Thursday, November 13, 2008

"No ideas but in things"- William Carlos Williams makes it plain.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

XXII by William Carlos Williams, from Spring and All published in 1923.

The work of William Carlos Williams is simply some of the finest poetry I’ve ever read, but the writer holds a fascination to me for other reasons. First, he was a doctor, practicing pediatrics in Rutherford, NJ for around forty years. The guy delivered well over a thousand babies. The prevailing sort of attitude about artists is that they work and toil at their endeavors and their general gift or contribution to society is the end result of those labors, their art. Those who find themselves on the short end of the monetary stick are often faced with various jobs that hopefully insure that they’re not sleeping in the street with a piece of cardboard for a blanket (Hell, you’re reading one right now). If aesthetic rewards are to be found but the cash is left wanting, the artist is forced to either accept these harsh facts or quit. Or they can teach. Successful artists are usually just that, sometimes contributing to charities and giving time to a cause, but it’s a true anomaly to describe someone as an Artist/Physician, particularly when it’s one of the great poets of the 20th Century.
Williams was not only one of the greats, but he remained relevant for long after most of his Modernist contemporaries. Many of his cohorts died, others saw themselves losing inspiration or ability, and Ezra Pound went off the deep end, but Williams was still making contributions to the arts by not only writing poems (winning a posthumous Pulitzer for his collection Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1963), but by also interacting with younger poets including Charles Olsen, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg (he wrote the intro to Howl and Other Poems). It may not seem like a big deal, but Williams’ first collection was published in 1909. He was born in 1883. By the time period of the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, and the New York School, it would’ve been far more likely for Williams to have turned his back on the younger generations with the obscenity trials, the widespread debate over these then new movement’s literary merit (a debate which still continues, particularly in the case of the Beats), and the tendency for people, even great artists, to lose the ability to relate to new developments and breakthroughs, even if they happened to be an influence upon them. You hear about this sort of thing too often: the once great artist now grown old who does not much of anything but complain about how the young misunderstood or ignored all the lessons to be learned in their art, or if they are somewhat modest, in the art of their contemporaries.
Well, W. C. Williams was having none of that. He continued until the end of his life with a wise grace and constant curiosity that is pretty damned inspiring. And while it can be difficult to not be seduced by the life or image or legend of a great artist and to then overrate or venerate the work, thankfully in this case, that’s not a problem, for Williams’ writing can withstand the adoration. As an example, the often anthologized poem above is flawless.
For starters, the structure: the first and last stanzas share four-syllable first lines followed by a second line of only one two-syllable word. The second and third stanzas have first lines of three syllables and second lines of one two syllable word. Yet each stanza has the same number of total words. And the entire poem is just a sentence. I can almost imagine someone speaking it, but it’s ultimately a little too beautiful, or poetic, for normal aural discourse. It follows the sensible pattern of speech, though: as Michael Riffaterre has pointed out, the word the whole poem hinges on is glazed. It’s the one part of the poem that truly promotes imagery. The other descriptive words are plain (red, white), and what triggers them to life is the vision of rain water covering the surface of the wheel barrow, and then the imagination can move on to the chickens and other things that aren’t even in the work (green grass, is the sun out?, etc). Again, this follows general speech patterns. The sentence that the poem is before it’s been broken up so perfectly lacks anything flowery or verbose. The beauty or poetry that it possesses actually stems from its direct quality, while simultaneously containing so much to digest. That’s why it seems almost too poetic to be spoken.
To continue, the structure: the first stanza, taken in isolation, really lacks anything to grasp onto. It’s purely functional. The second presents an image in a very basic way, so the reader has something to grab, but the genius of the poem is in the next part, where the imagination springs to life, the rain water infusing both the previous and the next stanza with vitality. The white chickens are presented in as basic a way as the red wheel barrow, but that amazing third stanza, the rain water, brings them both together, breathing beauty into the image, and that certainly would be enough, but that’s not all by any means. This isn’t beauty for beauty’s sake. Because the poem’s shrewd brevity insures that the first stanza, the one that when separated is purely functional, has to be included in the overall absorption of the work. It can’t be escaped. The words aren’t three pages back to be forgotten after a complex trail of language. Reading the poem means looking at the whole thing, and dealing with it in its entirety. Without the specific structure of the first stanza, the poem is a nice still life. With it, it becomes an examination of survival. The purely functional becomes absolutely essential. I agree that great pictures can contain a thousand words, but here’s a case where sixteen words contain a PICTURE. The sheer economy of its success is almost maddening.
As stated before, this poem is often included in collections, and I first encountered it in a college Lit textbook. That’s not as cool as stumbling upon it in a dusty old edition plucked from the worthy shelf of a sly old bohemian, but I like to experience greatness any way I can. Williams isn’t about cool, anyway (not digging him is simply squaresville, but that’s my deal, not his). He was about writing, and he approached it the way a good doctor would, as just a contribution (not a donation, but a fair exchange) to the give and take of human progress. Maybe I’ll pull out a less canonical poem by him at a later date for some further dazzling and devastation. There are certainly plenty to choose from. He was as generous with his art as he was with his house calls.

1 comment:

Bridget said...

Very interesting - WCW was an very important influence on many poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, in both subject matter and word patterns, the importance of ordinary vernacular to express unordinary beauty, etc... I am doing a research project on Ginsberg, and find your bio and analysis of Williams' life and work both helpful and fascinating.