Articles - December 2007

Broken Pieces (PoemTalk #1)

William Carlos Williams, 'Between Walls'

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Can such a brief bit of writing — William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” — be a “campaign poem,” as host Al Filries at one point in PoemTalk#1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is “flirting” with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it is positive (“lie / cinders / in which shine”) but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral — just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightfoward and seemingly objective a mere observation?


Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

We at PoemTalk were celebrating Williams’s 124th birthday a little while back when we noticed several bloggers seemed to feel it necessary on that very day to “avoid[...] the urge to romanticize” WCW. The blogger who creates Caught in the Stream led the way, pondering — and then rejecting as untrue — the distinction between Walt Whitman’s long-lined sentimentality and WCW’s succinct and seemingly exclusive focus on things. We delighted at the way respondents to the blog weighed in on one side or the other. But on our cake, at least, we held an extra candle for Walt, sensing that the two poets are very much in the same line.

PennSound’s Williams page has the complete recordings, every last one so far as we know. Including, of course, the three recordings of the poet reading PT’s first poem, “Between Walls.”

PoemTalk #1 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, and was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin with help from Curtis Fox.