Reassessing the Poetry of William Carlos Williams

Influence of William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams has exercised more influence on contemporary American poetry than anyone else. Outwardly he was far from revolutionary: the middle-class doctor with his busy practice in New Jersey — complete with shady suburban home, wife, two sons, cat, roses and rhododendrons {1} — but he also turned out a steady stream of novelty in poems, articles, short stories, critical studies and novels: over forty titles in all. To the European reactionaries, the poetry of Williams seemed perfunctory, even trite, but the good doctor continued his crusade, from his early days of kinship with Pound and Eliot, through the wilderness years when he found it difficult to place his work, to the 1950s when the Williams template became the foundation for new poetries. Throughout the vicissitudes of fashion, these seemingly unpretentious poems remained rooted in actual American life and speech, though triumphant recognition came only late in life, after strokes had cruelly restricted their author's powers of expression.

New Approaches to Poetry Writing

Williams had little time for poetry on the conformist European model with its rehash of traditions and contrivances. America was a new, self-confident country, and its poetry should be the same: fresh, true to its roots and derived from everyday experience. Partly because his own work had to be scribbled at intervals snatched from a busy routine, and partly because he saw it as the way forward for American poetry, Williams came to champion the instantaneous response to what was vividly given to the senses. Experience and expression were two sides of the same coin, of course. One could only wait for the heightened moment, though still learning to 'perfect the abilities to record at the moment when the consciousness is enlarged by the sympathies and the unity of understanding that imagination gives.' Many of the poems were improvisations, therefore, whose imperfect nature one had to accept, together with any uninspired phrasing or emotional flatness. He assembled, crafted and extended his jottings, of course, but the emphasis was on maintaining the freshness, the 'just as it came' quality. Indeed that most famous of poem, The Red Wheelbarrow took no more than two minutes to dash off: {2}

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

What that 'depends upon' refers to has been much discussed — farming, syntax, what poetry expresses, how we view the world {3} — but perhaps means nothing more than what it says, that we can take experiences many ways, but sometimes we should just surrender to the moment and not burden ourselves with what only clouds our animal happiness in being alive. Many of Williams' poems are like this: simple observations in simple language: {4}

The little sparrows
Hop ingenuously
About the pavement
Quarreling
With sharp voices
Over those things
That interest them.

Though sometimes concluding with something weighter: {4}

Then again,
The old man who goes about
Gathering dog lime
Walks in the gutter
Without looking up
And his tread
Is more majestic than
That of the Episcopal minister
Approaching the pulpit

Williams' earlier poems are often called 'imagist', and indeed the movement fascinated him, but from the first he sought something more, to be poetry in the old sense of making something more general from individual experience. He learned from imitating offerings in Palgrave's 'Golden Treasury'. His lines, unrhymed as they were, and of varying length, nonetheless arranged words with a keen ear not only for a conversational rhythms but for the sonic properties of individual words. Much 'free verse' of the period is traditional verse with various rules relaxed, but this was something different: homespun American, built from the ground up and owing little to British examples: {5}

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,

Williams was not an amateur timidly following outdated fashions. He thought deeply on the theory of poetry, corresponded with fellow Modernists, made trips to European colleagues in 1924 and 1927, and was published widely in the small presses, albeit making little headway against the influence of Pound and Eliot, whose preoccupation with the past he rejected. Why should we consult Greek and Roman literature when our own town provides such vivid material? Like Somerset Maugham, his medical practice gave him access to the intimate lives of his patients, allowing Williams 'to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos..., to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.' {6}

But in fact, I would suspect, Williams's poems were also sorted and crafted, but towards simplicity, and they are not without other, earlier influences: Symbolism for example: {7}

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air

Nor were they entirely spontaneous outpourings, not when extended into ambitious poems: {8}

But—
      Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
that's the way it is with me somehow.

