AG: So the first poem I’ll read is a combination of (the) mythical and the local Passaic River. He discovered the Passaic River as his river (rather than Lethe or the Thames). He’s talking to, I imagine, the Muse, bringing him to the river…”St James’ Grove“… (page 10 in the Collected Earlier Poems, if you’ve got it). [Allen reads from the first stanza of “St James’ Grove” (from “The Wanderer”) – “And so it came to that last day/When, she leading by the hand, we went out/ Early in the morning…”… “As on any usual day, any errand/ Alone, walking under trees,/I went with her..” – You can hear the echo of earlier poems there – [Allen continues reading] – “Alone, walking under trees,/I went with her, she with me in her wild hair…””River, we are old, you and I,/ We are old and by bad luck, beggars./ Lo, the filth in our hair, our bodies stink!””… “Stand forth, river, and give me/ The old friend of my revels!”/ And the filthy Passaic consented!” – I don’t know what the whole deal was that they were making – the Muses of the river and the Muse he was talking about, but it was Williams’ initiation, and the acceptance of him by the local god.. He was still interested in local gods, and still thinking in that framework of a courteous address to the gods. And there’s still a little echo of that in his early poem called “A Rococo Study” (it’s (another) section from [the sub-title of] “The Wanderer”). And there are still little echoes of it occasionally when he gets a little bit more himself and doesn’t depend so much on shadings of older poetry, (but..) (so) sometimes he’ll cap a really realistic poem with some courteous echo of an ancient compleynt – C-O-M-P-L-E-Y-N-T – “Le Medecin Malgre Lui” (page 36) – or a title that comes off as kind of arty – “the doctor in spite of himself” – [Allen reads “Le Medecin Malgre Lui” in its entirety] – “Oh I suppose I should/ wash the walls of my office/ polish the rust from/ my instruments and keep them/definitely in order…”…”Who can tell? I might be/ A credit to my Lady Happiness/ and never think anything/ but a white thought!”.
(There was) lots of activity at that time in the Village – Joseph Auslander, Alfred Kreymborg was editing a magazine called Others, and Hart Crane, as a young kid, had hitch-hiked in from Cleveland, and they were having poetry readings at Romany Marie‘s (and maybe even St Mark’s Church in those days, as they did in the ’30’s).
[Allen reads next “A Coronal”] – “New books of poetry will be written/ New books and unheard of manuscripts.. Anemones sprang where she pressed/ and cresses/ stood green in the slender source -/ And new books of poetry/ will be written, leather-colored oakleaves/ many and many a time.” – Talking both about the local trees, local flowers, and the mail coming in (with Hart Crane’s latest ravings). But he began noticing that, as he went deeper into his own environment, there were many small revelations about the people, that were walking in their sleep. [Allen reads next “The Revelation” – “I awoke happy, the home/Was strange, voices/Were across a gap/Through which a girl/Came and paused,/Reaching out to me – / Then I remembered/What I had dreamed – / A girl/One whom I knew well/Leaned on the door of my car/And stroked my hand -/ I shall pass her on the street/We shall say trivial things/To each other/But I shall never cease/To search her eyes/ For that quiet look -“] – What’s really great about that (is) it’s direct dream data, and it’s really him comparing the immensity of his desire and his private universe to what he can do outside on the street (just as, the other day, we faced the same problem when we were trying to come up with an erotic fantasy). But the great line for me is, “One whom I knew well/ Leaned on the door of my car..”, which had never been written in poetry before, anything as subtle as that. It was from his dream so he could remember it. “Leaned on the door of my car”. Everyone else, then, was still “leaning on the Gates of Heaven”, or “leaning on Charon‘s boat-pole”, or “leaning on an English hedgerow”, or, perhaps, “leaning on a giant mountain in the dim vales of peace”, or something – but she leaned on his car door!
(The phrase “dim vales of peace” used here, by the way, is from Ezra Pound, who’s (using it as) an example of bad poetry, (a poetry) which is purely referential and doesn’t present anything real – the “dim vales of peace”, which is like the poetry most everybody here writes, and everywhere).
Still there was an attempt on his part to retain a little bit of the elegance that he was getting off Ezra Pound. So, probably with Pound in mind, as a riposte, or counter, counter-presentation of realism, both in speech, actual speech, and in presentation of a Romantic situation – “Portrait of a Lady” – you know “Portrait d’une Femme” (we had that in (T.S) Eliot, and we have that in Pound, and here’s Williams), beginning with a very “poetic” “Your thighs are appletrees”, (well, it’s sort of poetic, but it’s appletrees (apple trees), it’s local apple trees of all things, but, still, it’s kind of corny.. [Allen reads “Portrait of a Lady” in its entirety – “Your thighs are appletrees/whose blossoms touch the sky.”..”the tall grass of your ankles/flickers upon the shore..”..”Which shore? Which shore?/ I said petals from an appletree.” – Funny line, actually. Rhythmically (too) a very interesting line – “I said petals from an appletree.”. It was one of the first lines of Williams that I caught in my ear as being a very odd beautiful rhythm, coming directly out of American speech – “I said petals from an appletree.” – a rhythm that you would never arrive at if your head was filled with the rhythms of accentuated verse. You would actually have to be listening to your own language. You would have to have bare attention to the speech you hear in actual conversation to arrive at a line like that.
