AG: We’ve gone all the way to the other end again. Now (we’ll) come back to- something like haiku, like Reznikoff – William Carlos Williams. Most people here have read Williams, I guess. How many have not at all [Student raises his hand] – just one? – [to Student] – you’ve not read Williams, that’s right? – Okay, so for those who haven’t, Williams is the clearest and simplest and most direct, (He’s) trying to tie the mind down, bring the imagination down to earth again, and put all of his energy, all of his intensity into seeing what’s actually there, that anybody can see. Common, light-of-day, no bullshit, no (flights of) imagination, except (at least in his youth), except what he’s conscious of as daydream, while looking directly at people, cars, houses, porches, bushes, maple trees, Rutherford, New Jersey. He’s a doctor.
I’ll read a couple of early things which are just, like, sketches, like “the dainty-handed Chinaman” – [Allen reads Williams’ “Late for Summer Weather” – (“He has on/an old light grey fedora/She a black beret/ He a dirty sweater/She an old blue coat/that fits her tight…”…”..they kick/ their war through/heaps of/fallen maple leaves/ still green – and/crisp as dollar bills./ Nothing to do. Hot cha!” – and “Proletarian Portrait” – “A big young bareheaded woman/in an apron…”…”She pulls out the paper insole/to find the nail/ That has been hurting her”)
Of course, Williams was a friend of (Charles) Reznikoff and they were practicing the same poetics together, trying to get it boiled down to clear, direct, presentation of the object that they were writing about, no excess words, composing their poems out of the elements of natural speech, out of the elements of their own speech, as heard on the porch or talked over at the kitchen table, and a poetry which would be identical with regular conversation (actually, you could hear it as conversation and not notice it as poetry, unless you suddenly dug that there was something going on curiously sharp and fresh, that it was smart people talking).
Smart people talking
– “The Young Housewife” – he’s a doctor – [Allen reads Williams’ “The Young Housewife” – (“At ten A.M. the young housewife/moves about in negligee behind/the wooden walls of her husband’s house./I pass solitary in my car/Then again she comes to the curb/to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands/shy, uncorseted, tucking in/stray ends of hair, and I compare her/ to a fallen leaf./The noiseless wheels of my car/rush with a crackling sound over/dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.”) – He made fun of his own poetic impulse to compare it to, say, as in a Chinese poem – “and I compare her/ to a fallen leaf” – But he had, ” the ice-man, fish-man, and stands/shy, uncorseted, tucking in/stray ends of hair”. It could be a television commercial photograph picture, in the sense that the elements are basic American.
So the question is, is this any good for the mind, or is there no soul? – or, where has all the romance gone? – or, what is the metaphysical battle here? (or what is the moral victory accomplished by this sort of ordinary mind? – or,what’s even the use of being so flat, prosaic, unpoetic? Or, what’s the purpose of trying to make poetry out of ordinary objects seen under the aspect of ordinary mind? – Well, the purpose is that, generally, we generally don’t see ordinary objects at all, we’re filled with daydream fantasy, so we don’t see what’s in front of us and we’re not aware of what’s close to the nose and we don’t even appreciate what everyday tables and chairs have to offer in terms of service for food or a place for our ass, actually. So, as in Buddhist doctrine, (it) involves zero-ing in with ordinary mind on actuality, and abandoning any thought of heaven, abandoning any thought of illumination, giving up desire for any paradise, giving up even a desire to be good rather than evil, giving up on any attempt to manipulate the universe to make it better than it is, but instead, “coming down”, as in the hippie phrase, “coming down” to earth and being willing to relate to what is actually here, without having to change the universe magically, or alter it to substitute a different universe from the one that we can see, smell, taste, touch, hear, and think about. So Williams’ work as a poet is very similar to Zen Buddhism or Tibetan-style Buddhism mindfulness practice, because it clamps down the mind on objects and brings the practitioner into direct relations with whatever he can find in front of him, without making a big deal, without making a big apocalypse, without falsifying to satisfy some ego ambition to have something more princely, or less painful, than what is already.
Student: For Williams, was there a clique (as) inspiration?, people that he met that led him to create an art of the ordinary, you might say?, or did it just, in a sense, evolve out of his life?
AG: Well, he was good friends with extraordinary people – (Ezra) Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore – They all knew each other, I think, at the University of Pennsylvania, around 1907, perhaps. He always thought Pound was a little a little cranky and crazy, but great. He dug Pound but he always thought he was kind of far-out. So Williams was kind of naive, square. Williams was a basic square, basically a square, in a sense, but inside, tremendously humane, since he learned to deal with what was around him, he learned to tolerate a great deal and sympathize or empathize. But I think his growth was autochthonous, home-made, totally home-made, totally self-made, totally natural. He had the idea of going in that direction very early, and he just kept working at it, and thought about working at (it) and practiced medicine – going through poetry and through the development of his focus just like he’d gone through medical school – years and years to get to be a doctor – and then practicing. He deliberately stayed in Rutherford, New Jersey, and wrote poems about local landscape, using local language. He wanted to be a provincial, or he wanted to be provincial from the point of view of wanting to be really there where he was. And really know his ground. know his roots, really know all the people around that he lived with, know who the ice-man (and) the fish-man were, know the housewife, know the corsets, know the five and dime where she might buy pins to put in her hair. He wanted to know his town or his place, or his own body, in a sense. And that seems to have been a strange idea he got by himself. He might have got it from some literary sources, like (Gustave) Flaubert, (Guy de) Maupassant, (and John) Keats might have given him some hints.
Student: Isn’t it that he was an obstetrician, that had a lot to do with his vision too.
Student: He was constantly…
AG: Yeah, he was dealing with birth constantly, with actual birth, rather than literary birth, or imaginative, idealistic birth. He was actually dealing with flesh, eyes, mama’s breasts, milk, blood, first yells, and death. So there’s a lot of very precise poems about people actually being born, or kids.. (He was a) podiatrist, actually.
AG: Pediatrician. Yeah, podiatrist. Pediatrician. Baby doctor as well, not just obstetrician. He went around (and) saw ten-year-old’s with whooping cough. So, actually, somebody no different to us, then. In other words, someone that you don’t have to worry about, that he’s going to pull a fast metaphysical trick on you and declare another universe. So that’s the whole point. He’s dealing with the universe, which is a fantastic discovery, that you can actually make poetry by dealing with the universe instead of inventing another one, or insisting that there’s another one all the time, and writing as if there were another one. Like Edward Carpenter. It deals with basic matters and impulses of the heart, but, (as) my father (who was) on his death-bed talking about Wordsworth (said), or sick-bed, I should say, talking about Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (said). “It sounds pretty, but it isn’t true”. Simple as that. Sounds pretty but it isn’t true.
[tape ends here – to be continued..]