The line breaks coincide with pauses in the sense in this ending of January Morning, and whole poem is packed with acute observation and social context. But is such homely material really the domain of poetry? Could not this section be expressed as prose since the line breaks largely coincide with changes in logic and syntax? Not really:

But, well, you know how the young girls run giggling on Park Avenue after dark when they ought to be home in bed? Well, that's the way it is with me somehow.

The typography is integral to the poem's effect. Rephrasing the poem as a traditional rhyming piece is even more disastrous:

Well, you know how often it is said
of young girls running, giggling, through
the dark, along Park Avenue
when they should be home in bed:
that's how it is with me somehow.

What was idiomatic and charming becomes forced and trite. Why? Because we judge it other, older standards, I think, against the shadowy memory of thousands of piece we have read from earlier periods, something Williams was trying to prevent. He wanted a new poetry built on new standards.

But the techniques were fairly simple:

To a Poor Old Woman
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her {9}

Repetition is a favourite device of Williams', a subtle form of reference that calls itself, i.e. like a recursive computer program the 'tasting good' becomes its own frame of reference, excluding any larger reference to social concerns, etc.

Immersion in the Present

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror{10}

Williams doesn't set the scene in any conventional way but makes reference by immersing himself (and reader) in the sensuously-given immediate present.

Naif Unconventionality

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral —
for you have it over a troop
of artists—

unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary. {11}

Williams is here with a more abstract frame of reference: what is appropriate to funerals. The poem urges us to spare the ostentatious expense of a conventional send-off and give the money to worthier causes. Is the poem being serious? Of course not. In a world where wealth equates to respect and standing, the poem can only be a little in-joke between friends. As a theme it's hardly worth pursuing, but allows Williams to go into some detail, though the medium has now (1962) become an unlovely prose.

Social Comment

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs

some doctor's family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were

an excrement of some sky {12}

The Williams' style breaks down at this point into crude imagery and ungainly prose (though 'voluptuous water' is good) negating any compassion we might feel for the unfortunate Elsie.

Spontaneity can be overdone, therefore. In one sense, all poems are written spontaneously, only the spontaneity doesn't usually last for the whole writing session. Poets have to cut out and re-grow faulty sections, trusting that improvements can be generated spontaneously. And spontaneously again when they're still not satisfactory. Poets also view their creations in a similar fashion, seeing them again with fresh eyes some weeks or months later. Even Williams will have revised his more substantial poems — and most certainly did with Paterson, which was years in the making.

Rewriting is also a courtesy to readers, not to waste their time unnecessarily, though it's not one practised by Modernists overmuch, 'difficulty' being part of the package. Like Eliot with his confusion between emotions expressed and evoked, Williams didn't sufficiently distinguish between spontaneity and the effect of spontaneity: two very different matters. Many poets slave away endlessly — in literary skill by undertaking translations, in understanding by writing or reading literary criticism — until lines come naturally to them, but those lines will still need revision, generally repeatedly, till all the problems are removed, and the lines seem simply given them.

David Perkins {13} indeed raises this point obliquely. After praising Williams for his clean-edged presentation, for the humour, swiftness and marvellous lightness of the lines, their naturalness and ease, he notes that the poems of the 1920s and 1930s also 'perform less than a poetic line ordinarily does.' Moreover, as such tabbed lines become the norm, their novelty wears off, just as we grow bored with the Duchamp ready-mades once their point is made. The more damaging observation is that the Williams style does not cope well with the complexities of life, or — worse — the simplicity is limiting and/or false to experience.

Paterson

The older poetry was different. It was an elitist art that employed highly complicated devices to refine, shape and emphasize the thoughts and emotions put across: rhetoric, imagery, allusion, rhyme, subtle patterning by metre, even different language, which was far from the everyday. License and responsibility went together: poetry was given great license because it carried great responsibilities, to press language to its limit, to give depth, sensuousness and beauty to everyday experience, expressing as fully and movingly as possible what was important to human beings.

