William Carlos Williams birthday today. We celebrate with his reading on January 27, 1954 in New York at the 92nd Street Y.
We begin with the poem that leads off the 1956 Collected Later Poems – “A Sort of Song” – “Let the snake wait under/his weed/and the writing/be of words, slow and quick, sharp/to strike, quiet to wait,/sleepless./– through metaphor to reconcile/the people and the stones/.Compose. (No ideas/ but in things) Invent!/Saxifrage is my flower that splits/the rocks.” – followed by “Burning the Christmas Greens” ( “Their time past, pulled down/cracked and flung in the fire….”..”..Green spruce boughs/pulled down by weight of/snow- Transformed!”) – A Vision of Labor – (“A Vision of Labor, 1931″ – you realize that this was written during the Depression) – (“In my head the juxtapositions/impossible otherwise to accomplish”…”…they turned their backs on it,/flung their boots over their shoulders/and went home.”) – “The Yellow Chimney” (“There is a plume/of fleshpale/ smoke upon the blue/sky…” … “…..\not of/the pale sun but/his born brother/the/declning season”) – (“can’t be all that good!”) (Williams laughs)
The reading continues with two readings of “Franklin Square” (“which is in Washington DC – also during the Depression”) – (“Instead of/the flower of the Hawthorne/the spine…”…”..pursing her old mouth/for what coin?” – “I’m going to read that again” – “Labrador”(“I might say that when I was in Labrador I had the hardihood to go swimming – ha! – when the others on the cruise didn’t see me – I regret it .” ) – (“How clean these shallows/how firm these rocks stand..”… .”…these/ limbs in a single gesture”) – then, “The Apparition” (“My greetings to you, sir, whose memory…”.. “Is this the war – that spawned you? Or/did you make the war? Whichever, there you are.”) – “The Maneuver” ( “I saw the two starlings/coming in toward the wires..”..” ..to/face into the wind’s teeth”) – “A Horse” (“The horse moves/independently/without reference/to his load”….”his nostrils /like fumes from/the twin/exhausts of a car”) and “The Act” (It’s impossible not to tell about this old Polish woman whom I loved. really really as much as a man, at his best, can love a woman”) (“There were the roses, in the rain//Don’t eat them, I pleaded..”…”Agh, we were all beautiful once, she/said,/and cut them and gave them to me in my hand”)
Williams next reads “Seafarer” (“The sea will wash in/but the rocks – jagged ribs/riding the cloth of foam..” …. “”It is I! I who am the rocks!/ Without me nothing laughs.”) and “The Three Graces‘ (“We have the picture of you in mind,/when you were young…”…”and as I write this Mary has died”)
“I have a request in my pocket that was handed to me as I came on the stage, “Would you please explain what the “Beautiful Thing” is in “Paterson, Episode 17“? – Well… it’s a colored gal! – She was a very tall, young, and beautiful colored woman, striking in her appearance. She could have gone anywhere, but she.. I met her just as a maid, she had no education, but she impressed me. She was a person, a real person! (..with this Paterson.. I really said “Paterson: Episode 17” just because I really didn’t have anything else to say at the time…but..if.. it hasn’t anything to do with seventeen. I put it in Paterson, it occurred in Paterson, (but not under the.. seventeen..). – [Williams’ begins reading the poem] – “Beat Hell out of it/ Beautiful Thing/ spotless cap/and crossed white straps/over the dark rippled cloth/Lift the stick/above the easy head/.where you sit by the ivied/church, one arm/buttressing you/long fingers spread out/amomg the clear grass prongs/and drive it down/Beautiful Thing/that your caressing body kiss/and kiss again/that .holy lawn…” – (“I must interrupt myself to say, since I approved of this request, what it means -it is a girl, beating a piece of carpet in front of a church – I’ll start it again, because, after all, if someone was interested, it’s legitimate to ask)” [Williams begins reading the poem again] – “Beat Hell out of it/ Beautiful Thing”. … .”…pulse of release/to the attentive/and obedient mind”
“This is a poem to an old colored man, a specific old colored man named Bunk Johnson, who was one of the originators of jazz in the old days. He was lost track of, thought to be dead, and some men (in Pittsburgh, I think, I think one of them’s name was Williams) had the idea that he might still be alive, and went down and searched him out and found him, and went up to him, and then he was, attending his little rice pad,, and he said, “Is this Bunk Johnson?” – “Yes, sir” – “You’re the man who used to play the horn?” – “Yes, sir” – “Do you play the horn anymore?” – “No teeth, heh, all gone” – “All gone, can’t play the horn anymore. Well, do you suppose, if we get you some teeth, you could play the horn?” – “Well, maybe” – Well, they just got him some teeth and he could play the horn just about as well as he ever did. And they brought him up to New York (you may, some of you remember), about three or four years ago.. and he gave some concerts down on the Bowery, and I heard him.” – [ Williams reads “Ol Bunk’s Band” – (“These are men!…”…”These are men!/Men!”)] – followed by – “A Unison“” *”The grass is very green. my friend,/and tousledm like the head of -/your grandson…”…”..Hear!/Hear the unison of their voices.…”.)
Williams continues with “The Descent” (“This poem appears in Paterson Book Three, and when I began to look it over.. I thought. to myself, “Hmm, that’s somethin’!”) – (“The descent beckons/ as the ascent beckoned/ Memory is a kind/of accomplishment… “…”For what we cannot accomplish, what/is denied to love/what we have lost in the anticipation –/a descent follows – endless and indestructible”)
The Yellow Flower (“What shall I say because talk I must?/That I have found a cure/for the sick?/ I have found no cure…”…”but some unrecognized/and unearthly flower/ dor me to naturalize/and acclimate/amd choose it for my own,”
The Host. …his party. – “I must pause a minute, I am particularly proud of this thing that I have done there, not proud but just I acknowledge it” – “According to their need..”. – This is all in thr same rhythm. The foot varies, as I think the foot should in a modern poem – “The Host” – ( “According to their need,/ this tall Negro evangelist/ (at a table adjacent to the rest of his party)…”....”No one was there/ save only for/the food./ Which I alone,/being a poet/could have given them./But I/had only my eyes with which to speak”)
Spring and All (“By the road to the contagious hospital/under the surge ofthe blue/mottled clouds driven from the/northeast..”..”…Stilll the profound change/has come upon them, rooted, they/grip down and begin to awaken”)
The Orchestra (“The precise counterpart/of a cacophony of bird calls/lifting the sun almighty./into his sphere….”…”It is a design of a man/that makes them twitter./It is a design.”)
“This is… Just a few more.. This has no title (subsequently titled . “Between Walls”) – ( the back wings/ of the/ hospital where/nothing/will grow lie/cinders/in which shine/the broken/pieces of a green/bottle.”) – and, On Gay Wallpaper (“the green-blue ground/is ruled with silver lines/to say the sunis shining”…”…the day./ Blows in/ the scalloped curtains to/the sound of rain”)
Williams concludes with “Fish“. – ( ‘It is the waves…” ( starts again) – “It is the whales that drive/the small fish into the fiords…”. .. .”…the nebbe, half man and half fish/When they see one of them/they know some boat will be lost.”)
Our thanks, as always, to the truly remarkable Pennsound Williams page. For many more extraordinary Williams recordings – see there.