It’s William Carlos Williams‘ birthday. Today, we celebrate with another of the gems in the Williams audio selection at PennSound – an illuminating reading and commentary from almost 70 years ago, November 15, 1950 – the poet speaking to students and faculty at UCLA.
For the audio from this occasion – see here
WCW: “I’ve been asked to read to you rather than to talk to you, so that I shall appear then as a writer of these poems more than a speaker of them. In hearing the modern poem read today, the prime requisite of the moment, is to listen – for if you do not do that, you will miss the opening significance of a structural change in the medium (we talk American, we don’t talk English). beginning to take place. The modern poem is much closer to Bach, perhaps, than to Puccini, the lyric song, or balladry. It is a new conception of the line. So that I ask you, if you don’t know what I’m talking about (as you probably will perfectly easily) just remember that I didn’t askyou to understand anything, only to listen.
[Williams begins reading] – This is “In Sisterly Fashion”. (“The ugly woman clutched/ her lover around the neck…”…..your fitted/ limbs, you’re honeyed breath”) (and) “The Dance” (‘”In Brueghel’s great picture”…’….”In Brueghel’s great picture “The Kermess”)
[Williams continues] – This is another one. I’m going to read a number of short ones. This is called “Franklin Square” (which is in Washington DC) – “Instead of the flower of the hawthorn, the spine..”..pursing her old mouth/ for what coin?”) (and) “Raleigh Was Right” (“We cannot go to the country..” … “for the country will bring us/ no peace”)
Now these are even more in the nature of improvisation. (I’ll just take a minute, we don’t have to hurry). You’ll notice in these the lack of the use of “poetic material”. We are no longer concerned with the material but only with the way it is handled. Just as the painters are not concerned so much with the obvious subject as with the way the paint is put on the canvas. These are somewhat improvised and I shall read them as improvisations, and what I said at the beginning, just listen to the sound of it, to the feel of it, to the juxtaposition of words and possibly you’ll even get a meaning.
[reads from Spring and All, section VIII] – “At the Faucet of June” (“The sunlight in a/ yellow plaque upon the/ varnished floor…”…”…a/ partridge/ from dry leaves” ). [ met with applause] (I think you show extraordinary intelligence by liking it! – (it) shows that you’re modern too, you don’t miss the Shakespearean urge)
[reads two further poems] – ” The Eyeglasses” (“The universality of things/ draws me towards the candy/with melon flowers..”…”tranquility Titticaca”) (and) “Rigamarole” (“The veritable night/ of wires and stars…”….”Thus moonlight/ is the perfect/ human touch”)
Alright, that’s a period, a certain way of writing, if you please, a juxtaposition of images to give a certain, well let’s say mood (altho’ they’re not particularly to be mood pieces). This is different. This is a poem, To Elsie” [continues] (“The pure products of America go crazy”…”No one to drive the car”)
And this, which, Yvor Winters, the distinguished critic of Stanford University, thinks is the only poem that I have ever written. I like it myself. “Spring and All” (“By the road to the contagious hospital..”..”.. “and begin to awaken’). That was from a book called “Spring and All“. To give you a slightly different metrical pattern, almost the same but slightly different,
[Williams reads his poem, “The Pot of Flowers“] – “The Pot of Flowers” (“Pink confused with white/flowers and flowers reversed..”..”gay with rough moss”)
“I presume that, I’ve been talking at other universities on the West Coast, I’ve been there to teach, because I presume that many of you are interested in writing, and in writing verse, so that once in a while I shall stop for a moment, like this, and simply say to you, if you’re writing verse, one of the simplest things to remember is never reverse the normal context, or the contour, of a phrase, never reverse a phrase that is your language as you speak it, in the sequence that you are used to. The minute you turn a phrase over to fit a meter and you can’t get what you want to say into that meter, never change your phrase, change the meter! Then you’ve started, then you’ve started.. Then you’ve started to create a culture, in your place, where you are. Until you do that, you’re lost. That’s the simplest very beginning.. Yes sir?
Audience member: Why don’t you talk more about your poetry…I mean..we can read your books anytime..
WCW: Yeah, alright..Well, I got to say, I’ve got an obligation. No, I’ll talk as I go along. I’ll.. If I have anything that comes up, that seems interesting because this is, as you can see, perfectly informal. Maybe I’ll think of something to say as I go along, but I do want to select a little, and..let’s just talk about that point for a moment at least. You will notice several things – of course, there are no rhymes. There is no rhyme in classic poetry up through the Latin, up to Dante, there’s practically no rhyme, there was a little rhyme in the.. well, later, about the eleventh, tenth, eleventh, Century, I think, the Persian was full of rhymes, but it’s not necessary to rhyme. And, speaking of our language, to me (and I’m only one person, don’t forget that), the structure of the verse, the way the lines and the words are put together in their phrases, metrically, as I hope you can hear, is the basis for the establishment of a culture, which will be ours of today, to lay beside the great cultures of the past, if we can do it, but we have to begin with that. Ever since Whitman broke through the iambic pentameter (because that’s his great feat, right there), once he broke with the iambic pentameter and threw it out. He never did very much metrically or structurally after that. It’s up to you to do it, up to me to do it, up to us, to create that thing, that object, which may possibly, if we’re good enough, end the past.