I started saying, I went to Williams to interview him because I wanted to understand what he was doing, so I went to his office, and I didn’t understand him, so I said, “Are you a poet or a doctor?”, or, “How do you think of yourself, as a poet or a doctor?”. And he said, “As a doctor”, which really punctuated any daydream misapprehension mind that I was bringing to him, because he was actually locating himself there, and he didn’t need to be a poet, he didn’t need to lay that out, to lay that trip on me, or (on) himself. Then I saw on his prescription pad (that) he’d written a little note, which he picked up and showed me when he was trying to explain to me what he was doing – “I’ll kick yuh eye” – I’ll K-I-C-K-Y-U-H-E-Y-E – “I’ll kick yuh eye”. He’d heard a Polack [sic] announce that phrase – “I’ll kick yuh eye” – “I said petals from an appletree” – Just pure speech, which he was listening to, and what he said was, “How could you ever analyze that in iambic or accentual verse?”. You never could. (You know what “accentual verse” is? Raise your hands if you don’t, if you don’t know what accentual verse is. [Allen encounters a show of hands] – Well, that proposes a problem, because we went over this a little before, and I hate to bore the people who were here before. (Well, maybe) for two minutes).
Traditional (Longfellow) – “Tell me not in mournful numbers,/ Life is but an empty dream! -/ For the soul is dead that slumbers,/ And things are not what they see” [Allen beats out rhythmically to elucidate] – “TELL me NOT in MOURNful NUmbers/ LIFE is BUT an EMPty DREAM/ for THE soul IS dead THAT slumBERS…” Ok, you got it? So it’s the accent, it’s the counting of an accented syllable. “Tell me..” – “Tell” is accented, “me” is not accented, right?
Is that all clear? That’s from high school or grammar school, didn’t you ever get that?
Student: I don’t know what I was thinking in high school or grammar school.
AG: Well, did they try and teach you that?
Student: I don’t know, I don’t remember.
AG: You must have been in some rage.
Ok, it’s clear. So that’s accentual verse. We might get (to) quantitative verse (that I mentioned before) – “With usura the line grows thick” – where the guy is listening to the length of the “eh”, “oo”, “er”, “eye”, “eh”, “oh” – “With usura the line grows thick” – He’s not counting the syllables and not counting the accents of the syllables, he’s counting the vowel-length, to balance them line to line – and (Ezra) Pound does that (Pound has a very subtle ear for that), so I’ll bring in some recordings of Pound pronouncing his own sound.
“I said petals from an appletree” – So he wasn’t counting accents. He didn’t have an echo of what he called the “stale dishwater” of another poem behind him, he was listening to what was going on in front of him. But with that kind of observation, what was going on around him began a very intimate observation of his own feelings and (of) other people’s feelings, as well as, probably, he was walking around Rutherford, (as) one of the very few people really looking at the trees, observing the trees, knowing the names of the trees, and some of the flowers, and observing the life of the trees, and then comparing them to the lives of the humans. [Allen then reads Williams’ poem “The Trees” in its entirety – “The trees being trees / thrash and scream”..”Christ the bastards/ haven’t even sense enough/ to stay out of the rain..”..”Trees their companions/ – a cold wind winterlong/ in the hollows of our flesh/ icy with pleasure -/ no part of us untouched”]. [He follows this with “The House” (page 79) – “The house is yours/to wander in as you please..”..”the whole house/is waiting – for you/ to walk in it at your pleasure -/ It is yours.”] – Actually, like a sketch, like a still-life sketch of a situation everybody knows. Raised to epic, Whitmanic, proportion with the opening of “the whole house/is waiting”, (with) a certain amount of humor there, a Whitmanic humor, which Williams never lets go of in so totally an egoistic way (it’s more playful here, than a serious statement about..of.. the soul’s relation to the universe).
