AG: I started out last time, or was just about to start on, the first scratchings for Paterson and his first inspiration for Paterson. (It’s) a long speech [by William Carlos Williams] giving his basic philosophy, where he first lays out that idea, “No ideas but in things”, and illustrates it. So I’ll read that. It’s more solid than other poems I’ve been reading of his. It’s on page two-three-three, if anyone’s got the book.
He (Williams) was living around Paterson, New Jersey, and he decided that he would try to write a big, mournful, epic poem (an epic poem includes history, according to (Ezra) Pound, so he wanted to include some history). Paterson was ten miles or so away from Rutherford. Rutherford was a little too small, it was like a village. Paterson was like a small city, with the history of the city, that went back to the American Revolution, went back to Alexander Hamilton founding the tax-free capitalist Society of Useful Manufacturers to tap the electric power coming off the Great Falls in Paterson. So there was a long history of economic manipulation, and Hamilton versus (Thomas) Jefferson, and major themes in American economic history, which Pound was interested in, which was banking and usury, and making money off money, which he turned Williams onto. So Williams decided to use Paterson as the center of his big long epic.
Student: That phrase, “No idea but in things”, where does that come (where does that appear) in Paterson?
AG: I don’t know where… yes, yes… I don’t know where in Paterson that would be , actually, (because I haven’t looked Paterson over lately). The phrase (is), “Say it, no ideas but in things. Nothing but the blank faces of the houses/ and cylindrical trees”.. (So) it’s probably at the beginning of Book 1 (page 2 or 3 maybe?). But in the Collected Earlier Poems [Allen then reads from (the short, early poem) “Paterson”] – “Before the grass is cut the people are out/ and bare twigs still whip the wind”,…”These are the ideas, savage and tender/ somewhat of the music, et cetera/ of Paterson, that great philosopher…” – He’s making the town into a man, or he’s making the town into a person, moving around, inside the windows of the buses. Then a description of the town. So this is his scheme for the whole poem – “From above, higher than the spires, higher/ even than the office towers..” – If you took a look at (the cover of) that collection of short stories, “The Knife of the Times” (The Farmers’ Daughters), you’ll see a picture of Williams from above Paterson, looking down on the spires – “From above, higher than the spires, higher/ even than the office towers, from oozy fields/ abandoned to grey beds of dead grass,/ black sumac, withered weed stalks/ mud and thickets covered with dead leaves – / the river comes pouring in above the city/ and crashes from the edge of the gorge/in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists – / Say it, no ideas but in things – / and factories crystallized by its force,/ like ice from spray among the chimney rocks” – The second-largest waterfall in the North American continent is in Paterson, New Jersey, second only to Niagara Falls.
Student: It’s probably more polluted than..
AG: Well, it was used by the Society of Useful Manufacturers from the very beginning of this country’s time. So factories were “crystallized.. (from).. it’s force”. Again [Allen reads from the poem] – “Say it! No ideas but in things, Mr./ Paterson has gone away/ to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees/ his thoughts sitting and standing. His thoughts alight and scatter..”..”Defeated in achieving the solution, they/ fall back among cheap pictures, furniture, / filled silk, cardboard shoes, bad dentistry/ windows that will not open, poisonous gin/ scurvy, toothache..” – Then, a little jump in the poem [Allen continues reading from Paterson] – “But never in despair and anxiety/ to drive wit in.,”..”.. – the two legs/ perfect without movement or sensation” – Then another break – “Twice a month Paterson receives letters/ from the Pope…”..”the clerks in the post office/ ungum the rare stamps from his packages/and steal them for their children’s albums/ So in his high decorum he is wise.” – Then another break – “What wind and sun of children stamping the snow/ stamping the snow and screaming drunkenly”..”They are the divisions and imbalances/ of his whole concept, made small by pity/ and desire, they are – no ideas besides the facts – ” – So what this was (was) a little essay setting up all his major conceptions for a long poem, in coming back over and over again (and) warning himself not to try and build any large-scale poetic system that will depart from (the) facts, or that will try to present ideas other than facts. The reason I read this is that..I mean, it’s boring, obviously, but the repeated “Say it, no ideas but in things” finally turning into “No ideas besides the facts” is now put down so simply, once-and-for-all, that, by this time, you must understand it. Is there anybody (here) who doesn’t understand that phrase – “No ideas but in things”? Is there anybody who finds themselves baffled by that? – by the phrase itself? – because, the first time I heard it, I remember I said, “What does that mean – “No ideas but in things”?
[Student raises his hand]
AG: How long (have you been here, in this class)?
I’m sorry? All the last week-and-a-half/two weeks? – Yeah, well, I’ll try it again. Or can somebody (else) explain it to him because I’ve been doing it..Yes?
Student: I was thinking it’s maybe not talking in abstraction jargon or philosophy or political explanations concerning…
Student: ..defining people in terms of..
AG: But, it’s not that, but what is it then?
Student: The fact(s).. The local.. the local specifics that they are handling, physically and mentally, it’s a particular..
Student: It could even be their own particular amalgamation of theory and of what we just said we were going to reject.. It wouldn’t be Williams doing that himself.. He’s simply having an artistic version of all that.. Also, you could say, phenomenologically – it’s the actual phenomena, and you can’t sever… like when you sever the audience from the phenomena, the phenomena becomes sentimentality, or something else. It’s keeping everything intact with what is actually there and what is actually happening..
AG: For those who are involved with philosophical language, Williams’ practice is a practice, I guess, (that) would fall into the same area as phenomenology in philosophy. It’s the study of the actual data of the senses, but…
Student: There’s a Zen story of the master who asked his students..(this is the graduation, and he has to pass it on to one of his students) …and (so) he puts a pitcher on the table – and one (student) describes it in a poem describing the pitcher – and one walks (away) and kicks it off..
Student: And he (that second student) becomes the next master
AG: Because he has actual contact with the object?
AG: ..rather than verbal. Yeah anybody else ?
Student: The object is a symbol of itself
AG: Yeah – The object is a symbol of itself – which is what (Chogyam) Trungpa (Rinpoche) has been saying upstairs – and (what) Ezra Pound (was saying) – Trungpa probably didn’t know Ezra Pound. As I’ve repeated that phrase over and over – “The natural object is always the adequate symbol”. You’ve heard that one before. Yeah? Yeah… So, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol” is “No ideas but in things”. So that should be clear by now I guess. Is there anyone who objects to that? Yeah? go on..
Student: I don’t know if I object…
AG: ..or who finds a flaw, or thinks there’s something..
Student: I just think there’s something..Hitler-ian about it!