William Carlos Williams, whose poetry I’ve long felt to be, in hazy terms, slack and arbitrary, claiming, by its effusion, a iridescence of things and world that found little warrant beyond the poet’s sentimental willfulness. But that was lazy reading on my part, and to return to Williams, and wrench myself from such an ingrained prejudice of reading, has afforded a sense of genuine excitement, as well as, perhaps, a suspicion that I confused Williams with his imitators. Though it wasn’t the Tomlinson selection that converted me, it was his selection of the early poems that guided me. (And it is worth stressing that the poems I am discussing are the poems of the 1920s and 1930s).
In its simplest, I recognize now in Williams’ poetry extends into the imaginative territory that Wordsworth opened in “Resolution and Independence,” with its focus in the question, “How is it that you live and what is it you do?” Wordsworth’s poem is about his encounter solitary figure existing on the margins of society; the leeches he gathers are emblems for a parasitism that is salutary, since they would be sold to medical practitioners. I do not mean that Williams invokes Wordsworth’s poem, but that Wordsworth’s poem is the touchstone for thinking about what Williams effects: his poems themselves are about the resolution to live, and the independence of life; they are records of substance, and the life of substance, overcoming nothing. In Williams’ poem, life exists, as it does for Wordsworth’s figure at a limit; but what’s more, life is a limit; it is a margin, both in the sense that it is marginal and in the sense that it is excess it carries within it both senses of waste, as remnant and profusion, and the poems are records and embodiments of a labor that is heroic, thought of such doubtful consequence that it comes to seem mock-heroic; it is itself a laboring for the margins and at the margins, a labor for and of something barely emerged, soon falling back into a common gravity that soon overcomes it; the poems present and represent determination to bring something about, to gather into themselves, despite the inertia. The force of that inertia, the resistance of gravity, is everywhere felt, in their depictions of nature, of desire, of working life, and of humanity alike; they are, I think, more pessimistic than I once saw. That the poems can be read as light, supple, fluid, and flickering speaks to their judgment of what the margin of life they gather is like; but to read them aright is to apprehend also the weight against which each line pulls. A lot has been said for or against Williams’ principles of lineation and rhythm, not least by Williams; but at the very least, the visual and auditory sense of living along the margin of the page, of being themselves a margin of significance against the blankness, seems centrally relevant; the movement from line to line, I think, needs to be heard, not reasoned from principles.
What I’ve just offered is a generalization, which needs to be variously modified, extended, reduced, and altered for individual poems; but it is intended to guide the eye as it follows their shape. Take the following:
The Pot of Flowers
Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamp’s horn
petals aslant darkened with mauve
red where in whorls
petal lays its glow upon petal
round flamegreen throats
petals radiant with transpiercing light
reaching up their modest green
from the pot’s rim
and there, wholly dark, the pot
gay with rough moss.
That the poem has a shape, a progress, and drama becomes evident by the penultimate stanza, where the verb “contending” focuses the action of the flower and the action of perception alike; we recognize that the “pink confused with white” of the opening line was not just the chaos of fertile abundance, potential form waiting to find itself, but that it signaled a failure of form to realize its potential, a collapse into itself which the poem overcomes only after “throats” which both constricts in breathlessness and takes in the air that follows. But the poem’s destination is not the leaves reaching up in modest green (their success only, perforce, a modest one), but instead it is the pot itself, so that even in the moment of their escape, they are barely above the pot’s rim, with the pot, its hard lifeless form, its weight, the poem’s destination: it is “wholly dark” with the soil, its own clay, in the shadows, and also in contrast to the life of the plant, with “wholly” an exaggeration of description in service of an exact accounting of metaphysical substance. But “the pot” is not the end in itself; it is what grows on the pot, what is neither flower nor pot: “gay with rough moss,” this is the stuff of life as it usually shows itself; “gay” grants space to hope and happiness but rough moss tempers the possible ambitions of the life. There is contained in the poem, in other words, an epic drama on miniature scale, self-consciously banal and mundane and even disappointing, as the leech-gatherer is, by the end of that poem.
