By Pat Nolan
“What a fool to be tricked into seriousness.”
—William Carlos Williams
from Kora In Hell
This year marks a century since the publication of Sour Grapes by Williams Carols Williams. The previous year, 1920, in the aftermath of a global pandemic, Williams had published his most radically modern work, Kora In Hell, Improvisations—prose improvisations in part influenced by what he had read of Gertrude Stein’s work in Alfred Stieglitz’s art magazine, Camera Works, (an early indication of the visual bias/esthetic in 20th Century) as well as Kandinsky’s essays on art. Kora In Hell was the starter’s gun that signaled Williams’ sprint into a decade of innovation and imagination, and in which he would develop and integrate esthetic concerns that would follow him for the rest of his days.
The germ of modern American poetry is in these 42 poems, a synced modernism in which Williams focused on the trends of the day (Expressionism, Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, even Dada) from his semi-rural suburban redoubt and made them his own, using what fit with his vision and discarding the rest. To reread the poems in Sour Grapes is to contemplate the flourishing of a unique shift in American poetry, one that has endured a century and is practiced widely, often with barely an inkling of its provenance. They are poems of ease and elegance, notations of a particular perceptual identity tuned in to the times. In quoting Kandinsky’s “Every artist has to express himself, express his epoch, the pure and eternal qualities of the art of all men,” Williams affirmed what he was setting out to do. Just about everything in modern American poetry that is currently conventional can find its roots in Sour Grapes, the succinct paratactic directness of the poem stripped bare of its allegories.
As an independent professional, William Carlos Williams, M.D., was free to explore a certain radicalism in the arts without fear of it affecting his livelihood. The language would be spare yet elegant, with the objectivity of a scientist in its experiential expression. The poems have no theme (aka prompt) except for being in the moment, and the language that precipitates its transcription, once organized in verbal expression, can be viewed as the material from which a composition is articulated, the product of the writer/artist and a typewriter, the de facto canvas of the letter size sheet of paper implicit. The convention of topic and syllogistically clever resolution as homily, moral judgement/indignation, or resolute declaration (i.e., rhetoric) are abandoned for the perceptual/cinematic pan across a sequence of images to trigger a piano roll of subtle and harmoniously linked synapses much like the eyeful of a painting in which interest is aroused by various aspects of artistry, a sense of cohesiveness that is ineffable in nature. As Bruce Holsapple notes in his excellent Birth Of The Imagination, William Carlos Williams on Form (University of New Mexico, 2015), Sour Grapes and the poems of that period cued off the pictorial arts Williams would have seen in Stieglitz’s gallery, the Armory show of 1913, the Duchampian/Cubist fracture of planes, and a revelatory reading of Kandinsky’s essays on esthetics,
Kandinsky’s The Art of Spiritual Harmony (1914) is a point of reference around which much of Williams’ subsequent vision of a liberated poetic for the new age would revolve. Kandinsky and his ideas about art were hot topics of discussion, relevant to a particular coterie in the Stieglitz circle of artists and writers in the first decades of the 20th Century with whom the doctor from New Jersy was peripherally associated. Williams appropriated the terms “improvisation” and “composition” from Kandinsky, and was familiar with Kandinsky’s triadic sources of inspiration, responsibilities of the artist, guiding principles, and the mystical elements of inner need. Kandinsky’s idea of complementarity aligned with Williams’ idea of correspondences between unlike elements in apposition, of a resonance that ensues similar to the complementarity of colors, the binary of juxtaposition familiar from Seurat and pointillism but extended to a larger domain of abstraction and pure form. In absorbing Kandinsky’s idea of composites and composition, design and form, Williams removed himself from the literary sphere in his approach to writing, adopting extra lyrical methods closer to the visual esthetic of the 20th Century.
The pictorial arts played an influential part in Williams’ self-definition as a poet. He was a contemporary of Duchamp, in the era when literature became art (vividly retold in Shattuck’s The Banquet Years). The example of Mallarme’s Coup de des, with its emphasis on chance operation, juxtaposition, and the unpredictable, and Apollinaire’s graphical Calligrams presented the bridge to the visual esthetic in the way the poem could appear on the page. Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Imagism, Dada were all part of the artistic buffet available to Williams. In the new century, paintings were now visual poems, lyric, geometric, primitive, psychological representations of a nonverbal right brain. Poetry became indistinguishable from prose, imagistic verbal sketches, experientially schematized, sensually parsed, with the immediacy of the new now.
