I said nothing at all about what Williams intended in this poem, only
about his poetics and what he wished to do as an American poet rejecting
Eliot's notion of tradition. My comments on the poem are on the words,
the pattern of words, and the blocking of sections.
As I wrote later, Diana is absolutely right on later Williams, but this
is not later Williams: it is during the early stage she described.
It is only to the observer that the bull "looks godlike" or can be
imagined as "care-free" or wise. None of that is what the bull can be
known or imagined to experience anymore than what milk means to you.
Imagine yourself as the chained and impotent bull and it might produce a
very different impression, one Williams keeps introducing. He often
does that--presents a perspective that other details subvert. It would
be hard to imagine anything more different from Four Quartets, and what
Williams did affirm is no less valuable, just very different.
Ironically, you assume you know what Eliot "aspired to" in Four
Quartets" and to take that seriously, but whatever Williams "aspired to"
is not significant.
What is the difference?
Many people share Williams's intensely sensual celebration of life and
are not attracted to detachment. For Williams, what he wrote was
quintessentially "American" and celebrated a new poetics. As Carrol
said, detachment is not what Williams wrote about. Frankly, finding
such "magnificence" in a chained and ringed (painful if the animal moves
and used to control it) is very strange.
But what is at stake here is not simply these details. It is the claim
that poetry is anything at all an individual reader thinks about when
reading it. Poets have starved to write because they wanted to say or
create or reveal something, not because they were just providing lexical
stimuli for the readers' prior ideas. All that would need is a random
flipping through a dictionary (Not a bad idea either but different.)
>>> Chokh Raj <[log in to unmask]> 08/30/07 2:23 PM >>>
Thanks for your many painstaking observations, Diana.
What I was pointing out to was something writ large
in every word, every line, of this poem. Whether or not
Williams willed it, it matters little to me. When a reader
comes across a poem at random (and that's how I came
it across), he doesn't go about asking if it has to be read
in a specific way because the poet intended it to be
read that way.
I was just sharing a point of view -- a certain correspondence
here in terms of the state of "the still point" of detachment
from both pain (of "ringed, haltered, chained to a drag") and
pleasure ("the sweet grass) which the bull exemplified.
To me the poem can be taken as a profound comment on
the human situation (metaphorically though).
The bull is chained to a drag, a work he has perforce
to carry out.
However, he shows no signs of misery or pain -- he looks
"godlike" in his demeanor.
And, in the next stanza, he is not taken in either by the
pleasing aspects of life ("the sweet grass") -- he takes them
rather gingerly for what they are -- quite a wise and
insightful bull ;-)
In the next stanza, his carefree attitude is likened to a god
on the Olympus -- looking at the world with "half-closed eyes"
(reminds me of Yeats' philosophic Chinamen in 'Lapis Lazuli').
The poet then talks of his inner solidity that relates to his
This hardness of substance, however, is not impervious to
a sense of harmony/music playing through it.
The single most important word that qualifies the bull
(and the poet allows it full space) is "milkless".
To me, milk is an emblem of the primordial bond that
bonds a mother and a child -- perhaps one of the most
potent of human bonds -- by being "milkless", the bull
transcends this bondage -- hence he is "godlike" in his
detached loneliness, and in his majesty.
The last stanza presents the magnificence (and wisdom?)
of an aged bull, his "eyes matted / with hyacinthine curls".
This is the state of being idolized by the Bhagavad Gita,
and this is the state Eliot's 'Four Quartets' aspires to.
If William Carlos Williams was unaware of this aspect
of the bull he painted, one can only pity him.
Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Dear CR and all,
Response to several points.
First, Ken is right that a poet may do much more than they intend or
Second, a poem, nonetheless, is not simply what readers read. Williams
spent years and books insisting on poetry that presented the thing in
itself. It was a deliberate and life-long poetic theory, not an aspect
of one poem. A poem comprises an author, a reader, a thing represented,
and a representation. (See a full discussion of this in the section on
"representation" in CRITICAL TERMS FOR LITERARY STUDY. It's extremely
insightful on this and helps explain why students often imagine the poem
is anything they think it is, even if there is no basis for their
notions in the text.) So it is no more possible to exclude the author
and/or the text itself than to exclude the reader. A reader is
constrained by what is on the page, and the author put it on the page.
