Mind, Mouth and Page – 4 (Williams)

William Carlos Williams, ca 1941 via Beinecke Collection

Allen Ginsberg on William Carlos Williams continues from here

Student: Do you know if (William Carlos Williams) made any comments on (J.D.) Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?

AG: No, I don’t think he ever did. I don’t think he read it. I’m not sure.

Student: I would think that…

AG: I don’t think that..

Student: …that it would be a very interesting book for him.

AG: Yeah, but I think, see, his tradition was more.. it had already been done. The Catcher in the Rye had already been done in Winesburg, Ohio, and other books by Sherwood Anderson, in speech that was less cute, but more real. So that I don’t think that he would have looked for the raw materials in Salinger that he was finding with some older contemporaries, like Robert McAlmon for instance, who was a friend of his, who co-edited a magazine called… no, Nathanael West, for instance (he and Nathanael West edited a magazine called Contact, in the early ’30’s, ’31, and Robert McAlmon published.. who was a writer..unknown now…)

Student: It’s funny, West, because West was such a pessimist, and Williams…

AG: You’re thinking about ideas..

Student: …was such an optimist

AG: Yeah, but Williams was neither optimist nor pessimist, he was interested in speech, in the actuality of speech, and that’s what we’re talking about, not ideas about optimism or pessimism.

Student: Well, besides that, it always seems to me that Williams was basically a happy person, because everybody said that (when) they met him, he was.. you know, he was such a sort of exuberant..

AG: Well, he was well-balanced, but I wouldn’t say he was happy.

Student: No?

AG: Because the last time I saw him, he complained that he was afraid that he had cancer of the asshole, and he was very down, actually totally depressed. So I said, “Well, write about it”. And he said, “Ah, who’d be interested in my asshole?”. And I said, “Everybody in America would be interested in your asshole!” – which was a funny banter, but he was, like, completely in need of sympathy and care, and was totally depressed, and went through a long, depressed period at that time, (around the time of the composition of Paterson).

So I think your generalizations are too Salinger-esque, that is, just as black-and-white – optimist/pessimist. Williams was more interested in almost a scientific study of American speech (“scientific”, in the sense of not thinking about optimism and pessimism, but just looking, looking at the fastenings there, like a man collecting butterflies, and writing them down on his prescription pads, and so absorbed in that, that the question of philosophic optimism and pessimism wasn’t a major thing). He might have said a few things about it (like Henry Miller), but not got hung (up) on that.. I don’t think he was interested in Salinger, particularly.

Student: Allen, did Williams have much to do with H.D.?

AG: Yeah. They were friends also

Student: Because H.D. seems to combine the classical tradition and Imagist..

AG: Yeah. H.D’s work I know..not well, so I’ve avoided talking about her lest I say something wrong, or goofy. Probably someone that’s around this term [summer of 1975] (will). Robert Duncan is the great expert, and we’ve got to get him here to teach that. (Williams and H.D.) were friends, actually. It was H.D, and Williams and Pound who all went to the University of Pennsylvania together, and they were friends, and I think Williams had an affair with her before he met his wife, so they were really close friends, but then H.D. was a dyke, also, so he had a funny relationship with her, later on, because he was a very tolerant guy – tolerant in the sense of American provincial, like all the great American provincials, he was full of curiosity.

Student: Was Williams homosexual?

AG: No. I don’t think he ever had any experience with a man. Maybe circle-jerking in Rutherford in 1898, or something? – but I doubt even that. He was a very naive, very virginal, guy. Even (in) his own womanizing. He was very faithful to his wife, but he had a few affairs ((most) especially with the Baroness Elsa (von) Freytag-Loringhoven, who was like a mad Dada-ist, (a) strange, interesting writer, that hung around Romany Marie‘s in the Village in 1922 and whose letters he includes in Paterson. Lacerated and lacerating letters -“Why doesn’t he leave his wife and leave his practice and everything and come and live (with her) a life of bohemia in Greenwich Village?”. And he really dug her, and felt tempted, and he apparently had had a number of affairs, and his wife got mad at him, and its registered in his poetry, and some of that will be referred to in the poetry that I’ll read, because what he’s got here is autobiographical. Freytag-Loringhoven, you can find, actually in America, A Prophecy, if you want to check her out. A really interesting figure cutting around in the ’20’s, a friend of Pound, a friend of all the international artistes of the time, a friend of H.D.

