Mind, Mouth and Page – 1 (Williams)

William Carlos Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey, 1955 via Jacket2

AG: The reason I was going to begin with (William Carlos) Williams was that Williams was the one person who made the great breakthrough to his own self, his own house, his own kitchen, his own wife, his own ice-box, his own street, his own maple and poplar trees, his neighborhood characters, his own hospital, his own patients, as subjects, as fit subjects, for an American poetics. Fro that point of view. That’s why I would start with Williams as the basic ground, or place, in poetics, and then work backward to Whitman or work forward to Kerouac, but Williams as bare attention to what’s going on, in his head or outside his head.

William Carlos Williams – The Collected Earlier Poems – How many have gotten into that book so far? – ok – and how many haven’t yet gotten into it? Raise your hands high so we can snap your photo! – You never read Willliams?

Student: I have read (Wallace) Stevens,

AG: Yeah, yeah, (but) how come you never read any Williams? You never got into that?

Student: I never had the opportunity

AG: (Well), we’ll save you the trouble of reading it by reading it aloud

Student: That’s what I was hoping.

AG: I’m going to begin again at early Williams, which I covered in the last class last semester and re-read some of those poems, but (will) read a lot more now and get into it a little more finely.
Williams lived most of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey at 9 Ridge Road, where his widow still lives [this was 1976] and his son still practices medicine. He had a doctor’s office and it was on the main street of a little town in New Jersey overlooking the Hoboken marshes, the precipice rocks running along the Hudson (river), and the skyscrapers of New York shining over the horizon at night. If you go up (and) walk around in Rutherford, you can see New York (where he went on weekends, or when he had time and had a lot of friends – (he) saw Vladimir Mayakovsky read at Alfred Stieglitz‘s gallery – An American Place, I think it was called).

Student: When was that?

AG: In the ’20’s, early ’20’s. He was in and out from World War I. He spent a little time in Europe studying medicine after he was married, but he decided, as distinct from (Ezra) Pound who was a friend of his at college, (to stay in the U.S.). I believe they knew each other, I think, at the University of Pennsylvania. They were all in the same school. I think very early (he) knew Marianne Moore also. Williams was also a close friend of Wallace Stevens. They visited and corresponded a lot. He was in contact with European developments (such as) Dada-ism. During the ’20’s he went to Europe and, in a book, A Voyage to Pagany, he describes it – going to Europe and visiting Gertrude Stein, and I guess seeing Harry Crosby in the European crowd at the time. But he very consciously chose (as many younger people now have chose(n)) to stick to a small town, and learn the local particulars totally, and get himself completely absorbed in one provincial place in America (rather than spreading himself thin in the big cities). So it was an early and prophetic life-decision (which Pound made fun of all the time, saying that Williams was a raw-eared provincial and was only interested in the raw material of poetry, whereas Pound was interested in the finished, civilized, product) – and Williams kept insisting, “Yes, that’s absolutely right” – because he said he didn’t know what poetry was, and he didn’t know what it would become, and that it had to be invented for the first time in America, out of American speech, out of local detail, out of direct observation, out of bare attention (“bare attention”, that’s not his phrase, that’s a phrase from vipassana meditation). So he consciously entered a struggle which absorbed his entire life as a poet – to master all the details of his natural domestic life (not to transform his life into an arty life by an external flag, external behavior, but to transform his world in his own place, where he was, by changing his own mind). A phrase of his, very much like (William) Blake’s “The eye altering, alters all” is “A new world is only a new mind” (that phrase came to him late in Paterson) – “A new world is only a new mind”. Blake – “The eye altering, alters all”. Sherwood Anderson was engaged in a similar art form in Winesburg, Ohio. What (Williams) did was to (follow) in the tradition of Whitman, who said he wanted to bring the muse into the kitchen [“She’s here, install’d amid the kitchen ware!” (from “Song of the Exposition”)]. It’s been an old struggle of American imagination to live where we are, to recognize the land as it is, where we are. It’s a theme familiar to those of you who know Gary Snyder‘s poetry, particularly. It’s an old theme, stated most famously in (Henry David) Thoreau and the whole idea of Walden – picking one spot and observing what was happening there, rather than spreading attention thin. It goes back to old Chinese wisdom, like Lao Tzu, saying that a wise man never travels further than his own valley (just the opposite of an “on the road” expansive romantic glamour illusion of knowing the entire body of the nation, and a little opposite of Hart Crane‘s panoramic Americanism…) – [tape stops here – then continues..]

(He (ad)ministered to) several thousand children in his locality. So he got to know the families in Rutherford real well – getting in their houses in moments of crisis, so that he was actually in a perfect situation to observe, not only his local detail, but local drama, local tragedy, death whooping cough, neighborhood grocery men, local blacks, old men in bars, his own garden, his own wife and family, the local politics, reading the papers, some national politics. He was a radical. He was involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti furor and wrote a poem about it. He was kind of a bony-faced man with a weak chin and very tender eyes, with an enormous amount of stubbornness and strength (stubbornness in pursuing a one single small thing which he was trying to do, which was not write poetry, but write what he heard – he was absolute). As he got a little older and into his 30’s, he was really not interested in writing poetry, he was interested in writing his own speech, in writing what he thought – flashes of what he thought and what he saw outside of himself (in that sense, raw material and not the finished product). His idea was that most poetry written in America was colored imaginatively by the diction (that’s the words), the sentence structure, the way the words are arranged, the rhythm, the sound of the tongue, of traditional English poetry, as it had been transferred to America in (Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow or Edwin Arlington Robinson, or even later, he thought, tragically, by T.S.Eliot, who went to England and wrote modifications of the Shakespearean blank-verse line

