[William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) – photograph courtesy the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library]
AG: Read the thing. (Read Williams). (It’s) a review (in his Selected Essays) of (Ezra) Pound. He’s not yes/no. I mean, it’s not a black-and-white deal. He’s saying Pound is trying to make use of what can be made use of – the excellence of the classics – “It is in this case a master meter that wishes to come out of the classic(s), but at the same time to be bent to and incorporate the rhythms of modern speech…It succeeds and not. It does, and it fails” – He’s saying that there’s certain elements of it that really are great and make it, and (that) the guy has worked on Greek and is making use of Greek quantitative measures, and then, but at the same time, with the sound of someone actually talking (because Williams once told me that Pound has “a mystical ear” – an ear so fine – that his ear was so subtle, that it was like a mystical ear – he cold hear things, gradations of vowels, he could hear length of vowels, that other people wouldn’t notice, and he could get the vowels balanced from line to line so that he could work with vowels as the measure of the line, as other people couldn’t. So Williams isn’t putting him down. He’s examining what Pound is trying to do. Pound is trying to make a new kind of American measure based on approximation of classical quantity.
Student: You’re referring to poems that Pound wrote in Personae
AG: No, here it’s Williams review of A Draft of XXX Cantos – 1931
AG: First draft of the first cantos – “Pound has attempted an ambitious use of language for serious thought, without…the cloistering of words, and acceptance, and by his fine ear attempting to tune them, excluding nothing. He has succeeded against himself. He has had the difficulties of training to overcome, which he will not completely undo” – So he is sort of putting him down a little – “In himself at least, if that were all, but the words reveal it: white-gathered, sun-dazzle, rock pool, god sleight, sea swirl, sea break, vine trunk, vine must, pin rack, glass glint, wave runs, salmon pink, dew haze, blue shot, green gold, green ruddy, eye glitter, blue deep, wine red, water shift, rose paleness, wave cords, churn stick. We have, examining the work, successes (greatness) and first molds, clear cut, never turgid but following the heated trivial, staying cold classical but swift with the movement of thought.It stands out from all other verse by a faceted quality that is not muzzy, painted, wet. It is dry clean use of words. Yet look at the words; they are themselves not dead. They have not been violated by thinking. They have been used, willingly, by thought. Imagistic use is entirely passed out of them. There is almost no use of simile or allegory” – no allegory – “The word has been used in its plain sense to represent a thing, remaining thus loose in its context, not gummy, when at its best. An objective unit in the design, but alive. Pound has taken them up, if it may be risked, this simile, alertly, swiftly, but with a feeling for the delicate living quality in them. Not disinfecting them, scraping them, but careful of the life. The result is that they stay living, but discrete. Or almost” – Then he puts him down (just) a little – “For besides living passages there are places where he wrenches the words about for what ought to be their confirmation. But that’s no matter, he has taken up language and raised it to a height where it may stand beside Artemis, the goddess. If that is not a purpose worthy of a poet and if Pound has not done it, then it isn’t all. It’s even, in a sense, a defect to want so much the Artemis thing, but Pound has lifted the language up as no one else has ever done, wherever he has lifted it, or whatever done to it in the lifting. His defects (dey’s good, too) – D-E-Y-apostrophe-S good. In parenthesis – His defects (dey’s good, too) are his inability to surmount the American thing, or his ability to do so without physical success, if that be preferred” – A very good criticism. He was really honest. (He) really registers the sort of turns of his mind. It’s a very solid common-sense.
