[Alfred Stieglitz (1964-1936) – photographed by Edward Steichen at the “291” Gallery, 1915]
Ginsberg on Williams continues
Let’s see, page 289. Incidentally, I was talking about the American background. There’s a long thing on (Alfred) Stieglitz (who I was talking about) – “The American Background – America and Alfred Stieglitz” – a long essay. If you want to check out what the common thinking was of all those people hanging around together, that’ll give you the main gist of it.
There are a few other piths in this. [Allen begins reading from Williams’ “Selected Essays”]
“Now we come to the question of the origin of our discoveries. Where else can what we are seeking arise from but speech? From speech, the American speech as distinct from English speech, or presumably so, if what I say above is correct. In any case, since we have no body of poems comparable to the English, we have to work from what we hear in America, not, that is, from a study of the classics – not even the American classics, the dead classics, which I remind you, we have never heard as living speech. No one has or can hear them as they were written any more than we can hear Greek today. I say this once again to emphasize what I have often said, that we must hear, listen to, the language for the discoveries we hope to make. This isn’t the same as a hierarchical, or tapeworm, mode of making additions to the total poetic body, the mode of the schools. This will come up again elsewhere, it is there in the mouths of the living that language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression, and, I add, in basic structure, the most important of all.”
So this is his prescription for actually paying attention to our own sound, your own words coming out of your own mouth, and sort of doctor-scientist classifying, labeling, re-arranging
rhythms of your own talk, literally going back to the raw material of your own ears. He was writing here about W.H.Auden, a British poet who’d come to America, who Williams felt didn’t quite make it, because he was still hearing an English speech. But what he was pointing out was that Auden came here because he knew the vigor of the speech here, as distinct from England, and that people were actually listening to their own talk here, and he was putting down (T.S.) Eliot for that reason because Eliot didn’t exploit that possibility.
Now both on this point of the speech and on the point of beginning at the end of your nose – [Allen quotes Williams again] – “To be an artist..” (this is an introduction to the paintings of Charles Sheeler – Remember the “I saw the figure 5 in Gold” poem that we read the other day?)
Student: Wasn’t that Charles Demuth?
AG: Demuth. Right. That’s why I kept thinking it was Sheeler, because he wrote about Sheeler all the time. Right? It was a review of assembled paintings of Charles Sheeler in 1939 [Allen quotes Williams again] – “To be an artist, as to be a good artisan, a man must know his by a substitute materials, but in addition he must possess that really glandular perception of their uniqueness which realizes in them an end in itself, each piece irreplaceable by a substitute. Not to be broken down to another meaning, Not to pull out, transubstantiate, boil, unglue, hammer, melt, digest and psychoanalyze, not even to distill, but to see and keep what the understanding touches intact, as grapes surround and come in bunches. To discover and separate these things from the amorphous, the conglomerate normality with which they are surrounded, and of which, before the act of creation, each is a part, calls for an eye to draw out that detail which is in itself the thing, to clinch our insight, that is, our understanding of it. It “calls for an eye to draw out that detail which its in itself the thing, to clinch our insight, that is, our understanding of it”. “It is this eye for the thing that most distinguishes Charles Sheeler, and, along with it, to know that every hair on every body, now or then, in its minute distinctiveness, is the same hair on everybody anywhere at any time, changed, as it may be, to a feather, quill or scale”.
Are you following this? It’s very funny. In fact, I have a little poem to illustrate it, so you can follow what he’s saying. I’ll read that little thing again (first though), for it’s really acute – “It is this eye for the thing that most distinguishes Charles Sheeler, and, along with it, to know that every hair on every body, now or then, in its minute distinctiveness, is the same hair on everybody anywhere at any time, changed, as it may be, to a feather, quill or scale. The local is the universal” – “The local is the universal!” (he goes on) – “Look, that’s where painting begins. A bird up above flying may be the essence of it but a dead canary, with glazed eye, has no less an eye, for that well seen becomes sight and song itself. It is in things that for the artist the power lies, not beyond them. Only where the eye hits does sight occur”. Somebody handed me a little poem that illustrated that point – “The room lies quiet and still/ His gaze lights on a hair/ hanging from the lamp, waving gracefully” – That’s like a funny little Williams poem (except for the funny way.. much lighter..a light refinement). Everybody get that? Is that clear to everybody? Anybody not hear that because they were day-dreaming or their minds weren’t “clamped down on objects”, or something? – okay, I’ll read it one more time, yeah – “The room lies quiet and still/ His gaze lights on a hair/ hanging from the lamp, waving gracefully” – Just one tiny, simple, isolated detail, of somebody’s long hair hanging from the lamp (I guess the guy’s in bed, but, anyway, “the room lies quiet and still”), it’s very nicely done. Did you like that? Did you hear it?
AG: That’s (from) someone in class – David Cheatham (is David Cheatham here?) – Eero [Eero Ruuttila], that would be a great thing to get, in fact [for the NAROPA poetry mag, Sitting Frog]
So..so, I was reading page 233 of the “Selected Essays” [of William Carlos Williams], the “Introduction” to Charles Sheeler’s show of paintings and drawings..
Student: Earlier, he (Williams) says similies never are.. They have virtually no place in “No ideas but in things”
Student: They tend to clutter up an image..
