Will Montgomery’s succinct study Short Form American Poetry: The Modernist Tradition is one of those texts that, in a quiet way, shake up a whole topic. Among its main gifts are repeated reminders — subliminal rather than overt — of just what an unlikely and unprecedented development the “short-form” poem really was and how odd it is that it should have become a particularly American phenomenon.
IN THE first election year that mattered to me, 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my country killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was elected president. In the decades that followed, I have always been unhappy with the leadership and direction of this country, usually very unhappy.
I was born a believer in peace. I say fight for the right. Be a martyr and live. Be a coward and die.
— Susan B. Anthony speaking in Gertrude Stein’s “The Mother of Us All”
Al Filreis convened Imaad Majeed (in Colombo, Sri Lanka), Irene Torra Mohedano (in Paris, France), and Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué (in Chicago, USA) to talk about William Carlos Williams’s “By the road to the contagious hospital,” the well-known first poem in the disjunctive, manifesto-like, nonsequential sequence called Spring and All, first published in Paris in 1923. Was this a poem recalling the recent, desperate time of the Spanish flu pandemic? Can “Spring and All” teach us something about our own birthing springtime, emerging eerily without us this time around? Why is this poem taught in medical schools? How lifeless is a thing “lifeless in appearance”?
William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to The Wedge (1944) that “[a] poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words”; or “poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” A poet and physician, Williams is most known for plums, the everyday, and minimalistic, rhythmic meter and lineation.
Scholars and critics too initiate “transpositions.” Even a casual observation can make a familiar poem appear in a new light, for example when Helen Vendler wonders, in her review of Wallace Stevens’s Selected Poems, what we would make of “The Snow Man” if it had been called “Stoicism in a Failed Marriage.” Sometimes such interventions go further, transforming our ideas about not only what a poem means but what it does and even what it is.
On November 11, 2008, the Kelly Writers House hosted a program called “William Carlos Williams and the Women: The Legacy of WCW at 125.” Sarah Dowling, Jena Osman, Pattie McCarthy, and Michelle Taransky. Here, above, is a portion of the video recording of this event — Jena Osman’s talk on sentimentality and objectification in Williams’s imagism.
In her brief story “She Unnames Them,” Ursula K. Le Guin recasts Eve the primal mother as a primal liberator subverting the process of Adam’s animal-labeling. Bio-artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is pursuing a related task, engaging in acts of transgenesis, regenesis, and intergenesis via computer simulations and 3D models of newly proposed creatures. Ginsberg is a self-declared Artist of the Sixth Mass Extinction, a designer instead of a protector of biodiversity, a conservationist who works via novelty rather than nurturance.
Trouble Songs: A Musicological Poetics is an investigation of the appearance of the word trouble in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music. It is a book-length project, comprised of three parts, each broken into modular chapters, or Trouble Songs, which build on one another as a series of albums, but are also intended as remixable and programmable singles. What follows is a compilation that spans those three parts.
The most compelling feature of William Carlos Williams’s poetry, for me, has perhaps always been the complex tango of virility and fragility that fight it out in his deeply autobiographical poetry. The idea that man could be both potent and capable of great frailty was a fact of his work that resonated with the vigorous and clumsy youth I was when I first encountered his work. Williams traces the deterioration and ultimate betrayals of his body in his poetry, reflecting on both the particularities of his condition and the universals of aging.
Fred Wahwas born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan in 1939, but he grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. He studied music and English literature at the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s where he was one of the founding editors of the poetry newsletter TISH. After graduate work in literature and linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and the State University of New York at Buffalo, he returned to the Kootenays in the late 1960s where he taught at Selkirk College and was the founding coordinator of the writing program at David Thompson University Centre. He retired from the University of Calgary in 2003 and now lives in Vancouver. He has been editorially involved with a number of literary magazines over the years, such as Open Letter and West Coast Line.