I hope to explore here the contrast between poetry by William Carlos Williams (along with other home-grown Americans) and the poetry I’ve discussed by Eliot – particularly in terms of their differing ideas of “modernism” and of a distinctly modern engagement with ideas of perception as well as with death, both spiritual and physical death.
Williams once wrote that Pound (with his European ‘orientation’) is “the best enemy United States verse has…. [The poetry] of which Americans have the parts and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond the attempts of his thought.” In the “Prologue to Kora in Hell” (in 1918), Williams criticizes the tradition-obsessed, allusion-cluttered Eurocentrism of Pound and Eliot. He writes that “I praise those who have the wit and courage, and the conventionality, to go deeper toward their vision of perfection…where the signposts are clearly marked, viz, to London. But [I] confine them to hell for their paretic assumption that there is no alternative but their own groove.”
Of course, far from paralyzed, Pound’s poetry moves through a sort of divine comedy but in reverse: he starts on the high ground of the charged, stripped down, musically perfected image, descends through the great eloquently satiric ramble of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and many of the Cantos, dispensing for our benefit all his rants and all his knowledge of world literature, and he ends with the Pisan Cantos, where – incarcerated for treason in 1945 by the U.S. in a Pisa prison camp – he intersperses his polyglot rants with moments when he starts once again from scratch, creating fragments of poetry from scraps of perception in his cage amid the wasps and clover: “mint springs up again / in spite of Jones’ rodents / as had the clover by the gorilla cage / with a four-leaf // When the mind swings by a grass-blade / an ant’s forefoot shall save you / the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower.”
Despite the self-pitying bits, Pound connects up here with the Whitman tradition, of which Williams is the foremost modern expression. In “Leaves of Grass,” for example in the sixth poem in “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s mind certainly “swings by a grass blade” and more: “A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands…. / I guess the grass is itself a child . . . the produced babe of the vegetation… / And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Finally he thinks that “the smallest sprout” defies death since “it led forward life… and [death] ceased the moment life appeared,” as if the poem like the grassy field were a threshold where life and death meet and together endure in a sort of negotiation lasting as long as art lasts.
Engagement of death and disaster certainly exist for Williams – think of “To Elsie” and countless other of his poems. Williams imagines death as giving way “sluggish” and straggling not only to rebirth but almost literally to birth, for we are here contacting an imagination formed partly by years of Williams’ work as a pediatrician (for decades bringing babies into this world and sustaining their lives for years after – I’m reminded too that Williams, like Pound, was a great friend of poets and nurtured many a young poet toward publication).
Among his poems, a fine example of the process of death’s ‘giving way’ is “Spring and All,” which begins with a blighted scene worthy of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and its rejection of Chaucer’s images of spring. “By the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind,” and there is “the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds…dead, brown leaves” and “leafless vines” – here, though, halfway through the poem dominated so far by fragmentary dependent phrases, Williams begins to see a new process operate in the “sluggish” weeds: “Lifeless in appearance…dazed spring approaches.” On a sort of threshold between life and death, the grasping for life begins; the shaping metaphor of a newly birthed baby underlies the image of the weeds. “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 wild carrot leaf.” The leaf, the grass, the root have sprung as if from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to struggle with death once more in Williams’ poetry, where the shadowing image of the baby’s birth trumps all that residue of the wasteland: “But now the stark dignity of / entrance – Still, the profound change / has come upon them: rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.” In Williams’ mode of writing, the things of this life, of the earth and the body, “matter.” And the sensuous upwelling of this vital matter in language outlasts death; to use Whitman’s image, it leads life forward through death to become the matter of American poetry. From the start of this distinctly American ‘tradition,’ Whitman himself sought to transform the enclosed, mirror-like, auto-erotic world of self-conscious perception into a vehicle for more deeply and immediately engaging the “things” perceived: the earth and the body. In the Preface to “Leaves of Grass,” he imagines breaking beyond the flaneur’s self-consciously detached vantage of perception, and like the Lawrentian hero in “Women in Love,” Whitman would “plunge his semitic muscle” into the grassy land of America.
In a William poem’s version of this union with the object of perception, poetry has the force of perception itself and, in a sense, become the thing perceived. “No ideas but in things” is Williams’ phrase for the process; partly he is questioning Wallace Stevens’ related poems about perception, poems which share with phenomenology a delving sense of the nature of perception even as they display an ironic playfulness in presenting the role self-consciousness has in it. Both Williams and Stevens express the Whitmanesque yearning to reveal how poetry’s self-awareness can achieve a creative entry into and oneness with the perceived world, whether in the guise of the human child’s birth and rooting down, or the guise of the simple “jar” placed on a hill in Tennessee to dominate nature there, or the guise of the woman’s voice drifting over the harbor on a Key West evening, enriching and composing or ‘ordering’ the scene in Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there is a connection in modernity between sensuous immediacy and ordering, self-conscious abstraction. In my next post I hope to explore the connection with regard to modern art itself, using Picasso as one example.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]