Dear Nancy: Williams' work is still an influence on poetry of a literal kind, that is, poetry that uses the page as a field in which to place verbal patterns. Besides Ginsberg, his poetics were adapted by poets as diverse as Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, Ted Kooser and current "language" poets like Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein. However, despite Williams' own promotion of his poetry as being "In the American Grain" as an essay of his is titled, he, like Wallace Stevens, owes a prosodic debt to European modernism. It is fascinating that the avant-garde poetry that became modernism was developed by ex-pat Americans living in Europe: Stein's cubism, Pound's Imagism and Eliot's adaptation of French symbolism. And no artist of that time could totally escape the influence of surrealism.
You write: "He deliberately and consciously avoided symbolic methods and ideas not part of what he saw as the American new way of seeing physical reality." Perhaps the clarity of his commonplace images is a poetic manifestation of rock-ribbed American pragmatism, but in his early work he follows a cubist poetics as learned from Stein in his emphasis on the material properties of words, their syntax, sonics, positions on the page and contiguous relationships.
Like Jackson Pollock, Williams was promoted jingoistically as an American artist having no indebtedness to European art. But as Pollock evolved out of Kandinsky and Picasso, Williams following the example of Stein, Pound and I suspect even Eliot, adapted prosodic concerns that proceeded from cubism, surrealism and other European modernist styles, giving them an American flavor. Diana
From: Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: William Carlos Williams : At the still point
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 12:22:06 -0400
Thanks for adding all this: it is not only all explanatory of Williams
but it shows his development. However, "The Bull" is from the earlier
period (1934), not the post-war "Paterson."
In my earlier posts, I should no doubt have pointed to this change, but
the issue was "The Bull," and I think the specific imagery of Paterson
has always annoyed me despite the poem's fascination and wonderful
Nancy wrote: "William Carlos Williams objected to symbols and even
insisted on the thing in itself. He also hated Eliot's poetry for being
full of them, among other reasons. He called Eliot a subtle conformist.
"No ideas but in things" was Williams's poetic concept."
The poetry of Willam Carlos Williams morphed stylistically over the span
of his career. His experimental early cubist-inspired work foregrounded
the material properties and contiguous relationships of words, while his
later Imagism relied on a transparency of language. And, after
anathematizing symbolism, he wrote a book-length symbolic poem.
In his Imagist phase Williams deplored metaphoric and symbolic usage in
poetry: "Crude symbolism is to associate emotions with natural phenomena
such as anger with lighting, flowers with love it goes further and
associates certain textures with." In the Prologue to Kora in Hell,
Williams wrote: "The coining of similes is a pastime of a very low
order." Yet in his book-length poem Paterson the town itself is a
Early in his career Williams' cubist-inspired praxis resembled the
experiments of Gertrude Stein, a writer he greatly admired. He wrote of
Stein's book Tender Buttons that she "has completely unlinked words from
their former relationships in the sentence; she has gone systematically
to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to
get them back clean."
Williams' work of that period resembles Stein's language-foregrounding
experiments. He praised her "for her formal insistence on words in their
literal, structural quality of being words." In Williams' book The
Descent of Winter his prose poems are discontinuous and paratactic in
syntax, to wit:
by William Carlos Williams
"And Coolidge said let there be imitation brass filigree fire benders
behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the
molasses-candygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like
whitepine boards always cut thick their faces! the white porcelain
trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed
but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape
for the oven I don't know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the
black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across
the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces!"
In Spring and All, Williams wrote: "The word must be put down for
itself, not a symbol..." However, his Imagism differs from the later
work of Deep Imagists like Robert Bly in its rejection of naturalistic
space and an emphasis on lateral relationships of images much as
Picasso's Ma Jolie flattened pictorial space.
Pound wrote to Williams about his book Kora in Hell:
"The thing that saves your work is its opacity, and don't forget it.
Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabell, and verbiage,
these are echt americanish!" (see David Jauss, The Descent, the Dance,
and the Wheel: The Aesthetic Theory of William Carlos Williams' Kora in
Hell, Boston Un. Jnl, 1977, 37)
In Spring and All Williams asks how the poet can write with the "power
TO ESCAPE ILLUSIONS," a power he finds in certain Cubist paintings in
which visual elements relate to each other across the picture plane.
Williams thought a similar laterality was possible for poetry. Writing
about Marianne Moore, Williams says:
"Unlike the painters the poet has not resorted to distortions or the
abstract in form. Miss Moore accomplishes a like result by rapidity of
movement. A poem such a 'Marriage' is an anthology of transit. It is a
pleasure that can be held firm only by moving rapidly from one thing to
the next. It gives the impression of a passage through."
Bram Djikstra writes of Williams' poem "Spring Strains" that it "is an
elaborate attempt at painting a Cubist picture in words...It represents
a visual plane, a visual field of action, within which objects are
analyzed in a strictly pictorial fashion."
Paterson then is a retrogression from the cubist-inspired aesthetic
Williams had promoted in the earlier part of his writing career, his
later foregrounding of the image and subordination of language qua
language, to the symbolism he had rejected. Diana
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