Showing posts with label William Carlos Williams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Carlos Williams. Show all posts

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Perfect Pitch

The similarities between William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost there , indeed, in the sense that we have two poets who have created a style of plain writing–writing, not speech, as neither poets are poets who attempt idiomatic epics– that want to get something of the grit, grime and grumble of life that previous generations of poets had theorized out of countenance, For myself, it is Williams who is the better and more bracing the two scribes, as I remember a passing remark from WCW suggesting (I paraphrase) that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Where systems of metaphor, allusion and simile were busy comparing this existence to more perfect orders and had essentially argued that real objects in the material world were irrelevant to the poet’s task of constructing arguments for a more perfect union of elements , Williams and his fellow travelers in Pound, Eliot, HD , Amy Lowell and a host of other nascent modernist bringing their own experience and idiosyncratic notions to the discussion, mutually agreed that metaphysics was suffocating poetry, robbing it all worth and potential to create beauty from freshly expressed perceptions; the perfect world of Ideal Types needed to be forgotten about, at least for a while, while the language poets used was reinvigorated , reapplied, basically reinvented as a creative force. The thing itself is its own adequate symbol.

Yes indeed, and this was a declaration that for the purpose of writing a poem that addresses the actuality of a scene, the phenomenological exactitude of objects and their situations, God was dead and it was the job of the new poet to get it right. Much of this imagism, a splendid but blessedly short-lived movement in modern poetry that wanted to excise extraneous words and metaphors and gutless qualifiers from poems that are tasked with getting this world and its things correctly expressed in unforgettable ways. No ideas but in things was a battle cry they might all have heard in their subconscious at one time; it rang loud, in any case.

in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.

Williams was a superb, brilliant exponent of this pared-down approach; his sentences are prickly, full of splinters, a description of action that contains rhythm , movement, precise descriptions of things that give a strong suggestion that the arrangements of the things in the world are extraordinary as they are, even when they unseen by human eyes and egos that translate the experience into easy narrative tropes; what is splendid about this poem, “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is the lean and lyrical economy with which Williams gives us a good amount of detail; workmen on a break, the materials, and tools they are working with laying to the side, the light and time of day, the return to work, the steady hand of the workman who lifts a piece of the thing he is working on:
“One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.”
Without fuss, commotion or straining rhetoric, Williams achieves a stark beauty, with his notion of taking his sentences and breaking them into smaller units of clear signification working subtly and directly to bring us to the startling last lines, “picks up a copper strip/and runs his eye along it.” That, for me, was a dicey image, since it suggests the grim prospect of having an eye poked out with hard, sharp, unyielding thing. But without the blathering on about courage, craft or anything else left and right intellectuals have romanticized about for decades before, Williams accomplishes one small thing that, in turn, went a long way in revolutionizing how poems come to be conceptualized. He achieves that fine balance between hard and soft things, he makes it tactile, he delivers his poem with such skilled brilliance that most readers miss it even after multiple readings.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Slate shuts down Poems section

Fitting that the last poet we consider on Slate's poetry page is William Carlos Williams, the maverick who convincingly turned the impatient cadences of American speech, a verbal style that seemed to accelerate in pace as new technologies encroached on our attention span, into a means to express experience in ways both plain and abstract. Slate Poetry Editor and former U.S.Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's selections of poets over the years has been eclectic, daring, unexpected, nearly always provocative; not all his selections have been to my personal liking and I have, in fact, said unnecessarily harsh things questioning his taste. 

All that storming prose amounts to pounding the end of the bar, frustrated, irate, and smugly content to be that way. In addition to inspiring some of my better writing over the last ten years, those bits of prose that actually convey a series of ideas both fever pitched and lucid, the Slate Poems page and the attendant Fray page allowed me to pretend to be the Big Mean Critic, a self-made windbag opining among his books and empty coffee cups for a readership of persons a few dozen associates and friends on the forum. Overall, though, I respected Pinsky's dedication to not taking the easy way out in terms of his selections--rather than log roll and fill the page, week to week, with a string of poets who all write about similar topics in similar ways with similar failing, trembling voices--there are dozens of them in this country! 

Where do these people come from??--Pinsky challenged our conceptions with poets who often times took the form apart and rebuilt it in ways not always to our liking. These are writers who hadn't abandoned the idea, by of Pound, to "make it new" and Robert Pinsky, to his credit and our great benefit didn't abandon the search for the voice that stood out, the voice that was unique,the voice that was legitimate. There was much I didn't personally like among the poets he chose, but the discussions that ensued on Poems Fray, now defunct, were a perfect way to think through the issues I had with particular poets. Robert Pinsky, as well, demonstrated that he is a genuine and classy guy, willing to participate in the discussion, refusing to take a hard line in favor of adding an additional insight to a counter idea to something you've written. I am deeply sorry that Slate is discontinuing the Poems page. It has been a wonderful experience throughout the years.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Elvis : Poet/Destroyer

