[William Carlos Williams holding two kittens – undated (c.1928?) – included in the William Carlos Williams Collection, at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]
AG: We started on breath last time. We started on one poem which I’ll re-read now since some of you have had a little bit more experience with your breath. (William Carlos Williams‘) “Thursday” – I’m re-reading this for those who drifted in and out, who weren’t paying attention, didn’t get it the first time, who weren’t here the first time – [Allen begins reading] – “I have had my dream – like others -/ and it has come to nothing, so that/I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground/and look up at the sky-/ feeling my clothes about me,/the weight of my body in my shoes,/the rim of my hat, air passing in and out/at my nose – and decide to dream no more”.
[William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)]
So, in Williams’ approach to poetry, to begin with, was to try and find some kind of realistic basis, both in his speech.. a kind of talk which would be his own talk from Rutherford, New Jersey, expressing feelings that were his own body’s proper feelings, his ordinary mind, his everyday mind, speech as given to him in the streets around him, in his ear. Speech given to him in his own ear or in his own household. His phrase was to compose out of the elements of ordinary speech, of everyday speech, to select.. compose out of those elements, a little machine which would intensify, I guess, contain, in an intense form, the ordinary occurrences, or extraordinary occurences, of an ordinary day or actual person. In other words, the attempt was not to get to the supernatural. Or there was no supernatural involved. It was all whatever was natural, at hand. And that was part of a larger effort in the American cultural context of coming back (and) touching home base. Coming back home and discovering America, discovering native ground, discovering the American grain at a time when literature was still somewhat affected by hand-me-down rhythms from England, or perceptions that were more royal or European, people ashamed of their own bodies, ashamed of their own townships, ashamed of their own churches or schools, in the sense of not realizing them as poetic. People ashamed of their own bodies, not realizing their own bodies were their final bodies. So you still get that kewpie-doll-above-the-ears, flabby-visionary quality in a lot of rock lyrics, where it’s gonna be “silks” and “gypsies” and “diamond skies”, actually.. even in (Bob) Dylan you get it. You get a false universe presented sometimes. Most of the time he’s right-on, but, occasionally, he gets “poetic” and he gets carried away too – which is a flaw.
So Williams didn’t want to get carried away. He wanted to get grounded and nailed down. So, just in the effort to regain his own senses, or claim his own senses, notating different passages of his own mind, different perceptions, he finally wound up where everybody else winds up in this context here – (he) wound up just down to the breath itself, the breath, the air passing in and out of his nose. Without having to be a conscious meditator or a Buddhist, because what Williams was describing was just basic nature, as, actually, what meditation is attempting to get to is just ordinary basic nature…
Okay, so we’re on breath. Williams arrived at breath all by his lonesome. It’s really amazing that anybody would arrive at something so basic. It’s the sort of (a) consideration that a kid comes to also, I think. When you’re just sitting around testing out the senses for the first time, or fifteenth time when you’re young. Most of those fugitive attempts to check out the senses don’t get written down, don’t get rationalized, don’t become subject matter. In this case, Williams was so perceptive and acute in his examination of the physical universe and in the universe of his own consciousness that he wound up writing that note down. I don’t know who he thought would read it, or what sense it would make to anybody in those days. Because, if you can imagine.. remember, he’s writing that in 1920 or so. Can you conceive of who would read that with any specific understanding?
“I have had my dreams but it has come to nothing.” Well, the first thing – well, fuck him, then. He’s boasting? So it was actually a very humane and odd humble statement for him to make to begin with. Very unusual for anybody to be making, outside of a Shakespearean tragedy. “I have had my dreams.. but it has come to nothing.” So now what? I stand here … I’m hung on the poem because it’s so precise that if we able to stand there in the poem with him, we’d get grounded with him, in that sense. We probably could then extend and extrapolate the universe from that – or build one on that.
