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A poet witnessing the chicory flower and realizing its virtues of form and color so constructs his praise of it as to borrow no particle from right or left. He gives his poem over to the flower and its plant themselves that they may benefit by those cooling winds of the imagination which thus returned upon them will refresh them at their task of saving the world.34

     This is very much related to Aesthetic Realism, because aesthetics, according to Aesthetic Realism, is the highest kind of honesty. Williams here says that if the "cooling winds of the imagination" return upon the flower and its plant, they "will refresh them at their task of saving the world." "Saving the world" suddenly! This is what I meant when I said that the honesty that is in Williams' poems has got some notion of a world also coming into form. The idea appeared early. And the desire of getting the world into form is the big thing that we see in the tackling of all the confusion, past and present, in Paterson.

     Then there is a statement quoted from Kandinsky about what every artist has to do. This is almost in tabular form:

Every artist has to express himself.
Every artist has to express his epoch.
Every artist has to express the pure and eternal
    qualities of the art of all men.35

That is what I mean by the democracy of the imagination. But there is distinction, too.

     So far, these quotations have been from the Kora in Hell Prologue, which is critical. Then there is prose which can be considered as a little bit like that of the West Wind, if it were writing. There is a lot of dancing around, but it's good. There is some writing which goes dancing around hither and thither, up and down, and there is more dynamics than accuracy; here I think there is dynamics and also accuracy. But I can see where this would be a little frowned on by the persons who want verse to be like thuds on carpet. This is from Section 3 of Part II of the Improvisations:

Hark! it is the music! Whence does it come? What! Out of the ground? Is it this that you have been preparing for me? Ha, goodbye, I have a rendez vous in the tips of three birch sisters. Encouragé vos musiciens! Ask them to play faster. I will return—later. Ah you are kind.—and I? must dance with the wind, make my own snow flakes, whistle a contrapuntal melody to my own fuge! Huzza then, this is the dance of the blue moss bank! Huzza then, this is the mazurka of the hollow log! Huzza then, this is the dance of rain in the cold trees.36

     That dance of the blue moss bank should remain! There's no reason not to have it! And the interesting thing is that word dance related to moss.

     Then there is a passage which is related to the Coleridge line about the one leaf:

So far away August green as it yet is. They say the sun still comes up o'mornings and it's harvest moon now. Always one leaf at the peak twig swirling, swirling and apples rotting in the ditch.37

     Here again we have the desire to put together mo­tion and rest. The apples rotting in the ditch are one kind of motion, and the swirling leaf is something else.
     
      Then we have writing that can be seen as a little bit like Rimbaud. There is something you begin with, and then you have a swift associative jump—which sometimes is too swift for the reader. But the question is, is it honest? As I see it, these jumps are honest.

What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But if you pick one berry from the ash tree I'd not know it again for the same no matter how the rain washed. Make my bed of witch hazel twigs, said the old man, since they bloom on the brink of winter.38

There is a rhythm to the prose. There is a different rhythm in Make Light of It.
 
    Talking about rhythm, there is another matter: the relation of the rhythm of prose to the rhythm of the line. Saintsbury is one of the persons who has written on that subject: The History of English Prose Rhythm. I don't believe that he's said even the penultimate word, but the fact is, he has taken prose rhythm very seriously, and he has shown that there is a relation of heavy and light syllables.

     Going on with the idea of the democracy of imagination, Williams, though seeing himself as a poet, says that even in commercial people there is a desire for art. And that is said so seldom. Most often, we just want to épater la bourgeoisie, we want to shock them into abasement. They can do it themselves—we don't have to try.

Living with and upon and among the poor, those that gather in a few rooms, sometimes very clean, sometimes full of vermine, there are certain pestilential individuals, priests, school teachers, doctors, commercial agents of one sort or another who though they themselves are full of graceful perfections nevertheless contrive to be so complacent of their lot, floating as they are with the depth of a sea beneath them, as to be worthy only of amused contempt. Yet even to these sometimes there rises that which they think in their ignorance is a confused babble of aspiring voices not knowing what ancient harmonies these are to which they are so faultily listening.39

That is very humane: the idea of a vice-president of a bank having harmonies in him.

     The matter of fake and honesty has been put by Williams in ever so many ways. Sometimes he wondered, maybe if he was somewhat more adroit, he'd get further: look what all these people are doing. Here he makes it a fight between the lamps and the sun. It is well said:

Throw that flower in the waste basket, it's faded. And keep an eye to your shoes and fingernails. The fool you once laughed at has made a fortune! There's small help in a clutter of leaves either, no matter how they gleam. Punctillio's the thing. A nobby vest. Spats. Lamps carry far, believe me, in lieu of sunshine!40

That is well said, and I don't see why it should be disregarded. I think if that were put in verse form, what would happen to it is what could happen, let us say, to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address—there's rhythm there.