It is not simply a matter of intention; it is a matter of the
representation itself. Williams's poem is no more just whatever you
feel when you read it than "The Waste Land" is a poem about the serenity
of cows in a pasture in Vermont or the annoyance of cow pats. It just
doesn't have any Vermont cows or cow pats in it.
So your first premise is simply not accurate; responses are not the
totality of meaning and often they are not based in the text. And what
you call here your reading is not a reading but what you first described
as a reminder evoked by comparison.
Given that, Denise Levertov, in an essay on Williams ("The Ideas in the
Things") pointed out that Williams never said there were no ideas, only
that they were in the things. He deliberately and consciously avoided
symbolic methods and ideas not part of what he saw as the American new
way of seeing physical reality. Her point was that words carry meanings
whether one intends them or not. So the word "hyacinthine," for
example, may--in itself--evoke Greek ideals or even Eliot's hyacinths.
But that is to take it out of context. The bull is in captivity. He is
"ringed, haltered, chained/ to a drag." He has to nozzle grass to pass
the time away. He is milkless. The hyacinthine curls are matted
between his horns and his eyes as if his natural volence and activity is
closed off from his ability to see anything.
This is not an depiction of detachment or serenity but of a profound
imposed imprisonment. Bulls do not chain themselves or choose to do
nothing. A reading that looks at all the words and the bull itself
rather than a pre-imagined ideal cannot avoid that. And the latter
would not fit with anything about all the other intensely physical and
sensual imagery of Williams that Carrol noted.
Given the tendency of many on this list to insist on the reading of
Eliot through Eliot, and especially as a "lifetime's effort" it seems
odd that Williams is also to be read through Eliot when he detested
Eliot and all Eliot had done to poetry.
Third, Williams's reaction to Eliot was to the very notion of a long
European history as source that the notion of "detachment" and Eliot's
learning in Eastern religion would have created. Here is Williams on
"When I was halfway through the prologue [to KORA IN HELL], 'Prufrock'
appeared. I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I
believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a
conformist, with wit, learning which I did not possess. he knew French,
Latin, Arabic, god knows what. I was interested in that. But I felt he
had rejected America and I refused to be rejected and so my reaction was
violent. I realized the responsibility I must accept. I knew he would
influence all subsequent American poets and take them out of my sphere.
I had envisaged a new form of poetic composition, a form for the future.
It was a shock to me that he was so trememdously successful."
Here is Kenner on Williams on Eliot: "After a third of a century had
passed, the mention of Eliot could still stir up in him a blind
Since Kenner wrote on both of them and admired both, his comparisons are
useful and interesting.
You may wonder why I am writing all this. It is because to treat
Williams's poem--or the work of any poet--as nothing but a touchstone
for one's own feelings and to dismiss everything the author DOES bring
to their creation is to dishonor creativity. It does matter what--in a
broad and intense sense--Williams was trying to do, just as it matters
that Eliot could find no poetry to work from except the French
Symbolists and the Elizabethans when he began. To ignore his symbolist
method would be to dismiss not one reader but an entire transformation
in poetic history.
And, for Ken, no--I am not having a double standard. I read Eliot's own
theory and recognize his own view of what he did and why and from what
sources. To disagree with much of what he thought is not to deny that
he thought it or to refuse recognition of, for example, the fact that he
wrote symbolist poems.
And this to Nancy Gish: a?poem is?there?for?a reader to read?
and share?their response with other readers -- there were many a
student/teacher?who?reciprocated my reading of it?-- that was
in a university in India many years ago -- and I'm sure
there will be many?elsewhere who will partake of my reading,
irrespective of what William Carlos?Williams thought of his poetry.
As WH Auden?said?(In Memory of WB Yeats) :?
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
And this to Carrol : it's a compliment to a poem's versatility
(of meaning)?if it?evokes different?things?in different readers,
and seems conformist to some, non-conformist to others.
And thanks, dear Gunnar, for sharing your excitement.
'The Bull' became an instant?hit with me too.
And not?least, thanks a lot, Ken, for your cogent remark,
"what an author thinks he or she is doing may or may not be
on the mark".
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