Tuesday, November 11, 2003


There is a new Poker out, numero 3, & the darned thing just keeps getting better. There is some terrific new poetry, including major contributions from Fanny Howe, Dale Smith & Alan Davies, any one of which is worth the price of admission, & an interview of Kevin Davies by Marcella Durand that is more of a conversation, sweet & funny & insightful, but the real jaw dropper this time is the publication of an essay by William Carlos Williams, more accurately the text of a talk (or notes for one) the doctor gave at Harvard in the spring of 1941, possibly as an extended introduction to a reading. As I understand Richard Deming's preface to the piece (which I read after reading Williams' text, a procedure I recommend), there were/are multiple draft typescripts for this talk among Williams' papers in Buffalo (where else?), so that the text we are given here consists principally of what appears to be the final typescript plus typed comments from three appended cards. Reading the resultant document, one notices it flows but there clearly is a rhetorical shift right at the point when the cards come in. I wish that somebody at Harvard had thought to tape the darn thing.


The main body of the talk, "The Basis of Poetic Form," consists of seven numbered principles or assertions about poetry, four of which have extended notes that follow. At the end of the seventh note begins the section derived from the cards, which opens the entire discussion up for an extended consideration of poetry as ethics or at least ethos. Deming in his preface alludes to Wittgenstein in arguing that ethics & aesthetics are one, a point he sees Williams having in common with the philosopher (whom he admits having no evidence Williams ever read). Reading the piece itself, the connection occurred to me as well, not for that tie-in (which is largely the product of Deming's decision to include the cards), but rather because Williams' seven assertions is not dissimilar from Wittgenstein's initial attempt to encapsulate all logic into the seven master sentences of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


The first of Williams' assertions reads as follows:


There are many ways of looking at a poem -- all of them misleading unless founded upon structure.


A sentence like the one above reminds me of just how much of a modernist (or neomodernist) I really am. If there is anything inaccurate about this statement, I can't see it. Yet I note how Williams couches this assertion of structure's primacy -- it's very indirect. It also (inescapably, to my mind) invokes Wallace Stevens. I'm wondering here about questions of occasion & audience -- did Williams see Harvard '41 as Stevens' turf in some fashion?


Williams' second assertion invokes associations as well, but in a very different direction, one WCW could not have anticipated -- Roland Barthes & his Writing Degree Zero (composed just 13 years later & with Rene Char as its literary horizon):


A poem is a use of words (as emphasized by Gertrude Stein) to raise the mind to a level of the imagination beyond that attainable by prose. It is prose plus.


And in a note that follows, Williams poses Jabberwocky's relation to Alice in Wonderland as an example. It is worth underscoring Williams' invocation of Stein here -- by 1941 Stein is famous (something she was not 15 years prior), but already being treated by the American media as an instance of avant-gardiste as jokester & joke (a role it will later assign to Andy Warhol, say). But that is not how Williams is using her here, & obviously not how he expects this audience to understand the reference.


It is, 62 years later, easy enough to recite all the ways in which the idea of "prose plus" can be problematized, even to cite Williams' own earlier works (Kora in Hell, certainly, but possibly also the critical prose in Spring & All) as instances (alongside Stein's Tender  Buttons) of the vibrant possibilities for poetry in prose in English -- no need to turn here to Perse or Ponge or Jacob. Yet what strikes me more deeply in this statement is the absence of the word machine: Williams does not call the poem a machine made of words. Is it the audience? Is it the changing nature of the machine itself as a social phenomenon, with Europe already sunken deep into the Second World War?


The third assertion brings together the elements of the first two -- structure & words -- in a way that I don't think I've seen done elsewhere:


And thus poetic form comprises the words and its structural uses -- that character which the structure superadds to the words their literal meanings. But the form thus achieved becomes by that itself a "word," the most significant of all, that dominates every other word in the poem.


Williams is drawing a distinction here between structure & form. Form is the structure of the poem and what the words themselves bring to the occasion. But note that, back in that first assertion, the term structure itself has never been defined. Now, however, the third term in this equation (structure + words = form) is given a very curious definition: it is not structural per se* but rather a kind of word, a word in quotes, a word as hegemon to the poem.