As Duchamp professed and predicted, anything and everything that can be appropriated is art. The outcome is a blending in which the literary incorporates (is incorporated by) the spatial approach of the plastic arts, and vice versa. Duchamp, as an example, is literary and literal: he creates a narrative with his objects by their confounding explicitness—you have to consider them. And Duchamp exemplified the new artist, one who is conceptual as well as intuitive. Expressionism added the analytical comprehension of form as an essential and spiritual element of artistic creation. Cubism, as a juxtaposition of elements in a brash remote mechanically abstracted assemblage, reflected the undaunted lines of machinery, supreme icon of the age, creating an environment of jarring loud designs, confounding in cacophonous announcement the representation of their workings. The Futurists were in love with machines as were architects and graphic designers. Dada, in all its seriousness, was aimed at producing laughter (albeit nervous), a release, an escape velocity from the grave grip of tedium and the troughs of repetition when things weren’t all that funny anymore.
If there is anything Dada about early Williams innovation, it is invisible to us now unless we take into consideration the provocative in Dada is the outrageousness of Williams’ method for the poetry readers of his time. What Williams realized is that the disjointed fragmented illustrative irony that dominates the eye can also be represented as a verbal construct. The found, the juxtaposed, the technical, scientific, photographic, cinematic, anecdotal can be objectified in situ by the form of the page. Like abstract paintings, poems “need not be intelligible to others,” Williams states in the Prologue to Kora In Hell, as they are unique engagements of perceptual identity and the creative impulse to frame sentience.
When considering Williams and form, the forms are not those of literary convention: sonnet, terza rima, ballad, villanelle, ode, blank verse, and so on. Nor is there rhyme or meter. “Nowadays poets spit on rhyme and rhetoric,” Williams states in the Prologue. The point of emphasis is that they are not literary forms at all, but products of impression, imagination, and composition, all guided by an initial stance in the moment of inspiration and self-organized according to the author’s esthetic understanding of what has presented itself, and not fit into the strictures of antiquated cleverness. Conventional literary forms would have no bearing on the new poetry, the one with the American voice.
In The Birth Of The Imagination, a fascinating and erudite close reading of the good doctor’s early work, Bruce Holsapple examines what distinguishes Williams’ approach as a radical shift from the conventions of literature. “[T]he innovations of Sour Grapes entails minimizing propositional content and decentralizing imagery. . .boosting the significance of the simplest of phrases, heightening all elements equally. . .[with] meaning distributed throughout, not located in a macrostructure or in what the poem is ‘about’.” Many of the poems in Sour Grapes are extraordinary for their “painterly organization” as well as their use of “prepositional phrases” and their “conspicuous lack of propositional content.”
Holsapple uses the poem “Approach To Winter” as an example to focus on Williams’ method. The poem is distinguished by intense visual focus, lacking overt propositional content as well as being “an esthetic event in of itself.” Williams naturally thinks of the poem as “a kind of object with its own ontological status.” With the physicality of an objet d’art, the poem is now more than just literature—the typewriter had allowed the writer to own the page as an object of his making. Nor is the poem structured by theme but schematically (visually) as perceived events with bits of inner reflection sprinkled throughout. The absence of propositional content doesn’t invoke an outside referent in support of its non-theme nor is it especially representational in its non-expository presentational directness. The poem is not about anything in the conventional sense and as a consequence diminishes the distance between the subject and speaker to emphasis a unique and personal intimacy. “What occurs takes place on the page, resulting from a ‘poetic’ design,” Holsapple insists. The shift from an ideational to an experiential mode of organization has the effect of decentralizing the poem, an innovation begun in Kora In Hell.
Williams realizes his aim by first establishing perspective, accomplished in distinctly spatial terms, decentralizing the poem, and allowing the eye to follow the imagery much like it would in looking at a canvas. Point of view is flattened, redistributed, and the background brought forward to engage the reader much as modern painting does away with perspective for the effects of color and shape. The poems in Sour Grapes are not possible without the radical reappraisals of linear modes of poetic organization. As well, notions of content have undergone similar transformations. The poem is not meant to be taken as a representation of experience, but experienced as an artistic construct, one in which theme is no longer the primary principle of development, and that “the meaning resides in the very structure.”
“The form of the work, the compositional design, gives evidence of thought. . .innovative design is the [poet’s] primary task,” Holsapple notes in his conclusion to the section detailing Williams’ groundbreaking method in Sour Grapes. “The content of the poem arises from experience. . . the poet’s attention. . .focused at the point of origin, on immediate experience, as a legitimizing moment. The organization of the poems becomes schematic. . .rather than organized by hierarchy,” he maintains, and consequently the poems in Sour Grapes are allowed to expand beyond the bounds of literary conventions into those of visual tropes. Williams’ improvisational modes become part of a calculated method as requisite to composition.
There is not a little irony in Williams’ titling of his 1921 poetry selection Sour Grapes, an expression that suggests dissatisfaction and envy. When I first noticed the title in the table of contents of my 1951 edition of The Earlier Collected Poems many years ago, I thought, “Sour Grapes, now there’s a fitting title for a book of poems.” It certainly articulates a universal mood, especially among poets who feel marginalized or don’t get the attention they think they deserve (on a sliding scale). Despite his current status as a major literary figure in the American canon, a thirty seven year old (in 1921) Williams Carlos Williams was shoveling shit against the tide and he knew it. His ideas did not have a chance in “hell” when the literary establishment was favoring T.S. Eliot whom he viewed as a subtle conformist, a conscious simplicity, a man content with the connotations of his masters, and the antithesis of the radical poetics he was advocating, one that did away with the old world methods for the new perspective of the 20th Century. What Williams proposed then is still radical despite being marginalized and disparage in the institutional canon.
