Bill & Lou, Part II
The Descent of Winter
By Tom Sharp
(excerpted from The Objectivists)
Louis Zukofsky took Ezra Pound’s suggestion to edit The Descent of Winter by William Carlos Williams for “Exile 4”. Williams began the sequence “on board the S. S. Pennland in the fall of 1927 . . . having left his wife in Europe to care for their two sons who were attending school in Switzerland for a year,” and he continued and finished it living with his mother in Rutherford.
Zukofsky sent his edited version of the manuscript to Pound on 28 May 1928, noting that the Sundays he had spent with Williams in Rutherford had been more than reassuring. The first two months of their friendship had established lasting trust and understanding between them, a secure basis for future collaboration. Pound received the manuscript and wrote Williams to make further suggestions. Williams replied on 25 June 1928, and noted: “I’m really delighted that you like Zukofsky’s batch of choosings. You’d be amused to see the stuff he didn’t take. Yet he did a fine job, believe me—”. On 1 July 1928 Pound wrote Zukofsky: “/// Re/ the Bill Wms. I have merely deleted 4 lines. Any further emendations HE chooses to make, might be added to mss. (or deleted from same) before it goes to press) . . . Bill seems please[d] with the way you have edited his mss.”
The Descent of Winter, one of the first results of collaboration between “Objectivists,” is important not only to the relationship between Williams and Zukofsky, but to the history of the “Objectivist” movement. Editing Williams’ work for Pound must have taught Zukofsky or confirmed in him the poetic values which Pound and Williams had developed from their innovations in the second decade of the 20th Century.
The Descent of Winter remains in the journal format in which Williams wrote it; each piece is dated, beginning “9/27” (27 September 1927) and ending “12/18” (18 December 1927). These dates, as Webster Schott notes, “literally document Williams’ title. Winter was coming.” Williams had just turned 45 and felt the descent personally; however, in his work, corresponding to the archetype of Kora in Hell which was rooted in his psyche, he found Persephone’s blessings in the imagination’s revitalizing of physical perception, in the spontaneous creations of his mind, and in his old mother’s memories of her childhood in Mayaguez. These blessings countered his disgust with the death he felt of art and culture. The central concern of his attempted revitalization was writing itself. His restoration of the problems of art and culture to the writer’s poetic discipline proved to be characteristic of “Objectivism.” Williams attacked the death of his art by experimenting with form and content, and by directly attacking the problems before him either metaphorically (9/30 “There are no perfect waves— / Your writings are a sea / . . .”) or critically (11/1 “Introduction / in almost all verse you read, mine or anybody’s else, . . .”).
The work opens with two poems, “9/27” and “9/29,” both of which present objects at that time new to poetry. “9/27” (printed in quotation marks and italics) expresses a man’s elation at discovering the underwear he had long taken for granted. “9/29” focuses on the oval celluloid disc in Williams’ sleeping cabin which identified the “No. 2” berth. The form of each poem is uniquely adapted to its feeling, and the feeling is a direct response to the object:
My bed is narrow
in a small room
“9/30” begins Williams’ direct confrontation with the problems of writing. His language like the sea is imperfect—broken, restless, monotonous, and uninhabitable. But perhaps in it is “a coral island slowly / slowly forming and waiting / for birds to drop the seeds.”
Subsequent entries are seeds, some of which fall on fertile ground. “10/23” begins a long section of free-form prose which reveals Williams’ refusal to take the marksman’s properly rigid stance but also shows his ability sometimes to hit the mark. He begins by declaring: “I will make a big, serious portrait of my time,” which is only partly ironic. It will be like the Aztec calendar which survives its cheap Mexican imitation. As in the opening of Spring and All, Williams felt that poetic excellence repels idiots but suffers because of its nakedness:
. . . the art of writing is to do work so excellent that by its excellence it repels all idiots but idiots are like leaves and excellence of any sort is a tree when the leaves fall the tree is naked and the wind thrashes it till it howls it cannot get a book published it can only get poems into certain magazines that are suppressed . . .
Williams howled when his work lost its leaves as winter descended. He felt his poems in the world were like seeds drowning in gasoline.
Yet inherent in their construction is “the great law”: that care for quality, for integrity of materials, is love:
. . . and all I say brings to mind the rock shingles of Cherbourg, on the new houses they have put cheap tile which overlaps but the old roofs had flat stone sides steep but of stones fitted together and that is love there is no portrait without that [that] has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it every day.
Love is the attention which creates objects that will not date or decay. It is an active and creative assertion of the value of the part of the whole, of the order which frees not only the creator’s energy but can free the energy of others and of the world. Zukofsky’s natura naturans (nature creating rather than created) is such “love, whose proof in writing is “sincerity”. Williams’ concept of love is further elaborated in January: A Novelette. Here, he continued:
But there is a great law over him which—is as it is. The wind blowing, the mud spots on the polished surface, the face reflected in the glass which as you advance the features disappear leaving only the hat and as you draw back . . .
