Spiritual Poetics – 11 (William Carlos Williams)

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) – Passport photo, 1921 – from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

Allen Ginsberg continues his 1974 Naropa lectures on “Spiritual Poetics”

AG: So why don’t I get on to a little Williams..  Williams’ poems as a commentary to this little book that I just read by Walter Fordham. If anybody’s interested in my poetry, my own practice nearest to that is in a book called Empty Mirror, which is early poems that I wrote, 1946 to 1951. William Carlos Williams was a doctor who lived in Rutherford, New Jersey and died in 1963. Friend of Ezra Pound, and one of the “Moderns”, so to speak, one of the people in the heroic period of Cubist intellectuality during and after World War I, and one of the first people who broke through to a modern sense of solitude in the presence of national state. In other words, in the great disillusionment of the World War I, which was, apparently, a big poetic event, for Pound, and for a lot of people, the total alone-ness of everybody on the planet finally broke through then. And the necessity to go into our own natures, to find out who we actually were, instead of taking the identity given us by nation, state, class and custom, and habit. So, it was really the beginning of (an) almost-Buddhist introspection (or intra-spection, if you want), the beginning of that kind of modern, self-reliant, going-back-to-first-thoughts-and-your-own-consciousness for the primary data, not only art practice, but how to live.

The Young Housewife – “At ten a.m. the young housewife/ moves about in negligee behind/ the wooden walls of her husband’s house/ I pass solitary in my car..,” I don’t know when that was written, say (19)’20 or something, but nobody had ever written a line “I pass solitary in my car”. They would have said, “I pass solitary in my chariot”, or something – literally! literally. Poets were still writing about ( lady poets too) were still writing about being solitary in their chariots, or their thrones, or something. Williams realized he rode a car. Everybody knows that now – everybody writes poems about cars, it’s part of our awareness now, but Williams was one of the breakthrough artists in this kind of thing . But also “the young housewife/ moves about in negligee..” – “Then, she comes to the curb/ to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands/ shy, uncorseted, tucking in/ stray ends of hair, and I compare her/ to a fallen leaf.” – He gets a little literary there, because he is so consciously laying out the “uncorseted” fish-man as a poem. The poem (is) a fish-man! – the imagery, the brilliance, or the glitter, of what would have to, in the olden days, be the beautiful metaphors about castles, or what, in Donovan’s song, would be all this velvet-luxury English-lace, turns out to be the fish-man! So if the fish-man can be the material of the poem, “uncorseted”, “shy”, “tucking in/ stray ends of hair “, that opens up a whole new area of reality that you can write about, which was Williams’ point – that poetry is a way of reclaiming our own lives (I think that’s his own language), of remembering, reclaiming, seizing possession of, our own lives, rather than leading an inherited life, rather than mentally following the images and the mind practices and thought-form practices, of other centuries and other lands. So, this is all part of the discovery of America. “And I compare her/to a fallen leaf”. So he read Basho that week, or something. – “The noiseless wheels of my car/ rush with a crackling sound over/ dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling”. That’s the end of the poem.

“The old black man showed me/ how he’d been shocked/ in his youth/ by six women, dancing/ a set dance, stark naked below/ the skirts raised round/ their breasts;/ bellies flung forward, knees flying / – while/ his gestures, against the/ tiled wall of the dingy bathroom,/ swished with ecstasy to/ the familiar music of/ his old emotion.” – Before Williams, I don’t think that anybody having had that particular experience would have considered it a fit subject for a poem. Do you realize how enormous that mental transition is? – how enormous his recollection of that transition of consciousness is, being able to recall that scene and think about it publicly, or think about it privately as his high moment of euphoria, Williams’ high moment of euphoria and experience, as a gleam of real bacchanalia. Earlier poets would have had to make use of the imagery of Bacchus, or Greek orgy. By using this actual experience, he was able to not only recall the Greek orgy and bacchanes… What the poem is called is “Canthara”. Does anybody know what that means? “Cantharides” are aphrodisiacs, aren’t they? – Cantharides? He was able to recall a classic scene but in a modern context, at the same time present a modern, or contemporary, or present, situation, with all the poverty and romanticism of the present situation. It’s the lack of romance that becomes poetical. In other words, the poetry is in the lack of romance in the fish-man. The fish-man becomes an eternal object when you notice him, as Chogyam (Trungpa) said, like everything is happening. Everything has its eternal gleam, everything has its psychedelic gleam, or however we.., however we interpret what he said. given proper attention, or given an open, a raw, eye.

