Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 22)
ROBERT von HALLBERG
Everyone knows the remark by Williams that if canvases were less cumbersome, he might have been a painter rather than a poet. Williams earnestly believed that more than any other art painting held the power to change modern culture. One of his many criticisms of his friend Ezra Pound was that the expatriate "missed the major impact of his age" largely because of his insensitivity to painting…. Bram Dijkstra has assembled a fine volume of Williams's writings on art [William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists], including essays on Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz, Bosch, John Marin, Brancusi, and others…. Many of these essays concern American artists, which is just what would be expected from the champion of the American Idiom and the Local. However, the truth is … that Williams pretended to greater naiveté than he possessed. His taste in painting was distinctly European; this was the taste of his generation. (pp. 500-01)
As an art critic, Williams's ability was limited. The essays in this volume are not extraordinary for what they say about particular painters or paintings…. [Rather, the] most important essays in this book—"Art and Politics: The Editorship of Blast" (1933), "Revolutions Revalued: The Attack on Credit Monopoly from a Cultural Viewpoint" (1936), "Woman as Operator" (1948), and "The Portrait: Emmanuel Romano" (1966)—are focused on issues that go way beyond the...
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[T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens] are the two poets in the American Modern tradition one would least expect Williams to honor. Yet honor them he does and, in fact, he could be said to join their ranks. For in the seven years between the publication of the fourth and fifth books of Paterson, between 1951 and 1958, Williams and his poetry underwent a profound change.
In 1951 Williams suffered his first stroke and was forced to retire [from his medical practice]. Three years later he published The Desert Music and Other Poems, a transition volume marked on the one hand by energy, confidence, and curiosity in the "local" and on the other by an almost desperate confusion in the face of an exhausted and weak old age. Of these two extremes, marked by "The Desert Music" and "For Eleanor and Bill Monahan," "The Desert Music" came first. (pp. 133-34)
Written in the manner of the first four books of Paterson, it deals with essentially the same problem but accomplishes what they never could—it glorifies the city…. "Desert Music" is not a poem of reminiscence, or an agony of descent, or of memory, as some have read it, but a poem of action and characteristic Williams shoulder-to-shoulder contact with a living culture, the local, the real.
Why was this possible in Juárez and El Paso and not in Paterson, New Jersey? All these cities are stamped by poverty. But in the south Williams discovers a culture which is full of color, music, and a people who are alive, vital, and vibrant. The reason: these people are the descendants, the survivors, of the Aztec culture which Williams rapturously idealized and which, he had more than once mused, could have been "the pure American addition to world culture." Latins, Spanish Indians, Mexicans, displaced white Americans—what is most important is that these people have not divorced the soul from the body. As we see even in "Desert Music," Williams believed that it is from the association of the body and the soul—even a perverse association—that a healing and glorifying poetry of the city is born. (p. 134)
"The Desert Music" is Williams' strongest affirmation of both his power as a poet and the power of poetry as a "music of survival." Sadly, it is also his last muscular, masculine poem and as such would appear the appropriate sequel to Paterson IV, a better Paterson V than the poem itself. For Williams, the poem had always been the locus of the body and mind (or the imagination, as Williams often calls it), and this is achieved, with vigor, in "Desert Music." The triumph is all the more moving because Williams was struggling against physical odds; the constant fear is that the mind will be weakened also. Moreover, necessarily the relationship between the body and the mind (and it was always an intimate connection for Williams) must change, and thus we may not be surprised to see that after "Desert Music," Williams' notion of what a poem is also changes; the mind now lives first and foremost in words, not the body. (p. 135)
If Williams' notion of poetry changes with age and physical infirmity, we might also observe that so do his poetic mode and his poetic line…. The fertile profusion of rhythms, the open form, the voices of everyday speech of "Desert Music"—all contract to the meditative religious chant of the not-so variable foot in "For Eleanor and Bill Monahan." In this strange poem Williams confesses to an anguish, weakness, loss of potency, and confusion about his sexual identity…. (p. 136)
[In Journey to Love, published a scant year later, the] extremes of mood of the previous volume have disappeared, and in their place we find a calm persistence and pervading tone of reminiscence. Overshadowed by the world of memory, the world of particulars shrinks to an occasional window sparrow, a bus station drunk, or a look in his son's eyes. But by and large, "the hollows of the eyes," as he says in "Shadows," "are unpeopled." All no longer depends on the celebrated red wheelbarrow and its white chickens for, as he puts it in the major, and by far the longest, poem of the book, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" …:
as we think, the death of love,
any more suffices to differentiate
of place and condition
with which we have been long
The outlines are blurred, he says; they cannot help him know what he must know about his own death if it is to be "real." It is, in other words, not place, not particulars, which can give him either peace or meaning. Although too simple a formulation, we might say that his creed has become in a very real sense no longer the famous tenet "no ideas but in things" but the opposite—"no things but in ideas." (p. 137)
["Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"] has moments of lyric fineness and compression, but for the most part it is strung together on the loose and unconvincing principle of the Autobiography: one incident yields to another; Williams writes to keep on writing. Just as we do not learn in his Autobiography what the "hidden core" of his life is (and we suspect that perhaps he did not know either), in "Asphodel" we do not see how his absolution is won. He opens the poem asking for forgiveness from his wife (the symbol of their love, the asphodel, he writes in a touching phrase, has a "moral order"); he presents himself alternately as anguished and self-vaunting, and he closes the poem asserting that she has indeed forgiven him…. We want to agree, with some relief, but it is difficult to see the poetic means by which this forgiveness is gotten. I do not wish to beat an old man's poem to death, but "Asphodel" raises a serious poetic problem. The long poem was not Williams' strength, nor was, it must be admitted, prose. To achieve a basic transformation of feeling is perhaps a dramatic art which he did not possess….
