AG: I’m into (William Carlos Williams‘) Pictures from Brueghel at the moment. And I have a copy of it, signed – December 24, 1964, “Hi Allen, so glad you turned up, Affectionately, Floss” – “turned up”, after being in India. Williams was dead. (I) went to see his wife and she gave me a copy of the book (or she asked me if there was any book I didn’t have). So I’ve had this copy a long time. I went through it and picked through the poems I liked.
Williams called this book “Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems“ because there are a whole series of descriptions of paintings by (Pieter) Brueghel (the Elder). He liked Brueghel because Brueghel was so naturalistic and down-to-earth, (painting) children’s games, self-portraits, hunters in the snow (with) lots of details. (Some of the poems here are) descriptions of the details of the Brueghel paintings – “The Peasant Wedding”
AG: I guess everybody knows who Brueghel is. Anybody not know who Brueghel is? Okay, a few. Then I suggest you go down to Back Country Bookstore [in Boulder], or a library, and just look at some pictures by Brueghel. They’re real interesting. Just have a ball. What is he? Dutch? 15th century
AG: German? No, Flemish. Flemish. Fifteenth century. Much detail. Earthly detail. His most interesting painting – though Williams didn’t write about it – is in the Prado (Museum) in Madrid, (Spain), and it’s called “The Triumph of Death”, in which everybody is being checked out by a skeleton! So there are people dancing, and the skeleton is looking, sort of intervening, trying to pick up the dance, people are being hung (there are skeletons hanging them), kings are reading poetry to themselves (and skeletons are holding the book!) – So everybody has got a skeleton checking him out! (like the fuzz!). It’s called “The Triumph of Death”, and its, like, a huge canvas, like a Tibetan painting, in a way, in which every corner is covered and every activity of life is covered. Infinite detail.
I’m not going to read these poems because they’re poems about paintings. I’d rather get to his direct views. So there’s a little thing on page 15. Does anybody here have Pictures from Brueghel, the book? – Yeah, page 15 (I’ll give you the numbers) – “Exercise” – a really curious little nasty note by Williams – [Allen reads, in its entirety, Williams’ poem “Exercise”] – “Maybe it’s his wife/ the car is an official car/ belonging/ to a petty police officer/ I think/ but her get-up/ was far from official/ for that time/ of day” – Everybody get the point?
AG: Anybody not understand that? Anybody not understand that? – Okay, well he’s in Rutherford and he sees the police car go by and a guy in it, probably in civvies, and “her get-up…far from official”, meaning, likely enough, a real floozie, (as Williams would say), a real floozie, in whorish get-up (probably some kind of purple shoes and pink lipstick and bangles), sitting in a side street. I guess the policeman making out with a local whore – [Allen reads the poem again] – Just a little piece of local Rutherford gossip, which he called “Exercise”, making a little poem out of it.
Twenty-one, “Suzy” (I imagine his grandchild). I think, by this time, he’d had a stroke, was partly paralyzed, couldn’t write for a long time and had to creep way back to the typewriter, and could only type hunt-and-peck. (He) had to give up his medical practice by then, (and) was taken up to the country for a vacation, to recover, around this time (maybe around the time of the poem or soon after). You can see that finally he is beginning to get old and recognizes it. Everything before has been fresh and looking up toward an ascent, toward life, toward the accomplishment of an effort – toward effort and accomplishment and a new poetry. Here he’s beginning to relax a little. [Allen begins reading the poem, “Suzy”] – “women your age have decided/ wars and the beat/ of poems your grandfather/ is a poet and loves you/ pay attention/ to your lessons an inkling / of what beauty means to/ a girl your age/ may dawn soon on you” – It’s the beginning of that kind of triple line – “women your age have decided/ wars and the beat/ of poems your grandfather” – that’s one line – “of poems your grandfather”. But, “”women your age have decided/ wars and the beat/ of poems your grandfather/ is a poet and loves you”. But, “of poems your grandfather/ is a poet and loves you/ pay attention/ to your lessons an inkling/ of what beauty means to/ a girl your age/ may dawn soon on you” – [Allen continues (section 2] – “life is a flower when it/ opens you will/ look tremblingly into it unsure/ of what the traditional/ mirror may reveal/ between hope and despair while/ a timorous old man/ doubtfully half/ turns away his foolish head” – Beginning to doubt himself a little – [Allen continues] – “Good place to sit” – [and continues with section 3] – “3” – to Suzy, his granddaughter – “a bunch of violets clutched/ in your idle/ hand gives him a place/ beside you which he cherishes/ his back turned/ from you casually appearing/ not to look he yearns after/ you protectively/ hopelessly wanting nothing” – So, to a grandchild, which is really interesting – “protectively/ hopelessly wanting nothing”
