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utterance

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.

Iris

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–”: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.

One of the things that may irritate a post structuralist reader about Auden is that he delights in “knowing” things-even those things which are ugly and disastrous to know. For example, his greatest praise of old masters: “About suffering, the old masters they were never wrong.” Auden likes being right. He likes being elegant. He likes making a point in as clever a way as possible. He even likes his ambiguity to be gin clear. This annoys readers, especially those who come out of the post modernist wood work to feed on endless non-commitments, non-linearity, statements that dissolve and are contradicted or made impotent by the sheer process of deconstructing one’s deconstructions. Stevens claimed that a great disorder is an order (well ahead of chaos theory). Post structuralism with its absolutist hatred of saying anything is, well, to put it in the language of my forbears: fucking boring. Auden, at his worst, is also a bore. He can be pedantic, over bearing, a spewer of opinions, a snob, a writer of high falutin doggerel. At his best, he is the greatest poet to come out of the formalists, and for the same reason Ashbery is probably the greatest poet to come out of the post structuralists: because he is good at saying what he enjoys saying, because he takes great delight in his own utterance for its own sake, because no old bone wearies him if he can find a happy way to chomp on it. This is no small virtue. If a poet is not enjoying his own spew, what damned good is he? Auden’s ability to wrap things up annoys a reader only if that reader is deaf to the sonic joy of Auden cracking wise. The pleasure in Auden is not in what he says, or even in how he says it, but in the sheer pleasure he takes beyond how or why—a pleasure that, in his best poems, becomes a palpable presence throughout. When I want to witness a poet enjoying himself I turn to Ashbery or Auden. With great craft and skill, they sit in their respective sand boxes, and both are infantile in the best sense. At any rate, lets inspect one of Auden’s more famous poems,the imitation ballad, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol street,
The crowds upon the pavement
were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.”

We are in traditional ballad country the second Auden writes “As I Walked Out One Evening” (see “The Streets of Laredo”). He is not mocking the structure or form of the ballad (except perhaps the way a lover would tease his beloved); he is reveling in the cliche. He trusts his own ability to have fun with cliché (something Ashbery also trusts). He is using what is called “eights and sixes,” a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter; and, to give it the “feel” of an informal ballad, he is augmenting or truncating the syllable count, dabbling in hypercatalectic, and acatalectic lines (one syllable more or one less). But of all the fun he is having in these first two stanzas, I’m sure nothing pleased him more than the wrench rhyme, worthy of a hip-hop MC of: “sing/ending.” Auden, in the next two stanzas, delights in one of the oldest tricks in the book: adynaton, the lover’s appeal to the impossible, the great brag of the lover plighting his troth:

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the River jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

“I’ll love you till the ocean
is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
for in my arms I hold
The flower of the ages,
and the first love of the world.’

First, note the vowel rhyme of hold and world. And as for the adynaton,such wonderful boasts no longer exist in our poetry, which shows its sad and tragic “humility” to be far more arrogant and stingy than this delight in the lover’s form of boasting hyperbole. Only in songs does this sort of boast still thrive, for example, when Tom Waits insists: “I’d shoot the moon for you.”

Auden can’t let the lover triumph. Modern nihilism must rear its ugly head, or is it modern? The doom of all young love is a common subject of Latin and Greek, and almost all ancient world poetry. Auden knows the difference between originality and novelty. Novelty can only be interesting once, the first time. Originality is that which is suddenly ancient, and anciently sudden. Orignality has a nomative power, and can be intersting and pleasurable again and again because it manages to touch upon origins as well as news. The worst that can be said for pre post modern poetry is that it lacks the surprise of novelty. The worst that can be said for post modernist poetry is that it opts for novelty and confuses it with originality. I do not believe in cliched tropes. A trope can be tired and hackneyed only if the poet lacks the energy to enliven it. Carpe diem is still trembling in the shadows, waiting to be felt up by a daring poet. At any rate, Auden takes great delight in disillusioning the lover. Some of those stanzas:

“In head aches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The images here would be surreal if they were not used to a purpose, but they are far from the effect of surreality which is to tweak the unconscious, the intuitive or sensing faculties—the irrational. This is the rational, didactic use of absurdity through thought and feeling to make a point, and the point is pretty much the same point made when Nash informs us that “Helen’s dust” stops up a bung hole: love is doomed and time ravishes even the most powerful passions.

This aint news, but it is a ritual of “giving the bad news.” which we can tell the poet puts all his craft and pleasure toward. A ritual can be beautiful, even pleasurable by dint of the joy and liveliness with which we perform it, and invest our time in it. To say a truth over and over again is to find the ritual that will make that truth, however awful, portable, and somehow, even more than bearable.

What Auden does in the final stanza, after having time destroy the lover’s troth, is return us to the cosmic impersonality of the river:

It was late, late in the evening.
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

This gives the poem the sufficient modernist chill it needs to be more than merely an imitation of ballads, but the real worth of it lies in Auden never believing for a minute that the tropes can be exhausted. How can one exhaust the ancient fear and fever of the blood, the dread and hopelessness of “I’ll love you forever?” Be careful, students, that your sophistication and stupidity in the dadaist, slacker, cynical, “non-linear” sense does not blind you to the pleasures of true nihilism: yes, I know, I know, and on the thousandth point of knowing, my heart still breaks.