Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The blazing secrecy of noon

The little bit of critical writing I've read about William Carlos Williams talks mostly about two qualities of his poetry: what some critics call his imagery (the red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens, the number 5 on the fire engine), and what some critics feel to be a resemblance (in some of Williams' poems) to idiomatic speech. I don't read a great deal of literary criticism, and I'm sure much else has been written about Williams' work that approaches if from other directions.

I haven't come across much commentary about the sounds in Williams' poetry, and I'd like to say a couple of things about that here. All quoted passages by Williams here are from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher McGowan, published in two volumes by New Directions originally in 1986. Here are the opening lines from an early poem of his, published as poem number XX in the poem-and-prose sequence Spring and All:

The sea that encloses her young body
ula lu la lu
is the sea of many arms--

The blazing secrecy of noon is undone
and and and
the broken sand is the sound of love--

The flesh is firm that turns in the sea
O la la O
the sea that is cold with dead men's tears--
The first time I read the poem, a number of years ago, I was struck by how the vowel and consonant sounds in the poem weave and mingle among each other, sometimes repeating, other times (especially) suddenly and sharply contrasting. "The broken sand is the sound of love," in which four strong vowel sounds follow one another, each turning in a different direction from the previous one. "The sea that is cold with dead men's tears" -- the first two or three times I read the poem, I kept expecting the line to say "bones" (repeating the o in "cold"); the lighter starker sound of "tears" infuses a sudden austere brightness into the line, a colder sound, evoking the coldness of the sea.

The poem continues:
Deeply the wooing that penetrated
to the edge of the sea
returns in the plash of the waves--

a wink over the shoulder
large as the ocean--
with wave following wave to the edge

Oom barroom

It is the cold of the sea
broken upon the sand by the force
of the moon--
"A wink over the shoulder/large as the ocean..." how stunning, the tiny fleeting sound of "wink" progressing through the rounder heavier sounds of "shoulder" to the iron weight of "large as the ocean." As I read these lines, it's the mounting movement of the sounds of the words that slips through barriers of overly rational thought and allows the image to take hold. I notice also the words or syllables that are pure sound (what textbooks often call onomatopoeia): "plash," "oom barroom." In an earlier version of the poem (which I read in the Collected Earlier Poems published by New Directions in 1951), the line "Oom barroom" was "Coom barroom," and "O la la O" was "O la la" The changes (based on notes by Williams on the typescript of the poem) give the lines a deeper, larger sound, and also give insight into Williams' ear for detail.

The poems finishes:
In the sea the young flesh playing
floats with the cries of far off men
who rise in the sea

with green arms
to homage again the fields over there
where the night is deep--

la lu la lu
but lips too few
assume the new--marruu

Underneath the sea where it is dark
there is no edge
so two--
Again, the subtle music of contrasting sounds, "floats with the cries of far off men/who rise in the sea//with green arms..." And almost dissolving in the luring call of the long "uu" syllables in the last two stanzas.

The poem I've quoted here is, I think, something of an exception for Williams. While similar grace and music of word sounds occur in other poems of his here and there, more commonly his poems seem to me to work by the muscle of their rhetorical quality, the sense of articulating thought into speech as the thought itself takes shape. As an example, these lines from the poem "The Yachts," published originally in the 1930's:
In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
However much has been written about Williams' capacity with imagery, I've usually found that the weakest quality in his poetry. The famous "red wheelbarrow" poem (also a part of the Spring and All sequence), the locust tree in flower, the small careful poems about lilies and trees, strike me not so much as images, but as journalistic pictures, though not bad ones.

Commenting (in the larger context of questions about the reform of language), Thomas McGrath says, in passing, of Williams and Ezra Pound: "And indeed it was liberating to see those apparitional faces, and interesting to see the chickens and the red wheelbarrow, though the "so much" that is said to depend upon them turns out not to be (as Williams supposed) the validity of the whole visible world of objects but merely the temporality of a consumer society."

