This Old Poem #58:
William Carlos William’s To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/14/03
OK, we all know the influence of William Carlos Williams- basically he
was the granddaddy of the prosaification of verse. He gave way to assorted
minimalists like Robert Creeley, bill bissett, & 1000s of other lesser
lights who did not comprehend that even the mighty WCW wrote 99% banal poems.
All that is what makes up the serious rep of WCW is anywhere from 1-2 dozen
poems under 20 (& usually 10) lines. The major difference is that in those
few dozen good & memorable poems WCW utterly undermines the idea that the
poetry is plain spoken. Often he uses what others would call iambic pentameter,
but simply breaks it at certain places so that an image will linger at the end
or beginning of a particular line or stanza. Poets like RC or bb rarely paid
heed to that. Still, the vast majority of WCW’s verse likewise never heeded
his better poems’ standards. The reason? Because, I suspect, old WCW never
understood my classic maxim: Greater than transcendence is its recognition.
In other words, WCW was utterly clueless as to why his good poems worked &
his bad poems did not.
WCW was also at the forefront of the trend of poets that could not sustain a poem beyond a certain # of lines- even his long poem Paterson, is- at best- only mildly poetic. This filtered over in to Objectivism, Ted Hughes’s work, Robert Bly, & many other poets & -isms. The titular poem is an example of WCW’s overwriting at its worst. But, before we trim that poem let’s peek at WCW’s bio (for the few who know nothing of the good doctor):
William Carlos Williams was born on September 17, 1883 in Rutherford, New
Jersey. Like Chekhov, he studied medicine and became a country doctor before he
discovered his potential as a writer. He earned his medical degree at the
University of Pennsylvania Medical School and began practicing as a pediatrician
in his hometown of Rutherford (near the present-day Meadowlands Sports Complex
in East Rutherford) before publishing his first literary work, 'Poems,' in 1909.
He wrote stories, plays and autobiographies as well as poems. His most memorable achievement is probably his five books of poetry about the humble and downtrodden Northern New Jersey city of Paterson, which few people would have seen as a fit subject for an epic poem. "No ideas but in things," he writes in the first page, and to hammer the point home he studs this unpretentious but dramatic work with ancient newspaper articles, anecdotes and letters from friends and admirers. One of the letter-writers was A.G., an enthusiastic young poet admirer from Paterson. This was the then-unknown Allen Ginsberg.
Williams wrote the introduction for Ginsberg's first book of poetry, "Howl and Other Poems", in 1955. He died on March 4, 1963, the same year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883. He began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, at which time he made the decision to become both a writer and a doctor. He received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended Ezra Pound. Pound became a great influence in Williams' writing, and in 1913 arranged for the London publication of Williams's second collection, The Tempers. Returning to Rutherford, where he sustained his medical practice throughout his life, Williams began publishing in small magazines and embarked on a prolific career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions.
Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. His influence as a poet spread slowly during the twenties and thirties, overshadowed, he felt, by the immense popularity of Eliot's "The Waste Land"; however, his work received increasing attention in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor. His major works include Kora in Hell (1920), Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), the five-volume epic Paterson (1963, 1992), and Imaginations (1970). Williams's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1948 and a series of strokes, but he continued writing up until his death in New Jersey in 1963.
Below are a quartet of WCW’s most famous poems. All are short, filled with images that pique, & very seemingly plainspoken language. The enjambments of ‘of’ in Poem do not reflect poor choice since, in poems these short WCW was trying to force the reader on to the image right after the break. This Is Just To Say ends without a period, almost as if to let the apology or image resonate- or even in expectation of a reply. The Great Figure succeeds even as it throws a succession of what would be clichés in another poem at the reader. How? Because the utter focus on the everyday, & the need to plainly describe it, seems an alien approach when most poets would over-elaborate. See my essay on Bruce Ario’s ability to turn this trick with his patented ario form for more on this resuscitation of clichés. Plus, the poem knows the value of concision & does not go on too long. The Red Wheelbarrow skillfully masks its blank verse aspirations in the breakage of lines. Again, were this more than just a breathy couplet this would be gimmickry. Unfortunately few folk- even WCW- followed this advice. But read all 4 poems, savor, then return.
