Sunday, April 15, 2012

Poem: William Carlos Williams

One of the most famous lines in American poetry about the importance poetry lies in one of the most beautiful long poems by one of America's finest poets, Dr. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), a poet whose career spanned the entire first half of the 20th century, and whose impact continues to resonate among poets many generations after.  Williams, for anyone unaware of his work, was one of the chief figures in American--and trans-Hemispheric--modernism, an Imagist in his early career, a pioneer in prosody and the hybrid poem, a mentor to innumerable poets, one of the most famous of them being Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997). Born in Rutherford, New Jersey the son of a Puerto Rican (Basque + Dutch Jewish) mother and an English father who grew up in Puerto Rico, Williams attended primary and secondary school in the US and briefly in Switzerland, before attending University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where he befriended Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

He published his first book, Poems, in 1909, and would go on to publish dozens more, as well as short stories, novels, critical texts, plays, translations, you name it, while living most of the rest of his life in New Jersey and practicing medicine. In my post on Marianne Moore, I mentioned the little magazine Others, and Pound joined this group in 1915, but he would eventually come to know nearly every one of his major American peers, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens (with whom he carried on a long correspondence), Conrad Aiken, among many others. One of the things I love about Williams as a poet was that he wrestled with two tendencies, which often clash: on the one hand, he was restlessly and relentlessly experimental, something that gets overlooked because of the seeming simplicity of his work, but what is a poem like "Spring and All" or "The Figure Five in Gold" (I love!!! this poem) or "The Red Wheelbarrow" or the almost completely assimilated "This is just to say" if not a challenge to the pre-existing body of English and American poetry? And yet as each of these poems demonstrates, he also aimed for simplicity, sometimes for a American plainspokenness, grounded in everyday speech, that made (and still makes) his poetry appear at times artless, especially when compared to works like Eliot's "The Waste Land" or Stevens's Harmonium or anything by Gertrude Stein.

In fact he was criticized more than once by his peers for his radical experiments, some of which, like Paterson, are brilliant failures, and which opened up vast spaces for poets writing alongside him and those who came after.  One of this later and most beautiful poems, from the 1955 collection Journey to Love, is the final long love lyric "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower"--notice how he balances out the meter of the title by added the extra syllable to "green," also intensifying and defamiliarizing, and simultaneously imbuing with affection this simple word--which is not just a hymn to his beloved, but a four-part pastoral that bears many dark notes, of self-criticism, regret, admonition, affirmation; it is a composition built to bear a great deal, and Williams, at the height of his powers, knew how to pull it off. I am including a long excerpt of it, up to the point of one of its most famous lines, which makes an argument for the poem itself and for poetry's power; however we take his words, it is clear that he knew what he was talking about, and knew, as the very best poets do, how to transform it into poetry.  If you can, read it aloud, for the entire excerpt, like the poem, rolls off the tongue like song. Should you want to read the entire poem or his other late masterpieces, they're collected in Pictures from Brueghel and other poems by William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1950-1962 (New Directions Publishing Corporation). Enjoy!

(an excerpt)