But Williams was having none of this. It wasn't natural. It wasn't contemporary. And it wasn't how he saw life in Rutherford. Why not tell it as it was, when the portrayal would stand for small town life, something quintessentially American? He had written novels of reportage, without plots, and the stage was set for a long poem, the equal of Pound's Cantos, but incorporating raw facts rather than Pound's obscure allusions. So came Paterson, Williams' long poem in 5-6 books. {14} The verse is written in broken lines of the 'variable foot' but the poem also includes prose passages taken from historical documents, newspapers, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters. The setting is the city of Paterson on the Passaic River near his hometown of Rutherford, but grows into the consciousness of a gigantic, mythic man (Paterson), who is also the author, poet and doctor. Critics spoke approvingly of the first volume, but found later volumes difficult to follow. Added to organisational difficulties — also Pound's problem — was the indigestible nature of the disparate material. The borehole data is an obvious example. What does the following add to the poem? {15}

'SUBSTRATUM

Artesian well at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson.

The following is the tabular account of the specimens found In this well, with the depths at which they were taken, in feet. The boring began in September, 1879, and was continued until November, 1880.

DEPTH DESCRIPTION OF MATERIALS

65 feet. . . Red sandstone, fine
110 feet. . . Red sandstone, coarse
182 feet. . , Red sandstone, and a little shale
400 feet. . . Red sandstone, shaly

[etc., to the concluding:]

2,100 feet. . . Shaly sandstone

At this depth the attempt to bore through the red sandstone was abandoned, the water being altogether unfit for ordinary use. The fact that the rock salt of England, and of some of the other salt mines of Europe, is found in rocks of the same age as this, raises the question whether it may not also be found here. '

That the town sits on rocks making an unsuitable aquifer? No. Williams wanted sensory observations to stand for themselves, without secondary thoughts and inferences getting in the way. The poem then meditates on petrifaction and the deposition of sediments, passing to a snippet of local history, a farmer's wife ill-treated by her husband. No doubt a conventional travel or local history book would have worked the observation into a reflection on the geographical location of the town, or the hardships of the earlier settlers, but Williams wanted readers to simply picture that great mass of rock. Do they? Probably, but reluctantly, I'd have thought. The details become tedious and have no emotional impact. Moreover, as so often with Pound, whose allusions don't add to understanding, the borehole data would have little to say to the professional, the geologist who wants to know the wider setting: age (it's late Triassic to early Jurassic), geographical distribution of the (Passaic) formation, sedimentation features (lacustrine and subaerial), and so forth. Human beings like to make sense of their surroundings, and bald observations remain just that, not cohering until interpreted and integrated into larger themes.

Far more damaging to the poem were prose snippets of local history, which stand proud of the matrix of indifferent verse. Contrast the mentally conceived: {16}

Jostled as are the waters approaching
the brink, his thoughts
interlace, repel and cut under,
rise rock-thwarted and turn aside
but forever strain forward — or strike
an eddy and whirl, marked by a
leaf or curdy spume, seeming

With the reportage that follows:

'In February 1857, David Hower, a poor shoemaker with a large family, out of work and money, collected a lot of mussels from Notch Brook near the City of Paterson. He found in eating them many hard substances. At first he threw them away but at last submitted some of them to a jeweler who gave him twenty-five to thirty dollars for the lot. Later he found others. One pearl of fine lustre was sold to Tiffany for $900 and later to the Empress Eugenie for $2,000 to be known thenceforth as the "Queen Pearl" the finest of its sort in the world today.'

Much of Paterson only comes alive in its snippets of local history — which have been written conventionally, with the story-teller's art that Williams rejects.