One could write a dissertation I suspect unpacking those two sentences -- they are clearly the most important in this talk -- and after a (for this talk) lengthy note in which Williams dismisses first Imagism ("as a form it completely lacked structural necessity") and then Objectivism ("there were few successes -- or have been few, so far"), both of which miss the mark due to an allegiance, Williams thinks, to the image, WCW himself starts to enumerate the implications of this three-part equation:


The structural approach has two phases, the first the selection of forms from poems already achieved, to restuff them with metaphysical and other matter, and the second, to parallel the inventive impetus of other times with structural concepts derived from our own day. The first is weak, the other strong.  


Here is my School of Quietude/Post-Avant distinction in a nutshell. Do you think that School of Quietude poets would object if I just followed Williams from now on & called them weak poets? Even more than the invocation of Stevens earlier, Williams here seems rather to be picking a fight. The ascendancy of New Criticism (with its explicitly metaphysical agenda & distinct fondness for "restuffing" poems from other eras) is by 1941 more or less complete. Even more telling, though, is the fact that Williams in the first of these two sentences reverses the power relations implicit in his own formula -- it is the structural that now dominates, which is characterized as strategic, while form is devalued as instrumental, tactical. A poem will have form, but it is the structure that will govern its fate. This sleight of hand can be interpreted in several different ways, at least one of which would collapse the two terms form & structure into a synonymic whole (as did the Projectivists).


The degree to which Williams is provoking his audience is inescapable in Williams' fifth assertion:


The weak approach to the understanding of poetic form is typified by the teaching attitude. Teaching -- that is, the academy -- is predominantly weak. It can't be otherwise and this, in fact, is its strength. It rests on precedent. But because of this it tends to arrogate to itself honors and prerogatives which, sometimes, it does not deserve.


Harsh words coming from a man who doesn't know the difference between that & which. Williams' argument, that weakness is teaching's strength, sounds like something out of Sun Tzu's Art of War. It is worth noting here the tacit distinction Williams is making between "the academy" and invention, particularly given the relationship of science to both institutions (a relationship that, in 1941, is soon to change with the advent of the nuclear era). Scientists draw conclusions from nature, the evidence, facts. Inventors use such data as inputs into their creative process, one that recasts the world as they produce new technologies, tools, processes. "The academy," specifically literary studies, only has what Williams has called "poems already achieved" for its raw data, but given that humans are social & must live within historical time, this forces the academy into an ever backwards looking role. Implicit in Williams' model -- and keep in mind that as a physician, he has by now decades of experience as a consumer of science & user of inventions, not a scientist himself but rather a practitioner of its effects -- is that poets are to the academy as inventors are to science. Williams doesn't outright say this -- this assertion is one of the three unaugmented by any note -- but I think it is unavoidable in looking at the system being proposed here.


Predictably the sixth & penultimate numbered assertion here focuses instead on what Williams would call strong poetry. But what is less predictable is the claim (or concession) that he makes at the end of this paragraph:


The strong approach -- made through the vernacular by attention to its modulated character, inventing from that ground to parallel the successes of the other eras -- is relegated too often to the service of outlaws. Over long periods the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong, establishing the peaks of literature.


Relegated to the service of outlaws -- who precisely does Williams mean by this? Whitman? Rimbaud? Pound? Blake? Futurism & dada? And what precisely does he mean by outlaw? Is it simply a designation of outsider status, so that Melville & Dickinson might be included? Or is he suggesting something more completely antisocial, narrowing the term down to the African arms trader & the Nazi propagandist? Again the paragraph carries no supplemental note that might unpack these not inconsequential distinctions for us. Further, what does Williams mean when he claims that the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong? Does Williams mean, as I think maybe he does, that a period dominated socially or institutionally by weak poetry leads inevitably to a reaction in which strong poetry overturns the apple cart? If so, then he is speaking in 1941 right at the outset of what will be the most compelling period of evidence for his theory, as the Second World War broke the connection with European modernism and allowed the American academy to become heavily dominated by the "weak" poetry of New Criticism, overthrown in the mid-'50s by the resurgence of a New American poetry. If so, it is the moments of disruption that Williams is identifying her as the "peaks of literature." Yet the language he chooses doesn't sound like the rhythmic alteration we associate with volcanoes -- long periods of settling & sediment punctuated by eruptions, entailing heat & light. Rather it sounds additive. That when the strong arrives (or is let in) to supplement the weak is when such peaks occur. Although I think Williams is clear enough elsewhere that what he thinks generally is the former, this particular wording is ambiguous enough that it might be heard either way. & given this audience, this might represent Williams' sense of a "concession," an inclusionary gesture, however faint.


