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:”


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.

4 thoughts on “The Foul Rag and Boneshop of the Heart”

  1. Great stuff, Loren!

    And thanks for turning me on to Crystallyn’s work…gorgeous!

  2. While I think your contrast is true in general, it’s precisely in the Pisan Cantos that Pound, forced by life and suffering to let down his intellectual guard, wrote from his heart in lines that still lacerate the heart of the attentive reader. But I can understand why Williams is more appealing to many people, and goodness knows I love his work; thanks for putting it out there!

  3. I did notice that in the Pisan Cantos, particularly in the poem that I quoted from and referred readers to, language hat.

    Incidentally, one of my favorite early Pound poems I didn’t cite is called “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour” which describes the narrator waiting for someone to visit and read his works, and ends with the line, “Dear Pound, I am leaving England.”

    Generally, I would classify Pound as a “classical” poet, and Williams as a “romantic” poet, and I happen to prefer “romantic” poets. But, no generalization can truly convey the complexity of a good poet.

  4. Re Loren’s comment about Williams’ Collected Later Poems not containing “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” from the Pictures from Brueghel sequence–the Collected Later Poems have been out of print for some time, replaced by Collected Poems Vol II, 1939-1962 (New Directions, 1988). It contains all the later poems, including the Icarus poem.

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