The many internet articles {17} on William Carlos Williams point to the vitality of his verse where the line breaks give shape and variety to what would otherwise be prose: {18}

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

But it's not very effective or distinguished prose. The earlier delicacy in Williams' free verse is disappearing, being replaced by a formula: break the line whenever there's a change in the thought, the tempo or rhythm of the line or where a speaker would make a momentary pause. The trouble is not the use of a colloquial, everyday language per se, which was even to be welcomed after the excesses of high Modernism, but the lameness (verging on banality, if we can speak freely) of its deployment. As we have noted with Pound's imagism, the objective correlate doesn't work. Emotion is not generated by simply stating something, and Williams' descriptions lack the life-giving touch we expect in a good travel writer. Poems by Williams make unchallenging teaching material, but they jettison the larger purposes and sophisticated techniques of poetry as was, which demanded more from writer and reader, but also gave more.

Diction: Poetry Before Williams

That style in traditional poetry can be artificial, no one will doubt. The diction of its poetry is a fiction, neither that of the speaker nor the audience. Subtle conventions apply, which change with the period and the genre. Meditations on death are not written as limericks, etc. At its most basic, etymology is important, since the Saxon, Norman or Latin root gives words their characters and dispositions. Too idiomatic an expression calls up the mundane, and is inappropriate in many instances. The poetic diction of the eighteenth century, though much derided today, was an attempt to remove contemporary and irrelevant associations of words and so release the full potential of their primary meanings. Greek classical verse contains hundreds of words, verbal forms and constructions that are not found in prose. {19} Homer's language is a mixture of dialects, and Dante wrote in a similarly eclectic vein.

But an abstract language is not necessarily a dead language. 'Our literacy programme will make Government more transparent, and bring opportunities to the many still disadvantaged in rural communities', says the political pamphlet. 'First remove screw-retaining devices E and G', says the workshop manual. Both are using language suited to their purposes, and conceptual and direct vocabularies are not easily interchanged, both standing on their intentions and their results.

Lexicons are governed by social usage. The Elizabethans embroidered words with religious, courtly and pastoral associations, but these trappings were gradually dropped when the eighteenth century imposed a more correct and classical diction. The Romantics introduce a new inner world with cold, pale, grey, home, child, morning, memory, ear, feel, hold, sleep, turn, weep, etc. Later came moon, stir, water, body, shadow, house. The mid-nineteenth century popularised dead, red, rain, stone. Nineteen thirties poetry was packed with references to industrial buildings and political change. {20}

Words do not possess wholly transparent meanings, and in the more affective poetry their latent associations, multiple meanings, textural suggestions and rhythmic power are naturally given freer rein. But the touchstone is always the audience, even the audience of one. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet, said Samuel Johnson, and that observation remains true, as much for traditionalists writing inside a poetic tradition as for others trying to kindle poetry out of naked experience.

Words create mood and context, and for this purpose old-sounding, old-fashioned, or obsolete words have often been employed, even by the greatest of poets — Virgil, Ronsard, Spenser. Aristotle stipulated that there should be a mixture of ordinary and unfamiliar words in the language of poetry. Ordinary words made for clarity. Unfamiliar words (which included metaphors but not obscure technicalities) made the language shine, and avoided the appearance of meanness and the prosaic. {16} And of course language should be appropriate to context.

So arose the understanding that words were not good or bad in themselves, but only by virtue of their placing in a line. Languages like English allow considerable variety. Into He said shortly that she was not to go. the word however can be inserted correctly, if a little awkwardly, into all positions, giving not only rhythmic flexibility but nuances of meaning. But poets have generally wanted more. If the standard word order in English is subject, verb object, that order is not followed in these percentages of lines overall: Pope 32%, Milton 19%, Shelley 15%, Shakespeare and Tennyson 12%. Perhaps the commonest variation was hyperbaton, inversion of noun and adjective. {21}

