Two tried-and-trues among the short poems of William Carlos Williams, as chosen for our 30th PoemTalk by Robert Grenier, who has been thinking about his WCW for many decades. First the metaphorical anti-metaphor of ocean and plant in “Flowers by the Sea”:
When over the flowery, sharp pasture's edge, unseen, the salt ocean
lifts its form—chicory and daisies tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone
but color and the movement—or the shape perhaps—of restlessness, whereas
the sea is circled and sways peacefully upon its plantlike stem
And then, seemingly quite different but just as classic an instance of early modern condensation, “so much depends” (“The Red Wheelbarrow”):
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman (Grenier once taught the latter poet at Berkeley, by the way) joined Al Filreis to speak with Robert Grenier about why and how he is always in the act of remembering these poems – or, as he puts it near the start of our talk, how the poems are remembering him. “Those words return,” says Grenier.
Al asks Bob P. and Charles to comment on the poetic relationship(s) between Grenier and Williams. Bob P. remembers Bob G. on Williams as fundamentally as Bob G. remembers his WCW. Grenier has always dwelled on the short vowel sounds emanating outward from “chickens.” It’s about farming and the social aesthetic and other big topics, but it’s also, says Bob P., about the patterning of words’ sounds. This was what Grenier had already taught us, years ago.
The group, prompted by Al, discusses the autotelism of “Flowers by the Sea,” and, for Charles, both poems have a “specific autonomy.” When Charles admiringly isolates the line “edge, unseen, the salt ocean,” he is put in mind of a Larry Eigner and of a possible lineage running through WCW to Eigner. He is implying there a place for Robert Grenier in that line, of course, since Grenier, at the time this session was recorded, was just then anticipating the publication of his four-volume edition of Eigner’s poems.
We discuss what WCW meant when he said of the more famous of our two poems that it was “the same as a thing of beauty.” The red wheelbarrow as locating a rewriting of Keats’ “Endymion”! “It an injunction,” says Grenier, “to pay attention to something because of its moral value. And it directs you to what is in the fact an image, in itself, as an image…. Words being composed as letters, as a composition of successive shapes. It only happens because of the conjured quality of the form.”
Our poem is Kit Robinson’s “Return on Word,” collected in Robinson’s 2002 book, The Crave, which was published by Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz at Atelos Press.
Rae Armantrout was in from San Diego and joined Linh Dinh, Tom Devaney and host Al Filreis for our conversation this time. At turns the group interprets the poem as a satirization of the referentially super-confident language of marking; as a critique of Language poetry (an aesthetic gathering with which Robinson has long been identified); as an expression of skepticism about the monetization and militarization of American rhetoric. Linh wishes Robinson had pushed the poem’s anti-marketing tendencies a bit further. Rae, who is a fan of Mad Men and herself knows a thing or two about poetically torquing flattened idiomatic speech, admires the way “all we need is a few good words” plays upon military linguistic merchandizing. Tom is positively devastated by the notion that thought might take “a contract out on” words.
Finally, the group agreed that the poem is about words’ value, seen through the dystopia of their devaluation at the hands of economic sectors in which referential certainty is guaranteed to get carried away – in which a good (profitable) year is anticipated by, maybe even determined by, the right people in the room thinking up just the right dead language for the moment.