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.
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.”
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.
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
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 areincluded in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939. All poems are segmented on Williams' PennSound page.
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.
Accompanied by editors Kenneth Burke, John Brooks Wheelwright, and Matthew Josephson (often operating under the nom de plume Will Bray), Secession moved in upredictable directions over the eight installments of its premeditated two-year run. Munson writes:
Beyond a two year span, observation shows, the vitality of most reviews is lowered and their contribution, accomplished, becomes repetitious and unnecessary. Secession will take care to avoid moribundity. (Secession no. 1, 25)
Two tried-and-trues among the short poems of William Carlos Williams, as chosen for our 30th PoemTalk by Robert Grenier, who has been thinking about his WCW for many decades. First the metaphorical anti-metaphor of ocean and plant in “Flowers by the Sea”:
When over the flowery, sharp pasture's edge, unseen, the salt ocean
lifts its form—chicory and daisies tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone
but color and the movement—or the shape perhaps—of restlessness, whereas
the sea is circled and sways peacefully upon its plantlike stem
And then, seemingly quite different but just as classic an instance of early modern condensation, “so much depends” (“The Red Wheelbarrow”):
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman (Grenier once taught the latter poet at Berkeley, by the way) joined Al Filreis to speak with Robert Grenier about why and how he is always in the act of remembering these poems – or, as he puts it near the start of our talk, how the poems are remembering him. “Those words return,” says Grenier.
Al asks Bob P. and Charles to comment on the poetic relationship(s) between Grenier and Williams. Bob P. remembers Bob G. on Williams as fundamentally as Bob G. remembers his WCW. Grenier has always dwelled on the short vowel sounds emanating outward from “chickens.” It’s about farming and the social aesthetic and other big topics, but it’s also, says Bob P., about the patterning of words’ sounds. This was what Grenier had already taught us, years ago.
The group, prompted by Al, discusses the autotelism of “Flowers by the Sea,” and, for Charles, both poems have a “specific autonomy.” When Charles admiringly isolates the line “edge, unseen, the salt ocean,” he is put in mind of a Larry Eigner and of a possible lineage running through WCW to Eigner. He is implying there a place for Robert Grenier in that line, of course, since Grenier, at the time this session was recorded, was just then anticipating the publication of his four-volume edition of Eigner’s poems.
We discuss what WCW meant when he said of the more famous of our two poems that it was “the same as a thing of beauty.” The red wheelbarrow as locating a rewriting of Keats’ “Endymion”! “It an injunction,” says Grenier, “to pay attention to something because of its moral value. And it directs you to what is in the fact an image, in itself, as an image…. Words being composed as letters, as a composition of successive shapes. It only happens because of the conjured quality of the form.”