William Carlos Williams’ Birthday (92nd Street Y Reading)

William Carlos Williams reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York, January 1954

Today (September 17) is William Carlos Williams‘ birthday (born 1883, and died eighty years later in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey)

Poet William Carlos Williams opened the first season of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in 1939 and returned to that venue in 1954.

Here is a transcript of that reading. Williams reads a number of poems and, mid-way through the reading, attempts to describe (unsuccessfully, he feels), his concept (arrived at in his later work) of the variable foot”

The audio is available – see above

WCW (begins with a reading of a dozen poems): From the Collected Later Poems   “A Sort of A Song”. (“Let the snake wake under/his weed/and the writing/be of words..”…”Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rocks” ), “Burning the Christmas Green” (“their time passed, pulled down/cracked and flung to the fire”…”breathless to be witnesses,/as if we stood/ourselves refreshed among/the shining fauna of that fire”),  “A Vision of Labor” –A Vision of Labor – 1931″ – You realize that this was written during the Depression” -(“In my head the juxtapositions/impossible otherwise to accomplish”… “..they turned their backs on it,/flung their boots over their shoulders/and went home.”),”The Yellow Chimney” (“There is a plume/of fleshpale/smoke upon the blue/ sky…”his born brother/the/declining season”)  – (They can’t be all that good!) – “Franklin Square” (which is in Washington DC, also during the Depression)  – (Williams gives an initial reading of the poem) “Instead of/the flower of the hawthorn/the spine..”…”a tall negress approaching/the bench/pursing her old mouth/for what coin?”) – I’m going to do that again – (Williams reads the poem again), “Labrador” – (“I might say that when I was in Labrador, I had the hardihood to go swimming when the others on the crew didn’t see me. I regretted it).  (“How clean these shallows”…”these/limbs in a single gesture”),“The Apparition” (“My greetings to you, sir, whose memory,/the striped coat and colors…”…”Is this the war – that spawned you? Or/did you make the war? Whichever, there you are.”) – (I’ve always been interested in the technical parts of poetry as much as in the emotional parts. Perhaps that has made me seem at times heartless. But without technique all the..  in the slots in the world wouldn’t mean anything) – “The Manoeuvre” (“I saw the two starlings/coming in..”…”that’s what got me – to/face into the wind’s teeth”) – “The Horse” (“The horse moves/independently..”..”..like fumes from/the twin/exhausts of a car”)  – “The Act” ( “It’s impossible not to tell about this old Polish woman whom I loved really, really, as much as a man, at his best, can love a woman – “There were the roses..” – “The Act” – did I say that? – “The Act”) – “There were the roses, in the rain..”…” Agh, we were all beautiful once, she/ said/ and cut them and gave them to me/in my hand.”) – “Seafarer” (The sea will wash in/but the rocks…”…”It is I! I who am the rocks!/Without me nothing laughs’) – “The Three Graces (“We have the picture of you in mind/when you were young…”…”..and as I write this Mary has died”)

I have a request in my pocket that was handed to me as I came on the stage – “Would you please explain what “The Beautiful Thing” is in Paterson, Episode 17 ? – Well, it’s a colored gal!  She was a.. a very tall young and beautiful colored woman, striking in her appearance. She could’ve gone anywhere, but she.. I met her just as a maid.  She had no education but she impressed me, she was a person, a real person. Well this is Paterson.  I really said “Paterson, Episode 17”,  just because I didn’t have anything else to say at the time, but it wasn’t..  it hasn’t anything to do with seventeen – I put it in Paterson, it occured in Paterson, but not under the..  (not) on the seventeenth! – (Williams reads the first stanza -“Beat hell out of it/Beautiful thing… and kiss again/ that holy lawn”) – I must interrupt myself to say, since I did get this request,  (so) what it means (is) it’s a girl beating a piece of carpet in front of a church – I’ll start it again because, after all,  if someone was interested, it’s legitimate to ask.  (Williams reads the poem again, this time in its entirety) – “Beat hell out of it/Beautiful thing”…”pulse of release/to the attentive/ and obedient mind)

