To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah
RE: Wheelbarrow, Chickens, Weather
A Kodak Moment
Let it be said, no truer words in the annals of poetry, that so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. It’s the Kodak moment of US poetry. In a decade or so beginning in the late teens on to the early 1930’s William Carlos Williams was the most radical poet writing in the US. Yet to this day he is still considered a minor scribbler in the lofty opinions of some in academe. Williams may only have himself to blame as he can be quoted as saying “It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfaction” and “having scribbled I can rest.” A recent biography paints a rather drab portrait of Williams as a rural country doctor, but beneath the tweed lived a voracious intelligence intoxicated by the latest developments in the world of art and literature at the turn of the century.
So what was it that radicalized the young doctor with literary aspirations from rural New Jersey? The most obvious event would have been the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art aka the Armory Show featuring an unprecedented collection of modern art that included an abundant representation of Impressionists, Expressionist, Fauvists, and Cubist artists. The sensation of the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase. Williams soon found himself running in the same crowd as Duchamp who had hurriedly decamped to New York City to cash in on his succés de scandale. With Duchamp came another Gallic prankster, Francis Picabia. They brought with them an irreverent cosmopolitan élan. Around the same time Williams was acquainting himself with the goings-on and talks at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, and 291, a magazine associated with the gallery that championed the avant-garde with an international (i.e., European) contributors list.
Despite the bland exterior of a yokel, Williams was quite hip, au courante, alert to the latest trends in the arts. And even though he lived and practiced medicine in Rutherford, New Jersey, the headiness and social swirl of the art scene was close at hand in Manhattan. A look at a road map of the region reveals just how tantalizingly close the hive of radical art actually was: a little more than a dozen miles. A comparable example for those living in Northern California would be the distance from Berkeley or Piedmont to San Francisco.
The French Connection
Williams applied himself to the study of the latest in literature with the avidity of an amateur, for the pure love of what he was doing, not being a professor or editor or professional writer or bohemian slacker like his college pal, Ezra Pound. If he were to enact a transformation in American poetry analogous to what was happening in the plastic arts he would need some help. Williams claimed Keats and Whitman (an unlikely duo at that) as his literary progenitors, but it was the French who would, as they had a hundred and fifty years earlier for the political revolution, assist in the US literary revolution.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés (literally A Cast of the Dice but with the sense of ‘come what may’) fixed the modern poem as a creature of the page. With its typographic layering and eschewal of the left aligned margin, it is still one of the most original poems in the last hundred years and change. Shortly after Mallarmé’s singular experiment, a mere jog on the time line, an art promoter and poet by the name of Guillaume Apollinaire was proofing a book of his poems titled Alcools (usually translated as Alcohol but with a meaning closer to ‘alchemy’ or ‘distillation’). To his dismay, the punctuation was a mess. Not wanting to be bothered with the chore of making corrections, he simply scrawled ‘delete all punctuation’ on the fly leaf. This off-handed gesture was to have a momentous impact on future literature and can rightly be pointed to as the birth of modern poetry.
There’s more to it than that, of course. Suffice it to say, Apollinaire’s acquaintances were on the cutting edge as well. Max Jacob, Picasso’s roommate on the washing barge, wrote visionary prose poems that anticipated the Surrealists’ fondness for dreams and automatic writing. The poet Pierre Reverdy, intimate of Coco Chanel, took up Mallarmé’s example and abolished the left aligned poem allowing words and phrases to roam freely on the page. The peripatetic Blaise Cendrars wrote Trans-Siberian trans-Atlantic postcard poems from the far flung ends of the earth. Youngsters like Philippe Soupault and Andre Breton, inspired by these older gents, would go on to establish the Surrealist movement. Tristan Tzara, who was not technically French but, like many creative and out-spoken Romanians, in exile, continued the prankster ethos of Alfred Jarry, who was French, with the absurdity of Dada. And not least in this deck of Gallic cards, the joker, Marcel Duchamp who turned the art world on its head.