It's been argued by rock and roll philosophers for some time that Elvis Presley was everything truly rock and roll are supposed to be, a cross-pollination of gross historical contradictions that meet, fuse and give rise to an expressive result that is fundamentally insane. In this instance, it is the mythological fusing of what is said to be the innate sexuality and vitality in African American blues and the slave culture that created it, and the inbred, Christian determinism that filters through the racist and goony backwaters of the American south, a strand vaguely disguised by the soft soaping pathos and lilt of Country Music. Elvis wrote this poem, a klutzy bit of doggerel, and gives us a clear example when these combating buts of cultural DNA find a place in the same utterance:


"As I awoke one morning 
when all sweet things are born, 
a Robin perched upon my sill 
to hail the coming dawn. 
It was fragile, young and gay 
and sweetly did it sing,  
and thoughts of happiness and joy 
into my head did bring. 
I listened softly to his song 
and paused beside my bed, 
then gently closed the window 
and crushed it's  fucking  head."
A recording of Elvis reading the poem to some friends can be heard here. 

 The result is a volatile example of pure ID, an insatiable appetite, a force so uncontainable that when left alone without the pieties of Church hymns and the sleepwalking good manners evinced in most public moments, the urge is to destroy the world, kill what is delicate, turn what is held as beautiful and permanent into a smashed, crushed, trashed path of rubble and bloody guts. Elvis is said to be the Ur Punk, a barely contained insanity that will inevitably find freedom and its full expression in demolishing the house of excuses we pass off as firmly planted foundation of moral certitude. ““The pure products of America / go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams. Elvis, among others, fulfills the prophecy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jim Powell and William Carlos Williams

Jim Powell's poem "Dance Figure" resembles William Carlos Williams' poem "Poem (As the cat)" in it's sharp, curt delineation of a something observed; the difference, though, is that the Williams' poem is closer to the late poet's natural, evolved style. Williams worked a lifetime developing a poetics that would be about a poetry based on what he considered the American voice, a natural, un-embellished cadence that he considered the model for his imagist inclination. A direct treatment of the material thing perceived was the goal:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset

first the right
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

It's short and not so sweet; something here reminds me of the still photograph experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, in his continuous photographs of a single action that, when seen in rapid sequence, replicates motion. We can see the cat padding about cautiously as it tests its balance on a precarious edge, we can sense the progress, stanza to stanza, the halting placement of the forefoot, the comedy of hind leg stepping into an empty flowerpot. This artfully , succinctly condenses visual information to essential actions , creating the feeling of the excited, rapid commentary of one friend nudging another to view a comic vision. One nudges the other, whispers "get aloud of that ". Longer digressions are left behind, compound words and their alliterating implications are left on the work bench. Word selection and length are everything, and the goal for Williams, I think, was to create a sense of the event happening in real or recent time, detailed with words that are fresh and pure of post-reflective abstraction. He hasn't larded up the perception with  cracker barrel philosophizing.

Jim Powell accomplishes much the same effect as Williams, although he isn't as temperamentally taciturn as the late poet was. He does have, though, a strong sense of the lyric move and succeeds, in his his strongest work, of knowing when the lines break, when the image commands the center of the work, and when the narrator's rumination filters through the descriptive arrangements, an insertion of a personality that sufficiently problematizes his subject. It's a delicate balance of the objective, the correlative and the subjective. It's a nice seduction, when the writing hand isn't over eager to deliver a payoff.

Dancer Figure
He interlaces
his fingers
and stoops
to make a saddle
at knee level
of his palms
where she places
her right foot
and steps up
continuing to rise
while he straightens
to lift
and boosts her
springing from his hands
arms extended
fingertips pointed
arrowing skyward
as she leaps
than either

Ah, but this is a crisp description of a delicate scene; like Williams, the concentration is on closely observed movement, the cupping of the male's hand to form a lift, a bridge for the woman to place her foot, the slow rising from the floor toward the sky, the final, cascade-seeming leap. What Powell has assumed from Williams are lessons well learned; the brief lines are an internalized beat, a slowly wound spring tensing up until an eventual, ceiling-bound release--the motions here are a seamless stream without the bumps and segmented grating a stitched-in abstraction would have brought to Powell's elegant outline.

One element rings false, if only slightly, the additionally commentary at the conclusion "...she leaps / higher / than either / separately could." The narrator emerges from the wings , Rod Serling style, and offers up the summarizing afterward , and this an intrusion on the serene, zen-moment mood Powell had other wise established here; it takes the reader away from a simple, sweetly arranged music, remarkable for its brevity and absence of loaded terms and freighted associations, and places us in the realm of argument. It's a jolt , as it was both unneeded--did anyone really need to be told , at poem's end, that this was a feat a dancer couldn't accomplish without a partner? The abrupt turn, shifting from the evocative to the editorial, would suggest that Powell has things in mind that the dance partners are symbolic of , or symptomatic of , but I doubt that's the reason. He's too concrete a poet to become vague and allusive and allude to invisible concerns outside his actual writing if there wasn't anything in the work to give the insinuations a tangible presence. I suspect it's merely a case of the instinctual habit to sum things up; this is a habit that can be effective in longer works, where a brief paraphrase of a poem's tropes can illuminate how imagery and theme has been reconfigured in the process of bringing to an articulate expression, but "Dance Partners" is too brief for the effect. The minor failing of the ending illustrates my belief that a large factor of a good poet's working philosophy is the instinct of knowing when to stop writing--often times a poem is complete before the writer thinks he's finished with it.  The point of these tense, brief lyrics is to leave well enough alone

