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     In the Autobiography there is a story of how Williams as a boy was chased by many boys, and he had a wonderful time evading them, he just ran and ran! Then he says: I either must run, or I must be entirely still. Does that have something to do with the technique of the line? Is a line still and very much in motion? Yes. If one studies the syllables, the vowels, one will see that. It arises from a big desire on the part of persons to see the world entirely.

     In a statement from A Voyage to Pagany, we have the relation of fury to tranquillity. I have defined happiness in one of the Aesthetic Realism writings as a state of dynamic tranquillity. It could be called also a state of tranquil mobility, or dynamism (but I want to avoid using that word dynamism—it's been used by the wrong people). In A Voyage to Pagany there is a lot of intensity. There are some works that Williams had to write because—well, it's almost like "Pike's Peak or bust." In the chapter of A Voyage to Pagany called "Carcassonne," there is this passage:

Why not just kill yourself. It's more sensible. And yet, he dreamed to go, madly, as he remembered at twelve he had sometimes done, madly, with no end in view; that day the kids couldn't catch him at hare and hounds, that phenomenally successful day when he had kept them baffled all the afternoon in a certain neighborhood, running, hiding, showing himself, doubling on his tracks, escaping, running again, showing himself and so on, hour after hour, running on. So, desperately scattered, he had remained still; whereas they, Jack and the rest, being always collected, could go loose. But if he should go loose, he would die, of this he was convinced, since to go loose to him was to go totally ungoverned.16

     So there's a big desire for the quietness of crystal and the fury that one associates with a bacchic festival.
    
      This has been a problem from the very beginning, and it is a major thing, because the world is a problem in rest and motion. There is nothing speedier than the world is; there is nothing quieter. Space is so quiet that no one can imagine how quiet it is—some space is; but even in that quiet, one can see much motion. You can just fill that space with madly innumerable crisscrossing lines.

     This matter is very much in Williams' verse; and the relation also of heaviness and lightness is very much around. Sometimes it occurs in places where you wouldn't expect it. One place where you wouldn't expect it is in an essay on Aaron Burr, but I have to take books as I find them. There is a comparison between Washington and Burr. Apparently Williams liked Burr a little more. Well, I can't go into that.

In fairness to them both, if there was ever an antithesis between two men, both good in essence, it was here, both fine but one the earth itself, the other—air. Somehow they should have joined.17

     Does that say that earth and air should join? Should they join also in a line of poetry? Should there be space and obstruction? A management of space and obstruction is one of the things in the technique of a line. And Burr apparently here stands for space, and Washington for obstruction. I think that's the first time Washington and Burr have been used as to the nature of poetry. And I'm not being fanciful, the matter comes up in all kinds of ways.

     Before I go on, I want to show that Williams as a doctor has also been concerned with the nature of poetry, the nature of art. There is a story about how Dr. Williams visited some of the distressed people (and he's done a lot of that) in the section of the stories, "Beer and Cold Cuts," and the story is called "Comedy Entombed: 1930." In this book there is a great restraint. The style is very different from the style of In the American Grain, very different from that in A Voyage to Pagany. It's a little bit like the style that Stendhal wanted to write, when he said, "I'm going to study the French Civil Code—not a bit of sentiment, nothing of myself, I'll give them just the facts." And the worship, in a sense, of the fact is something that we find in Williams' work. There is the phrase "no ideas but in things" or "no ideas but in the facts," which is very often quoted.

     But getting to this passage:

I have seldom seen such disorder and brokenness—such a mass of unrelated parts of things lying about. That's it! I concluded to myself. An unrecognizable order! Actually—the new! And so good-natured and calm. So definitely the thing! And so compact. Excellent. And with such patina of use. Everything definitely "painty." Even the table, that way, pushed off from the center of the room.18

     There's a desire to see the oneness of order and disorder, which is one of the big things: the relation of chaos to good sense. And in Williams' work from the very beginning, there is a pushing further of the meaning of chaos, and then the trying to see whether that belongs likewise to cause and effect or to order.

