Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Less is Sometimes Waaaaaay Too Much, or This is Just to Say

For a long time I’ve been interested in setting William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” alongside Eliot’s “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” to raise questions about not only these two writers’ poetics but poetics in general. Chief among these questions is, How does one arrive at X poetics at the expense of Y poetics? The essay I’ve been writing on literary influence (nearly finished, I hope) and these two entries here have given me a chance to work out some of my thoughts.

My interest in these two poems specifically begins with the fact that they have a great deal in common: they make similar and audacious claims about the importance of the rudimentary. But their poetics are, to put it mildly, vastly different, and as poets—indeed as men—Williams and Eliot despised each other. Of Williams, Eliot said that what he writes is not poetry. Williams put his impression of Eliot more memorably: “Take an extreme case,” he said. “Take the concepts that walk around as T.S. Eliot: we know they are completely worthless.”

Increasingly, I’m convinced that Williams and Eliot were less literary rivals than warring futurologists who believed that nothing less than the direction of Western culture was at stake. Eliot, as I tried to suggest last week, looked toward classical Greece for his model of the future, leading him to privilege European traditions over individual talent. Williams felt an urgent need to dismantle those same European traditions in the name of creating a uniquely American future built on his idea of a common folk holding common values and speaking common language. In this way “The Red Wheelbarrow” doesn’t just paint a portrait of American commonness; it is a frontal assault on T.S. Eliot and everything he stood for—his Eurocentricism, his classicism, his relativism—in the name of what Williams believed was a better idea for the future.

Here’s the poem for those who no longer have it memorized—or somehow avoided having to memorize it in the first place:


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The poem reads as if it were prose, made up as it is of a simple syntax of exclamation—“much depends”—which is elaborated upon three times. The memorable heart of the poem, of course, is the not-so-elaborate elaboration: “upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.” Depicted here is a plain and common barnyard scene of the sort millions of Williams’ American contemporaries would have recognized from their own day-to-day. And of course that’s the point, or a big part of it.

The poem is also notable for its simple diction and its distinct lack of what my undergraduates might call poetic feel. Williams eschewed prosody of all kinds, and above all he despised similes, the coining of which he called “a pastime of very low order,” because “all manner of things are thrown out of key” by simile, “so that it approaches the impossible to arrive at an understanding of anything. All is confusion . . .” (Contrast this to Eliot’s notion that the truth of an object can only be understood in the object’s relation to other things.)

As opposed to confusion, Williams sought “the peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself,” that is, Williams believed truth to be fixed and objective and independent of relation, perception, connotation, association, and personal or cultural baggage. Objects have character by themselves, Williams believed, and the aim of the poem is to cut through all that might obscure that character and declare the truth of the object simply and precisely.

The simplicity of Williams’s poetics is derived from the apparent straightforwardness of this overarching, determining idea. But as simplicity goes, Williams’ is an awfully complicated variety—and here I have to apologize to anyone who hoped this wasn’t going to be an extension of my defense of difficulty. It is well known that Williams sought to foster a uniquely American poetry based on the sounds and rhythms, the diction and syntax, of American life, a poetry he sometimes referred to as the “new constructions” and which he characterized as spurred by “unbound thinking.”

This hoped-for new poetry required us all to toss into Boston Harbor, as it were, the whole of European literary tradition. “Every time American strength goes into a mold modeled after the English,” he says by way of example, “it is wholly wasted.” He found in Walt Whitman a revolutionary model and praised him for “demolishing the forms antiquity decreed” in order give us a bolder, vaster, swifter, more direct, more Anglo-Saxon, and more democratically inclusive national poetry. Like Whitman, Williams sought to rejoice in the rough, ordinariness of American men and, especially, women.

Whitman was every bit the model for Williams that Aristotle was for Eliot. Williams declared, “It would be better than depriving birds of their song to call them all nightingales,” by which I think he means, rather than to deny some birds’—say, white chickens—the beauty of their sounds, let’s call all bird sounds “songs” whether they are conventionally beautiful or not. The first step toward appreciating any sound, it seems, is to call it song, and so if we conceive of the sounds that chickens and turkeys and pigeons make as music, we’re better able to find the beauty within them. (The reference to nightingales, naturally, is jab at the favorite songbird of Hellenic Greece and all those—from Dante to Milton to Wordsworth to Eliot—who indulged in this trope).

Williams’ song idea borrows heavily from Whitman’s maxim, “I do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,” and with Whitman as his guide, Williams produced an anti-Aristotelian anti-cannon with which to counter Eliot. Rather than teleology, which Aristotle defines as progress toward some clear and worthy goal, Williams preferred “statement” and “rambling” (see Williams’ poem “Patterson”) and, above all, “arbitrary.” As for Aristotle’s claim that art is first of all an “imitation of action,” Williams compared mimesis—that quality of art that imitates experience—“too much remembering” the things of the world, and then claimed that “The world of action is a world of stones.” As opposed Aristotle’s mythos—which means development, story, plot—Williams preferred repetition, the same thing over and over and over.