     The most beautiful thing about a line is that the two desires of man are satisfied in a line of poetry: activity and quietude. I talked in an Aesthetic Realism class of the life of Francis Parkman: he wanted to be among the Indians, but he had to be in his room, writing painfully. There was a tremendous desire to climb peaks, to go into the West, which he satisfied with The Oregon Trail; but we see in his life that there was a great desire also to be still. Those things which are in people are the things which words, all the time, are settling in their way. We have this beautifully put in the following sentence:

Violence has begotten peace, peace has fluttered away in agitation.42

     Then there is the desire, which Williams has had, of participating very much in things—crawling, as it were, within the trunk of life—and then the being aloof from it. This is shown in this passage of Improvisations XII:

The trick is never to touch the world anywhere. Leave yourself at the door, walk in, admire the pictures, talk a few words with the master of the house, question his life a little, rejoin yourself at the door—and go off arm in arm listening to last week's symphony played by angel hornsmen from the benches of a turned cloud.43

Well, that is very nice.

     And then we have this passage:

And imagining himself to be two persons he eases his mind by putting his burdens upon one while the other takes what pleasure there is before him.44

That means a great deal.

     Another interesting thing in the line is, that lines should be high and low. There is a digging deep. And very often in Williams' writings there is a feeling that if you dig, you will get to space and freedom. I could show this in one way or another in many poems in both volumes of the collected poems. Sometimes it's not so obvious, but here we have it pretty straight. I should say that Williams, trying to be friendly, sometimes says "mon cher," "mon ami," "townspeople," "my friends," and that is very taking. Here we have "mon ami":

Dig deeper mon ami, the rock maidens are running naked in the dark cellars.45

     And what I have seen as an understanding of mothers is in a passage here. It is an aesthetic problem, how a person should see his mother. Williams has been very much affected by that. In the Later Poems, there is a poem about a mother's last days. It has a dream which interested me a great deal, about a tiger who was both fierce and, it seems, looking for a rest. It is called "Two Pendants" and it is a very good thing. In another poem, "Eve," and in quite a few other places, there is a desire to see a mother both kindly and critically. Some of the most honest writing about mothers, I have seen in Williams' works. But we see the beginning of that in a passage from Kora in Hell. (I should say that Kora means Persephone, who lived above ground half the year and below half the year.) Well, this is about the mother:

A woman on the verge of growing old kindles in the mind of her son a certain curiosity which spinning upon itself catches the woman herself in its wheel, stripping from her the accumulations of many harsh years and shows her at last full of an old time suppleness hardly to have been guessed by the stiffened exterior which had held her fast till that time.46

     In Williams' early work there is talk about the fourteen-year-old who is too jaunty and doesn't want to see people of all ages. That is good, because you're never too young to understand, or try to understand.


     A further passage is on how a poem is made. Now, a poem is made casually and deliberately, in varying degrees (the casual would stand for the spontaneous). It is the making one which we see in a river. Williams is very much given to the river. The river is that which moves as it remains. In an early work, Williams insults the Passaic; he does so in In the American Grain—he calls it the swillhouse. Later, it seems, he was kinder to the Passaic.

     A river is something which is because it moves. A line should be like that. And some of the going sideways while sticking to a point, is in this passage:

That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are talking in our day's-affairs mingles with what we see in the streets and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations.47

     There is a kind of chemistry. We see things, and they become us. Williams' works are one of the best examples of the meaning in Whitman's poem, "There Was a Child Went Forth."

     A statement which Miss Koch quotes is interesting because—well, its meaning is just illimitable:

After thirty years of staring at one true phrase he discovered that its opposite was true also.48

     There is a dealing with lies, and the constant thing is: How can there be the sun, and a moon, and a flower—a begonia, or chicory, or anemone—and still all these lies? How can the world be this way?

It's lies, walking, spitting, breathing, coughing lies that bloom, shine sun, shine moon.49

That is a prelude to Paterson: about how the world can seem to be going on unspoiled while there is all this dishonest junk.

     Then there is a relation between light and dark:

That which is known has value only by virtue of the dark. This cannot be otherwise.  A thing known passes out of the mind into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it.50

That is physiology, but it is also criticism. What happens when a thought comes into us?  What happens even physiologically? That could be commented on very much.