     And we also find the relation of music to the visual effect. This is the big thing in poetry. Poetry goes after stillness and motion, and therefore goes after the visual and the musical. But that's a long story. Anyway, very often the visual becomes musical, and the other way round, in Williams' work. And we find that happening in places where we wouldn't expect it. Sometimes Williams honors light, sometimes he honors sounds. I am going to read from Make Light of It some passages in which he honors lights. This is a very good sentence. I wish I had the time to go into it. There is a drama here of lights and motion. It's from a story called "The Dawn of Another Day." And I must say this: that if it were put into lines, it would he a poem. Jeremy Bentham gave a definition of prose; he said: Prose is that kind of writing which goes to the very end of the page and then comes back; poetry is the kind that doesn't. It was a very useful definition. Well, this goes to the end of the page and comes back, but I can imagine that it might not.

As it had already begun to grow dark you could see the first lights of the cars going back and forth intermittently beyond the two or three broken down houses on that shore, old houses occupied by Negroes, in whose windows also dim lights appeared.19

     It's the relation of the lights of the cars and the lights in the houses of the Negroes that has a possibility of poetry, and with a little change, it could be poetry.

     And there are effects of sounds in many ways. Occasionally the American language, as it occurs in most of the states of the union—very often in filling stations, hamburger joints, et cetera—also occurs in doctors' visits. This language has to do with poetry. There are many samples, and my problem is to make a good choice. This is from a story called "Country Rain." It's about two women who are living together, and they have a little business. And they seem to be pretty satisfied, particularly Ruth.

Everyone laughed immediately after he or she had said anything loud enough for all to hear, that was the custom.

     This thinking that if you say something loud, you have to laugh—that is something.

     Then we have also this:

     We missed you this morning.
     Ruth looked at them. Who do you think was
making the pancakes?20

The way that is said takes some of the music of the world right into the customary lingo near the Atlantic and inland from the Atlantic.

     Dr. Williams also is interested in silence and sound; he has a story which is really about that. There are certain people that occasionally Williams writes about with—well, more approbation than is customary. This is a story about a person who is on a Coast Guard cutter, or some official ship, cruising along the Aleutian Islands. The Americans meet some Russians, and they're going to have a good time. They're going to have a good time by breaking glasses.

Everybody was high. Then they all stood up. We stood up too. A toast to the Czar! Down the brook. Then smash! They all whammed their glasses on the floor. We looked at each other, then, wham! we followed suit. You couldn't ever use that glass for any other purpose again. The flunkeys came right in and started to sweep up.

     So what did our Captain do but propose a toast to the President of the United States. Then wham! We smashed another lot of glasses on the floor. Boy! what a time we had singing and toasting each other with that beautiful glassware. What guys!21

     But that's joy! That's joy! That's why I object to Miss Koch's book, there's not enough joy in it. For joy of a certain kind there are places called "joy places," but when joy has the love of truth in it, as they used to say, the love of God in it—that's something else.

     And then there's the joy of the Fourth of July. There is an interesting incident about this ship shooting off a cannon, and then all the people flee to the hills. This has a good relation of sound and quiet:

We only used a little one-pounder but you could hear each shot echoing way off into those hills, one shot following the other until it made quite a satisfying sort of a rumpus up there in that desolate silence.22

     Many of Williams' poems could be called "Quite a Satisfying Sort of a Rumpus"; and I'd like more rumpus.

     There are many examples of this kind of language.

There is a using of the rhythms of speech in a very taking way. An example is:

He doesn't look so good but he likes it here.23

That has cadence. There are many other samples.

     However, jumping back now, I'm going to read a poem which I think is very good, and from what I learned from Miss Koch it seems that Williams himself likes it a good deal. He should. Sometimes an author is right. And it has been much discussed. Apparently it was discussed by Yvor Winters—R. P. Blackmur or Yvor Winters. Well, what those gentlemen do before they get through with a poem—you'd think that the poem existed to be discussed.

     This is a poem which tries to get together two things. There is a great deal to do with what happens to the body. The use of the word contagious here is a bringing out of new possibility. Contagious essentially means spreading from one place to another; it's come to take on a rather terrible meaning. There is a trip to the contagious hospital while spring is having a difficult time. But it's going to get there—it usually does. This is called "Spring and All." I have looked at this poem very carefully, and it stands up very well.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen24

     This is a making of even the growing of twigs, bushes, leaves, a mighty sad but still interesting procedure. It would be interesting to compare these lines:

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter25

with some of the abnegatory lines of Eliot. He's always entering into the world in a rather sad form, while getting out of it in a sad form. And he's always penitent. Penitence is very popular. I wonder why? Maybe there's something to be penitent about.