Attention to the effects of “the great law” revealed to Williams the relevance of the birth of Dolores Marie Pischak in Fairfield, September 1927, which he celebrated in “10/28.” Her birth killed the decency and order that obstruct creation and writing. She was a seed dropped to germinate on a coral island; she was Williams’ “hero,” and so her portrait is the portrait of his time:
born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs. 2 ozs. The hero is Dolores Marie Pischak, the place Fairfield, in my own state, my own country, its largest city, my own time. This is her portrait: O future worlds, this is her portrait —order be God damned. Fairfield is the place where the October marigolds go over into the empty lot with dead grass like Polish children’s hair and the nauseous, the stupefying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything—dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong.
Williams abolished in his creation the order in her birth love abolished. Poetic liberation established for the “Objectivist” a political liberation. Williams became free from the loveless and pleasureless monotony of the suburbs:
Oh, blessed love where are you there, pleasure given out, order triumphant, one house like another, grass cut to pay lovelessly. Bored we turn to cars to take us to “the country” to “nature” to breathe her good air. Jesus Christ. To nature. It’s about time, for most of us.
Nature is disorderly. To order is to drive out pleasure and health: “A cat licking herself solves most of the problems of infection. We wash too much and finally it kills us.” Writing must reveal the vivid “truth of the object” without attempting to order it, to clean it up; it must experience the poverty and dirtiness of nature without comparing it to something else:
and the late, high growing red rose
it is their time
of a small garden
poetry should strive for nothing else, this vividness alone, per se, for itself. The realization of this has its own internal fire that is “like” nothing. Therefore the bastardy of the simile. That thing, the vividness which is poetry by itself, makes the poem. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem. This is modern, not the saga. There are no sagas”*only trees now, animals, engines: There’s that.
The thing itself reveals the whole of which it is a part, as synecdoche. The universal is in the particular, the idea in the thing. This became the ultimate justification of “Objectivist” sincerity—their emphasis on concrete and specific particulars, their distrust of abstraction and generality. In The Descent of Winter, “Russia is every country,” and in “A Morning Imagination of Russia,” a man frees himself of everything (sleep, cities, walls, rooms, elevators, files, fashion, shaving) that comes between himself and the earth and sky.
Williams’ love is a development of Keats’s negative capability. Both react against the rationality that interferes with creativity. “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” Just as Keats felt the setting sun always set him to rights “—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel,” so Williams praised Shakespeare’s “mean ability to fuse himself with everyone which nobodies have . . . that is what made him the great dramatist.“
“11/13 SHAKESPEARE” continues this argument, and here, where Williams described the “unemployable world” of Shakespeare’s mind outlasting those destroyed by their artificiality, it is clear that Shakespeare’s virtue applies as well to Williams. The “scaffolding of the academic, which is a ‘lie’ in that it is inessential to the purpose as to the design,” and the “defense of the economists and modern rationalists of literature” are done away with by “intelligence . . . subjected to the instinctive whole,” by the poet who “lives because he sinks back . . . into the mass.”
The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them—clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.
God—Sure if it makes sense. “God” is poetic for the unobtainable. Sense is hard to get but it can be got. Certainly that destroys “God,” it destroys everything that interferes with simple clarity of apprehension.
To sense the plain core of the facts and the natural “stores of the mind” is difficult but not impossible. This core is not therefore transcendental but immanent. Creation from this “simple clarity” is freer from the perverse, inane, oppressive, cheap, and “fragmentary stupidity of modern life.”
“Genius” is realizing this intense clarity: “It is to see the track, to smell it out, to know it inevitable—sense sticking out all round feeling, feeling, seeing—hearing touching.” Genius is the corollary to “the great law” of love. Great art is the product of this genius. The dramatist must identify “situations of the soul (Lear, Harpagon, Oedipus Rex, Electra)” so closely with life “that they become people,” and he must identify so closely with these people that the drama comes to life. “But to labor over the ’construction’ over the ’technique’ is to defeat, to tie up the drama itself. One cannot live after a prearranged pattern, it is all simply dead.” The theater is dead unless the actor does more than mimic the script, and unless the script does more than mimic the life. To be scrupulously realistic, to copy the prearranged pattern, kills the life. “The painfully scrupulous verisimilitude which honesty affects drill, discipline defeats its own ends in—”. Creation depends on the subject as well as the object; life depends on author as well as nature.
Shakespeare’s ability to “live,” like Williams’ ability to “love,” was to escape the rational inhibitions and inane imperfections of language and of the world for the full realization, in the mind and in the senses, of the vivid truth of the object. The Descent of Winter therefore established the “Objectivist” solution of political and personal problems as a poetic concerned with registering “clarity of apprehension” in terms of facts objectified by a structure within which both the human psyche and the shared world participate.
From Tom Sharp’s The Objectivists.
The entirety of Tom Sharp’s scholarly appraisal is available at The Objectivists with all the attendant footnotes and proper permissions.
Tom Sharp is the author of numerous books, including Spectacles from Taurean Horn Press, and a member of Seldovia Village Tribe. He was a student of David Bromige’s at Sonoma State University and studied with Albert Gelpi at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D. He is retired from IBM where he was a writer and programmer, and currently lives in Seattle.