William Carlos Williams (1975 Naropa Class)

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Continuing with Allen’s 1975 Naropa class.

(For earlier Ginsberg-on-Williams on the Allen Ginsberg Project see here and here)

AG:..What I want to do is spend a little time on William (Carlos) Williams, a little time on (Jack) Kerouac, and a little time on (Gregory) Corso. Beginning with early Williams. He’s compact with getting his mind clamped down on objects, or his first early compact with “No ideas but in things”. His first early covenant with “minute particulars”, (which was (William) Blake’s phrase), is expressed in his long poem to the Passaic River, his compact with the Passaic River, “The Wanderer, A Roccoco Study”, which he wrote when he was a young man, and wandering through Paterson, by St James Grove, which was by the river, which had already been polluted, industrialized, degraded. Still he saw the river as a goddess [Allen reads from “The Wanderer..” – (“And so it came to that last day/ When, she leading by the hand, we went out..” to “And the filthy Passaic consented!)”] – It’s from the center of the poem, a long poem, written, as you can see, with a certain amount of baroque rhetoric, as Williams, as a young man, did write poems which were Romantic – he imitated Keats actually, he wrote Keatsian stanzas when in college – and still carried over that kind of Romantic, other-worldly, imaginary poetry to “A Portrait of A Lady” – young writing again [Allen reads “A Portrait of A Lady” – (“Your thighs are appletrees”…”I said petals from an appletree”)] – So he was beginning to reconsider his idea of poetry, until he finally began, basically, to begin to listen to his own speech, or the speech of the people around him, in Rutherford, New Jersey, around 1917, 1920, I guess, 1915, during the War and after, and began observing, also, what he could see through his eyeball in Rutherford, which was on a ridge overlooking the Hoboken marshes, across which the Palisades rose and above them whatever skyscrapers slowly grew, in his eyes, as the decades passed. But immediately outside of his house, trees, “The Trees” – “The trees being trees / thrash and scream” – “Christ , the bastards/ haven’t even enough sense/ to stay out in the rain” – The trees talking about the men – [Allen continues reading to the end of the poem] – “no part of us untouched”) – So, common along with acceptance of his ”woollen sweater” that his grandmother gave him, and the trees outside of the window, acceptance of self, actually, the beginning of an acceptance of self and therefore ann acceptance of the world around self, or the world that self perceived, as in (Walt) Whitman. So Williams is a child of Whitman in these statements. Looking at a sea-elephant, a completely opposite monster from monstrous William Carlos Williams as a young man, going to the aquarium. [Allen reads “The Sea-Elephant] – (“Trundled from/ the strangeness of the sea..”…”Blouagh!/there is no crime/ save the too-heavy body”..”Spring is icummen in..”)] – So, he finally began not only discovering his own language but discovering his own sound, so he could put “Blouagh” in a poem.It’s spelled B-L-U-A-U-G-H. So he was the first poet to say “Blouagh” – the only one that was able to actually begin to express himself with all his body sounds as well as conversational speech.

Student: What poem was that in again?

AG: Huh?

Student: What poem was that in again?

AG: “The Sea-Elephant”. Probably a giant-sized walrus..