This (next) is a poem to an old colored man , a specific old colored man, named Bunk Johnson, who was one of the originators of jazz in the old days. He was lost track of and thought to be dead, and some men (from Pittsburgh, I think, I think some.. one of them’s name was Williams), had the idea that he might still be alive, and went down and searched him out and found him, and came up to him and said – he was attending his little rice patch – and he said, “Is this Bunk Johnson?” – “Yes, sir” – “Is this the man who used to play the horn?” – “Yes, sir” -“Do you play the horn anymore?”  “No, teeth all gone, all gone, I can’t play the horn anymore” – “Well, do you suppose if we get you some teeth, you could play the horn?” – “Well, maybe” – Well, they just got him some teeth and he could play the horn just about as well as he ever did. And they brought him up to New York (you may, some of you, remember, about three or four years ago, five, six, years ago) and he gave some concerts down  the Bowery and I heard him  – “Ol’ Bunk’s Band” (“These are men! the gaunt unfore-/sold, he vocal,/ blatant..”..  .”These are men!/ Men!”) – “A Unison” (“The grass is very green, my friend…”..”Hear the unison of their voice”) –

So much for the past.These are poems written as long ago as twenty or thirty years. Now what I’m going to read are some poems written during the past two years. I would like to be able to tell something about and I’ll attempt it. It’s difficult because I may stumble all over myself and then have to quit.  But there’s so much to be said about poetry nowadays and what is becoming of it, which few understand. They are most.. most people.. most poets are content to follow the masters and write as in the past. That’s no good. The chief neglect in my time has been with the measure – measure. We have forgotten what we used to mean by measures. They spoke of measures in the old poetry. Nobody says anything about measure anymore. The.. how.. it was synonymous with a metric. But the measure is more than metrics, it is really as a measure of the line.

Well, Whitman began the down-hill process (great as he was, great as he was – he.. and I acknowledge and hail him for it), but he, in breaking with the English measure, which was a complete break, he didn’t know, he just wrote, and put anything, any line .. of the.. that occured to him on the page – and did marvelously well, but he did not know how to analyze what he was doing. He did not.. The Spanish, the..  He wrote free verse, free verse, but, the minute you talk about “free verse”, everybody gets the wrong impression. Free verse, in Whitman’s time was taken up because it had some connotations of the French Revolution and “the freedom of Man”, and the Civil War – freedom, freedom, freedom. The Spanish have a much better designation of free verse. They don’t say “free verse” (and, by gods sake,  never use it again, never. it’s a young man’s..)  I should.. I would.. like to say something about the false impression that free verse, as a free enterprise, has…(it’s) got to be gotten rid of.  The Spanish have a saying that…have a definition, which is most.. very much, better than “free verse”. They speak of versos sencillos, “loose verse”, not…   Once you get rid of all that connotation, all this “freedom of the soul” (for god’s sake). What we need.. what we need is measured verse, and to have a measure which will be valid in our lives. (We are sick and tired of “freedom” of…but..), and something which measures us  (and measures have mood) and measures..  A work of art must.. The work of art must.. it can never be free. They are modes of controlling the material. And so “loose verse” is much better than anything we connote by saying “free verse”.. But..

Verse has always followed mathematics, always, always, always associated with mathematics. Just as (with) measure I follow mathematics too. But we did not know… (we could not know) what the implications of Whitman’s so-called “free verse”  are until we had Einstein to teach us relativity. The old methods, the old methods, (even Shakespeare, is an old mode. We have to escape from him). We have to, if we have any manhood, make a new method which would be equal to him (not as good as him, not as good as he is, but), go beyond him, like the human mind,  the Pythagorean or whatever it may be, is not the old…  the Ptolemyan?  – oh gosh, I can’t think of the term but the..  )

We  have to have a relative mathematics to get to the truth of a situation…mathematically… but, once we have got to that point, we know that the foot is.. is what we are stumbling over! (we’re not, over our own feet, but) the foot is only to be taken relatively (not in the old method, but to be measured by a new standard, which will give us new control of the means of writing a poem A relative foot, now short, now long, always measured (you can hear the measure, hear the measure, but the foot varies). That gives us, potentially, tremendous opportunity to write new verse, and I have attempted to incorporate what I.. what I had to say about that.