All this was anathema to Williams, of course, but F.L. Lucas's observation {19} that, while poetry can certainly be written without poetic diction, it is immeasurably the poorer for it, calls for some deeper understanding of reference and allusion. Bakhtin {18-19} stressed the multi-layered nature of language, which he called heteroglossia. Not only are there social dialects, jargons, turns of phrase characteristic of the various professions, industries, commerce, of passing fashions, etc., but also socio-ideological contradictions carried forward from various periods and levels in the past. Language is not a neutral medium that can be simply appropriated by a speaker, but something that comes to us populated with the intentions of others. Every word tastes of the contexts in which it has lived its socially-charged life. Bakhtin's concepts go further than Derrida's notion of 'trace', or Foucault's archaeology of political usage. Words are living entities, things that are constantly being employed and partly taken over, carrying opinions, assertions, beliefs, information, emotions and intentions of others, which we partially accept and modify. {22-23}

Bakhtin also argued that, for poems to achieve autonomy and artistic unity, these polyglot social contexts (heteroglossia) had to be fused together, losing their worlds of reference. The matter is no doubt technical, perhaps contentious, but we can surely accept that words don't operate in social vacuums, and must therefore allude to previous usage.

Reference and Allusion

However notable it seems, and sometimes overdone, allusion is not limited to Modernist poetry, but occurs in all poetry. To summarize matters quickly: {24} Bad poets merely borrow, where good poets steal, i.e. make the borrowings distinctly their own. Many poems used words or phrases borrowed from the poetry of other authors, but allusion means more than plagiarism or poetic diction, and something other than extended simile. {21} There are several terms in use — reinscription (amplifications of previous texts), quotation (taking over the previous text in its entirety, including concept and texture), echo (lacking conscious intention) and intertextuality (involuntary incorporation of previous word usage and associations {25}) — but a literary allusion is an explicit or implicit reference to another literary text that can be recognized and understood as such by competent readers. {26}

Allusion is conventionally used to add historical depth, suggest an association with literary excellence., display literary knowledge, advertise membership of a poetic tradition or community, suggest an association with literary excellence, show topicality by reference to recent events, sharpen contrasts, as in satire, and imply a generality of experience, often the human condition.

Allusion is the staple of many poetic traditions. Islamic poetry draws heavily on the Koran, as Jewish {27} and Christian {28-29} poetry does on the Bible. Until the late nineteenth century, and even beyond, {30} English poetry also made much use of Classical allusion.{31} The Chinese indeed expect to find repeated allusion in poetry, and some of Du Fu's late poems, for example, have every word or phrase alluding to usage in the illustrious past. {32} Japanese poetry even laid down rules governing its use. {33} Modernist poetry also employs its own brand of allusion, sometimes shifting the frames of reference to matters mediated by contentious theory. {34-35} Most strikingly is this seen in Ezra Pound's work, which serves as as a benchmark for Williams' own use of reference. (Readers only interested in Williams can skip this section: it's not vital to the argument.)

Digression to Pound's Cantos (1925-60)

Ideograms

Ezra Pound's allusions were initially simple quotes, which evoked the work from which they were taken, giving the Cantos a thickness and seriousness of meaning. But they could also be juxtaposed, which set up shocks and interrelations in the reader. By 1927, the approach had developed into what Pound called ideograms, where the component images interacted 'simultaneously to present a complex of meaning'. {36} Take, for example, lines 36-44 of Canto XXX:

Came Madam 'Yle
Clothed with the light of the altar
And with the price of the candles.
'Honour? Balls for yr honour!
Take two million and swallow it.'
Is come Messire Alfonso
And is departed by boat for Ferrara
And has passed here without saying 'O'.

Pound is referring to the proxy marriage of Alfonso d'Este to Lucrezia Borgia (whom he calls Madame Hyle, the Greek word for matter), which reflects the sexual and monetary corruption of the Papacy under the Borgias. In larger context, this and surrounding stanzas illustrate Pound's belief that Baroque art had subverted the purity of the Italian primitives, and that the taste and vigour of families like the d'Este were preferable to the 'usury' of contemporary banking institutions. {37)

Historical and Topical Allusion

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
by the heels at Milano {38}

The lines conflate the Fascist claims to bring social justice to Italy with the deaths of both the founder of the Manichaen religion and of Benito Mussolini and his mistress in the closing stages of WWII. Pound wrote this opening section of the Pisan Cantos when the death of his hero was still fresh in his mind, and when he himself faced prosecution for treason.