Student: Just sitting here, for the past fifteen minutes (now), and a comment just keeps coming (in)to my head (I don’t know why), so I suppose I should just ask it. Was there any (real) contact between (the various writers)?

AG: Yeah, there was all kinds. There was lots of contact between all those poets in the Village. He (Williams) went in. Even..my father (did). My father used to go in those days. That’s why I know a little bit about it. Maxwell Bodenheim, who was like the Village drunk poet (sort of like an early Gregory Corso (but) not as talented as Gregory at all) was around, and William Butler Yeats’ father (John Butler Yeats), hanging around, 1915 and on, eating in French restaurants in the Chelsea district, near 23rd Street, there was quite an intellectual life there. The Armory Show had been given, which was a collection of all the great paintings, with the European Cubists included, (in) 1917, Towards the end of the war, there was a huge breakthrough of Americanism, Americanist consciousness, picking up on Thoreau, picking up on Whitman, picking up on the machine, picking up on the new industrialization that was really beginning to devour the country then. As poetry was flowing, there was also a great flowering of capitalist economics and heavy metal – what we know now as heavy metal usury, petrochemical wonderland, was just breaking through then. Right after World War I, probably spurred on by the war economy, which Pound was real hung (up) on and wrote a lot about. (e.e.) cummings

was living in the Village too, or coming out of Harvard, probably around (the) World War, 1917, 1920 maybe, came down to New York, went to Europe (probably Cummings wasn’t in New York yet, he was probably still in Europe). They were friends (Williams and Cummings). They knew each other. Williams liked him. He liked his experiments in typography, because that was breaking up the page, and breaking up the eye, and breaking up the imitative consistency of the kind of verse that was supposedly acceptable in those days. Cummings and Williams were all like raw, outright avant-garde, freaks to the people of their time, to the professors or the popular magazines of their time. But Cummings was basically writing in iambic pentameter. So, if you’ve been following what I’ve been saying, you can see how there would be a big division there, in terms of what they were after. Because Williams was really trying to penetrate the American language. Cummings was too, but in a different way – but he was making use of primary iambic rhymed quatrain forms – sonnets. So Pound admired Cummings, because Cummings was a great master of iambic line, and was one of the few people who could really write modern sonnets. Partly by erasing a lot of punctuation and capitals to begin with, it kind of refreshed the mind, so you didn’t indulge in too much classical-sounding or imitative-sounding bullshit. But basically the rhythms were (the) sing-song rhythms of “my father moved through dooms of love/ through sames of am/ through haves of give/ singing each morning into each night/ my father moved through dooms of light”..or something – it’s still that ballad, or song, lyric. Williams was totally clean of that by this time.

Student: Allen, you mentioned An American Place?

AG: Yes.

Student: Did any of these…

AG: An art gallery. An art gallery that (the) photographer, (Alfred) Stieglitz...

Student: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask..Was there any connection between these writers and the photographers (that hung out at Stieglitz’s gallery)?

AG: They all met at An American Place. They’d go over and hang around at Stieglitz’s gallery. It was a small gallery, I think. Somewhere on Lexington and Madison Avenue – uptown – upstairs. Like the kind of gallery I went to and saw, in 1950, Franz Kline paintings, when they were first being shown. That tradition still continues in New York. Stieglitz was a very amazing man who was a photographer, who had a very sharp eye for..again (An) American Place – An American Place ( “place”, in the sense Robert Creeley uses it, the space you occupy, the actual space you occupy, which involves your attention, your consciousness, which involves your “bare attention”, to use a Buddhist term again – By “bare attention”, they were just discovering where they were, that they were not in Cockaigne, the mythical land of Cockaigne, they were not in the Forest of Arden, they were not in the Groves of Academe, they were not in the Agora, they were not in a castle in rock ‘n roll land, they weren’t in any of the places that you’ll find in the rock ‘n roll lyrics, in any of the kewpie-doll-headed places, they weren’t into Kahlil Gibran mystic places, they weren’t in.. what’s Macbeth‘s forest, Gordon?

Student [Gordon Ball] – Birnam Wood?