“Good Night” – I have a note above this – “ like a zazen reverie” – “In brilliant gas light/ I turn the kitchen spigot/ and watch the water plash/ into the clean white sink”. It’s like (John) Keats – “the clean white sink”. Just the sounds, the very sounds, are a different music, our own home-made music, or our own body-music. “On the grooved drain-board/ to one side is/ a glass filled with parsley – / crisped green”. Good sketching. – “Waiting/ for the water to freshen – / I glance at the spotless floor/ a pair of rubber sandals/ lie side by side/ under the wall table/ all is in order for the night – so he includes the subjective, he includes his own comments for the lyricism, because they are objects too. His own nature there is an object, his own thoughts are also objects, and he can include his thoughts. Once he’s stepped outside of himself sufficiently to be seeing himself from the panoramic consciousness of the whole room, then he’s also seeing his thoughts as part of that panoramic consciousness, as long as he’s not lost in his thoughts.

“Waiting, with a glass in my hand/ – three girls in crimson satin/ pass close before me on/ the murmurous background of/ the crowded opera – / it is/ memory playing the clown -/ three vague, meaningless girls/ full of smells and/ the rustling sounds of/ cloth rubbing on cloth and/ little slippers on carpet – / high-school French/ spoken in a loud voice! Parsley in a glass,/ still and shining,/ brings me back, I take a drink/ and yawn deliciously./ I am ready for bed.”

Then there’s a point where, because he has become so objective, in that sense, that he is able to incorporate himself completely and use his self as the subject of the poem, without self-pity, even, almost, I think, in what we would call a tantric way .

This (next) poem, I think, is one of the great breakthroughs of awareness in America, in the Whitmanic tradition of one’s own bodily awareness – “Danse Russe” – “If when my wife is sleeping/ and the baby and Kathleen/ are sleeping/ and the sun is a flame-white disc/ in silken mists/ above shining trees…” So he was even able to get a little romance out of Rutherford, New Jersey. Simply by accurate sketching, he was able to get a Homeric, Romantic, poetic line. Just by paying attention to “the sun is a flame-white disc/ in silken mists/ above shining trees”. Every word there is accurate, every word there is real. There’s no bullshit. In other words, it’s not an imaginary sun. He looked up and it is a “flame-white disc” – he looked at the mists and their quality – “silken”, of the day, of the mist of that day, so a really remarkable day in Rutherford, actually. “Above shining trees” – so the mist that’s there is probably wet , therefore shining – “If I in my north room/ dance naked, grotesquely/ before my mirror/ waving my shirt round my head/ and singing softly to myself:/ “I am lonely, lonely/ I was born to be lonely,/ I am best so!”/ If I admire my arms, my face,/ my shoulders, flanks, buttocks/ against the yellow drawn shades/ Who shall say I’m not/ the happy genius of my household?” – That poem influenced me, I think, more than any other by Williams or any other modern poem.

Student: What’s the name of that?

AG: It’s called “Danse Russe” and the book is The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams.

Student: When did he write that Allen?

AG: (19)24, or ’25, or ’26, I think. In the ‘20’s. I’m not sure. Imagine a doctor in Rutherford in a big house in a small town capable of that much self-awareness, humor, objectivity! It’s that quality, I think, that’s awkward, as he says himself, “grotesequely” before a mirror. There’s an awkwardness, or I ‘d use the word “awkwardness” to describe this kind of poetry. Genius as awkward – genius as awkwardness (you could use, perhaps, “nakedness”, but the quality of “awkwardness” is fine). And Walter Fordham’s poems I read earlier were awkward in that way, I think. Had you read Williams’ book?

(Walter Fordham: No, I hadn’t)

AG: “The rain on the black roof..”. “November. The hard lines/ of black branches/ on a gray sky” reminded me very much of Williams, and it makes me think, since you didn’t read Williams, that Williams’ method is primary, that is, Williams’ method is so practical that one arrives at that place of awareness and noticing things around you, and they’ll have that sound, they’ll remind you of a haiku, written from that method, from looking around or looking outside yourself, and I find in most poetry I like nowadays – whether it’s an awkwardness of what you notice, or an awkwardness of the way you say it, or the awkwardness of the rush of putting it down, like in Anne (Waldman)’s poem “Pressure”, or, “I am a Woman’ (“Fast Speaking Woman”), the awkwardness of things arriving in her mind and accepting them, because they were the things that arrived that she thought of , and accepting them as use-able like the fish-man, or the “grotesque” -, or, what was…(to Anne Waldman), was that a grotesque woman or some outrageous woman that you were at one point or other?- there were a lot of them. Half of them were exaggerations, but, while she was reading last night (sic), I realized, “well, everybody thinks that all the time”. All women must think, “I’m the womb-woman, I’m the devouring woman, I’m, the delicate woman”. And the contradictions too, because we are that much. So a recognition and awareness of all that contradictory detail outside the fish man to the contradictoriness of our own self-imagery – acceptance of that, working with that “awkwardness”, in Chogyam Trungpas term. To be able to “work with our own awkwardness” is a phrase that, I think, he used. “Awkwardness” was a phrase that I had been using, or applying to, say, (Jack) Kerouac’s style, or (William Carlos) Williams’, for some time, and it was interesting hearing Chogyam (Trungpa) using that word as well in terms of meditation – that one works with ones awkwardness and that the awkwardness becomes an advantage, because, at least, it’s something to work with. It’s not up-in-the-clouds, it’s not an ideal, it’s not a false, or ideal, notion, or imaginary notion. It’s at least sumpin’. You know, you’ve got a pain in your leg so you can’t sit right, but then you can work with that to figure out how to sit, how to get a better posture.