That’s a good point to bring in a picture of the Capitol at Washington. [reads his poem “It is a Living Coral”] – “It is a Living Coral” – (“a trouble/ archaically fettered..”…”the dead among the wreckage sickly green”). – One of the.. one of my passages that I simply think is superb! [audience applauds] – I haven’t told you the passage yet, wait a minute! – I think.. I love this: “The Hon. Michael/ C Kerr/ onetime Speaker of/ the House/ of Representatives” – I think that has a beautiful metrical pattern! – (But, just because we laugh, it doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously. In fact we laugh because we know it’s serious. If we thought it was dumb we wouldn’t laugh).
And in a different mood.. See, you have to feel your audience out. Some audiences are snooty and you can’t take them in the way that you would like to, but I usually find that an audience of young people is alert, they do not know everything they will know ten years later but at the same turn, they get.. they get the…get it.
This.. [reads his poem, “All the Fancy Things“] ( “All the Fancy Things” , (“music and painting and all that/ That’s all she thought of in Puerto Rico/ in the old Spanish/ days…”….” a/clean air, high up, unoffended/ by gross odors”)
Some of these are old, some of these are more recent, I’m trying to mix them up a little bit, so that you can perhaps feel a change.
I have for several years been working on a long poem called “Paterson”, which is now, I’m glad say, finished – (It’s) in four books (the fourth will come out next year). I shan’t attempt to read any of it because I’ve found that to try to read little excerpts is, is.. it doesn’t work, it just makes a dull afternoon, But there is, there is one short piece that gives you somewhat the feel of it. And since we are.. since it’s been mentioned, I might as well speak just a moment about Paterson. It’s.. You can see already by having heard me and heard what has been said about me that I am very definitely associated with the ground that I stand on, with my own country, not to say, not to wave the flag and say America. That’s.. It’s important of course. But, for the artist, it isn’t the name of the country, it’s the locality, the place where you are, with your feet on the ground, you start up from there to build a culture. And that’s why you’re an artist. You’re not putting sugar on cake, you’re building as solidly as the Pyramids, with the belief and the love, enough love of your fellow man, as a man, that you want bring to a climax the.. the psychic part of his life, rather than the mere fact of going out and grabbing a couple of dollars. There’s something else to it, as you know perfectly well. And you’re just as helpless as I am to do anything about it in a somewhat primitive country. We do what we can. But the artist works to build that psychic part of his life just the same as an Indian will sit down and will put a pattern on a piece of clay. And that will vary in its value with the integrity of the Indian and his culture. If it’s sloppy work, it’s no good. If it is superb, culturally, it’s.. – you pick up a piece of a pot in the Arizona desert and you say, “My God, look at that work!” – then you know that a culture, however limited it may be, has existed in that place. If you carry that on through Athens, and through Japan, or, as I saw, a magnificent piece of sculpture, Chinese sculpture, of the Tang dynasty, (I think it’s 600 A.D.) just a figure of a man sitting there, this chunk of marble, taken up out of the ground and made into something, culturally, so significant, so superbly balanced, that you sit there now with pleasure and you feel the dignity of that culture. If somebody can say that of you, six hundred years from now, it will be because you have conquered yourselves and made works of art that carry through that which is you yourself. So that looking for a man, looking for a large image, to build around, I.. something human, something which would give me room to spread out, say some of the things I wanted to, I fortunately hit on a very simple thing – That is, Man, in himself, is a city. And the more you think about it, the more you feel that, it’s true. In the compartments of his mind, in his interests, all the way through, there isn’t a better image, there isn’t a better metaphor, that you can find anywhere than to say Man is a city. So that, to represent Man in all his complexity, if you have a city, you can take images from all the phases of the life of the city and so represent Man. That is, you can try it. And what city then? Well, naturally, you only write about that which you know, at least you can recognize. So that the nearest city, my own city. So I chose Paterson, New Jersey (very un-poetic, if you take it in the bardic sense, perfectly good material for a construction, if you take it in the new sense). Paterson is on the same river on which I live, a few miles away. It’s my nearest large city. It has a history. It came very near being the capital of the United States. Hamilton traded.. I mean Jefferson traded Hamilton for Paterson and got Washington when they assumed the debts of the states. That’s an historical fact that you can establish. It is the first industrial city in America. It has a large waterfall, and it’s their power which was what they were seeking and what they had there. So there’s Paterson, roughly. The Falls come down. It roars.. This legendary figure of a man (and a woman, because it’s also.. it isn’t a man, a man is only half of it). This legendary figure hears the Falls and tries to interpret from the roar of the Falls what is really Man’s state in the present time. So it goes on in a somewhat colloquial manner, some prose, some verse. This little bit was one of the first things I wrote when I was thinking about it .
