“No ideas but in things” – Allen tries to explain William Carlos Williams‘ famous dictum to his students (Naropa Summer Session, 1976)
AG: (Doctor Williams) is all about accuracy. The phrase “clamp your mind down on objects” is his, the phrase, “No ideas but in things”. “No ideas but in things”. Does anybody not understand what that means? – “No ideas but in things”? Is there anybody that doesn’t get that? [Student raises his hand] – Okay, is there anybody else who doesn’t get that? Please raise your hand if it isn’t perfectly clear what that means, because it’s a phrase I’m really fond of and I know what it means and I can explain it. So if anybody is not sure.. [more students raise their hands] – okay..it means no general ideas.
Student: Nobody understands what it means.
AG: Nobody? Alright, it means, in your poetry, don’t put out any abstract general ideas about things but present the things themselves that gave you the idea. In other words, observe. Instead of saying, “all animals are related in their biological intelligence”, there’s that Reznikoff [Allen is confused here – it’s not Reznikoff but Basho] poem about the baby mice squeaking to the sparrows, the baby sparrows in their nest.
AG: Yeah, they did, but Williams is saying that we shouldn’t do that, we should do something else. So, first, lets try to understand what Williams is trying to say before we oppose a different theory. In other words, they have one theory, he has another theory. So lets figure out his theory. First figure out his theory, then we’ll figure our whether he should have it or not.
Student: Brecht and Weill proposed (what they proposed as) a general way of writing.
AG: Yeah, well he’s proposing it as a general way of writing, but first, let’s understand what a general way of writing is, then we’ll decide whether we like it or not – or Brecht and Weill had something better (or maybe they had the same thing in a different way). But just the phrase, “No ideas but in things”. It’s the same thing as I was talking to you [turning to one student] about your poem – that you’re representing, plastering a lot of general ideas or epithets or adjective descriptions or insults on the girl in the pool-hall, the pinball-machine store up there, but you don’t describe the girl or her actual clothes or any details about her. Yeah?
Student: That’s very difficult for me to (do). In a sense I understand, but, in a sense, it’s like I think of, like the sun – there’s this luminous object out there doing something. And it’s like, for me, it’s like, by definition, anything I’m going to put down on the page is not going to be that object.
AG: Right. No, it’s not going to be that object.
Student: It’s not going to be that object. So it’s got to be what my mind is doing with, or perceiving, that object.
AG: Yeah, Yeah. That’s true. That’s true. The words are not identical to the things that they represent. That’s basic semantics.
Student: So for me the function of what I’m doing..well, I’ve got to a point now.. but it’s trying to clarify what the thing is. There’s this luminous thing. Are we going around it? Or is it going around us? What’s happening? And, for me, the words are part of exploration in discovering the thing per se. So, what.. why I sort of ramble on..these fantasy things, it’s more to try to sort out, well, what is a fantasy and what is the thing?
AG: Anybody else got to.. relate to that?
Student: I do, too.
Student: If all of us here..if Allen put a couple of (objects) on the table and we all sat here and did a still-life with words, we’d all come up with something that was different but expressed our own personality. We couldn’t help but do it. And trusting that that would be an explanation of your universe, I think, is what makes (poetic accuracy) – that you can emote through a piece of writing about, you know, a still-life of fruit, just by describing it, because, simply because, you’ve got a different angle on it, it’s individual. (It) necessitates that. And that doesn’t mean you can’t (have general truth too). See what I mean?
AG: Well, I think the question you’re asking is basic. So we’ll continue with that from now on. If I don’t answer it directly right this minute, it’s because I can’t figure (out) the right answer. I could figure out some answers, but I want a definitive final answer that will end all other universes, why not? I want an apocalyptic answer.
Student: Isn’t an observation, your sun, an observation of what you reacted, or how you reacted, to the sun, as much as an observation of real things? As long as you’re not saying the sun is dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. An observation of how you’re reacting to it – isn’t that as concrete?
AG: Well give me an instance. Let’s see..Williams – “the sun is a flame-white disk in silken mists above shining trees” – Well, he’s really being pretty fair there. He’s just telling you what you can see.
AG: He isn’t trying to lay a trip about some other sun on you. In a sense, he’s just talking about the sun that you see with your eyes on a specific kind of day.
Student: Yeah, fine, sure.
AG: So there’s no big problem. Is there really a problem in figuring out how to describe the sun?
Student: Yeah, because it’s all.. It’s like astronomy and..conceptions, and how you’re looking at the universe and stuff, and how people..look at how humanity..
AG: But (so) there’s our ideas, but if you want to describe the actual sun you see in front of you..
Student: Well I’m not sure what he’s trying to say.
AG: Well, he’s saying, try and describe the actual things that you see in front of you, or try… to be able to put your mind there to begin with. If you can’t begin with that, I mean, what good are any ideas? If you can’t at least begin with that, seeing what the senses offer right there. If you can’t use that as a base, maybe you want to make an astronomy after that (but that astronomy would have to be based on a direct observation of some kind, originally.