Also a funny kind of attention to suffering social detail, early movement consciousness, or early left-wing consciousness in America, or this century – “An Early Martyr” – so this would be 19.. early 20’s, 1918, 1919, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked…” [AG begins reading – (“Rather than permit him/to testify in court…”) ] – Here he’s saying (he says) “They “cured” him all/ right”.” I don’t think any poet by 1918 had used that vernacular. “They “cured” him all/ right” – It’s “they..cured..him all..right” (that’s two lines, “right”’s on the second line – “They “cured” him all/ right”.)” What’s weird here is the weird ear, which sounds normal to us now because we’ve got accustomed to it in poetry but at that time it was almost incomprehensibly raw, so that Williams and (Ezra) Pound argued, and Pound wrote Williams a letter, saying, “What you’re interested in is the compost, the raw material, but I want the finished product” – said Ezra Pound, who was ransacking Chinese for phanopoeic visual imagery and methods of transmitting thought forms through visual particulars, or beginning to go through Provencal and early German minstrel poetics to see what was happening with the transition from, say, poets writing in Latin to when they had to write in their own provincial tongues. What kind of verse forms did they come up with?, what kind of measure did they invent for themselves? Just as the Americans, making the transition from English to American tongue, had to invent a new prosody, or new measure of the line, as Williams said. So Williams, all his life, was interested in the measure of the line. But when Pound wrote him, saying, “You’re interested in the raw material or dirt or compost and I’m interested in the finished product”, Williams replied, “You’re damn right I’m interested in the raw material. That’s all I’m interested in”. Because he had a kind of humility, realizing that American poetry had yet to be invented. An American poetry had yet to be invented, an American tongue, talking its own rhythm, it’s own diction, still had to be discovered, that the measure of American poetry had to be researched, as Madame Curie researched various (spots) to find her radium – looking for traces. So Williams was looking, just as she was looking for traces of radiation, he was looking and listening, looking on the page, listening for little traces of active speech, speech that seemed solid, un-selfconscious, concrete, direct, usable, in the sense of proposing little rhythms that he could distinguish, and even reproduce in poems, making up out of those rhythms little songs, written in American-ese, songs with American rhythms . So the key word that he evolved through his life was “measure” – he was looking for a measure of American speech. He took samples, here, or transcribed samples, either from his own tongue, or from hearing other people talk. (He) abandoned entirely any ambition to write “poetry” and just wrote down what seemed real to him as speech, what seemed “active” (that was his word). When I gave him early poems, he told me to eliminate, most of one long, long, long poem, called “Paterson” (sic), and just keep one paragraph in it, which, he said, had some active language in it, and (that) it’s much better to have just one phrase, or a line, that’s active than whole book-full’s of inert, dead, language that you’re simply imitating from English writers or from books that you read. So he advised listening to what was heard in the raw ear – and on his little physician’s prescription pad, he’d write phrases, like “I kick yuh eye” – “I k-i-c-k y-u-h-e-y-e” – I’ll kick your eye”. – and, looking at that, scratching his head. saying, “now, how could that be measured in traditional accentual meters?” It could, but it wouldn’t serve, whereas you’d have to listen and develop an ear. And of Pound he said, “Pound has a mystical ear”, because Pound’s ear was so delicate that he could actually measure vowel-lengths, successfully, at least in The Cantos .

(tape ends here)

[Allen continues – reads William Carlos Williams’ “A Portrait of the Times” – “Two W.P.A men/ stood in the new/ sluiceway…” – So he was willing to not write a great poem, but just sit down and write what he saw, write of the actuality, avoiding abstraction, avoiding generalization, except if it were a kind of generalization that sounded like a person talking to himself for real, perhaps, rather than the poet talking to himself to make a poem. [Allen reads next “To a Poor Old Woman” and “Proletarian Portrait”] – So then he began doing deliberate sketches like that – little vignettes or snapshots, portraits [Allen reads the short lyric, “ A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron..”] –the verse-form there is actually as read, the verse-form there actually notates the spacing and gaps and enunciation of the poem, or notates all the phrasing, where you break and leave a little delicate instant for the thought to go on – “A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron..” It couldn’t be more plain, it couldn’t be more sincere, couldn’t be more artful and it couldn’t be more artless, both. So he’s clamping his mind down on objects (which is his phrase). Then, when he met more ambitious poets in the literary universe, like T.S.Eliot, the one time he met – Eliot’s greeting to Williams was, “Oh, delighted to meet you, Doctor Williams. I so admired your characters. You must make more of them”. “Characters”, being a traditional English poetic notion of writing. What is a character? Anybody know? The traditional character..

Gregory Corso:  (It’s rendered) from the etymology, “caricature”..
AG: Yeah. So a character would be (rendered with) rough strokes.
Gregory Corso: And it’s also a doppelganger of himself…

AG: (So) Williams got mad, because Eliot, he felt, was implying some traditional English idea of poetry to the raw, direct, first-person, observation that Williams was doing. That Eliot was still trying to impose a category, and especially an already-used category, on Williams mind, and try and fit him into a category, which Williams resented, so he said, “That son-of-a-bitch, Eliot!”…
Gregory Corso: Tell it. That’s a top shot, Al. Williams did not know that Americans were automatically going to write American poetry
AG: Well, maybe automatically, but he did himself automatically, but I think with him it took a lot of intention

GC: They were all writing English poetry,

AG: At that time, they were all writing English poetry, if you read the schoolbook texts of that time, 1923 to “30, put out by the Superintendent of Schools of the New England Association of High School Principals. There is such a textbook, which I grew up with…

