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.”
At left you see my avatar, Alf Fullstop, preparing to lead a seminar in the virtual Kelly Writers House in Second Life this coming Thursday evening.At left you see my avatar, Alf Fullstop, preparing to lead a seminar in the virtual Kelly Writers House in Second Life this coming Thursday evening. The poem on the wall, WCW's "Between Walls," is the third of three poems I'll be teaching.
If I when my wife is sleeping and the baby and Kathleen are sleeping and the sun is a flame-white disc in silken mists above shining trees, — if I in my north room dance naked, grotesquely before my mirror waving my shirt round my head and singing softly to myself: “I am lonely, lonely. I was born to be lonely, I am best so!” If I admire my arms, my face, my shoulders, flanks, buttocks again the yellow drawn shades, —
The William Carlos Williams that motivated a young Robert Creeley was The Wedge of 1944. For Ron Silliman and — he suspects — others among those who "became known as Language Poet[s]" — the key Williams was to be found in Spring & All (1923). They found it in the 1970 Frontier Press edition.
Silliman believes that one of the important distinctions between the Language Poets and earlier avant-garde generations was their "different reading" of Williams — their Spring & All-centered reading of him.
Can such a brief bit of writing - William Carlos Williams's "Between Walls" - be a "campaign poem," as host Al Filreis at one point in PoemTalk #1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is "flirting" with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams's read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it's positive ("lie / cinders / in which shine") but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral - just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightforward and seemingly objective a mere observation?
I am the host of a new podcast series called "PoemTalk." At least we think it'll be a new series. On August 2, we recorded a pilot show and now friends and colleagues are having a listen. Once we've heard their responses, we'll decide whether we will go ahead. The plan is to produce a new show every two weeks, beginning in September. In each show I introduce and play a PENNsound recording of one poem, and then I, with three guest poet-critics, discuss it, its influences and manifestations, for about 30 minutes.