William Carlos Williams (1863-1963) portrait c.1950’s- from the William Carlos Williams papers at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]
Student: Could you say something about (William Carlos Williams’) “The Desert Music” (1954), in the context of this direct observation, mindfulness.
AG: Well, I’m going to build up to that in another class. I’m going to do Williams chronologically. By the time he gets old, and in “The Desert Music”, there’s a great deal of generalization. There’s a lot of detail in it, but there’s also an enormous amount of generalization. In that sense, it’s more in the line of Objectivist, as I was defining (it), as including one’s own thoughts in the head, and feelings, as well as external observation. But, just as in meditation, you have to practice simple shamata or mindfulness, (or at least it’s traditional to practice some kind of bare attention of some sort before you play with your mind more, or abandon the discipline), so, in both philosophy and poetics, there is Aristotle‘s old dictum, which makes sense – that philosophy is not for young men because they have not assembled “a sufficient phalanx of particulars from which to draw their generalizations”. [Allen is quoting (Ezra) Pound here] – It’s very funny, if you heard it (I(t) went (by) very fast/ (I) read it very fast) – Philosophy is “not for young men because they have not assembled a sufficient phalanx of particulars from which to draw their – generalizations” – “a sufficient phalanx of particulars” (“phalanx” is funny there – “phalanx’, you all know? – a little army troop going in in a “V” (formation), while the barbarians are massed in a long line along the horizon, and there’s this “V’ of armed men with shields going (forward)).
By that time, in his old age, (by) The Desert Music, Williams had assembled such a phalanx of particulars, that he was prepared to make generalizations. In fact, generalizations were particulars of his mind, so to speak. But I wanted to work, and get, into that, because I’ve been thinking about that, actually – after all this bullshit about paying attention to the external world, or putting your mind outside of you, or us(ing) your head, or us(ing) your watchfulness, how then does Williams, at the very end, come to be a philosopher, so to speak? – But it becomes obvious as you run through his lifetime practice.
Student: I just had a quick question about how articulate Williams was in his speech. Was he.. from.. it seems that he would be a very quiet man that would just be…
Student: He was stammering a lot?
AG: Well, I mean, he didn’t stammer, but he thought of himself as stammering. He mentions it in poems – “stammering into speech”. He had a weak chin and a kind of womanish face, I mean wrinkled-old-man face, but there was an element of tenderness in his eye, and a weak chin that made him… I mean, he certainly wasn’t macho. I think he felt that he was a dumb-bell, basically, compared to Pound. So there was a sort of raw.. He was interested in just his own scene. I mean, sensitive to the fact that it related to Pound’s larger world-canvas, so I think he’d characterize his own speech as stammering. Then he had a stroke, in the early ’50’s which made him actually stammer a bit, or forget words, or halt a bit. And there are some recordings of him (reading “The Desert Music” incidentally, as well as some of the early poems) made after the stroke, which I’ll bring in, so you’ll get his voice towards the end, when we get to “The Desert Music”.
I mentioned a line – “The peaceful beer of impotence be yours” the other day. The poem is in order here. [Allen reads Williams’ poem, “The Old Men”] – “Old men who have studied/ every leg show/in the city”..”Old men/ the peaceful beer of impotence/ be yours” – He was willing to get along – sort of. Well, (next), “The Late Singer” [Allen reads “The Late Singer’] – “Here it is spring again/ and I still a young man”..”I am late at my singing” – (and) “Complaint” [Allen reads “Complaint”] – “They call me and I go/ It is a frozen road/ past midnight..”…”I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery/ with compassion” – Now, he’s put himself in there – “and watch her misery/ with compassion” – He hasn’t hesitated to include his own (thought), and even abstractly here (“with compassion”) – except that he’s laid it out – “I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery” – so, obviously, there’s compassion, so he’s able to say it. That, I guess, would be the Objectivist element there, including one’s own thought (but then it has to be done so delicately and carefully that the reader is sure that you are firm and solid and it is there – real compassion and not idiot sentimentality, or idiot compassion, or a fake emotion dreamed up for the sake of the poem).
Student: It’s amazing, because he’s there as a doctor, but yet he’s just taking the hair out of her eyes and feeling the compassion, which is not what one would think of when one thinks of the doctor.
AG: Yeah. And it wouldn’t be what one would think of if one were a doctor, coming in to a great woman laboring on her tenth child, except, apparently (from evidence in the poem) they’ve known each other for a long time (because he was a children’s doctor, a pediatrician, he probably knew her). (But), obviously, here, you have the inside of a human being, who is also a doctor, so, actually, you’re getting the secrets of an American professional man’s real mucous membrane existence, as distinct from a series of stereotypes of role-playing. Yes?
Student: I get the feeling that he’s (just talking, reassuring). (I was reminded) of (Robert Frost‘s) “Stopping by Woods..”, and I sort of feel the same kind of flavor in it. I don’t know, I may just be..
AG: Well you could say they’re both talking.. Well, let’s see. They’re both talking more or less straight American talk. That was notorious about Frost (and Pound liked Frost (early) and approved, and tried to get him published, because Frost was one of the few people writing counted stanza and iambs but writing it in American diction and with rhythms that reflected his own New England speech. So there’s two human beings who made… Yeah, I think the overt statement of responsibility is more in the Frost. In the Williams he just doesn’t have to worry about the responsibility because “the natural object is always the adequate symbol”.He’s sitting down, tending the old woman, as a doctor, helping her in labor. There’s a little element of abstraction, mental abstraction, in the Frost, a bit – “miles to go before I sleep” – if you’re interpreting that as a moral lesson, or lesson in responsibility (except, he also has “the natural object..(as) ..the adequate symbol” there – he’s got “miles to go before.. (he) sleep(s)”, and the horse wants to…