Student: Well, like for me, I guess, what turned me on to this whole (thing) is (Aldous) Huxley in The Doors of Perception and all that sort of thing, and I started looking for that…
Student: And then when I.. what I’m afraid (of doing).. I don’t want to misperceive. Like, (to take) a (very) weird thing, like the war, like I think of the Vietnam war, and all the people who perceived one thing that was a reality and they acted on it…
Student: …and it caused all this death and all these incredible.. when, if they would have perceived another, looking at the same situation, it would have led to a different…
AG: Yeah, but what…
Student: …and that’s what I’m concerned about.
AG: Sure, well that’s what he (Williams) is concerned about. He’s concerned about (it) too but he’s saying that, unless you look at the dying man in front of you, you won’t be able to see what’s wrong with your behavior towards him. If you think it’s a sort of an idea… it’s not a change of idea, it’s a change of direct experience.
Student [another Student]: Allen, the way I look at it, explain this to my students, is – you know the story of Adam in the Bible? – and God said to Adam, this and that, “I want to give you this really strange power, which (is) you can name everything. Everything you see you can name it.” So he learnt how to name it. And this idea that Williams has is very similar to that. You actually have to look at it and perceive it as “it”, the thing itself (and that that quality of perception gets transferred to language is kind of extraordinary.
AG: I don’t think that solves the problem of just trying to look. See, it’s a real simple thing that we’re talking about when he says “No ideas but in things”…It’s so simple that it’s actually nothing to argue about. Once understood, then it’s like a building-block in other systems, maybe, or a reference point for a complete system in itself, or useable in other systems. But until it is itself a phrase in the practice (that) is understood, I don’t think you’ll get anywhere, because there’s no common ground to begin with. Perhaps what he’s saying, in a way, is what’s one common ground? just what’s the one common ground where we are?. The sun is “a flame white disc”, or the sun is an orange ball, and the sun is going down over the maple tree. Just the sun as we see it – and how artfully can we describe it? – just what we see – or what we hear – just that common ground where everybody’s eyes, ears, nose, touch, taste, intersect. It may be fictional but there is one common ground where most of the time everybody’s in the same place. And (we) can use (it) as a sort of reference-point. If we don’t have any reference-point at all there in the physical world that we see in front of us, then what do we (have)? And finally, the reference-point for Buddhists, say – because everything is so confusing, everybody can see different suns – (is that) at least everybody’s breathing. Yes, at least. The one thing (is) that every human is breathing, and if they’ve got noses they’re breathing through their nose. That’s where Buddhism starts its metaphysics in this universe. It begins (at) the one place that everybody can locate. You’re here. You’re breathing. You may not have eyes, you may be deaf, you may have your tongue torn out by the executioner, but at least you’re still breathing. So start there at the tip of the nose and feel the breath going in and out. You may not have a belly, so you can’t go to zazen, but at least you can start right here. As Williams says, what’s “close to the nose” (that’s his phrase) – “close to the nose”. Start close to the nose, with your mother’s salami or something, something everybody can eat. So he just wants that. He’s just pointing to that reality as some place where everybody really is, or can be, if they’ll accept (it). Let’s work from there (and) we might (then) be able to build another universe, but at least lets begin where we are.
Student: A phrase, yeah.. a phrase that is meaningful to me and is related (whether it is or not, to me it’s related) is the thing I was just reading (in) this Apollinaire book..about something about a dropped handkerchief..(how it) could be a lever to move the universe..and I guess, for me, it’s what I.. I’m not a different universe. It’s just, I’ll.. I’ll (interpret) the shit out of this one.. I don’t know, but yeah…
AG: Well, see, historically, the reason he (Williams) was into this was that reality had got so confusing in the 20th century and poetry had gotten so freaked out and strange that he wanted to.. he didn’t know what poetry wasand he didn’t know what anything was. What he knew was what was close to his nose, at least, so he said he would like to begin there, and maybe if he could build a poetics, build some kind of way of measuring the lines, some kind of new rhythm, some way of seeing, (he could) at least begin with what he could see around him. So from that point of view, he said. “No ideas anymore, but the things themselves. I’ll try and describe directly what I see”. Now, naturally, every description is an abstraction. It’s a word, it’s not the thing. Naturally, everybody’s going to see slightly different(ly). Naturally, the entire world is fictional, in the sense that word itself, concepts themselves, are abstractions, are ideas. Words themselves are ideas already. So there’s a little double-dealing shadiness in that phrase, but, in a relative universe, it’s about as down as you can get (in terms of being high (and) “coming down”) – Coming down, like come-down. Everybody come down to the same place to begin with. Let’s start the game over. Let’s start the whole poetry game all over again. Everybody come down to the same place, which is the only place where everybody can be (there’s only one place that everybody can be and that’s right here, where everybody is). There aren’t two places where you’ve got to be because you’d have half in one place and half in the other. So there’s got to be one place where everybody can be, sort of..
Student: Sort of?
Student: It seems very weird that he started with things which are so susceptible to changing and not being what they appear to be.
Student: Like.. any thing. (So), well, what else is there then?
AG: Well what (else) is he going start on?
