The Foul Rag and Boneshop of the Heart

Unfortunately, The Collected Later Poems doesn’t include a number of my favorite William Carlos Williams’ poems. Luckily, you can find one of them, “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” over at “We Write to Taste Life Twice,” and while you’re there check out “Bypass,” a beautiful poem by Crystallyn that reminds me of years spent in the Olympic National Forest. Of course one of the advantages of owning a good anthology is that the editor will feature a number of excellent poems by major artists, as does my favorite anthology, Louis Untermeyer’s Modern America Poetry.

As Crystallyn notes in her discussion, Williams was a pediatrician, and this plays a part in a number of excellent poems, but my favorite is “Spring and All:”

SPRING AND ALL

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

I love the contrasts in this poem, contrasts between winter and spring, death and birth, sickness and health. At first glance, it almost seems like the hospital, symbolizing illness and death, has spread its contagion to nearby plant life. Of course, rationally we know they’ve merely died because of winter’s cold, but they still seem like a wasteland. Even spring is “dazed” and sluggish. Like the babies that Williams brings into the world, the plants enter the world “naked” and “uncertain of all.” Though first stunned by their cold reception, the plants “grip down” and “begin to awake” to new possibilities.

This same theme, perhaps one of Williams’ major themes, can be found in another favorite, “Love Song:”

Love Song

SWEEP the house clean,
hang fresh curtains
in the windows
put on a new dress
and come with me!
The elm is scattering
its little loaves
of sweet smells
from a white sky!

Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.

Perhaps living in the Pacific Northwest with it’s notoriously long, gray winters, sometimes extending from September to June, makes me a sucker for spring poems or perhaps I’d just like to believe a little longer there’s gonna be yet another bursting of energy from these old, tired bones, but for whatever the reason, I like this poem as much now as I did when I encountered it in college many a year ago. Though there are few elms here in the west, I look forward to seeing the cherry trees burst into flower every spring. It still seems miraculous to me every time an old fruit tree bursts into flower in the spring, followed by a luscious crop of fruit. No wonder many primitive people worshipped nature and sacrificed to the dead to ensure the rebirth of life in the spring.

While glancing through W.H. Auden’s introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy that came in the mail today, I ran across a line that instantly clarified why I prefer Williams’ poems to Pound’s: “The sources of poetry lie, as Yeats said, ‘in the foul rag-and-boneshop of the heart’…” To me at least, Pound appeals primarily to the intellect, while Williams appeals directly to the senses and, at his best, to the heart.

The Beauty of Everyday Life

One of the traits I most admire in William Carlos Williams' The Collected Later Poems is Williams' ability to find beauty in common, everyday situations, and to describe that beauty in everyday language. It’s easy to find beauty at the beach or in the mountains, but it’s far easier to be overcome by the ugliness of everyday life than it is to find beauty in it.

”Ballad of Faith” brings back fond memories for me:

Ballad of Faith

No dignity without chromium
No truth but a glossy finish
If she purrs she’s virtuous
If she hits ninety she’s pure

ZZZZZZZZZZZ!
Step on the gas, brother
(the horn sounds hoarsely)

The poem reminds me of simpler days when I took pride in my bright yellow Mustang’s long hood and powerful V-8, days when I washed the car once a week rather than once a year, days when I only slowed down when the front end of the car lifted off the ground.

While I’ve never eaten the “small, yellow grass onion,” I can appreciate the kinds of simple foods, best disguised today as “comfort food:”

TO BE HUNGRY IS TO BE GREAT

The small, yellow grass-onion,
spring's first green, precursor
to Manhattan's pavements, when
plucked as it comes, in bunches,
washed, split and fried in
a pan, though inclined to be
a little slimy, if well cooked
and served hot on rye bread
is to beer a perfect appetizer-
and the best part
of it is they grow everywhere.

