Spontaneous Poetics – (William Carlos Williams – 12)

William Carlos Williams  (1883-1963)

Allen Ginsberg on Spontaneous Poetics at Naropa Institute continues – from June 30 1976

AG: [recalling the previous class] We had gone through syllables, accents, vowel-lengths, some breath-stop, units of phrasing. How much of that did we get?

Student: You gave some examples and out of Williams, you got so far as the details…

AG:  Okay. Units of phrasing, consisting in units of vocalized phrasing, Not mental phrasing, but vocalized phrasing, and so I’m making that distinction. The aesthetic would be – clinical study of spoken American-ese. And  a close attention to the details that I read – how phrases are pronounced, how people talk, where they breathe, where they break off, where they leave a sentence incomplete, where they go on like that and stop (as in the poem from The Desert Music which I don’t think I read here , where he said, “but I am an old man, I have had enough” – Do you know that (one)? – “The moon which/ they have vulgarized recently/ is still/ your planet/ as it was Dian’s before/ you. What/ do they think they will attain/ by their ships/ that death has not/ already given/ them? Their ships/ should be directed inward upon   But I/ am an old man, I/ have had enough”

Student: What poem is that?

AG: That’s “For Eleanor and Bill Monahan”, page 83 of Pictures From Brueghal. Williams had a very similar trip in a poem “The Clouds”, which I.. don’t know if I read that to you this time around, did I? – the one where “plunging on a moth, a pismire, a…”  (page) 124 in The Collected Later Poems talking about the imagination being let loose with no fixed center – “he clouds remain/ – the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds/ or dormant, a calligraphy of scaly dragons and bright moths,/ of straining thought, bulbous or smooth,/ ornate the flesh itself (in which/ the poet foretells his own death), convoluted, lunging upon/ a pismire, a conflagration, a . . . . . . .” – He breaks off the end of the poem there with seven dots. So he’s reproducing the motion of his own speech – several times – and he very often indicates a dot, which is not a period, but a dot in the middle of the line, to indicate a sentence broken off because the thought is incomplete, or because he just quit, or because he had a stroke, or because his thought was so obvious that it didn’t need to be completed for the rest of the sentence. “There are men/ who as they live/ fling caution to the/ wind and women praise them/ and love them for it./ Cruel as the claws of/ a cat”- and then there’s two dots following that. He might have said more but he just wanted to chop off, or perhaps he wrote more but in the editing he chopped any further comment off. Just “cruel as the claws of a cat . . “… “and love them for it” – Period.
“Cruel as the claws of a cat” – dot, space, dot, space. The dot is not a period because it’s not a complete sentence – “Cruel as the claws of a cat” – it’s just a comment, a half-sentence comment. He doesn’t say, “they are as cruel as a cat”. “Cruel as the claws of a cat, aren’t they?”, perhaps, is what the rest of it was –  “Cruel as the claws of a cat, wouldn’t you agree?” –  “Cruel as the claws of a cat, that’s what I  think, finally, watching (how) all of these romantic Jimmy Dean‘s messed up these women’s minds.  “Cruel as the claws of a cat”. Enough.
Alright, so, for various reasons, in imitating actual speech, there is a complete break. Exasperation, as in “The Clouds” – “plunging on a moth, a butterfly a pismire, a . . . . . . .” (sic), or coming to the limit of thought. Fatigue and, perhaps, exhaustion of idea –  “Their ships/ should be directed inward upon, but I/ am an old man, I/ have had enough”.

So these were examples of units of phrasing, in extremis, that is, breaking off lines or dividing lines according to speech, even speech which is broken off within itself. So, in other words, to give you an idea, the obviousness of the idea, of measuring the spoken phrases on the white space of the page, measuring them out, laying them out in their proper turns, so that, when read by the eye, they come natural, when read by mouth, they suggest you breathe, or suggest where you take pauses. And that merges with another sense that relates to breath-stop, obviously, but beyond breath-stop it’s an analysis of the parts of the speech, because you can have several units phrased within one breath. Very often ordinary speech is that. You might start, look around, particularize what you’re going to say, finish. So you might want to break it up that way – beginning, middle, and end, of a thought. Sometimes thought is spoken that way, when people are speaking thinkfully (sic), thinking while they’re talking, or, not sure what they’re saying, or groping for words or groping for phrases. So that towards the end, he (they) tend to break up the units of phrasing into triadic divisions within a line.

How many have seen that in (Williams’)  Pictures From Brueghel?. I don’t know if you can see the page from here. How many have already looked at these poems?.. How many have not? – Okay, that’s what Williams came to at the end of his life, so check out Pictures From Brueghel to see how he finally decided to arrange his page.

Now one reason he decided was that he was already somewhat stricken physically. He did most of his composition on a typewriter, and he had to find a way of reducing the amount of physical activity, finger-work, on the typewriter. It was just an adjustment to the fact that he was part(ly) paralyzed, so that it was difficult to pull the whole machine all the way back to the margin and write short-line poems.  Also, his thought, or speech, came stumblingly, perhaps. He had a little trouble articulating at first. But I think he took advantage of his physical debility (hand-on-typewriter) and his speech difficulty (impediment) and began to find it easier to start on the left-hand margin, type out painfully the first phrase – “her hair” – making mistakes on the typewriter, correcting it – one finger maybe, you know – with one hand. I saw manuscripts of his at that time, and I visited his writing study on the second-floor of his house, where he had a desk. He complained about the difficulty – that is,  it was extremely fatiguing to type. So he had to arrive at a form that would be easiest for him. And probably that physical simplification maybe simplified the mental process in his mind (simplified it, in the sense that it gave him a key to how to arrange, or how the mental process flowed naturally, and what would be the simplest way of notating it). It might have given him a key to notation of his thoughts as they came. So he typed out “her hair” – and then the easiest thing is, right after that, turn the roll of the typewriter one space and stay in the same place where you left off with “her hair” – “is confined by a snood” – so “confined by a snood” – he’d type it out, with a period. And roll the typewriter again, one line more, and maybe push it back a couple (because it was getting toward the margin and he wasn’t sure how long his next piece of phrasing would be) – “beside her” – So it’s a physical situation, I think, that dictated his arrival at that triadic form. He may have had some experiments before with it (but) I had the impression that it was a good deal dictated by just what he could do (which is not a bad idea! – If you just settle for what you can do, what was simplest for you to do, you’d arrive at something very solid, probably).