     A further passage is about how all objects can make for wonder:

The particular thing, whether it be four pinches of four divers white powders cleverly compounded to cure surely, safely, pleasantly a painful twitching of the eyelids or say a pencil sharpened at one end, dwarfs the imagination, makes logic a butterfly, offers a finality that sends us spinning through space, a fixity the mind could climb forever, a revolving mountain, a complexity with a surface of glass: the gist of poetry.51

Williams is constantly trying to change flatness into relief and motion. He does that in a poem called "The Term" which deals with paper that gets rumpled, and then flat—but it stays, I think, rumpled.

     Then there is a passage about the one day. In Paterson, something that is now quoted and has come to be decidedly known, is the passage about one night; but there is a prelude to that in the one day of Kora in Hell:

Seeing the leaves dropping from the high and low branches the thought rises: this day of all others is the one chosen, all other days fall away from it on either side and only itself remains in perfect fulness.52

     That is in relation to this bit of music from Paterson about the one night. And since I want to deal with early work and late work, I'm going to read this passage. It is lyrical; it is suffused with the mysterious lusciousness of night.

On this most voluptuous night of the year
the term of the moon is yellow with no light
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

          Now love might enjoy its play
and nothing disturb the full octave of its run.53

     Here love is presented as a rich tranquillity that doesn't have to be taken back; and there is a good deal in Williams' writings of love that has to be taken back.

     So we find that some things in Paterson could very well be in the Kora in Hell. Take a statement like this, about virtue:

                       Virtue,
my kitten, is a complex reward in all
languages, achieved slowly.54

There is much ethics there.

     And the notion of language in Paterson is really coherent with what is said in Kora in Hell:

So much talk of the language—when there are no ears
.  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                  But it is true, they fear
it more than death, beauty is feared
more than death, more than they fear death

                  Beautiful thing

—and marry only to destroy, in private, in
their privacy only to destroy, to hide55

That means very much. As they say in the French, beaucoup and toujours.

     Then the business about the dance is put in another way. It seems that Williams once saw a tin roof rising. I imagine he saw it, because it seems everything he writes about, he saw. This does give a feeling: it's the first time, as far as I know, that verse has been made of a tin roof flying.

                       a shriek of fire with
the upwind, whirling the room away—to reveal
the awesome sight of a tin roof (1880)
entire, half a block long, lifted like a
skirt, held by the fire—to rise at last,
almost with a sigh, rise and float, float
upon the flames as upon a sweet breeze,
and majestically drift off, riding the air56

     We have statements about the poem, and though Williams says again and again that the poem should be local, again and again he says it's also about the whole world—which, of course, it is. You have to be somewhere before you can be anywhere.

The province of the poem is the world.
When the sun rises, it rises in the poem
and when it sets darkness comes down
and the poem is dark     .57

     There is much about dark and light; and there is a passage about genius and syllables. Sometimes Williams seems to think that poetry is so hard to get, it's a matter really of centuries. Sometimes he thinks he picks it up in every place he visits.

  —in a hundred years, perhaps—
 the syllables
                   (with genius)
                                or perhaps
two lifetimes

Sometimes it takes longer     . 58

     Then Williams describes a relation, which has always been—it was among the troubadours—in every person: the desire to see and the desire to love, and the way the two can fight:

Did I do more than share your guilt, sweet
        woman. The
cherimoya is the most delicately flavored of all
tropic fruit.   .   .   Either I abandon you
or give up writing      .59

This question has been for a very long time.


34. Prologue, Kora, p. 22.
35. Prologue, Kora, p. 27.
36. Kora, p. 36. City Lights ed., p. 13.
37. Kora, p. 37. City Lights ed., p. 14.
38. Kora, p. 37. City Lights ed., pp. 14-15.
39. Kora, p. 47. City Lights ed., p. 26.
40. Kora, p. 51. City Lights ed., p. 31.
42. Kora, p. 56. City Lights ed., p. 39.
43. Kora, p. 56. City Lights ed., p. 39.
44. Kora, p. 56. City Lights ed., p. 40.
45. Kora, p. 58. City Lights ed., p. 42.
46. Kora. pp. 66-67. City Lights ed., p. 54.
47. Kora, p. 63. City Lights ed., p. 49.
48. Kora, p. 68. City Lights ed., p. 57.
49. Kora. p. 72. City Lights ed., p. 62.
50 Kora, p. 77. City Lights ed., p. 71.
51 Kora, p. 85. City Lights ed., p. 82.
52. Kora, p. 85. City Lights ed., p. 83.
53. Paterson, p. 105. The whole passage was read.
54. Paterson, p. 220.
55. Paterson, p. 129. The passage quoted was from "So much talk of the language" through "not in infamy, not death."
56. Paterson, p. 147. The passage quoted was from "a shriek of fire through "(but not our minds)."
57. Paterson, p. 122. The passage quoted here was from "The province of the poem" through "in the dark."
58. Paterson, p. 171.
59. Paterson, p. 171.

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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