While unlikely to satisfy the palate of the connoisseur since they’re “inclined to be a little slimy,” such foods, especially when served with a beer, particular a dark, Nitro Stout, might well rival the taste of a Reuben. And if you’re not subject to a foolish addiction to the rare, unknown, and expensive, the fact that it grows everywhere might well make it even more desirable.

I must admit that even I am often overwhelmed by the ugliness of big cities, so I was pleasantly surprised by Williams’ “Approach to a City:”

APPROACH TO A CITY

Getting through with the world-
I never tire of the mystery
of these streets: the three baskets
of dried flowers in the high

bar-room window, the gulls wheeling
above the factory, the dirty
snow-the humility of the snow that
silvers everything and is

trampled and lined with use-yet
falls again, the silent birds
on the still wires of the sky, the blur
of wings as they take off

together. The flags in the heavy
air move against a leaden
ground-the snow
pencilled with the stubble of old

weeds: I never tire of these sights
but refresh myself there
always for there is small holiness
to be found in braver things.

It’s amazing that even in the ugliest, most run-down places someone attempts to invoke beauty’s magical charm, whether it’s “baskets of dried flowers” or plastic flowers exuding their own fresh plastic smell as counterpoint to the urinal disinfectant, another small sign of the artist’s spirit that lives within all of us. Just when it seems industry has banished all wildlife, flocks of gulls or pigeons will arrive, covering the wasteland in bird shit, proving once again that nature cannot be denied. No matter how ugly the wasteland, snow covers it beautifully, turning the sharp corners into voluptuous curves. As Williams points out, “there is a small holiness/ to be found in braver things.”

Perhaps I just like “A Rosebush in an Unlikely Garden” because my blog includes references to Vietnam and pictures of flowers:

A ROSEBUSH IN AN UNLIKELY GARDEN

The flowers are yours
the full blown
the half awakened
yours

who fished heads
and arms on D day in a net
from the bloody
river

The stillness
of this squalid corner this
veined achievement is
yours

Somehow this poem symbolizes the transcendence of beauty, of the human soul, over those events in life that threaten to overwhelm and demean us. What a startling, and beautiful, contrast between the soldier’s job on D-day and his attempts to grow flowers in his squalid corner of the universe.

William Carlos Willams’ The Collected Later Poems


Following a recent discussion of Pound’s winning of the Bollingen prize, I read that two of the judges had nominated William Carlos Williams instead. Although I haven’t read Williams for awhile, I remembered some poems fondly, poems I’d previously referred to in this blog. Pursuing this line of thought, I discovered the following comments at the America Academy of Poets

Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people.

For me, the critical difference between Pound and Williams is that Williams’ poetry is “centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people,” As I stated in an earlier blog entry on Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” I agreed with Emerson when in describing the ideal scholar he said that:

In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

Emerson thought Whitman was the personification of the “American Scholar.” Apparently, I’m not alone in believing that Williams, not Pound, really picked up Walt Whitman’s poetic mantle. Despite “Pact,” Pound merely borrowed from Whitman’s style while rejecting his vision of America and the American people. For my taste, Pound’s vision is too wrapped up in books, too literary. Williams, while less obviously adopting Whitman’s style, seems to share his perception of everyday life and view of the lives of common people.

In doing so, Williams wrote poems that seem as relevant today as the day they were written, for they describe human nature at its most fundamental level, whether that be nature of politicians:

IN CHAINS

When blackguards and murderers
under cover of their offices
accuse the world of those villainies
which they themselves invent to
torture us-we have no choice
but to bend to their designs,
buck them or be trampled while
our thoughts gnaw, snap and bite
within us helplessly-unless
we learn from that to avoid
being as they are, how love
will rise out of its ashes if
we water it, tie up the slender
stem and keep the image of its
lively flower chiseled upon our minds.

