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.
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.”