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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/05/07 at 02:43 PM

Here is the first installment of further comment on Poetry 37:5. As mentioned before, one anomalous feature in the collection of second generation Modernists is the presence of a first generation figure, William Carlos Williams.

Williams had met Ezra Pound when they were both at Penn. They both spent about their first decade of writing in mostly standard meters with rhyme, and they both modernized themselves at about the same time. Whereas Pound got himself some degree of attention (as mentioned before, it was not nearly as much attention as he gets now), Williams gained no traction in the larger world of poetry till late in his life. Pound had committed himself without reserve to a career as a poet, and his work, even the miniaturist “Station of the Metro,” was done in grand gestures. Williams became a doctor who wrote in his off hours, and his work was kept small, or at least kept away from grandness. His book-length poem was about a town in New Jersey (unavoidable pop culture reference: in the first season of the Sopranos, when Uncle Junior’s crew throws Rusty Irish off the pedestrian bridge, that’s Paterson Falls—& thus the great cultural leviathan turns to Postmodernism). Pound also left for Europe, while Williams stayed home. This would be another characteristic of the Objectivists: except for Bunting, they were all Americans who stayed in the U.S.

I just want to mention one thing about Williams’s work. At its best, it has a springiness, both tensile and elastic. Or if I may use another line of imagery, it has a greenness, as in uncured wood. Each poem is a cabinet made of green wood, with a kind of warping pressure within it. One way of evaluating Williams’s poems would be to prefer those with higher degrees of such tension. The pressure is not consistent throughout his career.

Of course I’m not being terribly original here. After all, the “spring” in Spring and All is more than just a season. Spring and All was first a book, published in 1923 by a small French press. (Nothing like having your book typeset by folks who don’t speak the language.) The book alternates a series of twenty-seven poems (the famous red wheelbarrow first appears here) with short prose apologetics of the wild and speculative sort. When the poems are removed from the book, the first in the sequence, “By the road to the contagious hospital,” is also titled “Spring and All.” & there’s a line in the poem, “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” that could serve as an ars poetica, a condensation of all I’ve said: the “stiff curl” of a steel spring, only it’s green.

After the jump I’ll offer a couple of examples with some cursory explication.

Here is the poem from the Objectivist issue:


The alphabet of
the trees

is fading in the
song of the leaves

the crossing
bars of the thin

letters that spelled

and the cold
have been illumined

pointed green

by the rain and sun —
The strict simple

principles of
straight branches

are being modified
by pinched-out

ifs of color, devout

the smiles of love —
. . . .

until the stript

move as a woman’s
limbs under cloth

and praise from secrecy
quick with desire

love’s ascendancy
in summer —

In summer the song
sings itself

above the muffled words —

While I think this is a good poem, I do not think it is one of Williams’s strongest. There’s too much reliance on
enjambment to create the tension, and overall too much explanation, not enough imagery. I would offer the following, earlier poem as a stronger example:


The green-blue ground
is ruled with silver lines
to say the sun is shining

And on this moral sea
of grass or dreams lie flowers
or baskets of desires

Heaven knows what they are
between cerulean shapes
laid regularly round

Mat roses and tridentare
leaves of gold
threes, threes and threes

Three roses and three stems
the basket floating
standing in the horns of blue

Repeated to the ceiling
to the windows
where the day

Blows in
the scalloped curtains to
the sound of rain

I would offer this poem as an example of a greenwood cabinet. There is both a strong sense of an integral form to the poem as well as a sense of formlessness, of escaping bounds. Pardon my hyperbole, but I fell as if each line were almost bursting, as if each line could be its own separate poem. & if you like to spice up your poetry with philosophy, there’s a quick segue available to Kant’s ideas about wallpaper.


News That Stays News Dept.: Although the meaning changed, Williams’s title totally still works.

The hardest thing for me to get with WCW, but which once got finally made me a fan, was an appreciation of that creakier stretching-these-tired-bones-too-far music you hear in “The Botticelian Trees”. Rheumy, soppy, cranky, grandpa stuff. but “for some reason” it began clicking with me in middle age.

Speaking of Google Books, the original edition of Spring and All is out of Sonny Bono’s copyright corral and so anyone with a copy could produce an online facsimile. While we await that generosity, full reprints can be found in the still-indispensable New Directions paperback, Imaginations and in The Collected. Teachers, the anthologized bits are a lot more exciting in this context.

By Ray Davis on 09/09/07 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The combination of your “green wood” analogy and my “grandpa” one made me remember WCW’s recurringly-nightmarish account of his grandmother’s stroke, first in The Great American Novel:

But I’ll pay you for this, she said as they were sliding her into the ambulance, I’ll pay you for this. You young people think you are awfully smart, don’t you. I don’t want to see them again, those fuzzy things, what are they, trees?

And then as “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”:

she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.

But, dope that I am, I didn’t remember the fourth line of that great rheumy poem “Asphodel”:

save that it’s green and wooden --

By Ray Davis on 09/09/07 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Three comments in a row from one guy? Well, I’ve seen worse, I suppose. Rarely.)

Anyway, we should probably acknowledge that WCW’s springy wood wasn’t just aimed at cabinet-making. His horny-old-creep tendencies, being expressed more directly than Yeats’s or Pound’s, can be pretty offputting—although I eventually came to appreciate the directness.

By Ray Davis on 09/09/07 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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