Spontaneous Poetics – (William Carlos Williams – 6)

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)  – Photograph via University of Pennsylvania Archives

AG: Please raise your hands.. Okay, so that’s good.. So I can read on a little more of (William Carlos) Williams. Some students who were here before have heard me read some of these. Last year I went through some of the same poems, and I hate to repeat, but the bulk of people in class aren’t familiar with these specific poems and I think they are highlights of Williams’ practice and they’re good solid poems you can get mind’s eye into, so it’s a good entry into seeing Williams’ larger work, or seeing the whole body of his work, if you get in with these poems, I think.

Student: Allen, are these from his later volumes?

AG: Pardon me?

Student : Are these from the (19)60’s?

AG: God, I haven’t.. No, these are not from the (19)60’s, these are (from) the (19)20’s. He’s working that early in that refined perception, that new consciousness, so to speak, which has overtaken everybody in the nation at this point.

Student: How old was he then?

AG: When was he born? 1896 or so?  (18)90?  I’ve forgotten..1896 more likely. We can look it up in a book later. So I guess he’d be 30, 35, 40, mid-life…

Student: Did he work…

AG: ..mature, married, mature, children out, just beginning to look around, really seeing the world around him, like a new husband sort of…

Student: Did he work as a doctor full-time?

AG: Yes

Student: All his life?

AG: He worked as a pediatrician full-time, and when I first went to see him, I asked him, “Do you think of yourself as a poet or a doctor?” and he said “A doctor”. He was a full-time doctor.

One poem of his that I’ve always liked, that does contain a great deal of direct detail is “Horned Purple” – a little portrait (or “character”, as (T.S.) Eliot said of Williams, or to Williams when he met him – “Mr Williams, I admire your characters. Let’s have more of them” – characters, meaning little portraits, sketch-portraits of persons). Williams got real mad, thinking that Eliot was being condescending. “Horned Purple” – You can see it, actually, on Broadway, in Boulder, in front of the pin-ball store. [Allen reads Williams’ “Horned Purple” – (“This is the time of year/ when boys fifteen and seventeen/ wear two horned lilac blossoms/ in their caps – or over one ear”…”Out of their sweet heads/ dark kisses, rough faces”) – That’s really generous to notice that. That’s nice for an old doctor to notice that little bit of eros and ancient satyrical archetype in Rutherford, New Jersey.

But, “It is only in isolate flecks that/ something is/ given off” so the perception becomes more and more refined to recollect the “isolate flecks” as, working in the hospital, perhaps glancing out of the window, he saw “Between Walls” [ Allen reads Williams’ poem of that title] – “the back wings/ of the/ hospital where/nothing/ will grow lie/ cinders/ in which shine/the broken/ pieces of a green bottle”] – I’ll read that again because I was spaced-out when I was reading it [Allen reads the poem again] – And that’s always been compared to a celebrated Chinese poem, observing the beauty of an individual flower, solitary tree, or individual flower in a spot. It’s almost like (an) adaptation of a traditional haiku, or (written in the) Chinese style to see the flowering of a bit of perception –  “in the back wings/ of the/ hospital where/nothing/ will grow lie/ cinders”.

Student: Was Williams aware of all these connections to haiku and Buddhism?

AG: Oh yes, because there was an enormous practice of haiku from the days of Adelaide Crapsey in Seattle in 1905, and Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound and all the Imagists – Des Imagistes – The Imagists themselves were influenced by Oriental writing, Chinese hieroglyph, calligraphy, picture-language, which Pound wrote a long lecture on, called..”The Chinese Written Character As A Medium For Poetry”…

Student: But influenced by Buddhist thought also?

AG: Well, to the extent that haiku is actually an extension of Buddhist practice,

Student: Yeah

AG: …and they were translating haiku. They probably didn’t notice it was Buddhist, but their aims were similar in terms of direct perception. So that the literary influences were pretty direct from some Buddhist sources, but other Confucian sources. Pound wrote that essay, interested, particularly, in the fact that Chinese is (a) picture-language (and) so doesn’t have abstract words like “truth” or “green” – they would have a picture of… for green, I don’t know what, a grass spear, whatever, green, a leaf maybe? – whatever green elements there might be combined, I don’t know what the hieroglyph would be, but, at any rate, they were influenced by Chinese and Japanese calligraphic writing, or Chinese particularly, as picture-image language.
So that’s an extreme of perception. That is, an extreme, almost literary, extreme of perception (though it’s a real substantial glint, the green bottle gleam – his noticing of it in these literary terms is his atfulness, shrewdness.