GC: English

AG:…the poems are all iambic or variations of stress at a time when Pound, Williams (and) Marianne Moore were making great breakthroughs, there was none of that represented. It was Edward Arlington Robinson . Archibald Rutledge had a big picture in it as being the great poet of 1925 – the forgotten Archibald Rutledge! (and) it was from that textbook that I got the paradigm..that I mentioned – “Thou too sail on, O ship of state”, where the “O” was given an unaccented mark, from that very textbook, which was taught to kids. If you remember, at the beginning of my part in this course, I put on the (black)board a paradigm, and tried to show why accentual count of versification, or accentual measure, no longer was useful in measuring American speech, for American poetics.
Student: Didn’t Williams reply to Eliot?
AG: No. Though it is stated that poets would come naturally to write their own American poetry, it may not have been so without the hint that Williams gave to all us jailbirds stuck in the English tradition. (because), way back in the (19)30’s, one interesting poem of Williams was “The Dead Baby”  [Allen reads Williams’ “The Dead Baby” in its entirety] – “Sweep the house…” ..sweep under the table and the bed/ the baby is dead” ..”a curiosity/ surrounded by fresh flowers” – Then, fifty years later, “Italian Extravaganza” by Gregory Corso [Allen reads, by way of contrast, Corso’s poem on similar subject matter] – “..such a small coffin!/ And ten black cadillacs to haul it in” – When Gregory and I first met, we both agreed on Williams as being a real strange (Edgar Allen) Poe-like poet, almost, it was my thought anyway, because, “sweep the baby under the bed”, “Sweep under the table and the bed”, or “sweep the baby under the bed”
GC: What about eating the plums, Allen?

AG: I have that. I’m being chronological here.

Student: Allen?

AG: So, his conclusion…

Student: Williams wrote a really good essay on Poe (Poe’s) poetics, like he really explains his ideas, American (ideas).

AG: Well, that’s from In The American Grain

Student: Yeah, it’s really good.

AG: So he began writing his explanations of why he was interested in particularly American, and that quality of awkwardness or originality that was American, and he saw Poe as a great original imagination. He was interested in the American grain, so there’s that book of early historical appraisal by Williams if you want to look it up.