Friday, June 5, 2009

Despairing over despair, observing what's already perfect

I  my love for adjectives, metaphors and unhinged diction when I was a younger man attempt to write in the shadow of the Eliots, the Ashberys, the Stevens of the poetry world. Needless to say (but to be said anyway) I wrote a great deal of poems that could be blue penciled into submission, as many, many of the things I composed were done on the fly, in full improvisational rant. Most of us are lucky enough to survive and learn from their youthful indulgence, and my preference in tone , for my work, is to more concise, terser , more direct in my treatment of the world. It's an ongoing experiment in phenomenological terrorism, but we can conclude that my later offerings seeks to get back to the data, the situation under a poem's consideration. One longs for something to come from their keyboard that's less abstract and more at one with the material realm, a project destined to fail--one cannot step outside their own skin to observe oneself in their habitual habitat--but it is the attempts that are worth considering, pondering, it is the art that adds to our knowledge of the things we don't know. For others, of course, poetry is a means to classify and categorize and index people, places and things; it is a means to conquer the world and reduce to quantifiable data. Poetry here is means of missing the point entirely. 

Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean. 

One needs to admit to Anthony Hecht's mastery of the carefully articulated tone of his work , and appreciate as well the limits he observes when constructing correlatives between interior states with the material world. Not pompous, not grandiloquent, not bombastic, Hecht's poem "Despair" finds a way to make the sluggishness of the human spirit resemble the turns of the day-- 
Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.  
The adjectives are perfectly selected and fitted like the smaller, finer diamonds in a larger arrangement of vaguely tarnished gems, with the intent being to remind you, I suspect, that more often than not one has found themselves caught unaware that the warm afternoon has taken on a sudden chill in just the minutes it took for the sun to take a late afternoon shift of position. It does just that, but it seems a bit false; the perception seems padded by the slightest degree.  
But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine. 

What I recognize over anything else is a world that seems to exist only for it's elements--an Edward Hopper universe of subdued tones, melancholic hues and diffuse light-- to illustrate a mood that itself seems more imagined, fanciful. The language eschews the chance to be vivid and naked with the sadness it attempts to corral and instead decorates the psychology. Phrases like "Washes the bank of a dry arroyo" or "To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine" , for me, hang there like waiting room art that is nebulous and comforting; the real experience is abstracted, obscured, defused of potential. This makes me think less of an accounting of what one has felt and found suitable expression for than it is a rumor of something having happened . This is the kind of language one comes upon with someone who has something on their mind they aren't comfortable exposing to an honest art. Measured, well crafted, balanced, similes and metaphors synchronized , but without a single provocative notion. You're left to admire the structure of the thing, the finesse of the inner mechanisms, and leave the poem without a hint of real feeling.


The conventional wisdom is the older artist uses bolder strokes and is more selective in the techniques they use from their assembled devices and acquired skills, and appealing prospect for older poets and readers who surfeited with the orgy of earnest self examination. Enough about you, already, we know it's you who's had these experiences, tell us what you see without announcing that you're in the act of seeing. I don't constantly roll my eyes when coming across a personal pronoun in a poem--that would be rude, even in private--and I will attest to liking poets who've a winning manner that mitigates their constancy in the work; I am a Norman Mailer fan, after all. But not everyone is so engaging, nor interesting, at least when they are the articulated persona the poetry is coming through. Much of the time you desire the more direct approach; let's skip the foreplay and go straight to the perception, the place where the new idea forms. My model is William Carlos Williams, who could, to my mind (and ear) draw a lyric from the barest of linguistic ploys. It's a clean, well lit poem. 

Spring and All 
by William Carlos Williams 

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 wild carrot 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. 

There seems less of the telling-the-world-what-it-mean??s I gather from Hecht's skilled outline and sense in Williams someone who has remained quiet and still long enough in the spaces he inhabits to have the world reveal itself. This poem is one of action, so to speak, activity, of how nature exudes and recedes with the change of the weather, how the terrain seems to wither under a severity of cold wind and hard snow but comes to life again as the ground softens and the temperature warms a bitter air. Where Hecht, to me, reads as if he was determined to find dour inner states, Williams finds symmetry and elegance in what the passerby might consider a rough and unrefined wood; Williams' eye is sure and his ear is tuned to the music that's already in the frame he wandered into ; there was no need to busy up his materials. Being the doctor, Williams had, perhaps, an innate appreciation of how things fit together, whether the human body, the buildings of a city that hugged a rough shoreline, or otherwise untrammeled nature itself. He is wholly aware that what he's seeing is already perfect before he arrived; the perfection is independent of his personality and his desires, and there his presence does not bring beauty to the landscape. It is his task to notice what's there , to see what is in front of him that otherwise goes unseen, to notice the world apart from his ego. That is what makes Williams one of my favorite poets.