“Paterson: The Falls” (“What common language to unravel?..”…”the empty/ ear, struck from within/, roaring..”)
That was one of the first sketches for the book Paterson. (I think if I don’t talk so much I’ll have more voice) – Now, as I’ve said, a poem can be made of anything. The image that I’ve used is – which is more beautiful, a portrait by Rembrandt of his wife, Saskia or a painting by Rembrandt of a side of beef hanging in a butcher’s shop? – That’s where it lies, right there, right down the middle. Now, I have experienced this – that in Princeton Saskia is much more beautiful than a side of beef, but in Paris the side of beef is quite as beautiful as Saskia. I’m going to tell you this hackneyed story. I hope it’s not hackneyed to you. I don’t think it is. It brings out the point. It’s that transition that you have to make – from the sentimental subject to the structure of a work of art. That’s the… that’s the big general step to be made before we can get a cultured public. When we can… when we take that jump from loving to have a subject that we love talked about and put into rhymed verse, that’s one thing, when we have a structure made of words to represent something which is our lives here and we recognize it by the way it’s made, you go from there to ther, – and that’s a tremendous step in the culture of a nation, difficult to make. And let me point it, as simply as this – I had friend, a very good friend, his name was (Alanson) Hartpence, and he was a.. an assistant in a gallery in New York, a picture gallery (well. not a gallery, but a.. well, a shop where they sold modern paintings). And, while the boss was out, Hartpence was there and one of their best customers came in, a charming old lady, just as sweet as she could be. And she liked one of the pictures, quite expensive, but she said, “Now, Mr Hartpence, Mr Hartpence, I like this picture very much, but what is all this down in this corner here?” – And Hartpence looked at it. “Madame”, he said, “that is”, he said, “that is…paint” – [laughter] – He didn’t make the sale! I don’t think he lost his job but maybe he did at that! Sometimes you have to lose your job to make a point.
Well now this called just simply “Poem” – ( (‘As the cat/ climbed over /the top of/ the jamcloset/ first the right/ forefoot/ carefully/ then the hind/ stepped down/ into the pit of/ the empty/ flower pot”) – (and) Even simpler, “Between Walls” (“Between..” “the back wings/ of the/ hospital in which/ nothing/ will grow lie/cinders/in which shine/the broken/pieces of a green/bottle”… I was just playing around with the idea of the thing, and..
But now, on the other hand, there’s … Oh, a Mr. I think it’s someone with the name of Eastman – Is it Max Eastman? He also.. heard so believes that I have written one poem and this is it.. It’s amusing some times. Every man has his crack, (his idea, I beg your pardon). And, you know, you always have to be modest in this world because they may be right! – But all any man can do is to..is to go ahead, driving along a.. in a line which he believes (providing he’s honest of course and not seeking publicity) along some theory. I.. there’s another one of my images that I use all the time. (Louis) Pasteur, one of the greatest physicians who ever lived, has said (at least has been quoted as saying), every man should have a theory – a theory of his life, a theory along which he is driving. Otherwise, you’re merely imitating and you’re not really living at all. Drive along some line, stick to it until you’re forced to give in, and then.. don’t be stupid about it, if you can be convinced that your theory is incorrect, modify it, or abandon it and take another. But, it’s always wise to be driving along some lines, either in public conduct or whatever it may be that interests you. And then, if you put.. you put something down, with everything you’ve got in it, then you have to stand, perhaps, wait, (wait is the most you do), and, possibly, by merely growing, you will either catch up with what you put down by chance when you were younger, or else you’ll be thrown out and rescued perhaps, in, well, fifty to a hundred years. I speak of that thinking of that, thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an interesting point there. He was a Jesuit who had his theory of how to write a poem. You may be familiar with his work.But perhaps you’re not familiar with the fact, perhaps, that he sent all his poems to Dr. Bridges, (Robert Bridges) who was also an experimenter with structure, and that no poem of Hopkins was published until fifty years after his death by Bridges, who appears to have hesitated a little bit as to whether he would release them or not. (He) finally did ..If that’s not exactly.. It may be thirty-five or thirty-eight, or, it may be over fifty, but… (tape ends in media res here)