Poets Sarah Dowling (until recently of Philadelphia; now of Seattle; originally of Regina, Saskatchewan) and Michelle Taransky (of Philadelphia; originally of Camden, New Jersey) used Google Hangout to visit my William Carlos Williams class last month to talk about their relationship to WCW, modernism, and Spring and All. I invited them to read a few poems, answer questions about them, and then enter the dialogue we’ve been having in our class around identity and American poetry.
Spring and All was a good moment at which to invite some contemporary poets to join us: as Ron Silliman has written, when it was released in 1971 after being out of print for nearly fifty years, Williams’s long poem became known as “the most radical critical text of the twentieth century.” Barrett Watten in The Constructivist Moment locates in Williams’s hybridic, contractive Spring and All an attention to “the gaps and fissures that make transparent communication both impossible and deeply desirable,” a form of poetic attention that took hold for poets writing in the 1970s and remains to this day. And Alice Notley, in her 1980 lecture “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses,” finds in Spring and All a wealth of formal possibilities, even as Williams’s engagement with gender there and elsewhere (especially Asphodel) remain “enraging.” This engagement is what animated a 2008 presentation at the Kelly Writer’s House devoted to William Carlos Williams and the Women (which is available online). Dowling and Taransky, along with Pattie McCarthy and Jena Osman, considered the impact of Williams on his 125th birthday — I don’t think Dowling was alone when she said, “I like Williams, but so often he makes me uncomfortable.”
Discomfort has become a recurring theme in the single-author course this quarter, so I asked our two poets to reflect on what they get and what they don’t from this particular poetic predecessor. Dowling and Taransky each read some poems to the class — Dowling from her 2009 collection Security Posture and from her new work, and Taransky from her 2009 collection Barn Burned, Then and from her forthcoming Sorry Was in the Woods — and then took questions from the class. We talked about uses of direct imagery, page space, and the line break, all hallmarks of Williams’s form. These two poets also share an engagement with popular culture, the vernacular or what Williams called ‘idiom’ of their own day. What I remember most is the remark both poets shared that while Williams often writes things that get him into trouble, he also demonstrates an apparent pride in having said the unsayable, and that this may be one of his most enduring qualities.
Inviting contemporary writers into the classroom to share their work and reflect on the curriculum is something I took for granted when working on an urban campus; it became simply part of the texture of ongoing creative and critical interaction. It’s much different when you’re about 130 miles away from the nearest major literary center, and many students have never met a published writer in person. As we all hovered around the tiny videocamera on my laptop, I wondered about the similarities and differences between Williams’s America and our own.