In short, he took direct aim at anything that smacked of the old world and (what he understood to be) its aristocratic traditions.

Notice that all of Aristotle’s terms are about coherence and accessibility. We still expect stories, whether they come to us as novels or short stories or films or poems, to be about human experiences of the world, to have development or plot, and to arrive at some meaningful conclusion. Williams, following Whitman and eventually Gertrude Stein, found coherence all too aristocratic or, as Whitman put it, “coerced.” In “Song of Myself,” Whitman says, “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections/and they scorn the best I can to relate them”—and he’s pleased. To relate these feelings coherently would be to impose some unnatural order upon them.

Set the terms arbitrary, random, spring, and free on one side, coherence, coerce, and force on the other, and you get the picture. One hardly needs to comment on the political implications to see why Williams believed the creation of this new poetry was not a matter of mere poetics. For him, it was a question of morality. If democracy represents a historical moral advancement, the poetry of democracy, rightly conceived and executed, was a constituent moral imperative.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Williams would extend the imperative of demolition to the English lexicon itself. He came to praise Gertrude Stein for “smashing words to get them back clean,” by which he meant stripping words of their connotations, of their histories, of their shadings, of anything that might prevent them from articulating an object’s character by itself. (Of this, an appalled Eliot said that the histories and connotations of words are precisely what are human about them.) In “Against the Weather,” Williams praises the anonymous author of Poema del Cid for his “ethical detachment” when “the poet saw a sword flash! . . . He did not see a CASTILLIAN sword flash or a MOORISH sword flash. He saw a SWORD flash.” The presence of such a modifier would have complicated the power of the image; it would have invited cultural associations when “the effect of that flashing did not immediately concern either Spain or Arabia, it concerned a man.” Either inclusion, Williams feared, would have made that sword a thing of the mind—a thing of perception—rather than a thing with a fixed objective reality of its own.

It is perhaps less well known—though it is certainly present in his analysis of the flashing sword—that Williams believed the poet has but one subject. That subject is reality, and the real, according to Williams, is nothing more or less than physical reality: “The only world that exists is the world of the senses.”

His idea of reality, then, is absolute. It is in no way relative. It is no way dependent upon some perceiver: “It is not an ‘essence,’ a philosophic or physiochemical derivative . . . but a ‘sensual reality.’” How we feel, what we think, what we believe, the structure and fabric of our cultural mythology, what we’ve eaten for lunch, the particular composition of our brain chemistry, the privations which make ourselves and our experience of the world unique—none of these have bearing on the real. Reality is that red wheelbarrow slick with rainwater and standing near white poultry. Nothing more.

There’s the suggestion of a fear, I think, that to see the red wheelbarrow and its barnyard setting in a conventionally poetic way would be to privilege the poet rather than the poet’s subject. The poetic sensibility, this fear would have it, is elitist. It smacks of the cult of genius, requiring that the poet be special—more learned, more acute in his observations, more talented at seeing or drawing connections, special—whereas Williams’ elevation of this barnyard to the condition of poetry hardly even to need a poet. The scene simply is.

Okay, there’s one exception. Williams does provide us with a mystery: what is this “much” that “depends upon” the red wheelbarrow? I think Williams’ answer is that the future of American poetry is doing the depending, and the red wheelbarrow it depends upon is the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which points the only true way forward. The poem, I believe, is a thesis, the supporting evidence for which is found in Williams’ essays, which serve up the underlying and justifying philosophy of not only this poem but nearly every poem Williams ever wrote.

Here’s the ironic—and, for me, troubling—heart of the matter: what Williams calls “unbound thinking” is in fact absolutist; what he calls democratic is in fact tyrannical. The only reality is physical reality, the only poetry worth having is that which bucks every European tradition, the only words worth using are the ones cleansed of their associations and connotations: there is no room for disagreement, for plurality.

More troubling still is that by now the battle between Williams and Eliot has been determined by a clear knockout. Nearly every significant American poet of the past sixty years has claimed Williams among his or her primary literary influences. Meanwhile, strikingly few (Anne Carson is one, but she claims Williams and Gertrude Stein as well) lay any claim at all to Eliot’s legacy. Most agree with Robert Creeley’s believe that Eliot and his buddies were “wrong from the start.”