Student: There are actions, there are people’s feelings.
AG: Actions like what?
AG: …is jumping. jumping is a little more abstract than his automobile crunching over the dried leaves. I think that’s pretty clear.
Student: One abstraction..what can be more abstract than this?
AG: I think we’re using the word “abstract”…
Student: I mean less abstract
AG: I think you and I are using the word “abstract” in a different meaning.
Student: Well, then let’s think about abstract
AG: I think we’re using that word in a different meaning.
Student: Okay, objects are real slippery, but gestures, actions…
AG: No! – That’s the zaniest idea I’ve heard in two hours! – I don’t even want to get into it! That’s your mind again. Okay, that’s a very specialized mind, and a specialized use of the words, and it would take hours to wrangle out the way you’re using that word a little different than the way we were using that word (or some of us were using that word). So it’s where are we going to begin? So the question is where are we going to begin?… So Williams says let’s begin with what we can see in front of us. Yeah
Student: Isn’t William Carlos Williams sort of saying to leave psychology and analytic thinking and metaphysics to the people who are psychologists and analysts and philosophers, and saying that the meanings that should be in poetry is the meaning of the things themselves and.. so the greatest idea then is just to have perceivable objects.
AG: I suppose that would be one way of saying it, though..(plenty of) psychologists and analysts and philosophers are chasing after him now, are chasing after Williams’ perceptions now, because they seem so grounded that it seems like a good place to begin. It’s a place where everybody can begin together. Williams was looking for a place where everybody could begin together to start writing an American poetry, because it was a new world, a new continent, newly discovered, newly invaded, with a lot of European ideas plastered onto it, and he was trying to clean up the slate and start all over again. And so he wrote a book called In The American Grain, trying to retrace through American history to see what fresh planet we had come up with. Yeah?
Student: Allen, it seems to me that the imaginative leap in Williams is that.. for instance, you say he cuts out all those things, but he doesn’t. He just shows it by presenting by example…All of those things are recreated in the reader’s mind, but he wants them, but there’s more freedom to recreate whatever he wants as well.
Student: Somehow just by using the words he uses to describe a thing, his reactions to the thing are conveyed. It isn’t a completely cold…
Student: …just philosophical analysis of the object.
AG: There’s… we’ll get to it in a minute.. There’s another way of saying it which is (Ezra) Pound’s “The natural object is always the adequate symbol”. If you want a world of symbols and abstractions, Pound says, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol”
Student: It’s like he’s taking the common language and revitalizing (rejuvinating) it spoiled by usage.
AG: Yeah, there’s that element to it.
Student: And he takes it and shows how…
AG: He wants to use it more precisely.. Yeah – and then he’s got another phrase – “The revolution has been accomplished. Noble..”
Student: “Noble has been changed to No bull”
AG: Right. “The revolution has been accomplished. Noble has been changed to No bull” – Noble has been changed to no bullshit. What is noble is what’s seen directly, rather than a big airy, theoretic on it. But there’s another way of saying it – if you dig the phrasing (of)
“babble, babble, babble, babble”- and then someone says, “Well, give me a for instance” – so he’s saying “No poetry but in for instances”. Poetry should be all “for instance(s)” – like in the phrase “Give me a for instance” (because you don’t understand what the guy’s saying, but if you actually tack it down to something that you both know about, then you could figure it out. So “give me a for instance” or “no ideas but in things”. So all I was trying to do was say, “Is that phrase, “no ideas but in things”, is that understandable?” – or is it a mysterious phrase that sounds abstract itself (because it is an abstraction).
Student: The only thing that bothers me about it is that it leaves out.. it talks about ideas and it talks about things, but it doesn’t talk about feelings.. It doesn’t..
AG: He would say you could use feelings, include feelings, but you’d have to deal with them as ..
Student: Observed things.
AG: …observed things, and not get lost.
AG: And it’s very similar in the process of meditation to paying attention to the breath, wandering off into a daydream, and then becoming conscious of the mind moving into a daydream, straightening the spine and returning to the breath. You could then describe the thought you had, but you’d no longer be possessed by it or lost in it. So he’s saying “Don’t get lost in ideas”. You can have ideas but don’t get lost in them. Don’t lose perspective, in the sense that, in the grand panorama, the ideas are part of the panorama but they can’t displace the entire panorama, and there’s the home-base to touch back on. Yeah?
Student: I think what (someone earlier) was saying was that..when he looks at things, that’s himself, in (what he’s looking at), he invests himself in the thing the same way that he presents feelings to objects and that the objects really are an investment of himself, The objects really are an idea that he’s looking at. I mean that’s..
AG: I’m not quite sure I understand..
Student:.. he (I think) observes things, and then (he) fills them in with his attention.
AG: Well, yes.. he fills them in .. What he’s saying – “Let’s fill with our attention the things that other people can also see and fill with their attention, and then we can both check our consciousnesses one against another, and see where we are in relation to each other, and in relation to the…” It’s like triangulating, one fantasy against the microphone and another fantasy against the microphone, and then you check your fantasies, and you can figure out, like you triangulate the stars to find out where you are.