At this point in William's talk, his structure of presentation has been very clear. The number paragraphs (as distinct from the supplementary notes) follow an identifiable structure.


1.       General premise

2.       Assertion: implication

3.       Assertion: implication

4.       Assertion: implication, etc.


Each numbered paragraph after the first has two sentences exactly. The seventh & final numbered paragraph must, however, complete the arc of Williams' argument, drawing the circle if not shut, at least to conclusion:


New concepts will always call for new forms and new forms demand new structures. The basis of new poetic forms and structures will always be that age which demands of them its fullest expression, that will be impatient of traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction.


On one level, this is the longstanding political case against the School of Quietude.** On another, we note that Williams has again drawn a line between form & structure. On a third, Williams here introduces a new term to the equation, concepts, without saying much of anything about what a concept is in the narrow sense he is giving it here. In a way, I think that all of the notes that follow in this talk (which, including the three cards that accompany the typescript, is very nearly half the text) might be read as an extension or supplement to this assertion, drawing out specifically Williams' sense that measure is the term or dimension through which he personally attempted to address the demand for new structures, new forms.


New concepts. Not, it is worth underlining here, new conditions in the social world. Rather, it is the ideas in men & women that are generated as they confront this new raw data that Williams identifies here as the generative force, the source of continual, unceasing change that lies at the heart of literature. Always call. Change not for the sake of change but rather inescapably because the world itself changes constantly. Because the world itself is change. Thus the "basis of new poetic forms" -- the phrase differs from Williams' title only insofar as forms has become plural & new is new -- is precisely time. Social, historical time: "that age which demands of them its fullest expression."


But in pluralizing form & adding new, Williams is making a second argument here as well. The basis of "restuffed" forms, the traditional, lies exactly in a wish against the age. It's too simple to merely call this nostalgia. Rather, it is a denial, for example, of all the horrors of the modern, from the genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks*** to the immiseration of the Depression, the rise of the Gulag, the advent of Hitler. On a more general or symbolic level, the traditional may even be read as a denial of death, not in the sense of protest or "overcoming" through good works, but through avoidance & pretense. Like my mother-in-law who would not allow her husband to go through the front doors of the oncology clinic because of the word Cancer emblazoned there. The traditional in this sense is the "hear no evil, speak no evil" school of poetry, even when & as it writes of rape, murder, genocide, abuse. The pathology of this world view cannot be understated+, but Williams chooses to do exactly that now that he is speaking at the very heart of its institutional expression, Harvard. His conclusion is politic, even as it is unavoidable.


"The Basis of Poetic Form" is not without its problems, although in my reading these have mostly to do with Williams' failure to fully articulate a definition of structure & its relationship to form as he uses that word. I'm not convinced that the ethics of Williams' address rises or falls on his inability to completely untangle those two terms, but disentangling the two threads, one of form, one of structure, could not help but throw new light not just on all the poetries of Williams' own time, from Imagism to the cusp of the New American poetry, but on the poetry of our time as well.





* Whereas in the famous Projectivist formula -- form is nothing more than an extension of content -- form is treated as a synonym for structure, at least as Williams is using the latter word here, a condition (it is worth noting) that affords form less force than Williams assigns it in his equation.


** And why, for example, I don't hesitate to characterize Post-Avant poetics as progressive, as when I deploy that word to characterize the Philly poetry calendar I run on Sundays. No matter politically to the left a poet such as Marilyn Hacker or Carolyn Forché might be, if she chooses in her writing the "traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction," then she cannot be characterized as in any manner progressive, merely conflicted or self-destructive.


*** Why is it, after all, that both the Kurds & Iraqis oppose the presence of Turkish forces in Iraq?


+ Indeed, it is the very same dynamic that enables many Democratic politicians to call themselves liberal as they compromise the well-being of their constituents & health of the planet, in the pursuit of a self-deluded realpolitik. It is the process that has given us Clintons & Blairs alike.


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