Literary Parodies

Oh to be in England now that Winston's out
Now that there's room for doubt
And the bank may be the nation's
And the long years of patience
And labour's vacillations
May have let the bacon come home, {39}

The section starts with a parody of Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad, {40} and moves into political comment on the Labour Government returned in elections after WWII. Pound is still identifying with the Axis powers.

Good Guy Stereotypes

Pound's allusions can also descend to a sort of chinoiserie, a simplistic view of the orient and elsewhere. His good guys in Canto LV, for example, are not merely caricatures, but mishandle Chinese history.

Came OUEN-TSONG and kicked out 3000 fancies
let loose the falcons

yet he also was had by the eunuchs after 15 years reign
OU-TSONG destroyed hochang pagodas,
spent his time drillin' and huntin'
Brass idols turned into ha'pence
chased out the bonzes from temples
46 thousand temples . . . {41}

These allude to 'true events' of course, as PhD theses and student's guides demonstrate, {42-45}, but only in the sense that events in 'A Child's First Book of the Saints' are true, as simple pictures. Economic matters, and more so the structure of Chinese society, {46-48} are too complex (and fascinating) to be properly represented by such cut-out figures. The allusions baffle the common reader and exasperate the knowledgeable, so failing in their primary task, which is to illustrate, support and enlarge our understanding of Pound's stress on good governance.

Private Allusions

so that leaving America I brought with me $80
and England a letter of Thomas Hardy's
and Italy one eucalyptus pip
from the salita that goes up from Rapallo {49}

The allusions here are clear enough to anyone who knows Pound's life, but the memories, or rather what they meant to Pound, stay private.

Pretension

If Basil sing of Shah Nameh, and wrote
{Frdwsi in Farsi}
Firdush' on his door
Thus saith Kabir: 'Politically' said Rabindranath
they are inactive. They think, but then there is
climate, they think but it is warm or there are flies
or some insects' {50}

Pound was inclined to air his knowledge by playing the 'village explainer'. Persian and Hindi themes seem hardly relevant in this example, and even Firdush' is misspelt, unless this is one of Pound's chummy improvisations. Kabir {51} is a very different writer from Ferdowsi, {52} and Rabindranath Tagore's {53} comment seems little more than name-dropping.

For all his opposition to Pound's theories, however, Williams also makes reference, constantly in his Paterson, but with a difference. Pound rewrote the material, weaving it into the fabric of his verse, or attempting to do so. William lifted the material wholesale, where traditional devices, hitherto regarded as essential — rhyme, metre, alliteration, etc. — could be seen as hindrances to sincerity or creativity. But there were also verse passages in Paterson as baffling as Pound's:

For the beginning is assuredly
the end — since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.
Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months' wonder, the city
the man, an identity — it can't be
otherwise — an
interpenetration, both ways. {54}

And this, referring to a flower:

Were we near enough its stinking breath
would fell us. The temple upon
the rock is its brother, whose majesty
lies in jungles — are made to spring,
at the rifle-shot of learning: to kill
and grind those bones:
These terrible things they reflect:
the snow falling into the water,
part upon the rock, part in the dry weeds {55}

A third example, of very many scattered throughout the poem:

A delirium of solutions, forthwith, forces
him into back streets, to begin again:
up hollow stairs among acrid smells
to obscene rendezvous. And there he finds
a festering sweetness of red lollipops —
and a yelping dog:

Come YEAH, Chichi! Or a great belly
that no longer laughs but mourns
with its expressionless black navel love's
deceit.