Student: So, you’d say for good poetry..
AG: Of this mode, yeah
Student: Yes, of this mode, (that) similes are kinda out ?
AG: Yeah. It would be more expressed by the action. Both Pound and Williams felt that. Of course they use them occasionally, but they try to eliminate the word “like” or “as“… they try to eliminate the syntactical trick of putting two things together by saying “like” or “as“. They said, if you can do it by just putting them together without linking them up with a link word, if they actually jump together in the mind, then you’ve got it made. You can make a simile if you don’t use the word “like” or “as” – like the famous Imagist poem by Pound – “the apparition of these faces on a train”..or? – what was it? – [turns to poet, Larry Fagin, who’s sitting next to him in the class] – Do you remember that?
Larry Fagin: The apparition of these faces…
AG: ..in a crowd
Larry Fagin: ..in a crowd
Student: Petals on a wet, black bough.
AG: “Petals on a wet, black bough” – Called “The Subway” – ” The apparition of these faces in the crowd…”
Student: At the Metro – “In a Station of the Metro”
AG: “In a Station of the Metro” – ok – Paris – in Paris subway. The point there was that he didn’t use “is like” – he said – “The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”
So, first they revolted against making use of the traditional words “like” and “as“, which were traditionally used to link anything with anything. So he said, “If you really want to link things up, you’ve got to make the things themselves link up in your mind, and don’t make a metaphor like that..
Yeah? (you?) you’re just holding up the wall. Yeah?
Student: Are metaphors.. equally suspect then?
AG: Yeah. Well, what’s a metaphor (I forgot!) ?
Student: “Your thighs are apple-blossoms”
AG: Right, Yeah, Of course. “Your thighs are appletrees whose blossoms touch the sky”. And the first thing that Williams did was (undercut it) – “Which sky?”. He opened his poetic career by questioning that, that metaphor, by questioning that kind of use of metaphor. What they substituted was direct action, direct observation. Of course, that was what (Ernest) Hemingway was doing too, basically, I imagine.
Student: Have you read the first sentence in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era?
AG: What did he say?
Student: Well, I can’t remember it very well but it’s something like.. I wrote it down here.. “Towards the end of the summer evening, the light etc, streaming or caught and held, two figures”. Now this is very very very rough but what he’s basically.. what it seems, when you read the sentence the sentence goes on and on, and it’s significant because it also has that (Henry) James chord at the beginning..and the end is labyrinths, “caught and held”. Of course,, it’s James and Pound who are strolling on the street. When you read the sentence it appears that it’s the context which is the subject. The fact that they are strolling, and all of these..images brought together so that the simile or the metaphorical aspect of the sentence is contained within the sentence itself. It’s one of the most fantastic sentences I’ve ever read in the English language, you know..
AG: By Hugh Kenner
Student: As James-ian as it can be. Yes.
AG: All of that study of Ezra Pound, he should have come up with something! If he did it in the first sentence, I guess one would have to read it to understand your description
Student: Yeah, I’d recommend it
AG: Okay, it’s around, it’s around in (the) bookstores
Student: The sentence, of course. My description is very inadequate to the sentence.
AG – Yeah? Anybody? Ok – one or two little more statements by Williams on Pound, since there was some question about Pound to begin with [Allen continues reading] – “The lines in Pound have a character that is parcel of the poem itself. It is in the small make-up of the lines that the character of the poem definitely comes, and beyond which it cannot go”. In the “small make-up of the lines” – not in the grandiose conception, but in the little tiny detail work, “”small make-up of the lines” – “It is in this case a master meter that wishes to come of the classic, but at the same time to be bent to and incorporate the rhythm of modern speech. This is, or would be, the height of excellence, the efflorescence of a rare mind turned to the word. It succeeds and not.” – He’s talking (here) about Pound’s attempts to drag in the classical mind – “It succeeds and not, it does and fails. It is in the minutae, in the minute organization of the words and their relationships in a composition that the seriousness and value of a work of writing exist, not in the sentiments, ideas, or schemes portrayed. The seriousness of a work of art, the belief that the author has in it, is that he does generate in it a solution in some sense of the continuous confusion and barrenness which life imposes on its mutations, on him who won’t create in any case. We seek a language which will not be a deformation of speech as we’ve known it, but will embody all the advantageous jumps, swiftnesses, colors, movements of the day, that will at least not exclude language as spoken – all language present as spoken. Pound has attempted an ambitious use of language for serious thought without sequestration or the cloistering of words, and acceptance, and by his fine ear attempting to tune them, excluding nothing.” – So the key thing for Williams’ practice and what he liked in Pound was ” We seek a language which will not be a deformation of speech as we’ve known it”. In other words, write as talk, or the model of the writing is the rhythms (and) diction of the speech as we know it. At least that the poetry not be “a deformation of speech”, “but will embody all the advantageous jumps” – jumps of mind, jumps of syntax – “swiftnesses, colors, movements of the day, that will at least not exclude language as spoken – all language present as spoken” – Now that was for those days actually quite a big, serious discovery, but for Pound and for Williams.. Yes?
Student: Then the line that he said about the Greek being, like, too distant from us, because it’s not a spoken language, wouldn’t that be putting Pound down?
AG: Well, yes and no..