Smell – “Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollow/ nose of mine! what will you not be smelling/ What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose/ always indiscriminant, always unashamed…” – So he got a little bit generalized there, right? – “and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled/ poplars” – So he got it right back too, to clamping the mind down on objects – “and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled/ poplars” – which anybody in any small town has seen, whether “souring” flowers, or whatever local plant, which hardly anybody has ever written about because that wasn’t considered “The Romance of The Rose” at all. It wasn’t considered the eternal beautiful flower of poetics. He accepted the local flowers and the fate of the local flowers as subject, which makes him a more permanent poet than a poet writing about imaginary flowers, or non-experienced flowers – “and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled/ poplars: a festering pulp of the wet earth / beneath them. With what deep thirst/ we quicken our desires/ to that rank odor of a passing springtime!/ Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors/ for something less unlovely? What girl will care/ for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways/ Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?/ Must you have a part in everything?”

There’s also the implication ofmuff-diving in there, I guess. That’s a key poem in the canon of William Carlos Williams – that is, picking up on his nose, and noticing his nose, which is not very far from yogic beginning with the nose of meditation, vipassana practice.

He was concerned, then, with reclaiming his own details, his own objects, his own life, so a lot of the poems are a comment on that process, of coming back to where he is.
“I’ve discovered that most of/ the beauties of travel are due to/ the strange hours we keep to see them;/ the domes of the Church of/ the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken/ against a smoky dawn – the heart stirred – / are beautiful as Saint Peters/ approached after years of anticipation”.

Student: What’s the name of that one?’

AG: This is called “January Morning” – “January Morning” – he wrote these down on his prescription-pad slips
“…and a young horse with a green bed-quilt/ on his withers shaking his head:/ bare teeth and nozzle high in the air!” – “VI” – “ – and a semi-circle of dirt-colored men/ about a fire bursting from an old/ ash-can” – “VII” – “..and the worn/ blue car rails (like the sky!)/ gleaming among the cobbles!” – “VIII” –“ – and the rickety ferry-boat “Arden”!/ What an object to be called “Arden”/ among the great piers, – on the/ ever-new river!.” – “X” “The young doctor is dancing with happiness/ in the sparkling wind alone/ at the prow of the ferry! He notices/ the curdy barnacles and broken ice crusts/ left at the ship’s base by the low tide/ and thinks of summer and green/ shell-crusted ledges among/ the emerald eel grass!” – “XI” – “Who knows the Palisades as I do/ knows the river breaks east from them/ above the city – but they continue south/ – under the sky – to bear a crest of/ little peering houses that brighten/ with dawn behind the moody/ water-loving giants of Manhattan” – “XIII” – “Work hard all your young days/ and they’ll find you too, some morning/ staring up under/ your chiffonier at its warped/ bass-wood bottom and your soul/ – out!/ among the little sparrows/ behind the shutter” – ‘XV” – “All this/ was for you old woman./ I wanted to write you a poem/ that you would understand/ For what good is it to me/ if you can’t understand it/ But you got to try hard/ But -/ Well, you know how/ the young girls run giggling/ on Park Avenue after dark/ when they ought to be home in bed?/ Well, / that’s the way it is with me somehow.”

Well, with such a mind, with such an awkward mind, what has that got to do with anything spiritual? And what has all that materialistic preoccupation got to do with anything like the spiritual matters that we’re practicing? What has this poetics got to do with spirituality really?

Does everybody here meditate? Or how many don’t? Ok, so you all have some basic experience, you all know about your nose and your breath, and, I guess, or do you?, Yeah, so..