(Then) there’s areally astonishing piece of Americana (suburban imagery, that has nothing to do with the Chinese, except that it also gets some notion of sunyata emptiness in it) [Allen reads Williams’ poem, “The Term” – “A rumpled sheet/ of brown paper/ about the length/  and apparent bulk/of a man was/ rolling with the/ wind…”…”…Unlike/ a man it rose/ again rolling/  with the wind over/ and over to be/ as it was before”] –  That’s something I’ve seen on the streets, the wind blowing around a piece of paper, down the street, ” about the length/  and apparent bulk/of a man”. It’s sort of like an amazing slow-motion movie, because it does cast a clear picture-image on the mind, like a slow-motion movie of the brown paper rolling over in the Rutherford street, a car passing over it, and then the wind… So, actually, what he’s done, by mentioning the wind, once, at the very end,  he’s created the whole torrent of wind down the street that day, or he’s found a term to express the bulkiness of the wind, and the poem is called “The Term” – “The Term” – like the term for perception, or the term for the wind (but some mental measure of  “term”). What does “term” mean, actually, I wonder – the word “term” – the “terms” in which we talk of reality.

Student: I felt.. what I felt there was the length of time.

AG: The length of time that it took for the wind to come down, the car to crush it down (the sheet of paper) and bring it up?

Student; Yeah, the term of life.

AG: The term of life itself, maybe. I thought it was the aesthetic terms he was talking about, the aesthetic term he was talking about. This is “the term” of his aesthetics – A completely natural Rutherford scene, with no poetry in it, but the bare description of fact, bare attention and description of detail that provides “a machine made of words”, or a word-picture, sufficiently clear, to be projected in (on) other people’s minds, (once they got their home-movie plugged into the wall, by understanding his terms).

Student: Like a mudra or something..

AG: In what sense, is (it) a mudra here?

Student: A perfect expression of the quality of what he’s describing.

AG: Yeah, actually, it’s a perfect expression of the quality of the wind. So, “the term of the wind” is, in a way, how I interpret it – the term of the wind. Plus the term of his art. It’s an ambiguous title. It’s a nice poem because it’s got that funny little one slow-motion image and once you’ve seen it, you see it forever.

So he was interested in details. It’s a passion for observation really, also. He has a little poem called “Cezanne” (which is not in his Collected Works – published in The Nation, May 13, 1961), which I always dug because it was about some work of mine, called “Cezanne”. [Allen reads Williams” poem, “Cezanne” – “No pretense.  No more than the French painters of the early years of the 19th century. To scant the truth of the light itself as it was reflected from a ballerina’s thigh. This Ginsberg of “Kaddish” falls apart violently to a peal of laughter or to wrenched imprecation from a man’s head. Nothing can stop the truth of it. Art is all we can say to reverse the chain of events and make a pile-up of passion to match the stars. No choice but  between a certain variation, hard to perceive, in a shade of blue.”] – It was published in The Nation, May 13, 1961. (So) I think I’ve talked a little about Cezanne’s method of creating “the little sensation” of space by means of the fine adjustment of optic paint on flat canvas – hot colors advancing, cold colors receding optically in the eyeball  (as a matter of fact, if you put them side by side, you create a sensation of space – like turning the shutters of a venetian blind all of a sudden, sometimes a Cezanne painting will leap into 3-D that way). [Allen reads the poem again] – Well, he’s saying several things there, but the main thing is careful attention to the finer details of perception, to the finer details of perception. Talking of Cezanne here, no choice, no big Romantic, artistic, choice of subject, but between a certain variation (hard to perceive if you’re staring closely and trying to match your blue paint with the blue of the shadow of the tree on the mountain.

to be continued

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