More and more poems about his family come up as his physical range diminishes, because he can’t get around so much. I don’t know at what point… (Here’s) “The Stone Crock” (also recollections) – The beginning of the realization of what’s going to be missing, or what is missing – deaths – [Allen reads “The Stone Crock” in its entirety] – “In my hand I hold/ a postcard/ addressed to me/ by a lady/ Stoneware crock/ salt-glazed/ a dandelion embossed/ dark blue/ She selected it/ for me to admire casually in passing/ She was a Jewess/ intimate of/ a man I/ admired/ We often met in/ her studio/ and talked/ of him/ he loved the early/ art of this/ country/ blue stoneware/ stamped on the/ bulge of it/ Albany reminding me/ of him/ Now he is dead how/ gentle he/ was and/ persistent” – So it’s a very ordinary scene. He gets a postcard from a lady he hasn’t seen for years, who is a friend of a scholar-artist, who he hadn’t taken much account of, though they’d met and talked, and he’d talked with the lady about him. The postcard reminds him of the scholarship – “he loved the early/ art of this/ country” – and then the postcard – “blue stoneware/ stamped on the/ bulge of it/ Albany reminding me/ of him/ Now he is dead how/ gentle he/ was and/ persistent” – It’s an odd little piece of recollection. Really, in illness, you’d think, someone would come up with that.
And then he got mad, too, at that point. He was a little bit cantankerous, thinking that the lessons that he had been teaching in America were not sufficiently appreciated by the Academy, so he has this little poem called “He Has Beaten Around The Bush Long Enough” – [Allen reads “He Has Beaten Around The Bush Long Enough” in its entirety] – “What a team/ Flossie, Mary, a chemical prof/ and I/ make to confront/ the/slowly hardening/ brain/ of an academician/The most/ that can be said/ for it/ is/ that it has the crystal-/line pattern/ of/ new ice on/ a country/ pool” – The verse-form has a funny little crystalline triplet form, too, divided into three.
More and more these poems are divided into sets of three but they’re lined up on the page, up and down, vertical. Pretty soon he’ll begin breaking them up and spreading them out on the page, in order to get some sense of balancing the lines out visually, balancing them out in his ear, seeing what they weigh like in his tongue and in his mind. [Allen next reads “Jersey Lyric“] – “view of winter trees/ before/ one tree/ in the foreground/ where/ by fresh-fallen/ snow/ lie 6 woodchunks ready/ for the fire” – It’s a piece of music. It’s a lyric. He’s talking about the sound here, and the last stanza is “snow/ lie 6 ” – the number, six – “snow/ lie 6 woodchunks ready/ for the fire” – And the “woodchunks” is all one word – “woodchunks” – as if he was hearing that as a pretty, funny, sound, as a pretty sound – “woodchunks” – as a lyric sound – “Woodchunk” – “6 woodchunks ready” – Well, “woodchunk”, remember – “view of winter trees/ before/ one tree/ in the foreground” – Actually, a phonograph also [Allen reads the poem again, in its entirety] – So it’s a combination of (a) funny little musical lyric (as he says) and photographic image.
(Next) “Poem” – [Allen reads “Poem”] – “The rose fades/ and is renewed again/ by its seed naturally/but where/ save in the poem/shall it go/ to suffer no diminution/ of its splendor” – As he became physically ill, more and more he sanctified his poetry, he got very sentimental about it. More and more, he depended upon the whole idea of his career and of his poetry, his search for an American measure, as being the crucial theme of his earth(ly) existence. So the practical “doctor” got more and more hung (up) on the idea of “poet” and the idea of poetry as a way out, for the mind trapped in the body, as a way of preserving what had been accomplished by the mind, or of making solid, and, in a sense, immortal, or long-lasting, longer-lasting than the body, the mind perceptions, feelings, ardors. But, mainly, the discriminations, sense discriminations, common-sense discriminations, breakthroughs of awareness that the man had experienced whose brain was dying, suffering strokes – [Allen reads “Poem” again] – And that’s the theme that he begins developing more and more from now on, as he has to find some appeal, some place, some more secure place than the body, or more secure place than Rutherford.