Williams was undoubtedly a partisan of the new century esthetic through his association with art collector Walter Arensberg’s circle in New York City, in magazines such as New York Dada, The Blind Man, Duchamp’s Rongwrong, and Picabia’s 391, as well as the heated discussions referencing Henri Bergson’s universally acclaimed Creative Evolution. He absorbed all of these influences viscerally. One glance at a poem by Reverdy or Soupault would be enough to engage his hair trigger imagination.
The kick in the pants Williams needed to get his revolutionary program going came in the late teens as a betrayal, actually a double betrayal. As he states in the Prologue to Kora In Hell, Williams felt that T.S. Eliot, with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, had thrown over the potential inherent in the American experience and turned his back on the US, retreating to the shelter of a hackneyed poetic style that pandered to British critical tastes. Eliot, Williams believed, was looking back (despite Persephone’s admonition) at the past, and that he was looking forward, to the future. Eliot was brilliant but a conformist and had rejected the wild uncertainty of the imagination for the trite and taming discipline of literary orthodoxy. What infuriated Williams even more was that Eliot was praised, in the influential literary magazine The Little Review, for meeting the requirements of fixed poetic conventions and standards set by the Anglo literary oligarchy in the smug condescending tones of reactionary colonialism. The topper was that all of this was facilitated by his old pal, Ezra Pound.
With Kora In Hell Williams threw down the gauntlet over the perceived insult to American letters. It took a lot of gumption to take that stand in the face of Eliot’s overwhelming approval by the literary establishment. Williams was showing his true visionary colors. Pound may have said “Make it new” but it was Williams who was actually doing it. Following on the heels of Kora In Hell with the great poetic works of the 20’s, Spring And All, and The Descent of Winter, as well as in his early experimental prose The Great American Novel, and A Novelette And Other Prose, Williams singlehandedly took upon himself the Herculean task of cleaning the horse shit out of the American poetry stable and replacing it with fresh hay. If anyone could be said to be going on their nerve, it was Williams.
Just as Whitman challenged with his rude braggadocio and bombast (now called yawp) so did Williams contest the Anglo hegemony with his campaign for a streamlined modern American poetic. The arena of poetry was now equally on the page and the imperative that it be sung diminished. The primacy of the gaze as well as common speech traveling over the air waves broke down and away from the constraints of proper usage. Poetry was made malleable, and the recognition that it could be denoted as breath script more common to dialogue or monologue, as presciently attested to by the enigma of Amherst, determined the line, anticipating a playful ambiguity that became a hallmark of modernity.
Technology changes the way you do business. That’s as true today as it was in the 20’s The telegraph was rendered passé by wireless communication though it had served its purpose by emphasizing the economy (literally and figuratively) of a terse succinct message. The invention of photography changed how art represented the world as much in writing as in painting, presenting a new way of knowing that did not so much replace the old forms as negate their authority. The cinema certainly had a hand in rendering commonplace the discontinuity of images with quick cuts and juxtapositions by valuing the disruption of syllogistic assumptions and discursive predictability. Williams himself, in an interview later in his life, would point to the effectiveness of the movie trailer at focusing attention and how that kind of intercutting of images created tension and ambiguity that could be utilized in poetry.
The conventions of the past were dissected by the good doctor and found wanting, not up to the job to deal with the new. Poetry was now about the look, the gaze, and the heard, the informal oral aspects of language not about any music or dance the poet artificially imposed on a composition because of some outdated notions handed down from an irrelevant authority. The poem was now, more than ever before, to be found almost entirely on the page, what could be projected onto the blank screen, framed by the circumstances of the moment. From the idea of a readymade art object á la Duchamp it was not a big leap to the appropriation of ad slogans, billboards, headlines as material for poetry, used as is, lifted by a glance onto the page. The dominant gaze encountered the memo moment. A notebook entry, an unedited bald face statement could now be a poem. It is present today in “first thought, best thought” although it is human nature to never leave well enough alone. Who knows what kind of poetry is emerging from the ubiquitous use of smart phones − smart poems?