What I’d recommend if you want to know how Williams thinks – some of the “Prologue” to “Kora in Hell”, probably a little bit on James Joyce (“Note On A Recent Work of James Joyce”, back in 1927), the review of Pound (“Excerpt from a Critical Sketch, the Draft of XXX Cantos”), the little thing on Gertrude Stein – they’re only a few pages each, they’re little reviews that he wrote for “Contact” magazine, or whoever he was writing for then – “The Nation” – If you want to know about Marianne Moore, his is one of the best essays about Marianne Moore. A little bit about Gertrude Stein, yes, but, for the whole American background, that long essay on “America and Alfred Stieglitz in 1934″ – And there’s this little “Pound’s Eleven Cantos” (and) a little thing on (Charles) Sheeler is a little bit more Americana and Imagism. There’s a weird review.. if you like Carl Sandburg (anybody like him? know him? anybody read Carl Sandburg ever?)…so there’s a weird review of Carl Sandburg, calling his entire range of poetry a complete desert, a featureless desert (with interesting poems, but featureless, in the sense that in the verse there was no attention paid to the actual composition of verse as speech – so there was no form given to the verse, and he (Williams) got more and more interested in some kind of American measure, or some kind of definiteness to the verse forms).
Student: What does Pound say about Williams?
AG: Well, there’s all these great letters between Pound and Williams. Well, if you want to know how they related, sort of [Allen reads from Pound’s idiosyncratic correspondence] – “Gawd knows I had to work hard enough to escape” – in Europe – “not propagand, but getting entered in propagand. And America? what the h–l do you a blooming foreigner know about the place, (Williams). Your pere only penetrated the edge and you’ve never been west of Upper Darby, or the Maunchunk Switchback. Would H(ilda Doolittle) with a swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear, or the Virile Sandburg recognize you, an effete easterner, as a REAL American? Inconceivable!!!! My dear boy you have never felt the woop of the PEEraries” – P-E-E-R-A-R-I-E-S – “You have never seen the projecting and protuberant M(oun)t(ain)s of the Sierra Nevada. WOT can you know of the country? You have the native credulity of a Co(unty) Clare emigrant. But I (der grosse Ich) have the virus” – sounds like Burroughs, actually – “..the bacillus of the land in my blood, for nearly three bleating centuries. (Bloody snob. ‘eave a brick at ‘im!!!)..I was very pleased to see your wholly incoherent unAmerican poems in “The Little Review”. Of course Sandburg will tell you that you missed the big drifts, and (Maxwell) Bodenheim will object to your not being sufficiently decadent. You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind, and prevent the current American ideation from going through it like a blighted colander. The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don’t you forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabble and verbiage – this are echt americanisch. And alas alas, poor old Edgar Lee Masters. Look at the October issue of “Poetry”..” – And so forth. So that’s part of their..
Student: (This is) to Williams, or vice-versa?
AG: No, this is Pound to Williams. This is Ezra Pound writing to Williams, because (Pound) was born in Hailey, Idaho. Pound was really (from) Idaho, and Williams is just a second-generation (American). When Pound ran off to Europe it was (as) a real American, whereas Williams had this sort of guilty second-generation thing of trying. That’s the whole point about Williams – because he was a foreigner, he was trying to talk in American. He was trying to figure out how people talked, actually. It was his advantage in a way.
Student: What’s “opacity”?
AG: “Opacity”. Now I wondered, I always wondered what he meant – Opacity? – What is Opacity? – I thought it was Transparency?
Student: You can see through it.
Larry Fagin (poet Larry Fagin, sitting in on the class): You cannot see through it!
Larry Fagin: …which he liked! – because most American poetry, you could see through
AG: Oh, totally see through it.
Larry Fagin: Totally see through everything which was going on..That’s why he liked Williams because he…
AG: In the early Williams, there’s a certain opaque quality.
Student: An interesting thing that happens there, culturally. Someone suggested that (Noam) Chomsky proved, rather inadvertently, that we all speak prosaic poetry..
Student: …rather (that is) than prose. The androids spoke prose and .. computers speak prose but… and I was thinking of those early Honda ads that were written by Japanese copywriters.. and they looked… there was something wrong with them, you know, they didn’t come over, and I think that what was lacking was the lyrical aspect… and I think that this probably happens to people like Williams who are trying to become, you know, close to the culture, and they’re not quite sure of all the rhythms that are present in the speech, but, of course, this is eventually.. if you’re second-generation, this is probably just an apparent fear.. but not an actual fear.. even.. probably as well as first generation..
AG: But that fear was transformed into a real precise study of those rhythms actually. He finally got it better than…
Student: I (personally) didn’t hear it, but I completely agree.