Conclusion.. [Allen reads Williams’ “A Poem For Norman Macleod” – “The revolution is accomplished..”..”You can do lots/ if you know/ what’s around you/ No bull..”
Student: What was the title of that?
AG: “A Poem For Norman Macleod” (on page 114 in The Collected Earlier Poems).
Now for those of you who think that Williams, though he was shit-simple and clean, was still a provincial Paterson crank, and can’t accomplish the high mysteries and transcendental meditation that we all post-psychedelic hippies have apocalypsized ourselves onto, for those of you who are doing Shinay (S(h)amatha) meditation – (from) 1925, or ’28, “Thursday” [Allen reads Williams’ “Thursday” – “I have had my dream – like others…”…and decide to dream no more” – So here a(n) original American mindfulness intersects with traditional Oriental mindfulness, and by that stripping himself bare of unnecessary diversions of culture and coming to the raw material, to his own senses, in total solitude in America, the solitude of complete un-fantasizing meat, standing on the street corner in Rutherford (New Jersey), the doctor, achieving by himself a basic grounded-ness. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche commented on Williams, hearing his voice in his later poems, he seemed to be grounded – achieving a self-illumination and making himself the founder of a lineage, then, going on practicing (as we practice meditation, as we practice noticing), practicing noticing. [Allen quotes “Spring” – “O my grey hairs!/ You are truly white as plum blossoms”] – Now if you are that mindful of your own nature and your own speech, what kind of non-sentimental, realistic, domestic life will you have? [Allen reads “Waiting” “When I am alone I am happy…”..”What did I plan to say to her/ when it should happen to me/ as it has happened now?”]
Student: What’s the name of that one?
AG: “Waiting” (page 213 of The Collected Earlier Poems. One of the few times when an American poet, all by himself, tipped his mitt. After the.. Danse Russe”, I wonder if that’s in here? He’s discovering his solitude totally. (Page) 148, (so I) passed it. In the process of that self-discovery, in his domestic situation, “Danse Russe”, a statement of “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…”..”I celebrate myself and sing myself,/ And what I shall assume, you shall assume…” [Allen reads “Danse Russe” – (“If when my wife is sleeping…”..”Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?”)] – That’s like a miniature of the entire “Song of Myself”. Then, continuing on himself, on his nose, a poem of that same period. [Allen searches for and plays a recording of Williams himself reading] – a poem called “Smell” – “Oh strong-ridged and deeply-hollowed/ nose of mine!…” – These were recorded in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1954, and he’d had a stroke, so there was a little hesitancy, actually, in reading the page and some hesitancy in timing, but his voice is so clear. Actually, at the moment, it sounded a bit like (Chogyam Trungpa) Rinpoche’s, in a sense of that almost high-pitched, almost feminine, alto, old man’s alto voice. He then considered from his own self outward the rest of the selves in New Jersey and the tragedy of their lack of recognition of their own language, their own thought, their own bodies, their lack of appreciation of their own existences, so a long poem called “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” [Editorial note – actually, “To Elsie”] – the Pure Products.. Elsie mentioned here, is an Indian girl set up, hired by a local neighbor, or a doctor’s family as a sort of housemaid, from previous history [Allen plays a recording of Williams reading “To Elsie”, but, unfortunately, on this occasion, the record skips on several occasions – so he reads, and explains] – The missing lines were “unless it be..”, having presented the situation of succumbing without emotion to her lover – “succumbing without/emotion/ save numbed terror.. – “No one/ to witness/ and adjust, no one to drive the car” – It’s a funny kind of Whitmanic imagination. Again it’s the mind clamped down on particulars – “as if the earth under our feet/ were/ the excrement of some sky” – Everybody longing for heaven instead of accepting the suffering of the situation – “As if the earth under our feet./ were/ the excrement of some sky/ and we degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger until we eat filth..” – “(A)nd rich young men with fine eyes” or “ungainly hips and flopping breasts/ addressed to cheap/ jewelry..” – On the other hand, for the boys [Allen reads Williams’ “Horned Purple”– “This is the time of year/ when boys fifteen and seventeen…”..”dark kisses – rough faces”] –
So, finally, bringing his attention to a complete focus in one classic anthologized poem that everybody takes as archetype of the Imagistic poem, where all attention is focused, like Emily Dickinson’s mind – “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died..” – “The Red Wheelbarrow” [Allen reads “The Red Wheelbarrow] – totally no comment. Just complete absorption in the object.
To finish, early Williams, with “This is Just to Say..” – a poem that he wrote as a note to his wife and put on the kitchen table and then read in the morning and said, “Ah, an interesting poem”. But it wasn’t a poem, it was a note to his wife: “This is Just to Say” is the title. [Allen reads “This is Just to Say”]Gregory Corso: Allen, didn’t he do one like that about the black woman eating plums?
AG: Yes,  I read it earlier in class
GC: You did?
AG: “They taste good to her/ They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her”
GC: Right

Student: What was the poem that he wrote about “I kissed her while she pissed”, something that..

AG: It’s not in the Collected Later Poems – it was eliminated by his wife. It began, “It was fifty years later from the first poem I read “Your thighs are appletrees whose blossoms touch the sky”. I don’t have the whole thing in my head, but it goes something like, “Your thighs are appletrees. “It’s your sixtieth birthday”, she said. I washed my hands in the sink. I turned around, touched her breasts. She didn’t even frown, but smiled. I kissed her while she pissed.” – And he has that refrain – “I kissed her while she pissed” (just like,”With hey, with ho, the thrush and the jay”) – “I kissed her while she pissed”. He is hearing the refrain aspect of the bathroom language, because he’s hearing the Shakespearean refrain, as he did with a little thing I think I mentioned before, a tiny notation which he has in the Collected Later Poems [actually, Collected Earlier Poems] – “To The Mailman” (Editorial note – actually, “To Greet A Letter-Carrier”) – “Why’n’t you bring me…” W-H-Y-N-T – “Why’n’t you bring me/ a letter with some money in it, actually,” Why’n’t you bring me/ a good letter? One with/ lots of money in it”/ That’s what I need… actually, “I could make use of that”), Atta boy! Atta boy!” – using “Atta boy! Atta boy!” with the same thing as “With a hey, with a ho, with a hey nonny no” – “Atta boy! Atta boy!”. So he’s looking for little musical phrases in his own ear.

The original audio for this transcript is available at http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_18_June_1975_75P020A, starting at approximately 25 minutes in and then continuing for the first approximately 27 minutes of http://www.archive.org/details/Allen_Ginsberg_class_The_history_of_poetry_part_19_June_1975_75P021</

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