With Ignorance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

This is an intriguing, insistent, difficult book. Readers too comfortable with their preconceptions about poetry will have a hard time with it, but it rewards patience with unique delight. To begin with, the book’s size is deceptive: fourteen poems in thirty-seven pages might seem too few to make a book. But these poems are remarkably large, both literally and figuratively. They are written in very long lines, like certain poems of Whitman or the recent poems of William Jay Smith. But the resemblance to other poems is almost purely typographical. Fresh technique is here applied to a difficult problem: How far can poetry be pushed in the direction of meditative and narrative prose, and still retain the compression, the intensity, and the rhythms of poetry? It is not merely that the lines are long and that the tone is discursive; the problem is made more difficult by the nature of the ideas that inform the poems. Williams is fiercely and blatantly concerned with the abstract themes of good, evil, love, death, and so on. This does not in itself make him unique among poets, of course, but among poets of the last several decades, he is almost unique in his success with poems heavily laden with the names of abstract ideas.

“Go in fear of abstractions,” Pound said, and poets have almost universally taken that advice in the past sixty years. Richard Wilbur once offered the qualification that not everything should be conveyed by imagery; he believed that there ought to be areas of statement in poems, as long as the statement did not overwhelm the objects in them. But in five lines plucked at random from Williams’ title poem, we find some dozen abstractions fearlessly listed:

Imagine dread. Imagine, without symbol, without figure,history or histories; a place, not a place.Imagine it must be risen through, beginning with the silentmoment, the secrets quieted,one hour, one age at a time, sadness, nostalgia, the absurdpain of betrayal.Through genuine grief, then, through the genuine sufferingfor the boundaries of selfand the touch on the edge, the compassion, that never,never quite, breaks through.

A poem that goes on more or less like this for seven pages must be prepared for somehow, or it will never find a reader. Williams knows more than his publisher does about such preparation; the blurb-writer at Houghton Mifflin says “The final long poem . . . will be seen as one of the important poems of the decade.” It is tempting, in view of that statement, to wait a few years and see; but with great tact and finesse, Williams leads the reader to that final long poem.

The collection opens with “The Sanctity,” a meditation in language somewhat more colloquial than that quoted above. The speaker is watching construction workers, and remembering the men he worked with when he did jobs of that kind. Those men were unpredictable and mysterious; cheerful and generous on the job, they might elsewhere turn sullen, almost murderous, “and it would be frightening trying to figure out which person they really were.” The center of the poem is an account of the speaker’s visit to the home of one of his coworkers. After dinner, the host’s mother, who lives in the house, sits staring at a cantaloupe she holds in her hands; the host’s wife is oddly enraged by this behavior, and finally pulls from the shelf a book called The History of Revolutions. In it she finds a photograph of an executioner holding a dead man’s head in exactly the same way. The host goes berserk and starts breaking furniture, so the speaker leaves. The next day, both act as if nothing has happened. The poem ends back at the construction site that started the whole recollection:

Listen: sometimes when you go to speak about life it’s as though yourmouth’s full of nailsbut other times it’s so easy that it’s ridiculous to even bother. . . .Listen to the back-hoes gearing up and the shouts and somebody cracking hissledge into the mortar pan.Listen again. He’ll do it all day if you want him to. Listen again.

That last line sends the reader back into the poem, eventually to ponder the central anecdote, which is on first reading so bizarre, compelling, and plausible that one reads it quickly, as he would fiction, not stopping to ask rather obvious questions: What sort of people keep The History of Revolutions around the house, knowing it well enough to waste no time in finding a particular page? What sort of people carry on like maniacs when they have a guest in the house, and then make no reference to the episode later? Is this what construction workers are like? The naïve snobbery of the last question is of course embarrassing, but the poem raises it. Then it sends the reader out to listen—all day, if he likes—to the sound of a hammer hitting a mortar pan. It comes down to all that can be heard in a sound of such...

(The entire section is 2211 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, September, 1977, p. 867.

Library Journal. CII, June 15, 1977, p. 1386.

Nation. CCXXIV, June 18, 1977, p. 763.

New York Times Book Review. July 10, 1977, p. 14.

Yale Review. LXVII, October, 1977, p. 72.