I’ve been reading William Carlos Williams much like I have been reading Conrad Aiken – why not shovel it all in, up to a point. I wrote an uncomprehending post about his second book, The Tempers (1913), in which I made two points, first, this stuff hardly sounded like Williams and second, this poet sure likes leaves.
Since then I read Al Que Quiere! (1917) and Sour Grapes (1921) – those are good titles – but did not write about them. More Williams flavor, and lots more leaves. I guess a poet as Whitman-like as Williams has no choice.
Now I have hit the pure stuff, the crazy hybrid Spring and All (1923):
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined –
It quickens : clarity, outline of leaf
That’s an almost baldly programmatic bit of Poem I, “By the road to the contagious hospital.” I had to do a head-to-head comparison to Sour Grapes to see the difference. Many of the earlier poems are fine as they are:
It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set match to it.
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.
But others must have still seemed too poetical to Williams. Sour Grapes opens with “The Late Singer”:
Here it is spring again
and I still a young man!
I am late at my singing.
Then there is a sparrow, grass, the moon, and guess what leaves (“brown and yellow moth-flowers”). To most of is this sounds pretty plain, but Williams thinks it’s missing something.
The 2011 New Directions reissue of Spring and All has a terrific introduction by C. D. Wright. Here’s how she describes the change:
The year before, 1922, was high tide in poetry: The Duino Elegies, Trilce, and The Waste Land. The latter was a head blow to William Carlos Williams… Then came The Waste Land, all tricked out with Sanscrit and Latin ornaments. The impact was as useful as it was painful. Whap. Now he knew what he was opposing… (p. viii)
Spring and All is full of nonsense, upside-down chapter titles, misspellings, and general goofiness. The poems are embedded in a prose manifesto that is written “con brio,” to borrow the title of one of his earliest poems. It is energetic:
If I could say what was in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity ; the formality of its boredom ; the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill ! kill ! let there be fresh meat… (Chapter 19, p. 5, ellipses in original)
But the manifesto is at heart not negative or prescriptive but personal, a portrait of the creative self.
Poetry is something quite different. Poetry has to do with the crystallization of the imagination – the perfection of new forms as additions to nature – Prose may follow to enlighten but poetry – (p. 78)
The, or a, joke being that Spring and All is mostly prose. “There is no confusion – only difficulties.” Maybe.
He who has kissed
need look no further –
a canopy of leaves
and at the same time
for I do nothing
unusual – (from XXIV)
No, even for 1923, that’s not true.