AG: They weren’t in Birnam Wood, nor the Forest of Arden, they weren’t in Provence.. they were on 53rd Street and Lexington – An American Place. So they were all smoking cigarettes and hanging around and talking and comparing who’s around. And there was another painter, named Marsden Hartley, who was like a great American gay primitive painter – Arthur Dove? – I think he was around then. People were picking up on European moods and moves and new modernistic futurist avant-garde Dada-istic Surrealistic breakthroughs – acquainted with those, but applying their intelligence to looking at the Passaic River, or to looking at the streets of New York, or “The Raper from Passenack, New Jersey”.

So they (all) hung out, and they really did know each other real well, and came back and forth to each others houses, and Stieglitz went out to Rutherford, and John Marin was around, a painter, and Hartley wrote poems that Williams liked, and Hartley gave Williams paintings, and Charles Sheeler, another painter, who’s work is in the Museum of Modern Art now, (was) painting American street signs (one of the first “Pop” artists – 1920! – “5” – the figure 5 (imitated from a fire-engine) – 5 in gold. So Williams wrote a poem, beginning, “I saw the figure 5 in gold..”, which I’ll read later, after a painting by Charles Sheeler. So there was a big “San Francisco Renaissance” going on there in New York, and it affected all art.

And then, finally, by the ’30’s, Nathaniel West put together a magazine called Contact, which I started talking about. And the winner of the Scribners Prize of 1931 was Thomas Wolfe, who shared it with a guy named John Herrmann, who wrote what was called a “proletarian novel”, that is (a) naturalistic novel, about what was going on there, about actual people, about a guy who was a watch salesman. It’s a very great novel, called The Salesman, I think, by John Herrmann. If you ever get a chance to check it out.. It’s sort of an unknown masterpiece (which I wouldn’t have known of had I not known Williams, and then ran into Herrmann with a broken leg in Mexico in 1953, or ’50. Thereby hangs a tale.)

There are very few anthologies which include all this data. Most of the anthologies you get now (1975) would be (just) Stevens and Eliot..or (those that you) got until recently, but the (Jerome)

Rothenberg anthologies, particularly the one which Anne (Waldman)’s mentioned in her class, I’ve forgotten the name of it..

Student: Shaking The Pumpkin?’

Student: Technicians of the Sacred?

AG: Yeah, that’s some of it, but there’s a new one that (has) just come out which includes all the weirdos like John Herrmann and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Student: America, A Prophecy (with George Quasha)?

AG: No, it’s a new one since then. It’s a new one.

Student: Revolution of the Word ?

AG: Yeah, probably Revolution of the Word.. Revolution of the Word. I just got it in the mail the other day. It starts out with what’s left out from the other anthologies but was the important avant garde (“avant-garde“, in quotation marks) of those days – and it’s really great to look through. There is another great book which is both European and American, which you can find in obscure libraries, called The European Caravan, edited by Samuel Putnam, and I think by (Samuel Beckett, the author of) Molloy – who wrote Molloy? (Waiting For) Godot – who wrote Waiting For…

Student: Beckett

AG: Beckett. Edited by Beckett, who was Joyce‘s secretary – The European Caravan, which was a big thick book, anthologizing all the really great breakthrough works, breakthrough artists’ works, published in the early ’30’s – maybe (19)35? – mid 30’s. That was where I got my education from was from that book, The European Caravan, Transition magazine of those years, Contact magazine (the reproductions of that material now being resurrected by Rothenberg). There’s a whole treasury of really interesting breakthroughs – like guys who were not self-conscious, and didn’t have a market, but were just writing for themselves and each other, around the ’20’s and ’30’s. A lot of it is forgotten, but a lot of it is very fresh and beautiful and suggestive, still. Like if an international anthology which would include Tristan Tzara’s Dada-ist manifestos and Kurt Schwitters’ sound poems and John Herrmann’s watch-maker novel(s)… And Sherwood Anderson was around too, in An American Place, friends with everybody. A woman named Dorothy Norman is completing a biography of Stieglitz, because she was his girlfriend in those days, and that should be out in a year or two, which would give a panoramic history of that really great time of totally unselfconscious creation, discovery and creation. In a sense we’re all feeding off the breakthroughs of those days.

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