I’m afraid I haven’t been very clear but if you can only remember measure is relative, and all poems (beautiful poems they may be) which do not recognize the old methods of measuring, the old methods of scansion, are entirely outmoded. We have to make a new prosody, a prosody that we’ll have to begin again, and when we do, and when we get to recognize what opportunities we are given, we’ll be very much advanced over what we had done in the past. There, I have attempted, more or less, to try this. I started more or less accidentally, and then I saw the possibility, and then I began to imitate myself.

Well,  this poem appears in  Paterson, Book III, and when I began to look it over and I think..I thought to myself, “Hmm, that’s somethin’!”  – “The Descent”  (“The descent beckons/ as the ascent beckoned/Memory is a kind/ of accomplishment..”…” “a descent follows/endless and indestructible”)

[Williams concludes with a few recent poems]

These are from small magazines recently published. This is from Imagi  – (Thomas Cole edtor and publisher) – “The Yellow Flower”. (Williams begins reading)  -(“What shall I say, because talk I must? ….” …”these yellow,/ twisted petals?/..that the sight… ” )  –  I’m going to begin again. I think I can do better. (Williams reads the poem again, this time in its entirety ) (“What shall I say, because talk I must?….”..”for me to naturalize/and acclimate/ and claim it for my own) –

This from the Kenyon Review, last summer – “The Host” ( “According to their need,/this tall Negro evangelist/(at a table seperate from the/rest of his party….”) – I must pause a minute. I am particularly proud of this thing that I have done there – not proud, but just, I acknowledge it – “According to their need,/this tall Negro evangelist/(at a table seperate from the/rest of his party….” – this is all in the same rhythm – the foot varies as I think the foot should in a modern poem  “The Host”   (“According to their need,/this tall Negro evangelist/(at a table seperate from the/rest of his party….”But I/had only my eyes/ with which to speak”)

“The Orchestra” (“The precise counterpart/ of a cacophony of bird calls…”…. It is a  design of a man/ that makes them twitter/ It is a design.”)

Well, that is all I ..  I’m willing to go on if it is not too late. (audience suggests he continue)   Well, I’ll go on. (rifles through papers) I’ m sorry to be so slow and seperating this..   I’m not finding what I want to find but, oh well, it’ll come…    These are, again, poems writtten some years ago. “Spring and All” (“By the road to the contagious hospital…””… ” …rooted. they/  grip down and begin to awaken”) –  This is ..  just a few more..  this has no title,  “Between Walls  the back wings / of the/ hospital where/ nothing/ will grow lie/ cinders/in which shine/ the  broken/ pieces of a green/ bottle”) – “On Gay Wallpaper”  (“The green-blue ground/ is ruled with silver lines…”… between cerulean shapes” –  (Williams starts again and reads the poem in full) “”The green-blue ground/ is ruled with silver lines…”…”…the day/ Blows in/ the scalloped curtains to/ the sound of rain”) –

(more? – Williams is requested to read one more poem“)

God! – he (the m-c)’s a slave-driver, I hope he doesn’t drive you all from the room. Well.. well.. I was thinking that there would be a question-and-answer period after that, after this. I will attempt. I will attempt to read it, and then that positively is the end, because that’s all I know. I have tried to perfect myself  in these, but even so, it has not been entirely successful, as you’ve noticed  I’m going to try to read a poem which I very much like because it is undecorated, It has the…as I think.. the character of a.. the character of a saga, as much as you can do it today. I’ll do my best..  (Williams reads as his concluding poem, “Fish“) – “Fish”  (“It is the whales that drive/ the small fish into the fiords….”….” and the nekke, half man and half fish/When they see one of them/ they know some boat will be lost”)

Kay Ryan‘s observation on this reading by William Carlos Williams can be found – here

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