Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2211
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.
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“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 simplicity and distinctiveness; as Gary Snyder has suggested, much is called to mind by the unmistakable sound of a tire iron falling to the concrete floor of a service station.
The next three poems in the book—“Spit,” “Toil,” and “The Last Deaths”—may be said to work roughly as “The Sanctity” does. They take rise from a moment of observation, and through recollection laid out in direct, almost-prose lines, achieve meditative intensity by following a trail of associations that sometimes seems almost random, but which proves, by the time the poems end, to have been carefully wrought. And they all have at their center the desire for connection, the search in oneself for the Other.
But with “The Race of the Flood,” Williams introduces a significant variation. The diction remains colloquial, but the style becomes elusive. By means of relentless repetition of words and phrases, a tone close to hysteria is established almost at the outset, and is sustained to the end. The speaker is trying to explain how the desire for connection operates in himself. The first two-thirds of the poem takes examples of human desperation—someone who stays at home waiting for something, nothing, or everything to happen, and someone who walks about with messages pinned to himself—and the speaker says that somewhere in him there is each of these people. Within him there is almost any other manifestation of the human desire for other humans: “so within me, it lifts and goes through, lifts itself through, and burns, anyway, smiles, anyway.” This paraphrase does terrible violence to the poem, because in the breathless, let-me-say-that-another-way style, there is a difficulty of comprehension that is surprising after the directness of the preceding poems, and so the manner seems almost to overwhelm the subject, until it becomes clear that manner and subject are one.
At this point in their progress through the collection, some readers will begin thinking about poetic technique and its recent history. Like sonnets, for example, these poems all look alike from a distance; their shapes on the page do not vary. And, like sonnets, they begin to arouse certain expectations, and to fulfill them. Then, suddenly, like the best of sonnets, one of them will turn expectation around, and behave in a way that the earlier poems seemed not to suggest. Some readers, those who wish most poets still wrote sonnets, will be annoyed by what is going on here; they will accuse Williams of being just another of the chopped-prose writers made available to us in such profusion by anthologists like Daniel Halpern. But Williams is clearly a poet who could write in any form; he may not have written many sonnets lately, but if the need arises, he will write good ones.
The point is that the long verse line, unmetrical and unrhymed, can be used in so many ways that its limits are harder to imagine than the limits of a form like the sonnet. It is one of the signal achievements of this book that it makes the notion of such limits more nearly accessible, even as it appears to be extending them.
Following “The Race of the Flood,” Williams returns in “Bob” and “Bread” to the more conversational style of the earlier poems. But as before, he is building toward other variations, like “Near the Haunted Castle,” a scarifying satire of contemporary brutality, and “Hog Heaven,” a weird outburst of black humor which works the verb “to stink” as hard as anything in literature ever has. It is a platform piece, a performance, of considerable force, the more so because it stays perilously close to the edge of silliness without ever crossing over.
Just as “Bob” raises questions of narrative reliability, “Blades” explores further the validity of reality and dream; in the first part of the poem, the speaker recalls having stabbed a girl when he was himself a child. The scene, with all its terror and anger and doubt, is created with flawless plausibility. Then in the second part the speaker tells us that he relived that day many times before realizing that he was only a bystander, that the stabbing had been done by some other child. At the end of the poem, no one can tell whether the recurring memory is of something that happened in actuality, or only in the speaker’s mind.
“Friends” and “The Shade” circle inward from anecdotes to the theme of love. In “Friends,” the anecdotes concern a writer who drinks himself to death, and a couple of butterflies—one found dead on a window screen, and one which kept settling on the speaker’s hand even when other people frightened it. These snippets of experience lead at last toward a vision of love as a conqueror of fear, as the speaker confronts his knowledge that love has brought him away from the terror of death to a feeling only of “sadness, not to be here with everyone who I love.”
“The Shade” elaborates on this sadness, as anxiety for his children sends the speaker out of the house where they sleep, into a park where unemployed workers gather to await odd jobs. There, part of him takes comfort in his life, and another part, perhaps that which love can never reach, is “buried in itself,” and “stays, forever, blinking into the glare, freezing.”
The knowledge of the forces for harm that are always within the speaker makes for an enormous power in the title poem. It takes its title from a statement by Kierkegaard: “With ignorance begins a knowledge the first characteristic of which is ignorance.” The poem suggests a spiritual struggle from fear and need for something more secure and valuable, as love reveals itself to the speaker and alters his life. It is divided into seven sections, which proceed one to another in a way which is not difficult to follow conceptually, once the concepts have emerged from the somewhat dense and difficult language of the lines themselves. Part 1 is full of need, disgust, and despair, as the old forces are detailed, the cycle of need and satisfaction and need again. Part 2 suggests a way out of this cycle, if only one could find the “moment carved back from the lie,” the truth that is smothered by the disguises people find for their hungers. But the moment of possible truth subsides into the need again. Part 3 introduces a sophistication of what has gone before: remorse and blame are seen as human subterfuges, more complex lies to cover and justify the inexorable driving force of need.
But in the middle section, 4, the case becomes more specific than general; the person in the poem becomes someone unique, though not untouched by the defilements catalogued in the first three sections. This person hears, once, something like music, the song “of things built,” “of the cell gently bedding itself in its mortar,” and in that song is another suggestion that humans can transcend the cycle of need.
Part 5 opens with the five lines quoted at the beginning of this review, and tries to find a way of imagining not only pure dread, but the end of self which is death, and the end of self which makes room for knowledge of another self: “Imagine love,” the section concludes, and it has.
The final two sections concern the release from terror and need; first it is only imagined, then it is rejected as being impossible to achieve, and the sixth section attempts an affirmation of everything: bless all that comes to you, it says, but this could be just another of the lies. The seventh section, though, lets things be as they are, beyond words, beyond the abstractions the poem has so strenuously grappled with from the beginning. At the end, there is only someone’s silence, answered, fully and lovingly, by the speaker’s silence.
In this poem, then, there is nothing in the ideas that is particularly new or even unusual. What gives the poem its astonishing power and memorableness is the same thing that makes the whole book memorable and powerful: its language and craft are strange but believable, urgent, and built to last.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25
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.