|William Carlos Williams|
In the American Modernist pantheon William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) looms large as one of its most important poets, and rightly so; from his earliest collections to his last writings, he cut a powerful path of experimentation, using everyday American language and rhythms, and an array of forms, not unlike a painter or sculptor, that has continued to influence English-language poets of all kinds ever since. He may be best known for his short poems that children still learn--I hope!--in grade school and junior high, including "The Red Wheelbarrow" and the often-parodied but memorable "This is just to say," among others.
A trained physician and native of New Jersey whose mother was from Puerto Rico and whose father was from Great Britain, Williams published poetry, fiction, and criticism, with one of his greatest works, the long, elaborate, mixed-genre volume Paterson appearing late in his career. At the end of his life he again turned to shorter forms, and his Brueghel poem, in dialogue with Auden's (which I posted several days ago), appears in his last collection during his lifetime, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), which received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. (Like many a great poetry pioneer, he deserved numerous awards but was overlooked for many of them for most of his career.) I am not, however, going to feature his Brueghel entry (and I should note, he published several poems based on Brueghel's work, including "The Dance"), but instead, a poem from earlier in his career that I taught years ago and love: "The Great Figure."
Here the symbiosis differs from the usual poet's imaginative interaction with the art work. Williams wrote his poem, a Modernist pearl, first, and the painter Charles DeMuth (1883-1935), Williams' friend and one of many gifted artists who was conversant with the leading figures in the literary and visual arts in the first decades of the 20th century, painted his Cubist and Futurist-style oil painting, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" after reading Williams' poem, which despite its brevity brings a rainy city street at night fully to life though its flashes of imagery and its resonant music ("gong clangs"). Williams was on his way, after a long day at the clinic, to visit another artist friend, Marsden Hartley, and this poem, which could be considered exemplary of Imagism, was the result. DeMuth was enchanted, and produced his own memorable image in tribute. It has become a signature work of his and of the era.
THE GREAT FIGURE
by William Carlos Williams Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city.
Copyright © William Carlos Williams. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Here is DeMuth's masterpiece:
Charles Demuth, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold," 1928, oil, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board), Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, Museum of Modern Art, New York.