Thursday – “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
I was reading that at the Wyoming Seminar, where everyone was practicing vipassana, ten-hour-a-day breathing from their nose, just feeling the air passing out of their nose and dissolving into space, and it occurred to me that Williams, by himself, had arrived at the same place where we all were, in terms of his self-awareness, and awareness of his physiological functionings, and the awareness of the relationship between body and mind, and daydreaming and reality, and thought-forms, but he put it in such a completely unobtrusive American language, into a context which anybody… “you gotta try hard” – “I wanted to write something that you could understand”. So he wrote something that people could understand, in that way, and that’s his sort of a genius. To do that, he, then. had to use his own language, he had to use American language, he had to use the language that we talk rather than a poetical language. He had to stop writing poetry and just write writing, or just write as his own mouth spoke, and compose from elements of the language that he heard around him, which meant that he had also then to become a yogi of listening to people talk, a yogi of paying attention to talk., to hear the rhythms in the talk, to hear how it went trippingly on the tongue, even though it was in Rutherford, New Jersey, to hear how it went haltingly, slow, sad, to hear how it could be. So he could get away with things like, “well, that’s the way I am sometimes, when the little girls go running after dark, giggling, in Park Avenue, when they oughta be home in bed”.

Once when I visited him, he had a little prescription-pad out, and he’d written: “I’ll kick yuh eye” – y-u-h e-y-e – and he was interested in the rhythm of “I’ll kick yuh eye” in a sort of Polish Rutherford accent , and how that would sound in a poem. Out of that he developed a bunch of little poems that are like little Shakespeare songs, but making use of local sound. Like, “To The Postman”. One that is left out of the Collected Later Poems, that his wife objected to a bit, is called “Turkey in the Straw” – “I’ll put this in my diary. On my 65th birthday, I kissed her while she pissed”. “Your thighs are apple-trees whose blossoms touched the sky”. It’s a recollection of an old poem he wrote fifty years earlier, talking about the same wife. “On my 65th birthday, I tussled her breasts. She didn’t even turn away, but smiled, “it’s your 65th birthday”. I kissed her while she pissed”. Well, he was interested in the situation, and the shocking-ness, and the odd-ness, the awkwardness and odd-ness of his using that as a subject, but he was also interested in the sound – “I kissed her as she pissed” – as a little refrain.
Fragment – “My God, Bill, what have you done?/ What do you think I’ve done? I’ve/ opened up the world./ Where did you get them? Marvelous/ beautiful!/ Where does all snot come from? Under / the nose,/ Yea-uh?/ – the gutter, where everything comes/ from, the manure heap.” – So, he was able to write a poem about picking his nose! I challenge anyone in the class to be that familiar with themselves to be able to do that without offending, to be able to do that in such a way that it’s as impersonal as learning about whales in the ocean.

“Wherein is Moscow’s dignity/ more than Passaic’s dignity?/ A few men have added color better/ to the canvas, that’s all./ The river is the same/ the bridges are the same/ there is the same to the discovered/ of the sun./ Look how cold steel grey/ run the waters of the Passaic/ The Church-of-the-Polak’s bulbous towers/ kiss the sky just so sternly/ so dreamily/ as in Warsaw, as in Moscow -/ Violet smoke rises/ from the mill chimneys – Only/ the men are different who see it/ draw it down in their minds / or might be different” – It applies to what?, I guess, anything, everything we’re talking about – only the men who see it are different.

Another sample of little fragments is.. “To Greet A Letter-Carrier” – “Why’n’t you bring me/ a good letter? – W-h-y-apostrophe-n-apostrophe-t“ “Why’n’t” – ““Why’n’t you bring me/ a good letter? One with/ lots of money in it/ I could make use of that./ Atta boy! Atta boy!” – Like Shakespeare, he was interested in “Heigh with heigh, the thrush and the jay”. “With a hey, with a ho, with a hey nonny-no” – “Atta boy, Atta boy”, same thing. In other words, the same rhythm, the same refrain, except he was trying to get his refrains, not from Shakespeare but with conversations with the mailman, to get his refrains from his own speech. So it’s a whole yoga of paying attention to your own speech, recollecting the elements of the speech that are exquisite. That, tho’ untraditional in the practice of poetry, are as good material as anything from the classics, and making use of it so that you can actually say what you’re really into, and write a poem that you can understand, old lady

“Hi! Open up a dozen./ Wha’cha tryin’ ta do –/ charge ya batteries? / Make it two/ Easy, girl!/ You’ll blow a fuse if/ ya keep that up.” – These are like experiments in little sounds, in local dialect, and they’re so raw and simple that they’re really useful for people as models, to see what can be done. – “I bought a new/ bathing suit/ Just pants/ and a brassiere – / I haven’t shown/ it/ to my mother/ yet.” – “Detail”, so, detail, conscious of detail. – “I had a misfortune in September,/ just at the end of my vacation/ I been keeping away from that for years/ Just an accident. No foundation./ None at all, no feeling. I’m too/ old to have a child. Why, I’m fifty!” – A conversation that he had with a patient, as a doctor. He’s a baby-doctor, so the lady’s saying, – “I had a misfortune in September,/ just at the end of my vacation/ I been keeping away from that for years/ Just an accident. No foundation./ None at all, no feeling. I’m too/ old to have a child. Why, I’m fifty!”