“I have has my dream – like others-/ and it has come to nothing” – So, what? – “so that (now)/ I remain now carelessly..” – (We went over that “carelessly” the other day) – “with feet planted on the ground” – So obviously he’s not… his head is no longer in the clouds, in the sense that.. his feet are no longer in the clouds. He’s just talking common talk. Emphasized, I think – “feet planted on the ground”. It’s very middle-class. It’s a very middle-class… I read this today at a luncheon at the Optimist Club, to introduce them to modern poetry. It just went right in, exactly. Everybody understood exactly what it meant. There was no question. All these businessmen in the middle of the clatter. “(So) that I remain now carelessly/with feet planted on the ground”. And it’s like out of an editorial in the newspaper, you know – “Get your feet planted on the ground and stop thinking all these foolish notions”
“and look up at the sky-” – Well, actually, he puts himself also at the middle of the whole universe. With his feet planted on the ground but also he’s summons up, like some very anonymously undemonstrative Doctor Faustus, he does summon up the enire universe, with his feet planted on the ground. “(A)nd look up at the sky” – “feeling my clothes about me” – That must have taken just fantastic empty-mindedness for him to have nothing else on his mind except the clothes hanging on him. Finally. Actually, literally not ambitious, not chasing after anything at that point. Just draped – “the weight of my body in my shoes” – I don’t think anybody actually could arrive at that kind of self-consciousness, that consciousness of the physical self and the weight of his body in his shoes, without some complete empty clarity of mind that would leave nothing hanging except your weight in your shoes. Is that a familiar state?
Student: Say what?
AG: Is that a familiar state?
Student: For a dancer.
AG: For a dancer? Yeah. (But) what about for a banker? for a doctor? for an insurance-salesman?
Student: If he loses all his money!
AG: Well, I think he’s still making his (money). He wasn’t kicked out of his hospital. Actually, at one point, he did get kicked out of a hospital – he got into a fight (I doubt if this reflects that)
Student: But don’t you think people can relate to this who have lost everything, who are not (at) that particular moment reaching out to anything?
AG: Right. Yeah, I think almost anyone can, but it’s the literalness of it that knocks me out- that feeling the weight of his body in his shoes. It’s so totally literal. It’s not saying “I’ve lost everything”. He says, “I had my dream, like others”. He puts it in a very common way so that there’s no claim there that he had a special dream. There’s no big-deal making.. there’s no big deal. “I had my dream.. like others”. So it’s a middle-class (voice). You could say it at the Optimist Club. “Ah, yeah, I had my dream like other people, but I’ve settled down in my job, now I’m selling auto-insurance”. So just like that, totally American like that. Except something else is going on, because instead of boasting about “ok, I settled down and I got a nice swimming-pool or something”, it’s just totally down to standing there careless with the weight of his body in his shoes.
“(T)he rim of my hat,” – (he’s got a hat on still) – And then, “air passing in and out/at my nose” – So he’s gotten that physical – the weight of his body in his shoes, the air passing in and out of his nose, that there doesn’t seem to be anything lacking anymore, or there doesn’t seem to be anything pushing in any direction. There doesn’t seem to be any direction. There doesn’t seem to be any grabbing. Maybe for a poem, subtly. Maybe a little self-consciousness of wanting to stay in that state “and decide to dream no more”. (He does add that in- “and decide to dream no more”) – Well, I’ll give it to him. After-thought – dash – “and decide to dream no more” – So it’s like an after-thought.
Student: Isn’t that through all the poem, though? To me that last statement broke the effect of the poem because, first of all, it’s not ordinary to try to hold off your dreams. Yesterday you mentioned (that) that was a perfect poem for the junction of poetics and meditation, I think that breaks it there…
AG: Well maybe you’re thinking too finely because also there’s the ordinary mind – “I’m not going to have any more of these dreams”. “I had my dreams. I wanted to be a big poet, doctor, or something, and run the whole culture of North Jersey or something, but I’m not going to have those kind of dreams any more.” I think that’s a thought that one has in a situation like that. “Well, I better not have more of these dreams.” Except he’s cutting a little finer. Because he’s cut everything so fine that it’s just the body, the body in his shoes, the weight of his body in his shoes, the rim of the hat, the air – and “decide to dream no more” – he’s also having maybe a little insight about the nature of thought forms. “Decide to dream no more” may mean decide to cling to dreams no more.
Student: It brings the mind back to the beginning, to his …
AG: Dwelling in peace. Okay. Samatha, I think, the root has something to do (with)….
[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at approximately thirteen-and-a-quarter minutes in, and continuing through to approximately seventeen-and-three-quater minutes in – and then from approximately twenty-one-and-a-quarter to approximately thirty-one-and-a-half-minutes in]