In a world where our government seems bent on destroying other governments because they are part of an “evil-axis,” we can either “bend to their designs,” conceding to their vision of a capitalistic empire, give up our own life to oppose them, be tortured by our conscience because we’ve done nothing to depose them, or, as Williams seems to suggest, simply learn not to be like them, to love our fellow man, and, in doing so, to prove once again that the Christian concept of loving thy neighbor, even when he’s not part of your “chosen” group, can overcome seemingly impossible odds.

Even when describing abstract ideas like perfection, Williams managed to somehow remain true to his concept of “No ideas but in things:”


PERFECTION

0 lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
rotten,
hardly a contour marred-

perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
aside perfect
in every detail! 0 lovely

apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
rail a month ago
to ripen.

No one. No one!

While ambiguous enough to lend itself to different interpretations, “Perfection” seems to suggest that perfection, particularly when admired from afar, is a meaningless concept. All things, at least all things of this world, seem to contain the seeds of destruction within themselves. The apple may have been nearly “perfect” when it was placed on the porch rail a month ago to ripen, but when allowed to ripen past its prime it is “perfectly” rotten. Strange how the “perfect romance,” particularly when people take it for granted that it is perfect, can turn bad over time. Best of all, although the poem recognizes the impermanence of "pefection," it does so with a lively sense of humor, adding perspective to the observation.

One of my favorite William’s poems is “The Bare Tree:”

THE BARE TREE

The bare cherry tree
higher than the roof
last year produced
abundant fruit. But how
speak of fruit confronted
by that skeleton?
Though live it may be
there is no fruit on it.
Therefore chop it down
and use the wood
against this biting cold.

Obviously the poem questions the value of expediency. In the short run, it makes sense to cut down the tree because you’re bitterly cold, but in the long run you will miss the delicious cherries next spring. Unfortunately, more and more the American people seem to use short-term goals to judge everything. If our stock doesn’t double in three months it’s time to dump it. If it doesn’t make me happy “right now” why put up with it. By judging things merely by appearances, we often consider them less worthy than they really are. Finally, on yet another level, the poem suggests the very miracle of life itself, the annual rebirth of our world.

At his best, William Carlos Williams can almost help us to regain our faith in the human race, make us believe that there is hope for mankind if we but recognize people for who they really are.

The Girl Can’t Help It

Though not particularly one of my favorite poems, “The Girl,” and the title says it all, is one of those poems that seems to stay with you over the years. Though I hadn’t read it in probably 20 to 25 years, I remembered it almost instantaneously once I started reading it.

Wonder why that is?

This poem, unlike “The Poor” contain no commentary from the poet, thus beautifully fitting Williams’ idea that there is “No ideas but in things.”

The Girl

with big breasts
under a blue sweater

bareheaded-
crossing the street

reading a newspaper
stops, turns

and looks down
as though

she had seen a dime
on the pavement

So, why is it that this poem works perfectly well without any commentary from the poet? Has Williams found the ultimate “objective correlative?”

Is its appeal to human nature, at least male human nature, so basic, so universal, that it needs nothing more? Or, have past societal trends, like Holllywood “sweater girl” promotions been so widespread and pervasive that we have been “conditioned” to react exactly the way the author wanted us to?

Would a primitive native who lived in a society where women didn’t cover their breasts react the same way to this poem that someone from the West would react?

:: The Object and Nothing but the Object ::

“The Poor” is one of my favorite William Carlos Williams poems. In many ways it fits Williams’ idea of “No ideas but in things.” It contains a number of vivid, concrete images that certainly convey emotions to the responsive reader.

In order to make a point, though, I’ve taken the liberty of removing the first line and a half from the poem. Read the poem without this line, then insert the line that has been removed and reread the poem to see whether you believe it changes the poem or not:

THE POOR
___ ___ ______ __ _______
_______ __ , the old
yellow wooden house indented
among the new brick tenements

Or a cast iron balcony
with panels showing oak branches
in full leaf. It fits
the dress of the children

reflecting every stage and
custom of necessity-
Chimneys, roofs, fences of
Wood and metal in an unfenced

age and enclosing next to
nothing at all: the old man

in a sweater and soft black
hat who sweeps the sidewalk-

his own ten feet of it-
in a wind that fitfully

turning his corner has
overwhelmed the entire city

Personally, the image of the old man sweeping his sidewalk in a city overwhelmed by dirt is a favorite image that has stayed with me for many years, one I remembered without even trying to memorize it.

