The MLA does not support the variable foot
By the time we got to the long, apologetic love poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in the Williams class, I was beginning to worry about the relatively short amount of time we had spent on the variable foot. So before diving into the poem I subjected my students to a crash course in Williams’s approach to metrics, returning to his essay “The Poem as a Field of Action,” in which Williams famously insists “there is no such thing as free verse.” Moreover: “Imagism was not structural: that was the reason for its disappearance.” (Throwing out imagism as inconsequential is always a little startling for students, given that we are so conditioned to read for its significance throughout early modernism.) Williams suggests that the only enduring, far-reaching poetics is one that can refine modern life the way chemistry refines new elements: “we are about to make some discoveries,” he notes hopefully. One of those discoveries is that we can attempt to detach the poetic foot from the very notion of rhythm.
So then, we went on to attempt to identify what Williams means by “the variable foot” in Asphodel. Moving from the chem lab to the field. We consider the role of this drab yet overdetermined flower in Williams’s poem. From an article by Gertrude Slaughter in The North American Review, December 1916:
As a flower of earth, the asphodel depends for its beauty upon its surroundings. It fades at the mere touch of the commonplace. Growing by a dusty roadside, it is colorless and coarse. It lacks distinction and has barely the power to arrest the eye. While the broom or the gentian conquers the shadow of dust and rises boldly to match the sun or the sky, the asphodel is reduced to nothingness, to a dull and graceless shadow. But rising among the fallen columns of a Greek temple, these clusters of dim blossoms possess a rare and unforgettable beauty. […] The legend of the asphodel-meadows is typical of a people in whose imaginative grasp of truth poetry and religion were united. They did not attempt to deny the existence of evil and misfortune, of disease and death, but they subdued the grim realization of these things to a tender melancholy.
“It is a curious odor, / a moral odor,” Williams writes in Asphodel of bringing flowers to his wife. Elsewhere: “The beauty of girls seemed the same to me as the beauty of a poem.” Does the “moral odor” of William Carlos Williams’s Asphodel eclipse the “field of action” of his poetics?