To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Charter Member Luci Friesen aka The Gaucho
Subject: W.C.W. and his buddies shifting gears with a sometimes sticking clutch
“What were we seeking? No one knew consistently enough to formulate a ‘movement.’ We were restless and constrained, closely allied with the painters. Impressionism, dadaism, surrealism applied to both painting and the poem. What a battle we made of it merely getting rid of capitals at the beginning of every line! The immediate image, which was impressionistic, sure enough, fascinated us all.
We had followed Pound’s instructions, his famous ‘Don’t,’ eschewing inversions of the phrase, the putting down of what to our senses was tautological and so, uncalled for, merely to fill out a standard form. Literary allusions, save in very attenuated form, were unknown to us. Few had the necessary reading.
We were looked at askance by scholars and those who turned to scholarship for their norm. To my mind the thing that gave us most a semblance of a cause was not imagism, as some thought, but the line: the poetic line and our hopes for its recovery from stodginess. I say recovery in the sense that one recovers a salt from solution by chemical action. We were destroyers, vulgarians, obscurantists to most who read; though occasionally a witty line, an unusual reference, or a wrench of the simile to force it into approximation with experience rather than reading − bringing a whole proximate ‘material‘ into view–found some response from the alert”
− William Carlos Williams, from Autobiography (1951)
That’s how he said it years later, and here we are taking all of this for granted. Let’s take a few leaps away from the chickens & wheelbarrow. Let’s look around for some other indications that the good doctor Williams was showing us, maybe a thing or two about dashes − did he think of Emily? Consistent in his attention to detail, what we really see whether in the poems composed looking out the window of his car after delivering a baby or on foot checking out locals on his way home to “test his pees”.
What was this irreverent American impressionist up to? No good, certainly, no ornate beauty beyond that thing itself which he did go on about. And you are led to ask as you read on whether anything could be better seen or seen again, than his observations. Even Walt couldn’t have loved the grass and trees, the people better than Bill Williams and without the filtered lens of distance, his life with all of its up close and personal. One wonders why a poem such as (Al Que Quiere! 1917) isn’t as often quoted as J. Alfred, why everyone sticks with the chickens and rarely looks at his Passaic, his Paterson. Along with his Americanese, his crisp lines, comes the place: New Jersey can never be the same after his pen has passed through it.
The style is a clear jumble. It is hard to imagine much of 20th Century American poetry without him. We write from him in ways we never think about so far down the line from that old battle with academic writing, rhyme and meter. It was a freeing to use the language we use daily to express our daily experiences. Don’t get me wrong, he could be romantic, it isn’t cut and dried, but he never lost sight of
The Young Housewife
At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling
Check out At the Ball Game (Spring And All, 1923), a play in comma and dash and two line paean grasping the essence of the national pastime and the people who watch it. So we get that combination of making the poem sound like us and finding through it a voice which speaks of our interests and cares. Look to the use of parenthesis as not just a typographic element but a way to draw attention to the detail in a short poem
a child (a boy) bouncing
a ball (a blue ball) −
He bounces it (a toy racket
in his hand) and runs
and catches it (with his
left hand) six floors
straight down −
which is the old back yard
His slang seems quaint but his turn of phrase is accurate to his time. He gave us the okay to say it. Look in at Lee’s Lunch and see the signage and later The Attic Which is Desire (Collected Poems, 1934) where
* * * is laid out with “running lights”
* S *
* O *
* D *
* A *
* * *
Old hat isn’t it, but in the teens and twenties this was a kick in the teeth to old school. We are talking about a new country here trying to establish the rules of its linguistic game. The doc saw it as a battle as did his pals at The Dial. If we want to put him in context we would be better to think of Steiglitz than Duchamp.
The sign of poetry, words as sign. How we take this for granted now − all the things he did to swing poetry into our modern world, how he sets the example followed by so many out of the flowered tunnel of ornate Latinate usage and the necessity to rhyme. Even 75 years later it is exciting to read how he does it so minimally, so concisely mingling the demotic with a clear cut image. Of course he didn’t do this single-handedly, but his repeated efforts to be in the things and people of his Rutherford, his New Jersey, his Paterson set an example of how it could be done. The image we have of him: City as Pueblo, much in the same vein as Neruda presented the world of his Chile.
Paterson the city is to represent the people of Paterson, city as man. The poem was event, prose passages, reportage, historical account. Not to lead to footnotes but to present directly the experience of life in the city of that time. The city and river allowed him to be large beyond one viewing while giving the daily life and the historical layers of that life. Or in his own words:
To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means −
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. what
else is there? . . .
He is experimenting with his vision of what American poetry is supposed to be and I propose, no I throw down the gauntlet, that such a variety of poets as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, and the list could go on, were writing in the “American Grain’ given them by Williams, each to her/his own ends, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, unnamed hipsters: can anyone not think of Ginsberg when you read in the opening of part II of Paterson
There is no direction. Whither? I
cannot say, I cannot say
more than how. The how (the howl) only
is at my disposal (proposal) : watching −
colder than stone .
and look at that use of punctuation. Typography used as carrier of meaning. We just need an Olsen to give it room.
And it is place, this place where we find ourselves, not on the Danube but perhaps the Russian River or Trout Creek. Not unknowing of the castles in Spain, but watching the fog come in off the Pacific or the tug moving across the Hudson from the Heights. Paterson, which he was writing until his death, still planning section VII.
− Say it, no ideas but in things −
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident −
. . .
(What common language to unravel?
. . combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s
He does write it better than most.