I recently asked my students to engage in a “dialectical journal” activity in our William Carlos Williams class. There are many examples online of what teachers refer to as a “dialectical” or “double entry journal,” in which students use multiple columns on a page to react to specific phrases and passages from a text. The dialectical journal is a popular tool in secondary schools and undergraduate curricula, and ranges from the relatively simple act of gathering reactions to a text to more complex methods of translating reactions into critical assessment and reflection — visual connections, social questions, naming literary techniques, generating a thesis. Essentially, the dialectical journal is a physical template for the kinds of annotating and close reading we do all the time: a kind of spreadsheet to track what different parts of the text are doing, and what kinds of reactions we have to them. What I found in the Williams class, however, is that there is something even more dialogic going on than creating a conversation between readers: the genre of the text seems in some ways to determine the form of the reader’s own writing.
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 —
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.
Last week in the Williams class we encountered not just modernist difficulty but the discomfort of difficult content: our discussions centered on the medical gaze and the American idiom, and on our encounters with Williams’s attitudes toward difference. I was left wondering what kind of space we need to create in our classrooms to address material that is triggering. We ended class with a too-brief discussion of the troubling scene in “The Use of Force,” in which Williams’s speaker gives a diphtheria test to a young girl, overcoming her resistance to his treatment with brutal and sexualized force. The story has been widely discussed as a case study of medical ethics as well as a text that dramatizes the crossing of boundaries between literature and medicine; as Brian Bremen puts it in William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture, “For Williams an act of diagnosis is as much a poetic act as it is a medical practice.” In his efforts to resist scientific reduction, as critics like Bremen argue, Williams frames anecdotes that are dialectical, nonironic, even open-ended. We hate the doctor’s brutality even as we appreciate that he achieves the diagnosis.
Still. As one of my students put it, “I liked the other Williams better.” Stories such as “The Use of Force” or “The Colored Girls of Passenack” upend the other Williams of “Smell!” or “The Catholic Bells.”
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.