They are the divisions and imbalances
of his whole concept, made weak by pity,
flouting desire; they are — No ideas but
in the facts {56}

And so on. Pound can be obscure in learned ways, which academic research can generally decipher. Williams is obscure in more direct ways, by presenting observations and thoughts shorn of their connecting matter or context.

Asphodel

I have been arguing that Williams' poetry is very limited. The poems 'work' only when restricted to simple observations or narratives. They become incoherent when making more abstract or general statements, at least on the evidence of Paterson. But perhaps the test is unfair. If Pound failed in his Cantos it's unreasonable to expect Williams to succeed in his own extended poem. So let's look at Asphodel, {57} written in the stepped down, three foot foot he developed for Paterson 2, which was called 'one of the most beautiful poems in the language' by W.H. Auden. {58} It was originally intended as continuation of Paterson, where Williams could put everything left over, but came to be a celebration of his married life, and — most importantly — an apology for several affairs, of which his wife knew little or nothing. It was a particularly difficult period for Williams: his life was threatened by the likelihood of another stroke, his appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress had been withdrawn over alleged communist sympathies, and he spent two months in a psychiatric hospital being treated for depression. He wrote several letters to Flossie confessing to affairs, so that the poem also asks for forgiveness. It was time, if anything, for searing, heartfelt truth.

Yet the poem has difficulties where it shouldn't, even with its central symbol, the asphodel. Williams calls it 'that greeny thing' and claims to have collected and pressed it as a child between the pages of a book. But the asphodel he collected in New Jersey is not the plant the ancient world imagined carpeting the meadows of the underworld, but a different species altogether. Neither is it a greeny thing exactly ('Of asphodel, that greeny flower/ like a buttercup / upon its branching stem — / save that it's green and wooden'), but a striking flower with a slight perfume, i.e. not the odourless plant he describes in his most celebrated section of the poem:

As I think of it now,
        after a lifetime,
                it is as if
a sweet-scented flower
        were poised
                and for me did open.
Asphodel
        has no odor
                save to the imagination
but it too
        celebrates the light.
                It is late
but an odor
        as from our wedding
                has revived for me
and begun again to penetrate
        into all crevices
                of my world.

With its accessible lyricism, the poem won a wide readership, the critical world approaching the poem with tenderness, and indeed reverence. 'Although I almost feel it as an impertinence to offer a commentary to this poem,' said Peter Lang. {59} But here we have 'odor' as a linking reference: a married life that opened as a sweet flower, the asphodel that has an odour only in imagination, and then an odour 'as from our wedding' penetrating his life again. Perhaps what Wiliams really meant was that even an asphodel, which has no odour, smells sweet in memory, just as his marriage did again — technically incorrect but understandable. Or perhaps it was a more general comment on the past we cannot regain except in imagination. Readers are entitled to clarity on key points, however, and Williams could have looked up the asphodel's natural history in the local library, at least in correcting the poem. After all,
the Williams line
                       is always
                                      easy to write.
There are no rhymes to find, no individual line rhythms to be fitted into an overall metre, none of the umpteen traditional devices that take time and skill to employ.

The language of Asphodel is generally simple, and, where simple, works: 'Hear me out. / Do not turn away. / I have learned much in my life / from books / and out of them / about love. / Death is not the end of it.' Trouble comes when Williams tries to say more: 'All women are not Helen, / I know that, / but have Helen in their hearts. / My sweet, / you have it also, therefore / I love you / and could not love you otherwise.' Why the 'therefore'? And does Williams intend both meanings of 'otherwise'? What happened to the 'love you for yourself alone' aspect, the Flossie with the pink slippers? More trouble comes when Williams moves beyond simple statement: 'Then follows / what we have dreaded— / but it can never / overcome what has gone before.' And 'But love and the imagination / are of a piece, / swift as the light / to avoid destruction.' Couldn't this have been opened out into proper sense?