A further irony is that it took René Taupin, a Frenchman, to grasp the significance of Kora In Hell and by extension Williams’ later innovative work. In his 1929 L’influence du Symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine (1910-1920), a time when Williams was receiving little or no critical attention, Taupin writes that “Williams knows more about the work of the imagination than any American poet today,” and that perhaps it was Williams who had come up with the formulation that would become the basis for American modernist writing. He had no difficulty in positioning Kora In Hell as the seminal text for a uniquely American approach to modern poetry and seeing the text as probably the most important in the evolution of Williams’ poetry, that in the composition of Improvisations, [Williams] had posed all the relevant artistic questions of his day, and in its writing, had brought himself into intimate contact with his means. Williams makes no bones about delineating these means in the texts of Improvisations as well as in the original 1920 Prologue to Kora In Hell (omitted in the 1957 City Lights edition). The poems of Sour Grapes and subsequently in Spring And All and The Descent Of Winter would illustrate his means, his gift, his talent, his genius, his vision.
Williams’ influence is hardly insignificant in modernist American letters. He is the subject of numerous and laudatory biographical/critical studies that get to the root of his supreme importance in the development and direction of modern poetry, certainly in the Anglosphere. Yet he is still denigrated as a minor poet, dismissed by the likes of Vendler and Bloom, and paved over in the institutional curriculum of entrenched academe and the sentimentalized techni-centric workshop/wokeshop where students (future poets?) are taught to write meaningful captions to their selfies and pass them off as poems. Lip service is paid to Williams by including his “wheelbarrow” poem (Spring And All, “Poem XXII”) in anthologies without providing the necessary context, and without which the glaze of rain water and white chickens is rendered simplistic and superficial while so much depends upon its revolutionary complexity. Remarkably his poetry and his ideas about poetry have gone on to influence generations of American poets too numerous to name but would include, as just the beginning sketch of a very very long list in the generations that overlap my own, Paul Blackburn, Elaine Equi, Anselm Hollo, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, Alice Notley, Kenneth Rexroth, James Schuyler, and Philip Whalen. (Add your list here.)
At the turn of the century of the visual cortex and dominant esthetic of the gaze, writers necessarily had to be freed from their subcategory and integrated into the greater field of creative individuals. The poet became the painter and the painter became the poet: colorful emotions, anti-narrative flights of fancy predominated the canvas and artfully arranged words and phrases in tandem graced the page. The poet manifests as artist, not simply a man or woman of letters—there are no longer such distinctions—participating in the breaking down and redefining of the arts in culture as increasingly more complex interpretations of the modes of the psyche. As Julia Kristeva observed, “The 20th Century saw another reordering of the esthetic until it got to the point that art became a continuous reordering of the esthetic as the process of signifying.”
Process over product in American modernist writing begins with Williams Carlos Williams who understood that visual bias, already well established in photography and the cinema as well as the plastic arts, would be the dominating influence of the new century’s art. The dynamic of the poem is its construction as a movement not only as a creature of the page but as the process of the unfolding of the imagination through deft improvisation that on each occasion rewrites the history of literature as a unique composition. Form is self-determined in that it is the result of imagination, improvisation, and intelligence. The poem must offer something other than the old syllogistic cul de sac. The poems in Sour Grapes were among the first steps toward dismantling the antiquated mechanisms of literature and are the rootstock feeding the diverse branches of American poetry.
Obviously much of what I have written here is the result of long held opinions and perceptions of the importance of Williams in relation to my own writing and to the vast entangled field of modern poetry. However, I delight in being joined in my speculation by others who have articulated their views and have done the leg work. Bruce Holsapple’s The Birth Of The Imagination, William Carlos Williams On Form (University of New Mexico, 2015) is one such study I feel fortunate to have chanced upon. For those not familiar with the material of Williams’ early groundbreaking work, Holsapple presents an informed exposition on the development of the radical esthetic at the root of modern American poetry. Readers better acquainted with the breadth of the Williams oeuvre will discover a brilliant, thoroughly considered refresher into the revolutionary vision of the new poetry by the foundational figure in modernist American writing. Recommended as a companion volume is Imaginations (New Directions, 1970), a collection of Williams’ seminal work of the 1920s, edited and introduced by Webster Schott. The 42 poems of Sour Grapes, found in The Collected Earlier Poems (New Directions, 1951), will no doubt surprise the contemporary reader with how current and fresh they remain.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and three novels. His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems, Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society as well as Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine. His poet-centric fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.
A very important essay. Thank you