This Is Just To Say
The Great Figure
Among the rain
The Red Wheelbarrow
Let’s now look at 2 more poems- a bit longer but still successful overall. We will see that their strengths are the concision & imagery of the smaller poems, yet their weakness come in the poems’ lengths.
when my wife is sleeping
from To Elsie
we degraded prisoners
Notice how Danse Russe overextends? Look at the singing section, the over-description of the scene, & the need to quantify- now compare that with the lack of such in the 1st 4 poems. Still this is a quality poem- just not in league with the others. The last 1/3 or so of To Elsie is quoted here & we see much of the same problems as in Danse Russe. The use of modifiers in just 15 lines is more than in the 1st quartet, & the modifiers are more abstract- not dark or white, but degraded, stifling, isolate. In a poem that did more than survey this is not a problem- but since observation is WCW’s strong suit, these words seem a bit forced. WCW is best as that Emersonian invisible eyeball. Watch these trends as we hit the titular poem:
To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies
You know there is not much
that I desire, a few chrysanthemums
half lying on the grass, yellow
and brown and white, the
talk of a few people, the trees,
an expanse of dried leaves perhaps
with ditches among them.
But there comes
between me and these things
or even a look--well placed,
so that I am confused, twisted
four ways and--left flat,
unable to lift the food to
my own mouth:
Here is what they say: Come!
and come! and come! And if
I do not go I remain stale to
myself and if I go--
I have watched
the city from a distance at night
and wondered why I wrote no poem.
the city is ablaze for you
and you stand and look at it.
And they are right. There is
no good in the world except out of
a woman and certain women alone
for certain. But what if
I arrive like a turtle,
with my house on my back or
a fish ogling from under water?
It will not do. I must be
steaming with love, colored
like a flamingo. For what?
To have legs and a silly head
and to smell, pah! like a flamingo
that soils its own feathers behind.
Must I go home filled
with a bad poem?
And they say:
Who can answer these things
till he has tried? Your eyes
are half closed, you are a child,
oh, a sweet one, ready to play
but I will make a man of you and
with love on his shoulder--!
And in the marshes
the crickets run
on the sunny dike's top and
make burrows there, the water
reflects the reeds and the reeds
move on their stalks and rattle drily.
Need I point out the manifest weaknesses? Here’s just 3 of a dozen or so major solecisms: Line 4- is the break at the really as forceful as the breaks at of in The Red Wheelbarrow? No- because the ‘talk of a few people’ is not nearly as compelling on its own (nor in the context of a longer & more complex narrative) as the odd ‘jamcloset’. Here’s a 2nd no-no: this poem’s melodrama verges on bathos. Witness ‘Here is what they say: Come!/and come! and come! And if/I do not go I remain stale to/ myself and if I go--/I have watched/the city from a distance at night/and wondered why I wrote no poem.’ & compare it with the rewrite’s version below. #3? The poem’s over-reliance on rhetorical description- i.e.- to many modifiers. The rewrite excises these 3 problems & some of the others you, no doubt, have spied yourselves, my clever readers. I challenge any reader to copy both versions of this poem, give my rewrite blindly to anyone- including WCW devotees & they will swear WCW wrote the rewrite, not the original.
To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies
You know there is not
between me and these
Here is what they say:
the city is
and you look at it
steaming with love, colored
like a flamingo.
And in the marshes
the crickets run
on the sunny dike's top
and the reeds move.
Another problem- the self-flagellation & faux bravado of the speaker- has been dashed, in favor of truly more poetic answer that just keeps on gliding off in to the wild. In the original the speaker is non-plussed & the description seems a fall-back from the narrative. This poem thrusts the 2 together & runs with it. It also leaves alot more ambiguous play between the title & the poem proper. That is always a boon to a poem. Almost enough to want to play around more with prosaic poetry. I said almost.
Final Score: (1-100):
William Carlos William’s To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies: 58
TOP’s To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies: 80
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