No Ideas But in Things: Poetry as Exploration

The Priestly Chapel, Northumberland, PA
The Priestly Chapel, Northumberland, Pennsylvania

I had the pleasure of reading at the Priestly Chapel here in town again this Sunday. This is the second time they have kindly invited me to be the featured poet for their Second Sunday Service of Music and the Spoken Word. The musical portion of the program featured The Bloomsburg Early Music Consortium, and it was lovely–recorders, a lute and an ancestor to the viola whose name I cannot recall. It’s such a lovely venue too and the acoustics in that little chapel are marvelous.

Each month, aside from the guest poet and musicians, the service focuses on the work of a great poet. For some time now they have been featuring poet laureates, and this Sunday it was William Carlos Williams who had been appointed as Consultant in Poetry in 1952. Unfortunately for health reasons, Williams never actually served in the position. George Manning, who read the Williams pieces has a strong voice with sonorous tones are always a pleasure to hear. I almost think he could read my tax form and make it sound gorgeous.

Williams’ poems have served high school English teachers worldwide with debate material. You yourself may have sat in a classroom where you were read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then pressed to answer the question, “Well class, is it a poem or not?” And rather than get into a lengthy discussion of why it is, and why the person asking should stop being a pretentious twit, I leave you in the hands of Carol Rumens at the Guardian who explains a few things rather nicely.  While I recently disagreed with her about the importance of “One Today,” Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, I find myself in agreement with her grasp of the wheelbarrow handles.

we shouldn’t forget that poems are made of line-breaks as well as words, and “so much depends”, in this poem, on the splitting of the two compound words, “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater”. These dissections slow us down, and help the mind’s eye to register more: the individual wheels as well as the body of the barrow, the water that is more than raindrops.

Important for their spatial emphases are the prepositions. “Upon” and “beside” are two little words that the poem magnifies hugely. Their implications float beyond the phrases that contain them.

Read the rest of her article from March of 2010 by clicking here.

In his discussion of Williams’ methods and philosophy of writing, Craig Morgan Teicher offers some great insight into this little gem that Rumens called a modern poetry “manifesto” in this learning guide article from the Poetry Foundation.

Williams had an unusual life for a major literary figure. He was college buddies with Modernism’s high priest, Ezra Pound, at the University of Pennsylvania. But rather than spend his nights cavorting in Europe’s literary salons, he chose to become a doctor and live most of his life at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey, an address that became a pilgrimage destination for younger poets. . .

This is not to say he didn’t live a literary life—he and Flossie frequently traveled to New York and hung out with poets and painters. He was a friend of Marianne Moore’s and felt himself engaged in a lifelong rivalry with T.S. Eliot, whom he thought had turned poetry back toward high diction and the literary past, while Williams, like Frost, believed that “modernizing” American poetry meant incorporating contemporary, American speech into its fabric.

And so that was his deal basically, “no ideas but in things.”

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
---through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.		William Carlos Williams

This is not to say that he was concerned only with things, and with ideas not at all, but rather that he felt that the real way to get at ideas was through things. This is, after all, what metaphor is about, is it not? To paraphrase poet Billy Collins, as he said once before a reading of “The Lanyard,” his piece about making a gift for his mother at camp, the way to get to the big ideas is through a small door, something ordinary that can be used as a vehicle to get the reader from the particulars to the universal.

Of course, he wasn’t alone in this. Other modern artists were taking this route too, and it’s not like this route hasn’t been followed before. It’s not too dissimilar from the road originally paved by that old Greek philosopher Aristotle. Unlike his teacher Plato who imagined a realm of perfect forms of which the things of this world are mere imitations, Aristotle asserted that the only way to get to the ideal forms (or for our purpose here, I’ll call them ideas) is through the tangible, corporeal things of this world.

You won’t necessarily read Williams asking big lofty questions like “Dare I disturb the universe?” But you will see him dancing alone in his room fighting with the great themes of loneliness and happiness in “Danse Russe.” It’s just that he doesn’t like to play the pedagogue, handing down to us from a lofty lectern our lesson for the day. He prefers to take us there through familiar images and recognizable words, and allow us to find our own way there. This makes poetry a journey rather than a lesson to be learned, or a moral to be taught.