     But anyway, the sadness that is here is a lively sadness, while the sadness that one sees in "Ash Wednesday" is the sadness that has in it a too self-pleased smirk. There is a great deal of the smirk in present-day verse. The smirk is hidden, but it's there.

     This is not the time to go lengthily into the technique of "Spring and All," but I believe that it is important to see that an effect which is similar can be had in another way. The lines I'm referring to are from Coleridge's Christabel. Now Coleridge's Christabel is honest rhyming; it's very beautiful. I am pleased by the music in Williams' work, I am pleased by Christabel. There is more similarity than difference, because there is honest music. There is more similarity between a quatrain that is honestly musical and honest free verse than there is between honest free verse and not so honest free verse. So these are the lines from Christabel:

There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

     Coleridge influenced Yeats, and Yeats has influenced ever so many people.

     As we go on with the consideration of work, the thing that I'd like to say is that in finding Williams' work good, I have used all the classical and non-classical and semi-classical, romantic and semi-romantic and demi-romantic and quasi-romantic and pseudo-romantic perhaps—all the statements of the critics. And what it seems Williams should feel is that the value of his work arises from the fact that he has added one new way of seeing the world, that arose from him, that without him wouldn't be; that where this is honest, it goes along with honesty anywhere else; and that the honesty is something that makes work seemingly different, similar.

     In order to show this, I am going to read for a while from a work which Dr. Williams himself apparently has spurned. He hasn't included it in his reprinted work. I like it very much. I think that there is a continuity between what is said in Kora in Hell and what is said even in Paterson. There is a trying to see. The best thing about Williams is that he's not given up seeing; and he talks of "one day" and "one night" because he wants to give that unspoiled unity and freshness to it.

     This is from Kora in Hell, apparently written in 1917 but published by the Four Seas Company in 1920; and as far as I know, this is the only edition now extant:

The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false.26

     This has to do with imagism, partly; but the statement made in Victorian times, "Have your eye on the object," goes along with it. And the desire to be exact that we see in the Greek Anthology occasionally, goes along with it. No artist has ever been unfair to the object. Sometimes it is necessary to say, "Brothers, we are becoming unfair to the object," but no artist as artist has ever been unfair; and how people are fair to the object—-that is a big thing.
 
    Let's take another statement:

The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.27

     I once discussed Leigh Hunt's "What Is Poetry?" Leigh Hunt happens to have written some good poetry, and in this essay he says, among other things, that poetry has to have variety and unity, unity and variety. This is what Williams is saying, really. It is true. It is a revivification of the idea, even of e pluribus unum—from many, one. It simply means that there should be teamwork among words and perceptions, intense teamwork. Art can be considered as being intense teamwork: teamwork that you don't expect, but still teamwork.

     George Saintsbury, whom I see as one of the joyous and one of the greatest critics, also one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, said in the preface to Seventeenth-Century Lyrics (among many places) something about manyness and oneness; but then he also said: Deal with the common as if it were uncommon, that's one of the things in poetry. That goes along with Williams' idea of taking the tawdry, the unimportant, the slatternly, and showing that there is the wonderful in it.

     What Williams has done in New Jersey is to show another possibility of what Saintsbury said in a rather academic way—though he isn't very academic, really: he also jumps around a good deal; he's a great user of the parenthesis. And I was interested in seeing in one of the issues of The Dial that there was a review by George Saintsbury in over his eightieth year; and right after it, Williams is reviewing Good Morning, America by Carl Sandburg, not being able to make up his mind about it, apparently: he says good and bad things of it. But they follow each other, Saintsbury and Williams, and I said, What have we here? I know something of what Saintsbury has looked for because a person looks for these things in poetry: music become sight, the words placed in such a way that the world comes into a delightful flame.

     Kora
is a statement of Williams' way of looking at the world which as I see it should not be superseded. The style of writing has changed, the line sometimes seems different in Paterson from the early work, but whatever is in that early work is as fresh—more fresh—than next week's issue of Time. Every artist has a difficulty about choosing the means of representing himself best; but there are certain effects in that early work that should be looked on as tomorrow-ish.

     There is a Prologue to Kora in Hell, which is critical. In that prologue, by the way, Williams says that Eliot is doing a rehash of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and God knows what all. And he repeats that in his autobiography. It seems that Williams has tried to be polite; I believe that with Eliot, one shouldn't be so poignant. There is a passage in the Autobiography about Eliot, and it sounds like the statement made to Joe Jackson: "Say it isn't true, Joe."