At the beginning of the century of the future Doc Williams was right in step. He could never bring himself to be the complete cynic about the indifference and condescension he faced – he was too positive, full of hope, and held fast to his vision even in the throes of creative doubt that dogged him most of his life. Williams intuitively grasped Bergson’s “We substitute the qualitative impression our consciousness receives for the quantitative interpretation our intelligence gives it.” He recognized the prime importance of capturing a direct impression by refraining from certain mental states and cultural filters that color immediacy. Hence no ideas but in things. But that would come later. First came a wheelbarrow and some wet hens.
Spring Et Cetera
Kora In Hell may have been Williams’ favorite book but Spring And All is the one in which he set the agenda for the future of US poetry. Spring And All was printed in Italy in an edition of 300. From all reports it’s a beautifully made book. A university library might have one behind glass in the foyer. When it was published in 1923, no one paid much attention. Spring And All features both poems and prose. There are some apparent typographic irregularities done with a purpose, and chapter headings that are not sequential. The poems appear at regular intervals and have a lean and hungry look about them. Stanzas step down the page like a narrow neon sign on Broadway. The emphasis of the single word as a single line carries its own import. The five foot metric line, that Anglo rod used to beat poetry into submission, is broken. As a result, no one cares if a poem scans any more. Nor would any one of these radical innovations appear outrageous or particularly unusual to US poets today. Scansion as a test of a poem’s metric mettle is as anachronistic as celluloid collars, sweater vests, and membership in The Flat Earth Society. Did no one get the memo?
The prose of Spring And All is of a kind of noodling that most poets engage in, justifications, arguments, counter arguments, esthetic shaping, dialogues with imagined interlocutors, none of it conclusive, nor necessarily so. Literary principles are addressed in the prose and demonstrated in the poems. The poems themselves are inviolable, untitled, denoted merely by a Roman numeral, with their new way of saying and seeing, unquestionably revolutionary, every one of them. One poem in particular pulses like a quasar in this galaxy of words. Poem XXII.
The iconic nature of the red wheelbarrow cannot be disputed although its significance is often overlooked. What the poem accomplished by utilizing a mode of impression that belongs to the eye was to transcend the mere visual and engage a full sensory experience. The retinal impression of a composition or juxtaposition of shapes takes place in the eye stripped of culturally influenced categories. Impressions are momentary, a flash, an array of fleeting microseconds when all the appropriate neurons are toggled to optimal alignment. By attempting to record the impression the poet transfers focus to the two dimensional surface of the page and begins to understand the inadequacy of words and the necessity of the imagination.
It’s not surprising that Williams found his contemporaries among painters and visual artists. His poetry had become a way of seeing. Just as painters concentrate on the subtle aspects of their subjects (think Cezanne and his apples), so too can the poet contemplate the commonplace and discover a source of mystery and metaphysical wonder. Ordinary language, spoken rhythms, not some stilted rhetorical device, celebrate the imagination by transforming the mundane, the quotidian, everything considered anti-poetic, with the power of renewal. Words on the page generate their own dynamic and attract a meaning that gives them a unique existence.
Williams may have never fully understood the significance of the red wheelbarrow poem, its four couplets, sixteen words in all, symmetry its sole metric, and how it might reverberate because of its straightforwardness of expression and accessibility, that anyone regardless of education could read it and understand it, at least on the face of it, and perhaps be prompted to try their hand at writing a poem if that was all there was to it. It essentially demolishes the elitism that poetry seems to foster, and its everyday focus allows an egalitarian appreciation. The genius of the poem is in its introductory stanza. So much depends /upon is mantic, an equation similar to Einstein’s in that it encapsulates succinctly everything one would ever need to know about poetry from then on. As the good doctor was to prescribe: “To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force – the imagination.”