To be fair though, even Elliot brought the questions down to the realm of the material, “Do I dare eat a peach?” he asks in “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the same poem quoted above. But it seems to me that critics of “accessibility” in poetry often fail to see that we represent ideas and ideals better when we can get at them through what is familiar. And personally, I have little patience for poems that are written for sake of difficulty itself. It’s not that I cannot enjoy a meaty, chewy piece of art, it’s just that I have been turned off by many a poet who speaks more from the intellect than from the soul. Humanity, and thus the humanities, involve the entire person, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual, or emotional if you prefer.

And then there was my reading of Kenneth Koch’s parody, “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” a poem that honors the original whilst poking a bit of fun at it.

And I’ll leave you with the final of the three Williams-ish poems I read, but I’ll let you read it for yourself. This poem honors Williams and the plums, and answers critics quite nicely I think. It’s by William Stafford.

Thinking About Being Called Simple by a Critic

I wanted the plums, but I waited.
The sun went down. The fire
went out. With no lights on
I waited. From the night again—
those words: how stupid I was.
And I closed my eyes to listen.
The words all sank down, deep
and rich. I felt their truth
and began to live them. They were mine
to enjoy. Who but a friend
could give so sternly what the sky
feels for everyone but few learn to
cherish? In the dark with the truth
I began the sentence of my life
and found it so simple there was no way
back into qualifying my thoughts
with irony or anything like that.
I went to the fridge and opened it—
sure enough the light was on.
I reached in and got the plums.

by William Stafford

From An Oregon Message © 1987, Harper and Row

39 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Phew a lot to take in there…but interesting…))


  2. I really enjoyed this essay.

    I have often wondered if most of what I write could be called poetry; you have reassured me a little.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Oh good. I was beginning to think I went on too long and should have cut a few things. Thanks for the reassurance too! 🙂


    2. No, it was really interesting.


  3. slpmartin says:

    I always enjoy your readings…and your posts.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      I love your poems, and your vocal readings too, sir. It’s always an honor to receive a comment from you. Thank you!


  4. Colin says:

    Interesting things should take their time, and this was interesting. Two of my favourite “modern” American poets are ee cummings and Williams.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Thank you. I appreciate that. Tonight my friend Rick read this poem by E. E. Cummings. I got teary eyed, It’s one of my favorites.

      somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond
      any experience, your eyes have their silence:
      in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
      or which I cannot touch because they are too near

      your slightest look easily will unclose me
      though I have closed myself as fingers,
      you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
      (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

      or if your wish be to close me, I and
      my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
      as when the heart of this flower imagines
      the snow carefully everywhere descending;

      nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
      the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
      compels me with the color of its countries,
      rendering death and forever with each breathing

      (I do not know what it is about you that closes
      and opens; only something in me understands
      the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
      nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands


  5. ManicDdaily says:

    Thanks for the lovely poems. k.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      You are very welcome. I am tickled that you enjoyed them, because they are so very much more important than the commentary.


  6. Jeremy Nathan Marks says:

    Reblogged this on The Sand County and commented:
    This is marvelous. I love visiting David’s blog. . . I always learn something and feel enriched.


  7. Loved this post, so much fun watching Williams plum poem being acted out–“so sweet, and cold”! Reminds me of the drawing of the 6 persimmons by the zen monk. It’s not so much the simplicity of the drawings or the poem, as how those images connect with the reader at a very visceral, elemental level–capturing the essense of the thing, perhaps.


    1. He does do wonderfully with that poem, doesn’t he? He has a few more online like that. I love this way of delivering poetry. Thanks for being here to enjoy it!


  8. David,
    Wonderful essay on one of my favorite poets and your own experience with his subject matter. Small doors open to some big ideas.


    1. Thank you, good sir. I am extremely pleased that it pleased you.


  9. angryricky says:

    Wms also reached forward–because he was available in the general area, he also met and helped Ginsberg and crew.

    When I taught The Red Wheelbarrow, I didn’t ask if it was a poem. I asked, “_What_ depends on the wheelbarrow?” Interesting conversations on the future of American farms.


