Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Volume 1: Modern Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair
For me, William Carlos Williams was one of the poets where my first response to him was of the arrogance of youth: “What the hell is the big deal about a red wheelbarrow? I could write that poem, just string some objects along together, SHEESH.” It’s the same thing as people looking at the modern art of symmetrical colors or a canvas of white with a small blue circle on it – or whatever and scorning it as “anyone could do that, i could do that.” Yes, but
1. You didn’t “do that”, and
2. It is how these works of art fit into the larger whole that is the interesting and important conversation.
It may not be your cup of tea, and frankly modern art like that is not my cup of tea – but why it was such a radical departure, and where it all came from – is really the conversation to have, not “It sucks” and brushing things off out of hand. William Carlos Williams’ poems felt, at first glance, like that. The ones I had to read in my famous poetry class in college were the red wheelbarrow one and the one about the plums in the icebox. And while, let’s face it, the poems are so short that I can recite both of them by heart – and I didn’t even have to work on memorization – I didn’t “get it”. I got that the images were beautiful but “is that all there is?” The funny thing is that even now, if the red wheelbarrow poem comes up, a three-dimensional specific image comes into my mind, fully fleshed out, of the rain-wet grass, the wheelbarrow … Like: even without my working on it, or even thinking about it all that much, the images of that poem LAST. That was mainly William Carlos Williams’ point and that was what it was so difficult to grasp as a college student whose favorite poets were Sylvia Plath and Yeats. It may not be your cup of tea but to dismiss something as having no value merely because it is not your cup of tea is ridiculous. Recently, my friend David said to me, “I wish people could understand the difference between ‘It sucks’ and ‘I don’t like that’.” Exactly.
Ted has a lovely post on William Carlos Williams.
My admiration for William Carlos Williams just grew, as I read more and more poetry – his reputation certainly precedes him, but if you just read a lot of stuff, you start to see his influence EVERYWHERE. It’s strange because he is overshadowed in many ways by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” – but in a way I think his influence has been deeper (or at least wider). He’s not really a “poet’s poet” but it certainly is true that the more you know about him, the actual man, the more interesting the poems get. First of all, he was a doctor his whole life. So there’s that. Like Wallace Stevens, he had an actual “career” separate from his poetry. Second of all, his battles with Ezra Pound (and his regard for Ezra Pound) are well-known, and through their broadsides, one against the other, you really start to get a picture of poetry at that time. Especially because they were both American – yet Pound had chosen to live as an expatriate, and Williams scorned ex-pats. He stuck in Rutherford, New Jersey – where he was born – and never moved. He traveled to Europe, of course, but his focus was always on America, on the slang and language of America, and creating something that was “new”. Interestingly enough, Ezra Pound’s command to poets “Make it new” was somehow not enough for William Carlos Williams – who thought that Pound, and others, by living in Europe – were connecting themselves unnecessarily to a long and dead European tradition … Williams was I guess what you would call a radical. A real radical. He was a socialist, and that’s pretty apparent in a lot of his poems – but his belief that the world could be made anew, totally, goes along with his political views. He went further than Ezra Pound in his theories about “new ness”. LIke I said, their battles are essential reading. It’s not important to come down on one side or the other … we all have our personal preferences, but that’s the least interesting part about this whole thing. Pound had taken Williams under his wing (as he did with so many other poets), arranging for publication of his work, chatting him up to the powers-that-be, and really highlighting him, pushing him into the spotlight. In this case, the “student” surpassed the teacher – and had his own ideas about things – mainly that poetry should be plain and simple and direct. Williams openly lambasted poets like Pound and Eliot, attacking their ideas directly, and then Pound would respond in kind. It is all very entertaining, but more than that: illuminating. William Carlos Williams DID surpass his teacher … and his ideas about objects are just fascinating to me. He wrote:
No ideas but in things. The poet does not … permit himself to go beyond the thought to be discovered in the context of that with which he is dealing … The poet thinks with his poem.
The red wheelbarrow poem is rightly famous. It goes like this:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
To Williams, the divinity, the revelation was in the object itself. He wrote:
The particular thing … offers a finality that sends us spinning through space.
Williams’ poems are separate from autobiography, theory, philosophy, even thought. I find him to be one of the most transcendent poets that is out there. Perhaps it is because I am older now. And I have lost much. So that I can now perceive the glory in simple objects. I can see the life therein. I don’t know.
I just know that his work seems more and more relevant and awe-inspiring and interesting the older I get. I go back to him again and again. I wonder how he sees so much. I wonder at his inspiration. I love him, basically.
Here is one of my favorites of his poems. Maybe it’s because I hail from the Ocean State, I don’t know.
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.
Great post. I so love Williams essentialness, that’s probably not a word – essentiality? I feel like he wanted to remake the world, as you say, through the world, not with fancy tricks, just with wood, and dirt, and the few cold plums left in the icebox.
Hah, I literally squealed aloud when I saw the heading of this post! I’ve been hoping you’d get to Williams eventually. Love him. I just finished my first semester in college and one of my poetry teachers is a WCW nut (actually, his other favourite poet is Yeats!) and he was really great at explaining why he’s so important. On one of our last classes he brought in a cassette tape recording of a poetry reading Williams did. Have you heard him speak? He has this really high, amusing voice and he had the audience in stitches in between reading the poems. Before he read “This is just to say”, he says “I’ve been psychoanalyzed for this poem” in a mock sad voice. He’s hilarious.
My favourite of his is probably “The Great Figure”. Charles Demuth painted a visual interpretation of it, called “The Figure 5 in Gold” which is just a fabulous painting. Its currently my desktop, actually!
I’ve never encountered The Flowers By the Sea before.
Lovely poem, especially that last image.
Catherine – I haven’t heard him speak – that recording sounds hilarious!! I am glad to hear that you, as a college student, are not like me, grumbling about “what is the big deal about wheel barrows” – sounds like you had a great teacher!!
The Books: “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” – Elinor Wylie
Next book on my poetry shelf: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair I love her stuff. I am not familiar with the full scope of her work, but what…