In other poems by Williams, the endings are sources of inertia and absence, whence the poems climb and to which they return. Here is “To Elsie”:
The pure products of America
mountain folk from Kentucky
or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and
valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
and promiscuity between
devil-may-care men who have taken
out of sheer lust of adventure—
and young slatterns, bathed
from Monday to Saturday
to be tricked out that night
from imaginations which have no
peasant traditions to give them
but flutter and flaunt
sheer rags—succumbing without
save numbed terror
under some hedge of choke-cherry
which they cannot express—
Unless it be that marriage
with a dash of Indian blood
will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder
that she’ll be rescued by an
reared by the state and
sent out at fifteen to work in
house in the suburbs—
some doctor’s family, some Elsie—
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us—
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
and adjust, no one to drive the car
It’s patently obvious how charged with social terror, anxiety, and despair the poem is, and the ceaseless momentum of the first eighteen stanzas only finds a destination in the final four stanzas, whose brief upward arc and descent trace a path of feeling found throughout the early poetry of Williams. There’s nothing easy or especially satisfying about what the imagination achieves or how it proceeds, straining as it does. The entire ending might be read—might, but need not be—as the finale of an “as if” clause, which is suitable in so far as the lines are themselves about the act of imagination and suspended possibility that is conveyed by the phrase “as if.” The imagination hungers, barely eking out an existence on what it is given to feed upon: “it seems to destroy us”. Seems to, but does not. But that is not the final resting place; the gravitational pull is instead gathered into the mundane: “no one to drive the car.” This is another domestic task Elsie or any of the laborers of the poem might perform, here made analogous with witnessing and adjusting: witnessing the isolate flecks (of beauty, life, hope, imagination, etc) and adjusting to them, presumably (?). But also “adjust” the car, with the implication being that the car is, like the imagination, pursuing the deer along the field, in the stifling September heat; the effect is to suggest that the imagination straining after deer is itself dependent on the same discarded and disregarded labor that the poem observes in its first two-thirds, or is itself form of discarded and disregarded labor, and also to bring the strained flight of the imagination back to the material isolation of the social world that the poem describes. This Williams is a near relation to D.H. Lawrence.
The point I’m making is very obvious in the farmer poem from Spring and All and even in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” where the word “depends” carries much of the semantic weight of the poem, suggesting dependency and weight and the downward force from which the poem’s labor, itself turned on a tool of labor, would resist, all the way to “chickens” in the final line which, though not bleak, is aptly without much weight or sense, the butt of a joke, the insignificance and triviality of which has the last word in the poem (that descent to the trivial, accepted as trivial, is a lesson from Wordsworth).
As grim, dark, and worn-down as this version of Williams is, it would be wrong to insist that the poem’s end in nothingness or sterility; the “rough moss” is emblematic of their ambivalence. In “The Yachts,” the tension between solidity and emptiness, form and shapelessness, striving and fatigue, sharp control and passive drift, is both Williams’ subject and his means of addressing the subject:
contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too-heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses
tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute
brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls
ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.
In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare
as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is feckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them
is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts
move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas.
Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair
until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind;
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken,
beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.
This poem is more overt in its epic heroism than any of the others I’ve quoted; its extremes of gravity and grace more apparent. The full sweep of its lines carries and is carried by the numerous jostling strivings brought into some unity by the form of the yachts. But the ending of the poem registers not the heroism and graceful striving of the yachts but what is suffered and incurred by that heroism and grace: an indifference to a phantasmagoric “entanglement of watery bodies,” the image suggestive both of bodies emerging out of water, and bodies lost to the water. I would not read the lines as referring to bodies of the drowned, but instead as figuring forth such bodies in the water to evoke the waste of the sea (Tennyson: “the sea wastes all”); the shapeless water is animated by the ghosts of lost life, which the yachts pass over, so that “skillful” is given double-edge, a term of praise but also a reminder that skillfully contending with the sea means floating above what perhaps ought not to be ignored. At the end of the poem, Williams suggests a failing inherent in the heroism of surviving and contending (Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas all reckon with, and are helpless before, a similar failing); a failing inherent in formal perfection too: a willed ignorance that might be cruelty. Here, Williams comes close to the insights of Yeats and Stevens about heroism that turns away from suffering, or that depends upon, is sustained by (as the Yachts are sustained by), a stock of pain and violence. But, as in the other poems, we should not insist too severely on the poem’s darkness; the yachts skillfully navigate, and guilt is not inherent in that skill. The poem refuses to explore the depths—but nor does it attempt to take flight from them; it is bound and propelled by that with which it contends, that tense adherence never forsaken, leaving space for a margin of doubt and margin of hope.