These were the years just before the great catastrophe to our letters—the appearance of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway and upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions.28

     All art is both local and universal. Sometimes it goes from the universal and gets to the local. There is a line from Dante's Paradiso that Eliot quotes which is not local: "e la sua volontate è nostra pace." It's a very beautiful line. "And his will is our peace." It doesn't have twigs in it, but it's a good line.

Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot's genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him.29

     That was good seeing. Eliot is academic. Even though he seems to be the leader of the latest thing, he is academic.

     There is this distress about the academic in Kora in Hell, too. I regard this work as very important. I think it should be lectured on in colleges: the meaning of it.

     In Kora in Hell there are a few things that sound very corybantic. I can't imagine Eliot dancing, but I'd like to see him. There is very much about the dance in Kora in Hell. I talked about the dance lately and showed its relation to all art: how the body becomes light through it; and I was taken by these passages:

Thus a poem is tough…solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.30

     This accents lightness: out of weight comes lightness, out of confusion comes symmetry. But the word dance is used.
    
      Then in the best sense of the word, there is what can be called the democracy of imagination. It seems that Williams has listened to people humbly; he has watched housewives and listened to them, and he has learned. Very few people want to do that. And though there is in this book a great discontent, there is a desire to be fair which is decidedly taking. We have passages like the following:

Those who permit their senses to be despoiled of the things under their noses by stories of all manner of things removed and unattainable are of frail imagination....A frail imagination, unequal to the tasks before it, is easily led astray.31

     The word imagination is used a great deal, and I take it to mean the desire to be fair to an object, both in itself and in what it has to do with other objects, no matter how far it can get.

     Then there are words about composition:

It is only the music of the instruments which is joined and that not by the woodworker but by the composer, by virtue of the imagination.
     On this level of the imagination all things and ages meet in fellowship.32

     This means that if I say that Williams' work is related to something maybe honest in the Byzantine, he shouldn't mind, because somewhere the honesty that is in New Jersey goes along with the honesty in Byzantium.

On this level of the imagination all things and ages meet in fellowship. Thus only can they, peculiar and perfect, find their release. This is the beneficent power of the imagination.33

(The word beneficent wouldn't be used now. It would be looked on as too "soft." It would be said that this is the "corrosive" power of the imagination.)

     A. further passage. There is a lot about flowering. The word flowering has always meant something good, as we see in the word flourish. When things prosper, they flourish, and that comes from the word flower. There is a strange arrangement—Williams says he got it from the Italian eighteenth-century poet and musician, Metastasio—it's got codas, and sections. (Pound was very fond of codas.) I may say that there is a coda, as far as I remember, in Paterson, too. Well, a coda is a statement that is at the end of something and, though it is apart, tends to help sum it up or add to it. It is the same word as tail, really. I have always been puzzled by the word, though.

 

Acknowledgements:

16. A Voyage to Pagany (New York: The Macaulay Company, 1928), p. 70.
17. In the American Grain (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925), p. 198.
18. "Comedy Entombed: 1930," Make Light of It, p. 327.
19. "The Dawn of Another Day," Make Light of It, pp. 144-145.
20. "Country Rain," Make Light of It, p. 309.
21. "In Northern Waters," Make Light of It, pp. 262-263.
22. Make Light of It, p. 263
23. "Verbal Transcription—6 A.M.," Make Light of It, p. 285.
24. Lines 1-6. The whole poem was read. Text is in CEP, pp. 241-242.
25. "Spring and All," lines 16-18.
26. Prologue, Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920), p. 16. Since the lecture was given, a new edition was published by City Lights Books (1957). The City Lights edition does not include the Prologue.
27. Prologue, Kora, p. 16.
28. Autobiography, p. 146.
29. Autobiography, p. 146.
30. Prologue, Kora, p. 19.
31. Prologue, Kora, p. 21.
32. Prologue, Kora, p. 21.
33. Prologue, Kora, p. 21.

 

Acknowledgments

Our thanks for permission to use extensive quotations from the following:
     "Vistas," from The Selected Poems of Alfred Kreymborg 1912-1944, © 1945, by Alfred Kreymborg. Reprinted by permission of E. P. Dutton & Co.
     Lines from "The Hollow Men" in Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T. S. Eliot, © 1936, by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: © 1963, 1964 by T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
     Passages from Kora in Hell, © 1957 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.


Copyright © 1957, 1964, 1970 by Definition Press

 

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