Why does this trouble me? One may not like “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service,” but, first of all, the poem does something: it provides us with a drama—the fight through difficulty and erudition—and with the feeling of something—the elegance of simplicity—having been decisively arrived at. More to the point, there’s plenty of room to dialogue with Eliot’s poems. We can agree or disagree with the whole or any part, because while all theories are necessarily false, they are also necessarily true, and above all, they are necessary for conversation, which, Eliot believed, we can’t do with out.

With Williams we don’t get an invitation to conversation; we get the presentation of an idea as if it were all that could be said about the truth of things, and in this, he reminds me too much of King George III.

Late Update: The first comment on this post is Sue's, and she questions whether I'm being to hard on W.C.W. The questions she raises are smart, informed, and full of an attractive sentiment--a sentiment I (mostly) share. Read the whole eloquent thing, perhaps, before returning to these additions of mind. That said, I thought that rather than respond to her comment in the comments section, I'd post it here, expecting that others would arrive at Sue's questions.

Before I take on her specific observations, let me say that setting my opinions about these two writers aside, my thesis in these two posts is that a writer's style, in the most comprehensive sense, arises out of his ideology. As a practical matter for would-be writers, whatever truth there is to this idea might liberate us from the consensus-building nature of the workshop and other conventional forms of "teaching" writing. What we ought to be doing, in concert with learning what other writers have done, is learning what own our core beliefs really are and inventing ways for them inform our aesthetic choices.

As I've mentioned, I began my investigation into these two writers upon being invited to compose an essay on literary influence. I had an inkling that I would arrive at this conclusion about style and ideology, but my route to true conviction was unexpected.

Sue points out, rightly, that for some writers of Williams' generation it must have been frustratingly difficult to carve out a space for one's self. Case in point, Virginia Woolf was a member of this generation, and her Room of One's Own sometimes sounds an awful lot like Williams' essays. I had expected my readings in Williams and Eliot would leave intact my slight preference for Williams, but while many of his notable coevals--Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and others--managed to make joyous art out of their felt exclusion, Williams seems to have spent the years between 1910 and 1945 growing ever more bitter.

I don't much care for Stein's work, but a good Steinian sentence never fails to bring a smile to my face. I can only think of one off the top of my head, and it's not the best example, but it has that Steinian feel. It's about Ezra Pound and goes, "Ezra is a village explainer which is fine if you're a village but if not not." Better examples--which I'm sure will show up in a quick Google search--have to do with not knowing yourself and ever-mistaken and therefore ever-pleasing prepositions.

Which is to say that much of what irks me about Williams is tonal. Consider two examples to add to his "completely worthless" line:

(1) Eliot's poetry "is just latest touch of the literary cuisine. It adds to the pleasant outlook from the club house window."

(2) "It is convenient to have fixed standards of comparison: All antiquity! And there is always some everlasting Polonius of Kensington to rate highly his eternal Eliot."

Bear in mind with regard to the latter quotation that Eliot lived in Kensington, meaning that Williams has him indulgently rating himself highly, and that Eliot was thirty-two. Williams at the time was thirty-eight.

I approached Eliot's essay "What is Minor Poetry" with trepidation. But given the chance to draw a bright line between his own high rating and, say, Williams' poems, Eliot demures. Instead, he tells us that "minor poetry" means different things to different people at different times in different contexts; "it has connotation but no denotation."

Similarly, in his essay "Notes Toward a Definitions of Culture," he is first of all publishing "notes toward a definition," rather than offering some wisdom he possesses and the rest of us are ignorant of (remember his claim that a philosophical paper should reach no conclusion?). And in it he says that no civilization, and no one age of it, can possess all the qualities we rightly think of as culture. Further, in a nod specifically to Williams' democratic morality, he says that necessary moral reforms are necessary moral reforms, even if the cost of them is the diminishment of Eliot's own beloved high culture.

Eliot's liberal inclusiveness and his generosity of tone began to win me over, and as it did, Williams seemed more and more reactionary. He says in "Prologue to Kora in Hell" that we must "draw a distinguishing line between true and false values" (ah, so he possesses some wisdom I'm ignorant of), and then he declares that the false values are European, classical, etc. The true values are their opposite. The proto-Party of No?

My point is, I find Williams' mocking remarks about the clubhouse more revealing than his declarations about poetry. He feels himself the victim of someone else's snobbish exclusivity, and in response he fashions himself the most snobbish excluder of them all.

This is categorically unfair of me, but over time his voice began to conflate with those who advocated torture under the banner of democracy and who are quick to scream "fascist" at those working within a more open structure than their own.

Which brings me to the first of two of Sue's points, Williams laudable determination to dedicate himself to the fostering of an American poetics. In principle, I agree. But at this point I feel more comfortable pointing to the contributions of Whitman, Emerson, Melville, Wharton, Twain, Stein, Crane, Porter, and others who were every bit as serious as Williams but without the bitten-down defensiveness.