The other night I had another idea about the final triadic form that he arrived at, which he called his “variable American measure”, or “variable American foot”, or “American measure”…he was concerned with the notion of a “variable foot” (that’s what he finally categorized his format, when he finally got it straightened out to one line with three parts, drop down one space each part – is that clear what  I mean? about “drop down one space each part”?). I think he had said – I think I mentioned – he said he thought American speech tended towards the… what was it? anapest? – duh-duh-dah – And if you think, and if you talk, maybe it is. If you’re stammering, making it up, but goin’ slow, and you’re old and you can’t do much more, it does fall, if you wait, in that form, for certain kinds of very direct speech (with variations). So you’ll have a line like that  –..Two fair-haired youths/ with alternate speech/ are contending/but her heart is/ untouched/ Now,/ she glances at one,/ smiling, and now, lightly/ she flings the other a thought,/ while their eyes,/ by reason of love’s long vigils,/ are heavy but their labors/ all in vain./ In addition/ there is fashioned there/ an ancient fisherman/ and a rock,/ a rugged rock/ on which/ with might and main/ the old man poises a great net/ for the cast..” – Well, I read at random in the style that he might have read. It falls roughly into that pattern of short utterances tending somewhat toward anapestic, tending somewhat to be divided (at least as speech, as spoken speech) into three parts, accent, or weight, tending to fall on the last syllables, if not the last syllable of the three parts of the line. And then there’s a counter-stress – “Gray-haired though he be” – the counter-stress of the spoken intonation, giving variability to that. It’s not anapestic, really. Maybe (there’s) the idea of anapest behind it, but there’s an infinite amount of variation in where the weight would be and how he would attack each part of the triad. So it’s just an attempt to make a rough line of division of his line of speech, as best he could type it, which is about the same as the best he could talk it in that condition of post-stroke stammering.

Student: Wasn’t that only the last… that was in the (19)60’s, wasn’t it?

AG: ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties

Student: He had a stroke that early?

AG: Journey to Love is 1955. His stroke was about (19)53 or (19)52 – he had several strokes, actually. And (he) was in complete despair, didn’t think he could write at all physically, and, at a certain point, didn’t think he had anything to write about, because he was preoccupied with the idea that he had cancer of the anus, and he asked me (rhetorically), “Who is interested in me writing poems about my ass?!” [sic] – “ass-hole” is what he said – “Who cares if I want to write poems about my asshole? – So I said, “All young America wants to hear about your asshole, Doc. Write on!”

Student: How did he manage to turn out Paterson (given such disability)?

AG: Most of that was worked out before?

Student: Before (19)52?

AG: Most of that had been worked out. I think the earliest Paterson is the (19)40’s – maybe some (19)30’s even,

I’ve gotten a little mixed-up here between breath-stop… I think we’ve covered breath-stop as the actual breath, and then units of phrasing is different than breath-stop (you could say “units of phrasing within one breath”) . And then you’ve got to figure that you (can) get a certain syncopation of counter-currents running against each other (just as you have the run-on line in normal iambic pentameter) – “A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/ Its loveliness increases, it will never/ pass into nothingness” – Keats – “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” – okay, one line – ” it’s loveliness increases, it will never – pass into nothingness” – that was (John) Keats. (Keats), I believe, introduced the run-on line like that. It was a prose line, running on, in rhymes, and there was a funny kind of syncopation set up there. “Run-on line” – do you know what I mean? – It’s a continuous breath that runs from one line to the next, even though the rhymes interrupt, or the rhymes chime in, but the breath doesn’t end with the rhyme, and the pronunciation doesn’t end with the rhyme. The pronunciation continues on to the next line. So it sets up a kind of special extra rhythmic pulse  (like in a bongo orchestra! – drums playing different pulses at the same time but in unison they make a more interesting total rhythm). So here you have, in Keats, the rhyme giving one set of clauses, or one set of counts, and you have the stress giving another set of counts, and then you have the speech progression – streak of speech – giving a  completely other rhythmic pulsation that runs through the line into the next line. So here you might have some lines end with the breath-stop, to take a breath, and some lines running on – “The poem/ if it reflects the sea/ reflects only/ its dance/ upon that profound depth/ where/ it seems to triumph/. The bomb puts an end/ to all that” – Well, with “puts an end to all that”, he’s ended on a breath-stop. “(But) the bomb puts an end to that” – it’s a run-on line – “I am reminded that the bomb also is a flower” – So he’s got  “I am reminded that the bomb also is a flower”, that is “is a flower” goes back to the left-hand margin.

[to be continued]

One comment

  1. Eleanor Monahan is my paternal grandmother. She was all he said she was. Gentle, Godly, precious. She is with me every day.

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