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.
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.”
A SORT OF A SONG Let the snake wait under his weed and the writing be of words, slow and quick, sharp to strike, quiet to wait, sleepless. ---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
- The Proof is in The Prufrock (crankygiraffe.wordpress.com)
- “no ideas / but in things” / – William Carlos Williams – Mark Lewis Redford (thebluehourmagazine.com)
- Billy Collins Pick Me Up (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- Being Prufrock (futurelawyer.typepad.com)
- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (bizarrepoetry.wordpress.com)
- A Shout-Out for Poetry From People Who Hate Poetry (patospapa.wordpress.com)
- Poetry’s premature obituary (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- Richard Blanco, You Moved Me – An Inaugural Poetry Review (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- 10 Reasons Poetry’s Not Dead (flavorwire.com)