[William Carlos Williams – (1883-1963) – photograph courtesy the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library]
Student: You know in the introduction to Visions of Cody you talk about the karmic situation..
Student: Do you.. (and wondering about bad karma) what do you think.. what went wrong back in the ‘4o’s..?
AG: Well, it didn’t just start in the ’40’s. What I was talking about was somebody lands and deceives the Red Men, and steals the land, to begin with, so it never did belong to us – so that’s why they were always looking for English manners and English poetry. (William Carlos) Williams finally comes along and writes this long book, In The American Grain, which recognizes how we took over the actual land by force, and therefore got this neurosis of not wanting to see the land, and not wanting to see what we had taken, and not actually wanting to live here, but wanting to live in that kind of mechanical dream-world, cellophane-wrapped with imports (from) England for thought, meter, poesy, music (and) philosophy, rather than having to deal with the tragic fact that we’re trespassers in our own bodies, and in our own land.
So Williams was urging that (by) recognizing that fact, we recognize the awkwardness and weirdness of our presence here, which is why he dug (Edgar Allan) Poe, and all his other heroes (and so he’s got (there) a list of heroes who understood America in his terms)
Student: Would (Gary) Snyder be one of them?
AG: Gary? – Well, Williams is one of Gary’s heroes. Yeah, I suppose Snyder would somewhat belong to that, because they met, actually – and turned each other (on). I mean, Williams liked Snyder’s poetry later. Yeah. Sure..
Student: Allen, Isn’t it strange that the next poem in this series is..(a) completely artificial universe, it’s a completely imaginary universe.
Student: It’s the one called “Quietness” , ((right) underneath “The Red Wheelbarrow”). It’s like something out of Wallace Stevens more..than Williams
AG: Let’s see. Okay. I’ve never noticed that poem (before) [Allen reads Williams’ “Quietness” in its entirety] – “one day in Paradise/ a Gypsy/ smiled/to see the blandness/ of the leaves -/ so many/ so lascivious/and still” – Yeah, I’ve never understood (it). The leaves lascivious and still is sort of nice, but “one day in Paradise/ a Gypsy” sounds like e.e.cummings or something. It’s less Williams’ direct style, so I didn’t emphasize it.
Am I missing anything? Got any thoughts? [turns to poet Larry Fagin, sitting in on the class]
Larry Fagin: “Rapid Transit”?
AG: Rapid Transit? – That – sounds like (Philip) Whalen – Rapid Transit – page 282 (in the Collected Earlier Poems) . This is where Whalen gets his.. actually, compare this with a poem in the Don Allen anthology, by Philip Whalen, “Big High Song for Berkeley”, I think it’s called [actually its correct title is “2 Variations: All About Love” – with the second section titled (“BIG HIGH SONG FOR SOMEBODY”)] – [Allen reads Williams’ poem, “Rapid Transit” in its entirety] – “Somebody dies every four minutes/ in New York State-/ To hell with you and your poetry – / You will rot and be blown/ through the next solar system/ with the rest of the gasses – / What the hell do you know about it…”…”..Take the Pelham Bay Park Branch/ of the Lexington Ave. (East Side)/ Line and you are there in a few/ minutes/ Interborough Rapid Transit” – Actually that particular poem did influence Whalen. – the sort of randomness, and the humor of just composing out of the subway lines.
“The Descent of Winter”, which is, like, a classic exercise, again, in sketching (like the one we had on Sunday morning – remember Trungpa talked about taking a walk?, and then I read, following that, Williams’ series of simple sketches?). Here he’s a little older, so here’s another series of perfect little vignette pieces.
Larry Fagin: Are you going to go through it systematically?
AG: Well in a couple of months (sic!), we’ll be at “The Desert Music”. We’ll be in the desert in a couple of months! – Yeah? (so)..
“The Descent of Winter” – and that begins on page 297 – and it’s a series of just little small fragments. He’s not even trying to finish a poem anymore, just trying to get a little detail [Allen reads from the opening of “The Descent of Winter”] – “9/27 / My bed is narrow/ in a small room/ at sea/ The numbers are on/ the wall/ Arabic 1/ Berth No.2/ was empty above me..”, reads through the first section but omits the final two words – “the moon”]
Student: “the moon”
AG: Pardon me?
Student: The last line of that.
AG: What? Where’s the moon? [notes that the two words are printed on the following page, over the page, and so, easy to miss] – Ah! – there was something missing there – right – but what a foolish way of printing it!
[Allen continues reading from “The Descent of Winter” – “[9/30] / There are no perfect waves/ Your writings are a sea/ full of misspellings and/ faulty sentences. Level. Troubled”..”There is no hope – if not a coral/ island slowly forming/ to wait for birds to drop/ the seeds will make it habitable” – There’s no hope unless you accumulate many, many little details like the tiny cells of coral accumulate an island slowly forming to wait for others to pass by and drop their shit on it and make it habitable. In other words, he’s saying you have to build up an entire universe of detail, at least a poetic universe , to be a poet, (to inhabit) a poetic universe. [Allen reads the next two sections of “The Descent of Winter” ] – “[10/9] / and there’s a little blackboy/ in a doorway/…”..”[10/10]… /the grass is long/ October tenth/ 1927″ – So that’s as far as he’d gotten by 1927. [Allen reads “[10/21]”] – “In the dead weeds a rubbish heap/ aflame…”..”they should not have to suffer/ as younger people must and do/ there should be a truce for them” – Actually, the object there is his own compassionate thoughts about old folks. [reads “[10/22]” – “that brilliant field/ of rainwet orange..”..”and a young dog/ jumped out/of the old barrel” –
[“10/28”] – “On hot days/ the sewing machine/ whirling.”..”and men at the bar/talking of the strike/ and cash”] – jumping (to) “[11/1]” – “The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades..” – Page 303 – “two/ gigantic highschool boys/ ten feet tall” – A broad advertisement, with the “dried weeds” and the Pleiades all about. It’s a very funny combo. It’s (something he saw off) a highway in New Jersey, (perhaps)?