[Allen next reads “Rain” in its entirety – “As the rain falls/ so does/ your love/ bathe every/ open/ object of the world”..”Unworldly love/ that has no hope/ of the world/ and that/ cannot change the world/to its delight..” “..But love is/ unworldly/ and nothing/ comes of it but love/ following/ and falling endlessly/ from her thoughts”] – (That’s) a more complicated poem, because he’s not just describing an object, he’s saying something heart-felt, using the rain, and the completeness of the rain, and the endlessness of the rain, to lay out the endlessness of his own feelings. There’s a lot of great things in that poem. That was, I think, one of the poems that turned me on most. First, the absolute visionary ordinariness – “The trees/are become/beasts fresh-risen/ from the sea-” (which everybody has seen, who has been on acid, or who has had some visionary experience of trees) – “(water)/ trickles/ from the crevices of/ their hides” – carries it out more, but then, that phrase, (in America, very strange probably, (for) 1920) – “Unworldly love/ that has no hope/ of the world/ and that/ cannot change the world/to its delight..”… “But love is/ unworldly/ and nothing/ comes of it but love/ following/ and falling endlessly/ from her thoughts” – So there was a breakthrough of a tremendous tenderness in Williams that’s rare in any poet, because it’s a tenderness that comes from his own nature, it’s not a borrowed tenderness, it’s not a borrowed demoiselle, it’s not a borrowed Lady, it’s a Rutherford heart, taking its image from the rain out of his window, and the trees.
Then, occasionally, he would try something a little more ambitious, as far as taking a very simple, natural image, and getting a kind of panoramic, plasmic sensation out of it. “Flowers by the Sea” [Allen reads “Flowers by the Sea” in its entirety – “When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s/ edge, unseen, the salt ocean..”..”..whereas/ the sea is circled and sways/peacefully upon it’s plantlike stem.”] – It’s a very odd, almost implausible suggestion he’s making (here) for the sea.
But then he got to his base – his natural ground – direct observation, sketching like a snapshot, Naturalism, Emile Zola-esque, what very few people tried to refine in his day, though it was part of a poetic movement called “Imagism” (that Pound was a part of), Williams interpreting what the practice of Imagism was in his own way (and his practice being, maybe, the most recognizable to us now – the presentation (present-ation) rather than reference to (rather than a vague reference), the presentation of a situation or an object or a scene, with complete particular detail, “minute particulars” [Allen quotes Blake] – over and over, I keep saying that, the mind clamped down on objects, the poem composed of nothing but what is really real here, not even (one) extra thought about it, not even a further suggestion. No editorials, no aesthetic judgment – just a little movie. [Allen reads “A Portrait of the Times” – “Two W.P.A men/ stood in the new/ sluiceway/ overlooking/ the river -/ One was pissing/ while the other/ showed/ by his red/ jagged face the/immemorial tragedy/ of lack-love/ while an old/ squint-eyed woman/ in a black/ dress/and clutching/ a bunch of/ chrysanthemums/ to her/ fatted bosoms/ turned her back/on them/ at the corner.” – I guess there’s a little editorial – “jagged face the / immemorial tragedy/ of lack-love”, ” showed/ by his red/ jagged face the/immemorial tragedy/ of lack-love” – Of course, there’s a little bit of artificial there – “immemorial” – and it is an additional thought, but, given the exactness of the rest of the description, you can get away with that (in the sense that he’s presented enough details for him to make that conclusion, for him to say a little bit about it). I guess he’s grounded the situation so completely, so that when he says “lack-love”, it’s a funny, recognizable thing, that reminds you of people’s faces that you’ve seen, so that it’s not too far out from home-base (if home-base is nothing-but-the-facts). It’s called “A Portrait of the Times” (page 92).
The clearest he got on that was sometimes, what (T.S.) Eliot called”characters”, which was a traditional English form (the “Character of the Happy Warrior”), (the) portrait of a person (“Portrait of A Lady”). We’re on page 99 for those that are following. This one is called “To A Poor Old Woman” – “munching a plum on/ the street a paper bag/of them in her hand/ They taste good to her/ They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her/ You can see it by/ the way she gives herself/ to the one half/sucked out in her hand/ Comforted/a solace of ripe plums/seeming to fill the air/ They taste good to her”). Another fella’ – “Late for Summer Weather”, page 100 – [Allen reads “Late for Summer Weather” in its entirety] – “He has on/ an old light grey fedora/ She a black beret”…”Nothing to do. Hot cha!”) [one side of the tape ends here]
More portraits. So there will be a lot of these running through, even to his old age, just little photo snapshots, totally archetypal [Allen reads “Proletarian Portrait” in its entirety] – (“A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron”..”She pulls out the paper insole/to find the nail/ That has been hurting her”) – What I’m doing is scoring the lines with my hand, more or less, so you can see how he divides it up, if you don’t have the text there. There is a more complicated portrait or character. I think I mentioned before (that) Williams hated Eliot’s reversion to English forms and reversion to English subject (not that you’ve all read Eliot, but that’s a big deal in the great battle of poetry where Eliot and Pound (are) “fighting in the captain’s tower”, ((as) in (Bob) Dylan). Williams met Eliot once – it’s a story I told last time, but for those who weren’t here.. Eliot said, “Oh, Doctor Williams, how good to meet you. I do so admire your “Characters”, let’s have more of them”. And Williams said to me, “That bastard!” – because he was writing from life, he wasn’t adapting an older literary form, he was drawing on the material he had there to create a literary form.