(As for Eliot's self-exile, I'm hesitant to judge. Wouldn't we also have to think of Hemingway pretending he was Spanish, Stein and Henry Miller French, Isherwood German, Joyce Swiss and Italian, W.H. Auden American? I think that what these writers have in common is not so much exile but an idea that America is participating in the larger workings of Western culture, not distinguishing itself from it. And as for Eliot specifically, by locating himself in England, he manages to split the difference: he's not part of the European mainland and not in Western culture's remotest outpost, America, but right smack between them. He pulls this move many times, not least with his Anglicanism: not European Catholicism and not American Protestantism but at a kind of midway point.)

And to Sue's examples of Williams' use of similes, they're very interesting--and, to my mind, telling--examples. "Like Homer" is a kind of sarcastic joke, the butt of which are both similes and classicism. But with regard to "Asphodels, That Greeny Flower"--that lovely, lilting late love poem--it breaks my heart: How long Williams denied himself this music, this power, this overflow of sentiment (of more or less conventional poetic sensibility) in the name of squaring off against those he felt excluded him! How many more "Asphodels" might there have been?


  1. I’ve barely read a thing by WCW; he’s never interested me very much. I’ve never understood all the fuss about the red wheel barrow. As a result, I’m not fit to comment, but, as Bill well knows, that’s never stopped me. So, here goes: I have thoroughly enjoyed your Parts I and II—and I look forward to a Part III (Wallace Stevens, perchance) and a Part IV (Anne Carson, I live in hope).

    That said, I think you’re being a bit too hard on WCW. I suspect poets of his generation, in particular, had a very hard slog to get out from under the European tradition—and that slog wasn’t made any easier by the appearance of The Waste Land in the midst of their efforts to break free and come up with a distinctly American poetic vernacular.

    Though, as a piece of writing, I cheered on reading your closing comparison with George III—how wonderfully provocative!—I don’t think we can say Eliot was any the less authoritarian than WCW when he pronounced that “'anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year' should by that age have consumed the Western canon." If we understand that this was the weight WCW and others in his circle were trying to throw off, we can see it was a heavy lift, and bound to require a firmness of purpose that would result in an equally doctrinaire argument for an opposing point of view.

    By the way, regarding doctrines hotly held, on WCW’s view on similes, may I quote (noting that, in the blog format, the line lay-out will likely not show as WCW intended):

    Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
    like a buttercup
    upon its branching stem-
    save that it's green and wooden-


    It is like Homer's
    catalogue of ships:
    it fills up the time.

    WCW may have denounced them, but he seems to have used similes to good effect in Asphodel—and I suspect in other poems as well.

    Though poets fight for their position as they might, the poem belongs to the reader. This reader does, in fact, prefer Eliot, but notes, also, that he was likely an insufferable prig. WCW, at least, embraced his American-ness, while Eliot, the boy from St. Louis, tried to pretend it had nothing to do with him. In the end, the poem is the res, as Wallace Stevens reminds us. And as Carol-Ann has noted, “res ipsa loquitur.” The rest is only commentary . . . though I delighted in reading yours and am eager to read whatever strikes your fancy to write next. We write as we please, indeed we do!

  2. I am not disappointed. This commentary - including the conversation between Bill and Sue - is very interesting to read, and leaves me wanting more! You two should collaborate.

    As to "This is Just to Say", I have a book of poems which includes a poem entitled "This is Just to Say" by Erica-Lynn Gambino (for William Carlos Williams):

    I have just
    asked you to
    get out of my

    even though
    you never
    I would

    Forgive me
    you were
    me insane

  3. And this is just to say:

    First, Carol-Ann: loved your addition to the "canon"!

    Next, for those who were early readers of Bill’s essay on William Carlos Williams, I want to alert you to take another look, as he has appended a “late update.”

    And to Bill, your compliment on my comment is more than I deserve--wading into the deep end as I did when I don’t really know how to swim—but I am glad for it, as the “Late Update” is a fascinating addition to your already mind-bending pair of essays. Bravo!

    So, I just have one question: where is the chicken?

  4. Well, Raining Acorns declares she is not fit to comment, but I truly feel the best I can do in commenting is to perhaps consult with my English-major husband on this post! :)

    The literary magazine at my alma mater was called "The Red Wheelbarrow" - that much I can contribute, but I did not realize the significance of that name, preferring to spend my academic hours immersed in microeconomics or statistics. Thank you for providing more background on WCW and his work.

  5. Ah, now this is an interesting fact to learn about you, Wide Open Spaces! I imagine, in our future, a post on microeconomics. Now, that will really be mind-bending, for me, at least: I was so terrified about statistics that, when given a choice of a B of Arts vs. a B of Science in U.S. History, I ran for the hills to get the B.A.!


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