Nothing if not a consistently restless and courageous man, who perhaps overextended himself, Williams could not rest with the unchallenging sweetness of "Asphodel." In 1958 Paterson V was published. Acclaimed a masterpiece—and that it surely is—Book V does, as few tire of pointing out, affirm-the-triumph-of-the-imagination-over-death-and-old-age. But, Paterson V, as this paean might lead one to expect, is not just a variation on the theme of "Asphodel." This is his most complex meditative poem, and as a poem "du Vieux Sage" it differs radically from all others he had written. (p. 139)
A self-appointed creator of American culture, Williams understood his mission when he conceived Paterson in its four books as that of making the American city real, of bringing into being an articulate whole…. By 1958 however, he had shifted from the provincial in the American grain to the Western universal in European art. If before his object was to make the American city real, in Book V his object is to make art real. Accordingly, in Book V the overlying allegorical structure—the poet as city—is flatly dropped. Williams is no longer a heavily populated Paterson wanting to give voice to his thoughts, the people. Rather he is a private person who has little to do with the noise of the city and all to do with the quiet of a museum. In Book V the tone is no longer predominantly that of aggressive pursuit of the city's geography, its workers, books, and Sunday afternoons. Instead it is meditative, reminiscent, and largely lyrical. The flat and jagged edge of prose has almost entirely disappeared, and with it has disappeared the concern with American history. The American Indian is replaced by the huntsman and unicorn of medieval legend. The lower class, scarred, "cheap" black woman ("Beautiful Thing") is displaced by the aristocratic maiden of the French tapestries. Tradition, in short, supersedes, or at least surrounds, individual (local) talent.
What does this radical shift of priorities mean? It means for Williams failure in the attempt to make the local universal. It means failure in the attempt to realize in the American city a sustaining culture. It means, to use one of the dominant metaphors of the first four books, divorce from the city. Moreover it means an acceptance of the long-familiar and long-rejected position of Pound and Eliot—that the tradition of other cultures can give sustenance where our own wasteland cannot…. [The] two examples of art which he focuses on [are] the fifteenth-century French tapestries housed at New York City's Cloisters and Peter Breughel's Nativity. This is what Williams chose, not, as one might have expected from his American background, native American sources for his myths, or twentieth-century American painters and photographers … for his art. In Book V it is as though he had never written his brilliant, precocious, and passionate book In the American Grain. It is as though he could no longer write a "Desert Music."
This being understood, the fruitful approach, in other words, is not to struggle with reconciling the unexpected ground of Book V with the rest of Williams' work, but to come to terms with the very significant differences which exist. And the suspicion inevitably occurs. Was Williams running off to the peripheries, as he had accused Pound and Eliot of doing? Would it be fair to characterize him as a "subtle conformist," as he himself had once characterized Eliot? Would it be accurate to say that in Book V Williams chooses caviar, not bread; that he reveals a taste for the exquisite which he had more than once associated with Pound? It seems fair to say he does.
The basic opposition set up in the whole of Paterson thus can be defined as the conflict between culture (American) and art, or alternatively put, the city and the museum. The two, it is clear, cannot be reconciled; neither can contain meaningfully or for long the other. Just why this is so has much to do with Williams' concept of the city and his notion of culture. Consider Paterson itself. The first four books are built on the almost mystical and twin belief that man is defined by the city which he has built and lives in, and that the city itself is a living organism defined not only by its parts (its people) but also by its relationship to its surrounding landscape as well…. There is an interpenetration between the city and water and land, an identification between city and a new kind of man. More importantly, the city is a work of art, a moral entity. (pp. 140-42)
Before Book V, Williams (unlike Eliot and Pound, for whom the literary tradition exists in space, not time) held to an historical view of art. In this context, then, it is clear that the library, the museum, acts to keep the poet from the city. And it is the city which for Williams is the object of the poem….
But Williams was unable to make the city the province of Book V, the only book he left untitled, but which we might dedicate to the care and preservation of the museum. Paterson, that swill hole of democracy, was beyond saving. It could never be transformed into a Tenochtitlan, Williams' early vision of what the ideal...
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With due allowance for Williams' infirmities, haste, and pleasure in writing it, the Autobiography is still a baffling performance. It seems to proceed by fits and starts, as if Williams kept losing interest or the pathway as he recreated his past…. Williams' narrative rambles along, stopping to admire the intense blue of monkshood here, the facade of Rheims Cathedral there, to retail a piece of gossip or a childhood escapade, or to insert excerpts from Charles Olson's essay on Projective Verse, a document he approved because it validated his own experiments with rescuing the poetic line from stodginess. Like young Bill in the swing, he rocks back and forth, back and forth, the captive of no single mood,...
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