There were three major poet friends working on this problem all at the same time. They were all friends. Marianne Moore, Pound and Williams. Maybe the three greatest poets of the first half of the century. Marianne Moore decided to write in syllables (that is, her lines would be arranged according to a count of syllables – (a) five-syllable line, an eight-syllable line, a four-syllable line, a twelve-syllable line – and then she’d repeat that pattern in the next stanza, just counting the syllables – “I am go-ing down-town”, not counting the stress – “I’m GOing downTOWN”, or “I”m GOing DOWNtown”, or “this is the forest primaeval” – not counting stress, but just counting the number of syllables. So she arranged, for example, the butterfly-wing-pattern stanza. Maybe the first impulse would lead to a stanza with an arbitrary division of the syllables, an arbitrary number of syllables, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, line. Then she’d repeat that in the next stanza, making a big complicated ten-line stanza, making the rhythm of the thing run counter to the monotone count of the syllables. But her way of solving the problem, “how do you measure a line?”, was measuring the number of syllables, counting the number of syllables.

Ezra) Pound explored a whole treasury of international verse forms, mainly transitional periods, when poets stopped writing in a classical tongue and began writing in a popular tongue. So he investigated Provencal song and Provencal verse forms, because that was a time when people stopped writing in Latin and started writing in Provencal [Oc], Provencal tongue, Southern French – or the German wandering bards [Minnesingers] – or classical quantitative poetry, the measuring of the vowel-length instead of the accents (so he was interested in translating people like Sextus Propertius, some Catullus, because they were writing in pure classical quantity)

Williams figured this would not be productive as far as he was concerned, or he was a little more direct and intuitive, or he didn’t have time for the classical international scholarship that Pound went into and he didn’t have time for the kind of needlework syllable-by-syllable that Marianne Moore was into, but he was interested in what he could hear. And he could hear what was being talked about in (Rutherford and) Paterson, and he could hear the way it was said. So I didn’t understand his poetry when I was in Paterson at first in (the 1940’s), after I got out of college, or was still in college, around 1948. And so I contrived an excuse to go see him by going to interview him for a local newspaper, a local labor newspaper. I knew he was supposed to be a modern poet and I had it associated with dynamos and smoke and steel and some kind of Cubist turn if mind and abstraction of stainless steel, or pictures I’d seen in the Museum of Modern Art, and I’d read some of his poems, but I’d never understood them. What I’d read was in anthologies, and I picked up a little book called The Wedge in the Columbia college library, and couldn’t make head (n)or tail of it, mainly because I was looking for it to be sing-song, and it didn’t seem to fit. It just seemed like prose and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing (but I knew he was doing something, because he was so famous and so important, and such a big friend of Pound and Wallace Stevens, that he couldn’t be a total dope). But I was studying at Columbia (then), and nobody taught him, and nobody understood him, actually. We were all in the same boat, in the “intellectual center”, in the middle of New York City, and Williams was considered kind of like a poetic jerk of some sort, that was holding out all by himself, while everyone else was having a big huge intellectual time on 116th Street! – and he was sort of like a crank in Rutherford! – But one thing I did know was that all the great American writers were in the great “crank” tradition. When you begin with Edgar Allan Poe chasing thirteen-year-old girls, and Emily Dickinson hiding her poems in her closet and Herman Melville refusing to write after people put down Pierre – or The Ambiguities, or trying to write best-sellers, or trying to repeat his success with Moby Dick, but retiring more and more into a kind of solitary anonymity and finally leaving his ultimate manuscripts, like Billy Budd, in the trunk, discovered by one professor at Columbia called Raymond Weaver, who wrote the first biography of Melville in the ’20’s. Weaver was a teacher at Columbia who was the one person who had any idea about Western Gnostic thought. He was a friend of Marianne Moore, and so was actually in contact with all that. But Williams, even for Weaver, was a little bit too raw. It wasn’t sophisticated literature. I think Weaver respected him more than anyone else around but still wasn’t able to teach him. So he was out of the mainstream (which was basically Eliot) in the (19)40’s, as a major teaching influence, or a major influence on people’s ears. And, as I said last term, there’s a great old saying in Plato – “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”, meaning, when the rhythmic apprehension, when the body English, when the body music, when the body dance changes, when people begin to shake their asses in a different way, when the mode of the music changes, then there’s a whole different political relationship. Williams was actually changing the mode of music, as no other writer in America had, except Whitman, before him (but Whitman was still hung on Biblical rhythms and still hung on English sound, still occasionally trying to sound like poetry). And Williams was looking for something that wasn’t attempting to sound like poetry but would be an object in itself, rising directly out of the environment, a recomposition of the environment, but made of materials found only in the environment, not imported from England).

And the point was very similar to what we understand who sit in meditation. That the point is to observe what actually happens in the mind, rather than to imagine a bliss, or cultivate a pre-thought idea, pre-fabricated idea, of what the result of meditation should be.

So most poetry at that time was construction of a happening, and Williams was not trying to construct a happening out of literary memories and fragments of old songs and poems, as Eliot did, and as Pound did. Williams was interested in the direct presence of the universe where it was, where he was, with himself at the center of it. So (at first), he began writing like (John) Keats actually, and the reason he was so hipped on this was because (of a vision of himself) as a sort of creepy Romantic poet, writing imitations of Keats, long dreamy poems, that he showed to his mother. And then, finally (he) began discovering his own local inspiration


  1. Your welcome. I'll also state that he would be looking toward the public library which he might have been able to see from his house, depending on the exact angle of his view. I'm not sure if in 1955 the library would have still been housed in Ivinson Hall which was the former home of the Rutherford Presbyterian Church or the current library building which was also designed by his brother Edgar,

  2. The photo caption is wrong. The photo shows William Carlos Williams in Rutherford, NJ. Behind him is the World War I monument and the post office both designed by his brother Edgar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *