William Carlos Williams

Opening the field

The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog
The 1923 edition, left; and the 1970 edition, right, courtesy of Silliman's Blog.

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 — 

The place of Kora

The 1920 Four Seas Co. edition, left, and the 1957 City Lights edition, right.
The 1920 Four Seas Co. edition, left, and the 1957 City Lights edition, right.

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.

The force of fact (and progress)

Occupy UC–Davis, November 2011.
Occupy UC–Davis, November 2011.

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. 

How to write: The student's moment

I just spent a week in erica kaufman’s workshop at the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard, which brings together secondary and college teachers for workshops and conferences focused on how to use writing as central to how we generate and refine our ideas about literature and language (and all subjects; we had biology and music teachers in our section). In one session, we worked with three essays about writing, George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and William Carlos Williams’s “How to Write.” Orwell’s portrait of the writer is essentially as political activist; Kincaid’s is of the courage to rewrite history; Williams’s is of a double mind commanding the double function of the text. Williams appears less political than Orwell or Kincaid, until the end of his essay, where he launches an attack on the teaching of standard English in American schools.

What might be the relationship between this well-known critique Williams held (“Why bother with English when we have a language of our own?”) and how Williams depicts the writing process in this piece? That is, what Williams calls the “deepest mind” and the “fore-brain” of the writer, the latter being the thing that in his words “attacks” a piece of writing once it is set down, editing, criticizing, and making possible what Williams calls “modern verse structures.”

Major authors

When I first began teaching in the MAT program at Bard in 2011, I was asked to propose a graduate course based on the standard areas of study within the literature track, which includes a “major authors” course. I had just completed a dissertation on gender and American poetry after 1945, in which all my major figures were marginalized women poets but in which I had frequently turned to Williams as the major figure of masculine modernism to whom many poets writing after 1945 turn — and away from whom they turn, also. I had become increasingly fascinated with literary inheritance and disavowal, and how theories of gender and identity might help us understand how poetic form behaves genealogically. I kept coming back to Williams as a beloved and contentious figure for American poets both major and marginalized.

Four recordings of William Carlos Williams performing 'The Red Wheelbarrow'

  1. Read January 9, 1942 (0:11): MP3
  2. Read for the Library of Congress, May 5, 1945 (0:15): MP3
  3. Read on an interview for the Mary Margaret McBride Show, December 4, 1950 (0:08): MP3
  4. Read at Princeton University, March 19, 1952 (1:42): MP3

Five recordings of William Carlos Williams performing 'This Is Just to Say'

  1. Read in Rutherford, NJ, June 1950 MP3 (1:18)
  2. Read in Rutherford, NJ, August 1950 MP3 (0:17)
  3. Read in Van Nuys, Calif., November 16, 1950 MP3 (0:23)
  4. Read at Harvard University, December 4, 1951 MP3 (1:14)
  5. Read at Princeton University, March 19, 1952 MP3 (0:41)

WCW on television

John Wingate on the air at "Nightbeat" in 1957 (left) and William Carlos Williams in the '50s

I'll bet most readers of this commentary did not realize that William Carlos Williams made a television appearance. Yes, it was September 4, 1957, and the old stroke-inhibited but still feisty poet went to the studios of WABD (New York) and appeared with host John Wingate on a show called Nightbeat. Today we've segmented the audio version of this recording into topics. You'll note that WCW talks about television for 33 seconds, and about Stevenson, Eisenhower and Kennedy for a minute and a half (already anticipating the 1960 presidential election). Here are those segments:

  • on practicing medicine and writing poetry (1:59): MP3
  • on the Greenwich Village poets and separating from the crowd (4:15): MP3
  • on Ezra Pound (5:26): MP3
  • on Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost (3:43): MP3
  • on his links to alleged communist causes and letting people speak (2:51): MP3
  • on television (0:33): MP3
  • on Madison Avenue (0:37): MP3
  • on Adlai Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy (1:23): MP3
  • on the place of religion in his life (1:15): MP3
  • on what he would like to be remembered for (0:33): MP3

     

  • William Carlos Williams, 1952

    William Carlos Williams
    Indiana College English Association Conference, Hanover College, Indiana, May 16, 1952

    Morning Program:
    Lecture
    “Smell!” (Al Que Quiere!, 1917)
    from “Paterson Book II, iii” (‘Look to the nul’ to ‘endless and indestructible,’ 1948)

    Evening Program:
    “Portent” (The Tempers, 1913)
    “The Botticellian Trees” (1930)
    “Flowers by the Sea” (An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)
    “To a Mexican Pig Bank” (An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)
    “To a Poor Old Woman” (An Early Martyr and Other Poems, 1935)
    “Pastoral” (Al Que Quiere!, 1917)
    “To Elsie” (Spring and All, 1923)
    “On Gay Wallpaper” (1928)

    All poems except Paterson are included in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939. All poems are segmented on Williams' PennSound page.

    Yvor the counter-revolutionist

    By all accounts, the Stanford-based critic-poet Yvor Winters was prickly. His views on good and bad versions of modernism: usually, the earlier and the more “precise”/imagistic the better. His view on Stevens (the early modernist, detached, comic ironic short stuff of Harmonium was good, the later rhetorically blown-up long-lined essayistic poems, poems made of philosophical propositions, were bad) had a huge effect on a generation of teachers who thought that to teach Stevens one had to teach only “Sunday Morning” or “Ploughing on Sunday.” His view on William Carlos Williams: early short stuff good, late stuff sloppy and imprecise.

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