Thursday, May 05, 2005

Book 5: William Carlos Williams Selected Poems, edited by Charles Tomlinson

Paperback: 302 pages
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation (June 1, 1985)

The poetry of William Carlos Williams is difficult for literary scholars to place into a distinct sect or “school”. The physician-poet who inspired the Beat generation with his words, has a greater affinity to Ginsberg than to the poets of his own era, Eliot or Stevens for example. Williams' work fails to assimilate with even one of his closest admirers and friends, Ezra Pound, though the two share in their desires to experiment with form and style. Williams’ poetry is a conflicting menagerie of imagination, avant-garde forms, and soulful ruminations on the power of the mind. He was one of the first American poets who stayed home rather than turning to Europe for inspiration and elevated colloquial, everyday language to art. His body of work stands as a testament to the devotion an individual can feel towards the written word and the power language contains.

Perhaps Williams was aware of some of the key problematic elements in his work. Like many great artists, he admits the urge to create came to him from unknown forces. In “Apology” when he writes, “Why do I write today?/The beauty of/the terrible faces/of our nonentities/stirs me to it" touches on the artist's alienation from knowing where his art emerges from. This urge often leads him to a doctoral self-examination and deconstruction. But the most important strand in the poetry is an ever fervent defense of poetry’s beauty and utility, even in the modern world. Williams poetry can be political, as in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” when he touches about nuclear energy with such lines as, “The mere picture/of the exploding bomb/fascinates us/so that we cannot wait/to prostrate ourselves/before it.” What can mere words to in the face of this destruction? Does poetry still have a place in a contemporary world bent on self—annihilation? For Williams, the answer is yes.

Ultimately, it is in his defense of the scope of poetry that Williams is his most powerful. He is a man that believed in words and believed the will of the mind was the greatest source of strength in the world. Poetry is all around us, but it is for the poet’s mind to decipher nature’s codes. “Paterson”, his longest poem and a piece that at some points seems to spiral out of control, still retains a core of integrity that exemplifies the poet’s work. The world is the poet’s to interpret Williams elucidates with “…The birds/and leaves are designed to be woven/in his mind eating and.../altogether for his purposes.” The world might not have been made explicitely for the poet's pen, but the poet is free to interpret it this way.

Williams poetry illustrates how language can shape what it describes in the same way that the mind shapes the way in which we perceive the “things” of the world. Williams frequently uses form to highlight this parallel relationship, as in “The Red Wheel Barrow”, where words are revealed slowly, sometimes with only one to a line, a divergent perception from the more immediate facility of the mind. The mind and poet, however, are kin – neither is objective, but rather insert their perspective into the view of life. However, subjectivity doesn’t mean the death null for certainty. We must look to the world and its objects for understanding as the resounding phrase, “No end but among words/looking to the past,/plaintive and unschooled,/wanting a discipline” and later in the same poem, “The Sound of Waves”, “…words blowing in/taking the shape of stone/Past that, past the image”. Language in general and poetry specifically, are our best tools to decipher the world, a place at once mysterious, awful, wretched, beautiful, and sublime.

In “A Sort of a Song”, Williams expresses this idea most clearly, writing, “…-through metaphor to reconcile/the people and the stones./Compose. (No ideas/but in things) Invent!” He wants us to use words, metaphors, descriptions. He extols common people because of their commonness, as in his loving description of a poor woman eating plums. Beauty surrounds us, we just have to see it for what it is. This is an avant-garde notion, that now, seems less artsy than humanistic. This idea seems even more important today, in a world filled with images, and the way we can absorb these ubiquituous flashes without the active participation of our mind. Words force us to construct, force us to think for ourselves. Williams poetry may be a lament for the prominence that poetry has lost, but it’s also a justification for its continued place in our society, even with the medium of television – and, decades later, it remains a deeply moving testimony at that.

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