Student: Allen, I’ve heard a lot about that poem of Williams about a cat walking on a fence. Do you think you could find that one?
AG: A poem about a cat walking on a fence?
AG: I could find it somewhere but it would take a while and I would spend so much time looking over it that everybody would get bored and think I was a drag.
Student: (Then) don’t.
AG: I think it ends with the cat putting his feet into a flower-pot, stepping carefully off. Just like the same mindfulness (of) the sparrow alighting (and) disturbing only one branch, the cat very mindfully stepping, perhaps off the fence, or over the window-sill, putting one foot into a flower-pot and then another..
Student: Allen, I think the first line is “The cat steps over..” So if you want to look at just the first line…
AG: Unfortunately, there’s no list of first lines in this book, there’s only a list of titles. It’s a defective book. I mean, it’s a defective hardcover edition of Williams
Student: I think that’s one poem where Williams kind of makes you hear the silence..
Student: ..because as the cat’s putting his feet… in the flower-pot, it’s not making any sound at all.. and you can hear it not making any sound…
AG: Um-hmm – Yeah, that one has that same silence as the one called “Silence” (the one about the sparrow)..
Let’s see if there’s anything else of importance. Oh, there’s a funny one that’s just like (Charles) Reznikoff, a little later on here – “The Horse” – Oh yeah, there’s a couple – “The Maneuver” – more about little birds. He did it, apparently, continuously over a period of years – observe the birds, the sparrows, around him, or starlings. [Allen reads “The Maneuver” – “I saw the two starlings/ coming in toward the wires/But at the last,/ just before alighting, they/ turned in the air together/ and landed backwards!/ that’s what got me – to/ face into the wind’s teeth”] – So this is perhaps less literary – “That’s what got me” – It’s called “The Maneuver” – “turned in the air together/ and landed backwards!/ that’s what got me” – that’s really American tongue there – ” to/ face into the wind’s teeth”].
“The Horse” – [Allen next reads “The Horse” – “The horse moves/ independently/without reference/ to his load..”..”his nostrils/like fumes from/ the twin/ exhausts of a car”] – that’s a similie – “like” – he indulged himself in a little simile, but it’s a simile between local horse and (an) even more contemporary artifact, the car (so he doesn’t feel it’s too far-fetched, that idea, in terms of ordinariness.
(Next), a very beautiful piece, which includes perfect description (as of a flower) and perfect reproduction of conversation (because part of the object that Williams is perceiving is his own speech the speech of others). So, language, speech, is, in itself, a starling, a bird, or a set of birds whose behavior could be observed. The way people talk can be watched as closely as roses or starlings, and reproduced on the page with equal accuracy. This is called “The Act” (which is a poem I think Robert Creeley observed at great length, profited from, (and) imitated in his first book. Creeley’s earliest poems are very directly arrived (at) by these very short later poems of Williams. Creeley’s titles are very similar, in fact. [Allen reads Williams’ poem, “The Act” – “There were the roses in the rain./ Don’t cut them, I pleaded/ They won’t last, she said/ But they’re so beautiful/ where they are./ Agh, we were all beautiful once, she/ said,/ and cut them and gave them to me/ in my hand.”] – So here’s a combination of.. well, there’s a little description – “There were the roses in the rain” – sort of like a very little fast Cezanne notation (or like Picasso or Matisse – more Matisse – a little Matisse line – very abstracted by that point) – “There were the roses in the rain” – But his attention is really on the qualities (well, what’s said, of course, the content of the speech, but the way it’s said). Because I think this was probably the first time, one of the first times perhaps, if not the first time in American diction, that they used the word “agh” – spelled A-G-H. That took a certain amount of courage in those days to say “Agh”, to actually have him say, or hear his wife say “Agh” and include that, instead of amnesia-izing the “agh” and having her say “ah..” or “oh.. we were all beautiful once” – “Agh, we were all beautiful once” – that “agh” that carries exactly the right.. its the mot juste, it carries just the precise feeling in America for that mudra, that vocal gesture. So he was a great teacher for that, I think, a great teacher of definite perception of speech. So the lesson out of this is (that) you (should) pay attention. If you pay attention to your own speech and.. when you’re writing, just do it in the order that your mind suggests (but making use of accidents of speech, or of idiosyncratic noises, idiosyncratic syntax, idiosyncratic meaning, (broken or non-symmetrical, or not, by the rules), or invented, or (by) chance, or accidental, or customary (like “uh”?) [ the interrogative “uh”?]
Student: Was Williams familiar with Chinese at all
AG: Was Williams familiar with Chinese?. I don’t think he read Chinese, although he read, as I said, lots of Chinese poetry and translations through Pound, and through the vogue of (the) Chinoiserie of those years in letters, but he didn’t know Chinese directly, no. I think at one time, around this time actually, come to think of it, he worked with a young translating poet from San Francisco who used to hang around City Lights, and he was corresponding with him. The kid – I forgot his name..David Wang, perhaps – was a friend and correspondent of Ezra Pound and was corresponding also with Williams. I think Pound had sent David Wang to Williams, and they had a little project of doing some Chinese translations according to Poundian-Williamsesque principles, but that was the closest he got. So probably David Wang sent him some written characters with the translations, some pages with the Chinese characters and translations, so he could see the pictures, with the pictures explained.
[tape ends here – new tape inserted – class continues – audio for this continuation available at http://archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_on_William_Carlos_Williams_and_prosody_June_1976_76P051 – the first four-and-a-quarter minutes]
AG: Well. There’s one other piece of language here, him trying to make up sounds and talk English and talk American (and) write a little bit of Romantic poetry – “The Injury” [Allen reads William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Injury” in its entirety – “From this hospital bed/ I can hear an engine/ breathing – somewhere/ in the night:/ -Soft coal, soft coal,/ soft coal!/ And I know it is men/ breathing/ shoveling, resting – “…”rounding/ the curve – /the slow way because/ (if you can find any way) that is/ the only way left now/ for you.”] – Meaning, I think, men, sick and dying, perhaps, in bed. There is no way out except in this world and the details of this world, fading, perhaps. I was interested in that poem (for) just the refrain – “-Soft coal, soft coal,/ soft coal! – the American-ess of those words.
So this brings up the question, then, if you have these perceptions, specific detail, and you have a mind to observe the perceptions, and you have a mind to observe the appropriate language equivalent to the perceptions (language that comes from the same world as the detailed perception, language that comes from the real world of the senses and speech), what’s poetry? – or, how do you make a poem out of all that? – or, to put it even more succinctly, if you could find the words, say, if you had the words (you could get the words, I guess, from your mind), how do you put them out on the page (if the subject of the poem is not the form – like the sonnet)? If the subject is not the ballad, if the subject is not the inherited form but the subject is the subjective form, if the subject is made up by your own body, if the subject is drawn only from your own mind, with no reference to classical rhythms of speech or classical methods of perception, or classical methods of perception, in the sense of, say, generalization, abstraction, philosophy – that’s not exactly classical. Let’s see..the deteriorated classical of the 19th Century, the classical style of the 19th Century, which had become sing-song (especially in America), abstracted (except for Whitman, of course, and a few others – Stephen Crane, some Melville, some Emily Dickinson) – how do you arrange the patterns on the page? how do you arrange the speech-patterns on the page?
And so here we go into the question of Williams’ prosody, which is a matter of exercise of the same mindfulness of detail as his exercise of mindfulness in perceiving the subject-matter, or the objects of the poems, that he writes about in the poems.