AG: A billboard. A billboard advertisement off of a highway in New Jersey, surrounded by dried weeds. But then there’s a description of the dark dry weed stalks [Allen reads from “[11/2]” – “Dahlias -/ What a red/ and yellow and white/ mirror to the sun, round/ and petaled..”..”is this Washington Avenue Mr, please/ or do I have to/ cross the tracks?”
Student: Did he get turned on by photographs, by stills?
AG: Yeah, that’s why he was hanging around with this guy Stieglitz.
Student: It seems a lot of them are. like, stills, still photographs..
Student: ..sort of Walker Evans
AG: I think he probably took that as a form, sketching, or still photography. What I like are the almost minimal little sketch details, because they’re sort of the endless practice that anybody can do. Then, occasionally, there’ll be some burst of a larger ambition, like..
Student: Wouldn’t you say, though.. why not take a photograph of it?
AG: Well, you’re beginning, practicing with language, to see if you can build a coral island out of all the little cellular details, to see if you can build a consciousness of speech, a speech-consciousness”. You’re practicing a speech consciousness not an eyeball consciousness. Photography would be an eyeball-consciousness. The poem would be speech-consciousness and a refinement of speech.
Larry Fagin: They’re almost exactly the same.
Larry Fagin: Different qualities of framing in them.
AG: Framing, definitely.
Larry Fagin: Framing
AG: Framing your mind, in this case. Framing the language of your mind.
You remember, at the very beginning, he dipped his hand in the filthy Passaic,
and the Passaic consented to him to be(ing) the muse of the river. Then years later,
1927, (the) Passaic River in Paterson… [Allen reads next ‘[11/8]” – “O river of my heart polluted/and defamed..”..”That river will be clean/ before ever you will be” -]
Talking about “O river of my heart”.
But then there’s a funny outburst, more like the (19)60’s, he gets political – the Sacco and Vanzetti case – a thing called “Impromptu: The Suckers”, which is, like, a really prophetic, little, anti- police-state, radical shot for Williams. Very vulgar for Williams, but full of energy and full of good intentions. Actually, what’s interesting is the stubborn, straightforward, citizen-ly, toughness about him here – “The Suckers” – meaning the entire nation at this point, the guys who voted for Nixon (sic). or the guys that were in favor of executing two anarchist fellows accused of a bomb plot – Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti [Allen reads “Impromptu: The Suckers” in its entirety”] – “Take it out in vile whiskey/ take it out/ in lifting your skirts to show your silken/ crotches…”..”..No one/ can understand what makes the present age/ what it is. They are mystified by certain/ insistences” – So that’s, like, a great tirade, that would deal right now with (the) Wounded Knee trial, or any of the Conspiracy trials, or the present sort of police-state situation. And Williams’ take on it, with all the details of the Sacco and Vanzetti (case), and then his peroration, and his energy on it – like one of the few great common-sense breakthroughs (but it’s also vulnerable Williams, getting mad and angry, like a good citizen. A funny model of a poem.
And there’s a weird prophetic seriousness.up [Allen quotes from the poem] – “Why, when a cop steps up and grabs/ you at night you just laugh and think it’s/ a hell of a good joke/ ..It is there and it’s loaded”. That line – “It’s there and it’s loaded”. The situation.
I always thought this was a really amazing poem for him following “The pure products of America go crazy“. Those two. Apparently, at the time, he got prophetic – he began getting prophetic about America. Yes?
Student: Um.., what do you think of the form of that?, the way it’s written?, because it’s.. I mean, it’s very interesting in that sense. It’s broken down as a poem all along with these mock paragraphs here..
AG: I’ll bet you it was written in prose.
AG: I’ll bet you it was written in prose and then he chopped it up. It would be interesting to know. It looks like.. oh, blank verse – just the eye on the page makes it look like blank verse. Of course, the actual speech is much more variable than Shakespeare’s blank verse. I don’t know how he arrived at this. It’s one of the first pieces that are of that kind, with a thick line.. (except for the moving imagination of Russia and (that) other thing I read, (in) “Paterson” originally, “No ideas but in things” – That has the same form – on page 233, the form is similar, that is, a thick line on the page because he’s got a lot to say, a lot of talking to do.
That was one of the things that turned me on to my own style, though it’s one of the grosser elements in Williams. But it’s also one of the most charming things he did – that he let himself open and laid out that vulnerable angry tirade. It also shows you that people – that is 19.. (well, I think it’s before ’34 – I think 1927 or ’28) – it shows you how traditional.. how there was a break in consciousness in America all the way back then, in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s, of this kind of police-state paranoia, heavy-metal Burroughsian awareness. In fact it was pretty strong then among the anarchists, among the literary Bohemians of that day in America. A realization of the difference between the political front and the radical awareness. So it’s just radicalism coming out. But that radical awareness of the difference between the political front as presented by the judges, the university trustees, and what was actually going on in the back rooms of the courts and the jails. It’s amazing how solid his perception is there, and how valid that is now.
So, leaving it on that, I’ll quit the class for the day…