13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!

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2 Comments

  1. cowpattyhammer said,

    November 17, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Of course, Tom, the terrible irony is that despite my huge admiration for William Carlos Williams I have to admit you’re absolutely right. On the other hand, it’s quite another thing to talk about it, which takes a certain courage — you just get -7 Dislikes and closed down over and over again on Blog:Harriet until the management feels they have no alternative but to ban you — just to keep the peace. Everybody knows you’re right, of course they do, at least right in the sense that you’re not wrong, and everybody also knows you’re well-informed, write extremely well, are patient, generous and always interesting. On the other hand, no one can be allowed to say the things you do. It’s just not on — not cricket, kosher, American, whatever you want to call it. Things like that simply can’t be spoken. I mean, what would you teach? Where would your students look if you stopped talking the talk what is more walking the walk? The whole industry would collapse in the ruins!

    And the irony is, Tom, that “Thomas Brady” knows as well as anyone that it’s the discourse not the poet he’s railing against, the cult, not the poetry, the critical model not the humble, unassuming, small-town verse. You famously rail against John Ashbery as a critical construct as well, obviously, and not John Ashbery the poet whom you actually like. Indeed, you know as well as I do that W.C.Williams is one of our finest modern American poets, and that it’s not the verse but what the foolish critics say about it that has dressed the poor guy up and made him walk around the workshop stark naked. “Danse Russe” indeed — which says it all!

    I remember arguing that out recently with someone on Poets.net, whether or not Williams was naked in that poem. Well, he wasn’t — it’s the critics who take his cothes off and at the same time give him the lead at the Bolshoi!

    There’s no doubt Williams contributed to the imperial mystique around him, but I don’t think the poet in him realized how much damage the critical asides would do to his own reputation what is more to American poetry, or how his own words would betray the simplicity and directness of what is essentially unspectacular verse. I mean, who would ever have suspected? Sometimes I even think that John Ashbery remains so admirably reticient because he understands what W.C.W. did to his own reputation, and would be ashamed to do the same to his own. Ashbery also understands, I feel sure, that he’s a relatively small talent with much less to say than Williams, for example, and is alarmed that the tailors will make of his journey-man clothes something divine and imperial. A small talent and, considering how fanciful he is, remarkably unpretentious — that’s John Ashbery. Ditto Allen Ginsberg, who also said very little about how you should read his poetry or what it meant — which he knew very well wasn’t much. William Carlos Williams, on the other hand, is a major poet from whose back was launched a super-sophisticated critical avalanche that would bury a whole generation of American poets. Indeed, the drifts are still so deep hardly any American poets are still moving, what is more getting read — which is why they ban Thomas Brady when he says it!

    Yeats didn’t do that, and Seamus Heaney doesn’t either, or Billy Collins for that matter. Pound did, on the other hand — indeed, he’s the very bag they let the cat out of!

    Read those 13 observations above and tell me which one isn’t valid. I mean, it’s idiot!

    And all you’ve got left at Blog:Harriet is the cadre!

    Christopher

  2. November 19, 2009 at 4:28 am

    An aspect of Modernism that you rarely mine, Tom, is its obsession with hyperbole. This, of course, is a Madison Avenue standby, for what product would sell if it weren’t described as “the best,” from coke to counter-insurgency? Curtis Faville’s words on Silliman’s blog are pure “shock and awe,” but because they sound like “the best” and are being uttered on “the best” site by “the best” person we suspend our judgement. For who is going to stand up and be counted eye-ball to eye-ball with “the best in American poetry,” who is going to risk suggesting the holy words are stark naked?

    Madison Avenue always certifies “the best” by shining it up with the inflations of “the expert,” and we do the same in poetry. Even though any sensible person can see that the toothpaste man with his professional glasses, white coat and reassuring stethoscope (stethoscope?) is just an actor, we are so conditioned by our educations, and when it comes to poetry the more education the better, we actually believe that the poetry professional’s words count for more than our neighbor’s!

    And even that our neighbor’s views don’t count at all because poetry by definition is too difficult for the laity!

    If Curtis Faville wants to write a really important essay on William Carlos Williams, he should look at the absurd inflations that have become the stuff of American W.C.W. criticism and not elevate but deflate them. How and why these specious ideas arose would not only make a fascinating lecture on the History of Ideas, but might actually start the process of making poetry in general more accessible!

    I know what I’m saying here too, and I’m certainly no populist in my own work. But as a poet I’m always disappointed not to have more poetry that I can share at the table with our guests at Baan Hom Samunphrai, or that can make their way on their own without holding my hand what is more that of Curtis Faville!

    Christopher

    P.S. I’m tired of being Cowpatty Hammer, though it was fun for awhile. Indeed, I want to stop thinking about Travis Nichols, who gave me the name, of course, and concentrate more on the prejudices and limitations that created the train-wreck that is Harriet in the first place. Thomas Brady’s last post, “The Curious Case of Monday Love,” represents a new step on Scarriet, and though we will continue to monitor Blog;Harriet we will concentrate more on ourselves and the values we cherish.

    So I refer to the table at Baan Hom Samunphrai in Thailand where I live, and will speak more personally as a poet writing and talking about poetry from there.

    C.W.