Student: How old is this stuff?

AG: This is The Collected Early Poems.. and I guess it runs up to the mid (19)30’s, or early (19) 40’s. – “Her milk don’t seem to…/She’s always hungry, but…/ She seems to gain all right,/ I don’t know.” – These are all called “Details – “Doc, I bin lookin’ for you/ I owe you two bucks./ How you doin? – / Fine when I get to it / I’ll bring it up to you”. “Detail” – “Hey!/ Can I have some more/ milk?/ YEEEAAAASSSSS!/ – always the gentle/ mother!” – And “yes” is “Y-E-E-E-A-A-A-A-S-S-S-S-S!” in caps, “YEEEAAAASSSSS!”. He was concerned with kinds of vocalization, with the kind of sounds in poetry that hadn’t been brought in yet. Maybe in plays, you might have the actor interpreting it, but there wasn’t any poet who was hearing that American sound, YEEEAAAASSSSS !, and using that as a line.

I like the little details, the poems that are called “Details”. A classic example of it in his work, which is similar to haiku material, or very Japanese-like, or Chinese-like, or very pure noticing, – “The Term”. It’s called “The Term”, meaning, I think, the term of consciousness, or the term of awareness, probably, or the term of poetics, or the proper metaphor, or the right way of going about it, the term of how to deal with articulating it – “A rumpled sheet/ of brown paper/ about the length/ and apparent bulk of a man was/ rolling with the/ wind slowly/ over and over in/ the street as/ a car drove down/ upon it and/ crushed it to/ the ground. Unlike/ a man it rose/ again rolling/ with the wind over/ and over to be as/ it was before.” – It’s like a movie, but a very uncanny movie of – “A rumpled sheet/ of brown paper/ about the length/ and apparent bulk of a man was/ rolling with the/ wind slowly/ over and over in/ the street as/ a car drove down/ upon it and/ crushed it to/ the ground. Unlike/ a man it rose/ again rolling/ with the wind over/ and over to be as/ it was before.” – “to be as/ it was before.” So, a perfect and a complete movie. That single image, or that single picture, that single shot, it seems to have a beginning, middle, and an end, and it’s a complete poem, even though it’s a detail or fragment. He finally felt that that was it – that that was the poem. I mean, you were completely outside of yourself, in a sense, completely noticing, completely with yourself, in the sense of being able to notice that it was like a man, and still subjective. Those raw moments of strange happening that reminds oneself of the present.

“Classic Scene” – I took a lot of my own imagery of Moloch from this poem, or the idea presented here. “Classic Scene” – “A power-house/ in the shape of/ a red brick chair/ 90 fee high/ on the seat of which/ sit the figures/ of two metal/ stacks – aluminum – / commanding an area/ of squalid shacks/ side by side -/ from one of which/ buff smoke/ streams while under/ a grey sky/ the other remains / passive today –“ – Well, that city, industrial landscape vision, almost like a robot building dominating a degenerate dirty town, an area of squalid shacks, here, is, I think, a classic perception that almost everybody’s had, and Williams was one of the first to make it precise and write it down, isolate it, present it as a specimen of perception. It’s not far from (William) Blake’s lines about the “dark satanic mills”. Remove that “dark Satanic mill”. Williams was writing at a time when it was necessary to explain and make a big point about reclaiming our own imagery, and reclaiming our own experience. I think it’s more taken-for-granted now by the younger generation.


  1. Thank you for posting these lectures, they are as interesting as they are vexing. Allen could have made a name for himself solely as a literary critic. Though I'm glad he wrote such wonderful poems, at times. Never really understood the Buddhist hang up re: the Beats, which seemed to be a case of overthinking unstructured poetry. It probably helped ground Allen and it was probably Jack's last chance to avoid self-destruction. Anyway, a lovely take on WCW, I'll have to go back to his Paterson poems.

  2. Thank you so much for the Ginsberg archive. You website reminds me of The Whitman Archive. I am always astonished at his genius, his love of poetry and poets. I’m an old man; Allen inspires me. I’m grateful for the hard work you put into this project.

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