, who Skyped into my William Carlos Williams class to talk about Paterson and the work he’s been doing on the impressively audio-rich and intertextual blog New Jersey as an Impossible Object.
Our first week on Williams’s Paterson we began by constructing a question gallery. First, come up with a question about some key detail of the poem. Second, come up with a quesion about some formal element of the poem. Third, come up with a question about a larger question raised by the poem. Once the questions have been pinned to the wall, used colored post-its to annotate, respond to, and further question the questions.
By the time we got to the long, apologetic love poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in the Williams class, I was beginning to worry about the relatively short amount of time we had spent on the variable foot.
I recently asked my students to engage in a “dialectical journal” activity in our William Carlos Williams class. There are many examples online of what teachers refer to as a “dialectical” or “double entry journal,” in which students use multiple columns on a page to react to specific phrases and passages from a text. The dialectical journal is a popular tool in secondary schools and undergraduate curricula, and ranges from the relatively simple act of gathering reactions to a text to more complex methods of translating reactions into critical assessment and reflection — visual connections, social questions, naming literary techniques, generating a thesis. Essentially, the dialectical journal is a physical template for the kinds of annotating and close reading we do all the time: a kind of spreadsheet to track what different parts of the text are doing, and what kinds of reactions we have to them. What I found in the Williams class, however, is that there is something even more dialogic going on than creating a conversation between readers: the genre of the text seems in some ways to determine the form of the reader’s own writing.
I take this commentary post title from Robert Duncan, but I write this as I reread William Carlos Williams’s 1923 long poem Spring and All for class tomorrow. Since I am teaching Williams within a teacher training program this summer, we tend to pay special attention to what Williams has to say about education and the academy. Spring and All’s attack on the “age of copying” is of interest this week. Near the end of the poem, the rules of standard punctuation and capitalization break down as Williams considers how knowledge is transmitted to the student in what he calls a “dead state”:
The whole field of education is affected — There is no end of detail that is without significance. Education would begin by placing in the mind of the student the nature of knowledge — in the dead state and the nature of the force which may energize it. This would clarify his field at once — He would then see the use of data But at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative. nothing could be more ridiculous. To data there is no end. There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge — It is the imagination that —
Typically when I teach William Carlos Williams’s sequence of improvisations Kora in Hell, we spend a lot of time on the name in the title: Kora, or Persephone, the mythological figure Williams takes up as a kind of avatar for his own struggle to break free of “the traditionalists of plagiarism” and come up to the surface of the new. As he says in I Wanted to Write a Poem: “I am indebted to Pound for the title. We had talked about Kora, the Greek parallel of Persephone, the legend of Springtime captured and taken to Hades.
It’s the second week of the Williams class, and I’ve asked my students to blog about Williams the doctor in pieces such as “The Dead Baby” and “The Use of Force.” What does he see, and does he see differently from the Williams of short, sensory poems such as “Lines” or “Smell!”? We seem to be focusing on the notion of empathy, which could be heightened or dampened by the medicalizing gaze. Last week, we ended with the very short 1934 poem “Between Walls” (subject of the first PoemTalk podcast):
the back wings of the
hospital where nothing
will grow lie cinders
in which shine the broken
pieces of a green bottle
Williams’s poem refuses to pin our sight on one depiction of the hospital: as we discussed in class, it’s never entirely clear whether we’re inside or outside, whether the wings belong to the architecture or to a hovering bird (or otherworldly creature), or whether that bottle signals the absence or presence of new growth in a bleak medicalized landscape. In his 1954 reading Williams really lingers over the word shine, taking the emphasis off the poem’s objects and instead placing it on what they do.