McGrath continues: "Metaphysical consumerism! As the Williams tradition runs down in the work of the less talented of his followers, the object becomes All, becomes the One. Things (but not goods) are hypostatized and so anything is as good as anything else and a beer can equals the Mona Lisa. This mock materialism is essentially Puritan. Feelings are muted or excised and objects proliferate. This is what Freud called anal and Marx called petty bourgeois, and it is where the search for purity has led a lot of poets and novelists: to things rather than feelings about them, to situations without people, to esthetics pretending to be politics." -- From Thomas McGrath, "McGrath on McGrath," in North Dakota Quarterly, Fall 1982. The full essay by McGrath covers a great range of material, and is one of the best commentaries I've read on poetry, politics, and related things. You can read the essay in its entirety in the online poetry magazine Pemmican, under the title "Problems of the Revolutionary Poet in Contemporary Times."

William Carlos Williams is not a poet I read often. I come back to his poems once in a while and spend a little time. I usually find something that speaks to me and stays with me, perhaps not huge, perhaps a brief recollection, a puff of air. Sometimes just some lingering sounds.
The veritable night
of wires and stars

the moon is
the oak tree's crotch

and sleepers in
the windows cough

athwart the round
and pointed leaves

and insects sting
while on the grass

the whitish moonlight

assumes the attitude
of afternoon--
(From number XXIII in the sequence Spring and All.")

Ahhh...Lyle is back!! I love this review. I read him off and on, myself, and I like your selections here.
This is very interesting:

" is where the search for purity has led a lot of poets and novelists: to things rather than feelings about them, to situations without people, to esthetics pretending to be politics."

But also it's a little annoying how critics, (not you), seem to be eager these days to play the "consumer" card, or the great "capitalism" excuse--as if that is always what the poet is reacting to or against! maybe not! Now, if we were talking Robinson Jeffers, than yes--consumption, waste, environmental concerns would obviously be there, but i'm not convinced with Williams.
Jenni --

I agree, there are some critics out there these days who talk about consumer society, etc., in a kind of unthinking reflex reaction, not really approaching what the poetry (or poet) is actually doing.

I don't think that's what Thomas McGrath is doing in the essay I quoted from -- I think he's finding a kind of parallel with the way Williams sometimes treated objects of the world in his poems, and the tendency of capitalist economies to try to turn everything possible into a commodity to be bought and sold. And more so, some of the less skillful imitators of Williams that came after him.

This is how I read what McGrath is saying, though it's possible that doesn't come across completely in the short excerpt I quoted (which is one of the reasons I included the link to the full essay).

Tom McGrath is one of the poets whose work has been most important to me over the years I've been writing. Besides his poetry itself, I knew him slightly, and had a chance to hear him read a number of times, and to talk with him informally now and then, and I became familiar with his life and ideas. He was a Communist for all of his adult life, worked as a labor organizer, factory worker, farm laborer, and college professor at various times (and at one point was blacklisted from teaching during the 1950's because of his politics). His take on Williams (and his thinking about poetry in general) certainly is informed by his politics as much as anything.

I'm not really disagreeing with your comment, I actually found what you said quite thought-provoking. I guess my feeling is that almost everything people do has at least a small political element to it, at least in a broad sense, because whatever we do is in the context of everthing other people are doing.
And Pris -- thanks as always for dropping by.
I didn't read the full essay--I will today and it'll probably change my mind. I think I'm reacting to the many essays I've read recently--it seems like all of them at one point mention something about consumerism, capitalism, commodification, etc. Not that I don't think those issues are important, I certainly do, but people seem awfully quick to pull out that card--and to me that's a sign of blaming, pointing the finger and not taking responsability for your own part in this machine. We all drive cars, we all eat fast food, shop at chain stores, own TV's and computers and gadgets galore! These essays appear in publications that are bought and sold! It's one of those issues I feel torn about--I think it should be talked about, but not as a way to purge a guilty conscience--which seems to me to be the case in some of the essays I've read recently regarding this issue, which want to thoughtlessly pull out the capitalist card. And yes, I agree that all writing has political implications, whether intentional or not.
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