No one could dislike Asphodel, but its language did not rise to emotional heights, being generally rather prosaic ('The generous earth itself / gave us lief. / The whole world / became my garden!'), or even pedestrian (' When I was a boy / I kept a book / to which, from time / to time, / I added pressed flowers / until, after a time, / had a good collection.') The simplicity served its purpose, as doubtless did the acclaim, since praise for Williams was praise for a contemporary poetry still not popular and even well-regarded. But pamphleteeers who do not question their assumptions may also end up being limited by them.

Looking Ahead

To the many advocates of an all-American way, the poetry of William Carlos Williams seems abundantly alive, honest and progressive. To adherents of older traditions, Williams' poetry will seem willfully limited, perhaps misguided when art is such a sophisticated and complicated matter. But the fault, if fault it was, does not simply lie with Williams' basic English. Unadorned sentences can do marvellous things, provided everything they say is closely relevant. To Humbert, the object his perverted and disastrous desire first appears in Nabokov's Lolita as:

'She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.'

Behind this directness lies a host of understandings and social usages, not least of them irony and Lolita's own inclinations. In contrast, the happy primitivism of Williams, which should have created strength, too often leads to sentimental over-writing, to milking the reader of emotion beyond what is reasonable in the circumstances — here not helped by the Jack and Jill language: {12}

The birds in winter
and in summer the flowers
those are her two joys
— to cover her secret sorrow

Love is her sorrow
over which at heart
she cries for joy by the hour
— a secret she will not reveal

Her ohs are ahs
her ahs are ohs
and her sad joys
fly with the birds and blossom
with the rose

But the value of Williams to later poets can hardly be overestimated. He paved the way to open forms, poems that grew naturally as they were written, i.e. rather than being constrained by verse form or expectations of the past. He based poetry on simple facts and observation. He wrote lines that were always serviceable, without any need to be beautiful, apt or striking in any way. And, lastly, his typography, sidestepping the integration of individual speech rhythms into an overall metre, were only a step away from the 'chopped up prose' that was to become the favoured style of thoughtful, serious poetry.

But the cost is the banality of serious poetry today. Just how odd is this contemporary scene of diminished expectations in the context of world literature is probably not grasped by academics and their students. Nor are the limitations in the extraordinary achievements of the Modernists. Yeats made a poetry out his own beliefs, however limited or bizarre. Eliot's shattered the old world of letters with The Wasteland, and terrorized the opposition with his critical acumen. Pound tried to compress all that is worth knowing into his increasingly obscure Cantos. Williams replaced what had hitherto been poetry by segmented, homespun prose. All were fiercely committed men, ideologues, and perhaps a little unhinged. Only Wallace Stevens seems to have been genuinely bemused by his late fame, though he pursued his theories just as seriously, at some cost to his marriage and common sense.

All four set poetry on a new path, and one arguably more suitable to the 'century of the common man'. New ways were needed after the horrors of W.W.I, which shook the European civilizations just as grievously as had the Mongol invasions shaken the Islamic world six centuries before. And, as with Islamic world, which saw a loss in faith and an emphasis on the letter rather than the spirit of the law, so the old order in Europe with its refinement and social values was set aside for the sturdily commonplace, the factual, the 'not to be kidded' attitude of the so-called 'modern sensibility'. But the loss is still considerable. That larger world of depth, transcendence and sensibility, which sustains poetry on its longer flights of imagination, was termed passé and inauthentic, and a new order, with even less intellectual justification, had to be imposed with all the fervour of revolutionary causes.

In fact, far from being inauthentic, the previous language of poetry served a social need, which was to renew and re-invigorate the names of things mankind thought important. It was not formerly the purpose of poetry to make everything new —  which has required contemporary poetry to stake out diminishing plots in ever-more inhospitable ground — but to base the new world on the contours of the old, i.e. to find in new contexts what was previously seen as life-enhancing, deep-rooted and/or eternal in human nature.

References

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