    1. Thank god, there are teachers like you who ask real questions. 🙂


    2. So his helping the beats was, and being a personal influence on Kerouac and the gang is an extra benefit of his choice to stay in the area rather than go off to Europe, like his buddy Pound or his rival Elliot? Good points.


    3. angryricky says:

      Pound and Eliot had their influences as well, but they chose their culture, and it wasn’t American. I think Virginia Woolf’s writing owes something to these two poets (I was thinking of her anyway, because of the Browning post–she wrote a biography of EBB’s dog, Flush. Good book).

      I think one of the primary benefits to Wms’s choice to stay put is that he kept his life grounded in real people’s lives. He saw the red wheelbarrow in a poor black man’s yard as he was making his rounds. His poetry is approachable because we have experience with his images–my students find Eliot offputting because they don’t watch Wagner in German or read Dante in Italian. Danse Russe, on the other hand, makes them stop to think about what he’s saying, but they can see the image clearly in their minds. There’s one of his about a piece of broken green glass behind a hospital that I can’t remember the title of–I’m still trying to put a meaning to it, but I can accept the beauty of it without Understanding Its Significance.


    4. Yes, I remember the broken glass one. I think that George read that last Sunday, but I remember it from before. There was something else you said earlier that I wanted to come back to, but first I’m going to take the garbage out first, and not even take the time to edit out this extemporaneous information. 🙂


    5. angryricky says:

      [laughs at his desk]


    6. Okay, the dirty task is done and I am back from the street, and I think I must have already backtracked and covered whatever it was. Nothing like Chat from Saudi Arabia in the comments! I truly love this. 🙂


    7. angryricky says:

      Me too–wordpress and facebook are my only connections to the life I knew before December 6, 2012.


    8. I was going to ask! Add me on facebook if you are safe to do so. David J. Bauman.


    9. angryricky says:

      Friend request sent. Oddly enough, we don’t have mutual fb friends… hm.

      I have declared facebook a safe zone in my own life–I follow a few pages that fill my news feed with gay-themed pictures, and they have been a source of comfort here in Saudi. I use my middle name, so people in my real life can only find me there if I tell them how.


  10. atlasivy says:

    Funny, in my “Writing About Writing” class (Eng 355) the other day, we discussed how to determine what is poetry and we read “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. Your blog just put it all together!


    1. I wasn’t sure how deep to get into it, but these are all issues that are important to me as a poet. I’m glad it carried enough scholarly weight to help make things clear and supplement your studies in class. One of the best compliments you could give me. Thank you!


    2. atlasivy says:

      I’m glad that was a compliment to you!

      I actually have a quote for you!

      This is from my favorite book “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger:

      “I know this much, is all,” Franny said. “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings—excuse the expression.”


    3. YES! I hadn’t read that before, but J.D. captures my greatest complaint about what often passes for poetry. Difficulty and artifice might make clever verse, but that doesn’t make it good poetry. There’s enough soulless philosophy out there. Do we have to put into rhymes or lines?


    4. atlasivy says:

      Right? Too many wanna be Shakespeares and Dickinsons out there.

      J.D. Salinger is a man that the earth is honored to have had as a guest. That man…


    5. Yet, Emily would agree with Salinger. Truth and beauty to her, like Keats before her, were the same. For her she knew it was poetry (and forgive me if I included this in the post) not by artifice, but by feeling. It’s just hard for teachers to measure that on a graph, so many are of a mind to dismiss it. But as E. E. Cummings said, and I am slightly paraphrasing, if poetry were anything that someone did then anyone could be a poet just by doing the necessary anything. 🙂


    6. atlasivy says:

      It’s true! But all that talk starts to make me wonder if I think I’m a writer when really I’m not. haha

      Can’t help but wonder.


    7. Well, I was enjoying the road rage poem, and thinking about it on the way to work. I have a bunch of driving poems, and have been thinking about a comic road rage one. I had to run off to work, and just got home, but I’ll get back and comment when I can! 🙂 You’re doing great, I am sure.


    8. atlasivy says:

      haha I thought about it all day today, even came up with more I can add



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