The force of fact (and progress)
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
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
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.
It’s an environmental poem in some senses; literally, about a place. In Interviews with William Carlos Williams, we read this claim for a specifically American language of place:
I couldn’t speak like the academy. It had to be modified by the conversation about me. As Marianne Moore used to say, a language dogs and cats could understand. So I think she agrees with me fundamentally. Not the speech of English country people which would have something artificial about it; not that, but language modified by our environment; the American environment.
After taking us out of the academy and into the American environment, Williams goes on to suggest we need a new kind of American academy:
Obviously the first thing to do is to establish a department of the American language: a Chair, that is, of our language which would have primacy over the teachings of all other languages at the university. Under this would come other languages bearing on our own: German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and of course, English.
Next, Williams says, comes the task of differentiating American prosody (and throwing off the notion that the English own prosody, a notion that leaves us “impotent”) — and then:
Next we must establish in our minds the historical fact that the American Language invaded both English and French in the nineteenth century.
American writers (Stein, Hemingway, Pound) “penetrated” the European literary modes, he goes on to say, and this is the history that Williams insists must be rewritten.
We talk a lot about the role of fact in this class: the doctrine of the image, the realist mode of many of Williams’s stories, and the notion that poetry can show rather than illuminate. We talk a lot about Williams’s extrainstitutional leanings. We’ve talked less, so far, about the possibility that his American idiom has a progress narrative, or that poetic facts can add up to something that resembles exceptionalism. Could those facts be used to bolster a rhetoric for a new kind of university?