Clueless On Mount Parnassus
What is of importance to the poet may not necessarily be what is significant to the future as literary history. It is not what a particular poet can give to succeeding generations but what those generations can take from that poet. From today’s standpoint William Carlos Williams is often overlooked, buried by his success in changing US poetry. The suburban iconoclast, the weekend hipster got the cold shoulder from the watchdogs of a brittle propriety who were loathe to admit that the course of American letters could be determined by a pediatrician. Williams was a maverick, an outlier, an outsider who educated his means – not college professor, magazine editor, publisher, bohemian, trustafundian, flaneur, professional writer pundit critic. He was a natural man beneath that tweed suit coat with his good old American DIY autodidactic homeschooled scholarship poethood. That he should pursue his bliss unaffiliated with an institution of higher learning (emphasis added) was unacceptable and fairly suspect. He might even be a Socialist, most of his patients being working class or poor. If he was going to be the great American poetry hope why couldn’t he be more like Yeats or Keats or anyone with a tony British accent? That’s what it’s all about after all, cultured language. Eliot’s language is politely conditional and chock full of snob appeal while Williams’ is unequivocal, blunt, and universal.
What Williams accomplished he did alone, sleeves rolled up. Unlike many of the writers of his time, he actually got his hands dirty in the real (non-literary) world and had enough of a sense of himself not to be diverted from his vision. Of course a poet is never truly alone or the only one. There will always be someone to come along to add to your thunder or steal it, march to your beat or rain on your parade. That’s the American poetry experience, and likely not singularly American. That Williams was not acknowledged as having engineered a uniquely modern poetic is baffling. A French critic writing in 1929, making a point about the influence of French poetry on US poets, singled Williams out as a true modernist. In so many words he claimed that Williams came up with the template for American art. Pretty heady praise for someone largely ignored in his own country. With a narcissistic intensity Williams elbowed his way to center stage with Kora In Hell, Spring & All, and The Descent of Winter. But no one was listening. A poet has to fight like a wild dog for recognition from a self-interested literary establishment. Some choose not to be dogs.
Today as then the academic institutions favor writers who compose linguistically generated, non-personal, systematically ambiguous works (puzzle poems, make work poetry of an inbred cleverness) in order to provide the post-modern doctorial candidate with job security. That the works are gutless and inauthentic doesn’t matter just as long as the potential for footnotes overshadow their subject. Williams’ poetry is not conducive to busy work. It’s is mainly on the surface. Like gold nuggets or diamonds. Dig any deeper you might hit mud. Or kill the golden goose.
Williams will continue to be denied his laurel as the great American poet of the Twentieth Century as long as the literary mandarins determine the spin. A recent biography managed to make a most revolutionary poet into a tiresome dude (or dud). To have Williams described as operose is a reminder that snobbery is not the least bit affected by senility. How can a man who led such a boring ordinary middle class life write such great poetry? That question is never answered. However, lip service is paid to some of Williams’ more pedestrian verse in an effort to include him, somewhat politely and conditionally, in the panoply of establishment approved poets. It is as if Republicans spoke favorably of FDR by pointing to some of his more reprehensible policies in trying to rehabilitate him for the dark side. If there is a message, urgent or otherwise, in the Williams oeuvre, it is for the lords of a clueless intelligentsia who would dis the man and his work with creepy innuendo. The message, same as it ever was: “You still don’t get it!”
The great poets of the language known as Americano will not be Anglo incubated clones but the outliers, the wild men and women. So far the examples for this indigenous poetic have been set by a newspaper hack, a doctor of medicine, and a Buddhist monk. Most US poets today are influenced by Williams, whether they are aware of it or not. They include some of the most well known and revered and forgotten and ignored poets of the Twentieth Century. They belong to a multitude of diverse schools, factions, and coteries of every stripe and ilk. US poetry today is a direct result of the intended and unintended consequences of the wet chicken wheelbarrow dynamo.
New To The Society’s Book Shelf
Zhang Ji, Cloud Gate Song (Floating World Editions, 2006)
Haruo Shirane, editor, Traditional Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 2007)
Philip Whalen, Invisible Idylls (Big Bridge Press, 2013)
Gail King, Hello Life (Nualláin House. Publishers, 2013)