William Carlos Williams Part II
There ought to be a terminology for writing that describes without making the scene intelligible to the reader. It’s not that Williams decontextualizes it, he just talks about the experience of it. He doesn’t say, “Here I am at…” That’s a depletion of energy. The interest is in finding a source of energy and riding that energy down to the end of the poem as far as it will go. If it’s sexual excitement or insight, he’s going to front load it and proceed from there. The procession is from one object of attention to the next.
The front loading of the insight with the attraction, with the 100% [all or nothing] bet is not “hey I noticed something” it’s “Oh My God I Noticed Something.” And that’s O’Hara. He starts with what they call in elementary school writing classes “the grabby beginning.” It’s a strange kind of grabbing in Williams, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In O’Hara there’s more of a will to be intelligible about this usually, except when there isn’t, and then there’s really no explanation of what’s going on. In Kenneth’s flying language poems I don’t always know what’s impelling but I do know I’m impelled. I just don’t always know what the impulse is grounded in. With Williams at the beginning anyway there’s real clarity about the grounding, about what the pushing off point is, and sometimes it’s there in O’Hara and sometimes in Koch, but less so. And I guess in Kenneth’s case I’m thinking of the poems in Sun Out, which I still can’t really believe was published. Was it? Did that book really come out? That’s a strange question.
“January Morning” is the one that ends
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
Which is a feint, huh? as Sean Killian used to say. A pointing away. I don’t know that he wanted you to understand; he wanted you to listen to the poem and get all the way to the end. I don’t think you do that by making it understandable. Or rather, I don’t think Williams thought you do that by making it understandable. You do that by setting the reader up. “The beauties of travel are due to / the strange hours” kept to see them. Your usual capacity for contextualizing and intellectualizing what you see, and remaining at a distance and being told what you’re seeing, these capacities are impaired by being out and about earlier than normal. If you’re dazed. It’s the same quality of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Miracle for Breakfast.” That one, there’s a collusion, and a muting of the excitement, a collusion with the reader. In Al Que Quiere, Williams is the crazy friend who’s dragging you along…The method in “Miracle for Breakfast” indicates its author may have been (marginally) easier to be around than the author of “January Morning.” But I think the excitement is at a premium in Williams. Personality, though. There’s a jump. I feel like I just surfaced. I feel sometimes speaking is like surfacing, isn’t that a Margaret Atwood book?
So how many scenes are there in “January Morning”: fifteen. Those roman numerals, a little like Stevens. 1917 is Al Que Quiere. Need to look at Stevens and see if this was happening at the same time.
The chronology at the back of the Library of America Stevens reports that by 1914-15 Arensberg is introduced to Williams at a salon. Harmonium isn’t until ’23, correct? ’24? which would coincide with Spring and All. Ain’t That Something. Pretty good year for the verse.
So this numbered series that Williams is working on comes in after having met Stevens. There are roman numeraled poems before that: there’s “Promenade,” “Chicory,” and “Daisies.” What about “History.” Is that what it’s called? The one about the museum. And Williams did it all before the voice recorder. He just transcribed the hesitations, the remarkable incomprehensible side remarks. Yeah there are some. But they’re not the short sharp shocks of “Sunday Morning.” The ice crumbs. Ice slates. Ice what. There’s a lot of ice. A lot of too cold too bright too grey extreme circumstances, intense sense experiences, not meant to be experienced at length. And therefore short poems. Is that right? Why are the poems so short.
“History” is not roman numerals, it’s a long sequence, each section is rather long compared to “January Morning.” I wanted to call it “Sunday Morning,” it is similar in form to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and would have been, I believe, of the same vintage.
Oh, yeah, immediately after “January Morning” comes “To A Solitary Disciple,” which appears to be an argument with Stevens, I think.
Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
the point of the steeple
than that its color
The color would be an interest of Stevens, whereas the angle would be an interest of Williams. This great poem of complementing ends with Williams succumbing to the colors, giving in and agreeing:
It is true:
in the light colors
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue.
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.
So what’s “jasmine” doing there, how are we using that.
Anyway. I better get ready for work.
I also note that Al Que Quiere ends with a ten page poem called “The Wanderer: A Rococo Study.” If that’s not Stevens’s influence or presence in Williams’ imagination, I’ll eat my hat. And I do have a hat.
With Williams the question is why is he saying the things he’s saying. With Spring and All it becomes incredibly difficult to understand at any given point why he’s apparently calling for genocide or just looking and telling you what he’s feeling about it. The explanations he gives do not actually help understand. The explanations have been taken up as gospel but they’re dissimulations. Feints. The question you have to keep coming back to with Williams is why is he saying this. What is he feeling. What am I feeling, being led around by this person. He’s leading us around and it’s exciting, but why. To some extent it doesn’t matter; he wins on points, as they say.
Williams’s work is a monologue. His opposition to Eliot is not over prosody, not over subject matter, not really even over tone, though I think that’s where their second sharpest difference is. His real argument with Eliot is that Eliot is not a monologist he’s a dramatist and is constantly changing who’s speaking. Williams is not a dramatist and neither for that matter is Stevens. Williams and Stevens are very precarious but still clinging to the unitary speaker who you can count on for a certain kind of utterance. You can’t count on that with Eliot at all. Although, as Eliot goes on, you can. And “J. Alfred Prufrock,” whatever else you or I might think of it, is a summation of one view of the unitary [Unitarian] speaker: namely, why would you want to do that. Why would you want to be yourself. Stevens and Williams both have their reasons for wanting to. And they envy Eliot, Williams more than Stevens, his election to change who is speaking. But they just can’t do it. Moore, Williams, Stevens, really fairly consistent personality being marketed. Whereas in Eliot…there’s some overlap in Williams’ and Eliot’s and Moore’s principles of selection. Not with Stevens, he’s not clearly about the montage, he retains the frame. Whereas WIlliams, Eliot, and Moore are about the glory of the unexpected example and changing the subject as a means of keeping attention, a counterintuitive strategy unless you’re going really quickly which is difficult to do very long without the aid of caffeine or other stimulant. Don’t know about the relation of Williams to pharmaceuticals. I know he prescribed, don’t know if he was a doctor who prescribed for himself. I don’t believe it, though he is pretty peppy and benzedrine was over the counter then, right? The incomprehensible, is there a pharmacological explanation for Williams’s readiness to change the subject as there may have been for O’Hara and certainly was for the Beats and Ted Berrigan and forward.
And if William Carlos Williams had been in a northern suburb of New York City, would he have written a five-part epic about Yonkers? If he had been in Connecticut, a poem called Norwalk or Bridgeport? Stamford? Stamford: The Great American Epic. But Paterson has father and son in it, which I suppose has been remarked upon. But if that’s his point it’s a poor choice since he doesn’t have that much to say about his father or being a father. The mentor figures in his poems are women and the objects of everything else are women. He’s a hard one to feel comfortable with. Robert Coles does feel comfortable with him in a really lovely book that is more an expression of preference for the world view and outlook of Williams than an explication of why his writing is effective. His writing is effective, and there is a lot of it, and not all of it is equally effective. Even the duds have value for his followers and that does not automatically disqualify them. They are duds. And yet with Williams the subject of duds always comes up, whereas with people who are giant duds, Lowell say, it doesn’t come up at all. So let’s leave aside the subject of duds. Pick up truck with an all wheel, four wheel ATV in back and a girl reading a paperback book in the passenger seat. Didn’t see the baseball cap and sunglasses but I can guess, on the driver.