"Why would that be?" you might ask. Perhaps because I was a caseworker for awhile and observed many futile attempts by clients to overcome the problems they faced, while society ignored more serious problems that were sure to overwhelm them relatively quickly. Obviously I bring experiences to this poem that most people would not bring.

What would you say is the “tone” of this poem? Is it melancholy? Is it full of despair? Is there a sense of delight? How are all of these images tied together?

What happens to the poem when you put the opening lines “It's the anarchy of poverty/delights me” into the poem? Do these lines change your perception of the poem itself?

For me, at least, this sentence serves as the “thesis” statement of the poem, changing the tone of the poem considerably. The word “anarchy” provides a different structure to the poem than I would have imposed on it. “Delights” is, for me, though, quite unexpected, changing the whole meaning of the poem. I doubt that “delights” is a way I would have ever described this kind of poverty.

And though I’m still not entirely convinced that poverty can ever really be a “delight,” it makes me look back at the images in a new way.

It seems to me, though, that Williams does not merely present the object “without further comment;” in fact, his comment alters not only the way we see this poem but, quite possibly, the way we see poverty.

:: MT and ME ::

Okay, I have to admit it, I've been thinking about switching from Adobe GoLive to MT. Unfortunately, I know a lot less about coding than Jonathon gives me credit for. I hand code very little. I'm a layout, print, person, not a computer person. Because I was into Photoshop I naturally gravitated toward GoLive, and that's about as far as I have gotten.

The real hold up is that I don't think ATT broadband will work with MT since it doesn't work with Blogger. When they lost Excite, ATT would no longer allow outside access to their websites. You have to use ATT Broadband to connect. I've sent an inquiry to tech support to see if there is any chance MT will will work with their servers and am anxiously (STILL) awaiting their response.

Nor can I host my own site using an old computer because that is against the contract I've signed with ATT Broadband.

I've noticed that Alwin Hawkins, who also has ATT broadband, hosts his site on another host. I'm supposing that there is a good reason.

I'm not sure I want to pay more than the $40+ a month I'm already paying to play this game, though I am watching comments on Jonathon's site to see what it might cost for a new host.

(Oh, by the way, how do you set the width of your page so that it is variable? I thought I had solved that problem earlier.)

So Much Depends Upon…

Whitman’s use of the term “dumb ministers” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to describe objects that contribute to our soul, and Jonathan Delacour’s ongoing discussion of “objective description” and “subjective description” somehow reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem students often found “dumb,” though not in the sense Whitman used it.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In discussing his poetry Willliams said, “Emotion clusters about common things, the pathetic often stimulates the imagination to new patterns—but the job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language to him which is authentic. In my own work it has always sufficed that the object of my attention be presented without further comment.” Later, he stated, “No ideas but in things.”

Judging from many a student’s reaction to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” though, it's not clear that pure description does “suffice.” Students were most likely to react in dumb silence or outrage when presented with the poem. Simply put, they didn’t get it, and often felt that there was “nothing to get,” much like the outrage expressed by many when confronted with modern paintings with titles like “White on White.”

One wonders now that it has become stylish to include an old wheelbarrow as a planter in a garden whether some students would react differently to the poem, and whether Asian students, having been raised in a very different poetic tradition, might have a different reaction to it.

In other words, do objects have meaning in themselves or do they only have meaning within a cultural context?

Was T.S. Eliot correct when he argued that: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion?” (See the Dead Poet’s Circle for further discussion of objective correlative.)