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
  like a buttercup
    upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
  I come, my sweet,
    to sing to you.
We lived long together
  a life filled,
    if you will,
with flowers.  So that 
  I was cheered
    when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
  in hell.
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
  that we both loved,
    even to this poor
colorless thing-
  I saw it
    when I was a child-
little prized among the living
  but the dead see,
    asking among themselves:
What do I remember
  that was shaped
    as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
  with tears.
    Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
  though too weak a wash of crimson
    colors it
to make it wholly credible.
  There is something
    something urgent
I have to say to you
  and you alone
    but it must wait
while I drink in
  the joy of your approach,
    perhaps for the last time.
And so
  with fear in my heart
    I drag it out
and keep on talking
  for I dare not stop.
    Listen while I talk on
against time.
  It will not be
    for long.
I have forgot
  and yet I see clearly enough
central to the sky
  which ranges round it.
    An odor
springs from it!
  A sweetest odor!
    Honeysuckle!  And now
there comes the buzzing of a bee!
  and a whole flood
    of sister memories!
Only give me time,
  time to recall them
    before I shall speak out.
Give me time,
When I was a boy
  I kept a book
    to which, from time
to time,
  I added pressed flowers
    until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
  The asphodel,
among them.
  I bring you,
a memory of those flowers.
  They were sweet
    when I pressed them
and retained
  something of their sweetness
    a long time.
It is a curious odor,
  a moral odor,
    that brings me
near to you.
  The color
    was the first to go.
There had come to me
  a challenge,
    your dear self,
mortal as I was,
  the lily's throat
    to the hummingbird!
Endless wealth,
  I thought,
    held out its arms to me.
A thousand tropics
  in an apple blossom.
    The generous earth itself
gave us lief.
  The whole world
    became my garden!
But the sea
  which no one tends
    is also a garden
when the sun strikes it
  and the waves
    are wakened.
I have seen it
  and so have you
    when it puts all flowers
to shame.
  Too, there are the starfish
    stiffened by the sun
and other sea wrack
  and weeds.  We knew that
    along with the rest of it
for we were born by the sea,
  knew its rose hedges
    to the very water's brink.
There the pink mallow grows
  and in their season
and there, later,
  we went to gather
    the wild plum.
I cannot say
  that I have gone to hell
    for your love
but often
  found myself there
    in your pursuit.
I do not like it
  and wanted to be
    in heaven.  Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
  from books
    and out of them
about love.
    is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
  which can be attained,
    I think,
in its service.
  Its guerdon
    is a fairy flower;
a cat of twenty lives.
  If no one came to try it
    the world
would be the loser.
  It has been
    for you and me
as one who watches a storm
  come in over the water.
    We have stood
from year to year
  before the spectacle of our lives
    with joined hands.
The storm unfolds.
    plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north
  is placid,
    blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up.
  It is a flower
    that will soon reach
the apex of its bloom.
  We danced,
    in our minds,
and read a book together.
  You remember?
    It was a serious book.
And so books
  entered our lives.
The sea!  The sea!
    when I think of the sea
there comes to mind
  the Iliad
    and Helen's public fault
that bred it.
  Were it not for that
    there would have been
 no poem but the world
  if we had remembered,
    those crimson petals
spilled among the stones,
  would have called it simply
The sexual orchid that bloomed then
  sending so many 
men to their graves
  has left its memory
    to a race of fools
or heroes
  if silence is a virtue.
    The sea alone
with its multiplicity
  holds any hope.
    The storm
has proven abortive
  but we remain
    after the thoughts it roused
  re-cement our lives.
    It is the mind
the mind
  that must be cured
    short of death's
  and the will becomes again
    a garden.  The poem
is complex and the place made
  in our lives
    for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
  but you do not get far
    with silence.
Begin again.
  It is like Homer's
    catalogue of ships:
it fills up the time.
  I speak in figures,
    well enough, the dresses
you wear are figures also,
  we could not meet
    otherwise.  When I speak
of flowers
  it is to recall
    that at one time
we were young.
  All women are not Helen,
    I know that,
but have Helen in their hearts.
  My sweet,
    you have it also, therefore
I love you
  and could not love you otherwise.
    Imagine you saw
a field made up of women
  all silver-white.
    What should you do
but love them?
  The storm bursts
    or fades!  it is not
the end of the world.
  Love is something else,
    or so I thought it,
a garden which expands,
  though I knew you as a woman
    and never thought otherwise,
until the whole sea
  has been taken up
    and all its gardens.
It was the love of love,
  the love that swallows up all else,
    a grateful love,
a love of nature, of people,
  of animals,
    a love engendering
gentleness and goodness
  that moved me
    and that I saw in you.
I should have known,
  though I did not,
    that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
  who whiff it.
    We had our children,
rivals in the general onslaught.
  I put them aside
    though I cared for them.
as well as any man
  could care for his children
    according to my lights.
You understand
  I had to meet you
    after the event
and have still to meet you.
    to which you too shall bow
along with me-
  a flower
    a weakest flower
shall be our trust
  and not because
    we are too feeble
to do otherwise
  but because
    at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
  therefore to prove
    that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
  that I could not cry to you
    in the act.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
  I come, my sweet,
    to sing to you!
My heart rouses
  thinking to bring you news
    of something
that concerns you
  and concerns many men.  Look at
    what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
  despised poems.
    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
  yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
of what is found there.
  Hear me out
    for I too am concerned
and every man
  who wants to die at peace in his bed

Copyright © 1962 by William Carlos Williams, in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1950-1962.  New York: Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. The Allen Ginsberg blog is currently publishing Allen's previously un-published 1975 lecture/class on Williams. The first segment is available here -