Friday, March 27, 2009

Photo by Jonathan Williams

Every couple of years, right about this time, I find myself drawn to rereading Spring & All, William Carlos Williams’ 1923 volume of verse linked with critique – today we might say theory – that in almost all respects was not only his first “great book,” but the very best writing of his career. It includes the poems that made him legitimately famous – “The red wheel barrow,” “By the road to the contagious hospital,” “The pure products of America,” and the two poems that I tend to think of as the best he ever wrote – “The rose is obsolete” and “What about all this writing?” The book originally was published in an edition of 300 by Contact Press & basically sank like a stone, never to be heard of again until Harvey Brown published a facsimile edition in 1970, some 47 years later, when it was still the most radical book of poetry I’d ever seen. (Actually, the last time I read this book was just last summer, but it holds up to rereadings the way Lear or Macbeth do. I can’t imagine not seeing something new no matter how many times I read the book.)

The poems are interspersed throughout the critical text. Its first assertion – that the fundamental impulse behind all traditional writing is plagiarism – has always struck me as unassailable, even obvious. But Williams’ second assertion – that what one represents in the poem is the imagination – has always made me feel uneasy. His insistence upon it is central:

(W)e are beginning to discover the truth that in great works of the imagination A CREATIVE FORCE IS SHOWN AT WORK MAKING OBJECTS WHICH ALONE COMPLETE SCIENCE AND ALLOW INTELLIGENCE TO SURVIVE


When in the condition of imaginative suspense only will the writing have reality . . .  – Not to attempt, at that time, to set values upon the word being used, according to presupposed measures, but to write down that which happens at that time –

To perfect the ability to record at the moment when the consciousness is enlarged by the sympathies and the unity of understanding which the imagination gives, to practice skill in recording the force moving, then to know it, in the largeness of its proportions –

It is the presence of a

This is not “fit” but a unification of experience

That is, the imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam, it is not a plaything but a power that has been used from the first to raise the understanding of – it is not necessary to resort to mysticism – In fact it is this which has kept back the knowledge I seek –

The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words. Its unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence

This separates

Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images. I have experienced that to my sorrow. It is not a conscious recording of the day’s experiences “freshly and with the appearance of reality” – This thing is seriously to the development of any ability in a man, it fastens him down, makes him a – It destroys, makes nature an accessory to the particular theory he is following, it blinds him to his world, –

The writer of imagination would find himself released from observing things for the purpose of writing them down later. He would be there to enjoy, to taste, to engage the free world, not a world which he carries like a bag of food, always fearful lest he drop something or someone get more than he.

A word detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him (as it most certainly is) with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independentmoving at will from one thing to anotheras he pleases, unbound

and the unique proof of this is the work of the imagination not “like” anything but transfused with the same forces which transfuse the earthat least one small part of them.

Nature is the hint to composition not because it is familiar to us and therefore the terms we apply to it have a least common denominator quality which gives them currencybut because it possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is not opposed to art but apposed to it.

I suppose Shakespeare’s familiar aphorism about holding the mirror up to nature has done more harm in stabilizing the copyist tendency of the arts among us than

the mistake in it (though we forget that it is not S. speaking but an imaginative character of his) is to have believed that the reflection of nature is nature. It is not. It is only a sham nature, a “lie.”

Of course S. is the most conspicuous example desirable of the falseness of this very thing.

He holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature’s composition with his own.

He himself becomes “nature” – continuing “its” marvels – if you will

It occurs to me that one could learn all one needs to know of writing just by typing up this book, phrase by phrase, line by line. It occurs to me also that this is the template, in tone if not in exact architecture, for Robert Grenier’s infamous essay “ON SPEECH,” which would appear within the year of the Frontier Press republication.

But what precisely does Williams mean by imagination? Does he intend – I seriously doubt it – the same facility through which a child spins out so many nonsense syllables, as if speech itself were but a game?

The works that come through the imagination do not speak of the world – a belief in the possibility of which proves fatal to all political poetry, also all love poetry, also poetry about dogs and cats. That is because, says Williams, works of art, if they are not a “sham” or “’lie’,” do not speak of the world. Indeed, they do not speak of. Rather they are themselves in the world, on a par with the writer, and with the world itself, not to mention wars, love, cats & dogs. The poem, even if it is a great one, is no better than a dog in that each is real.

The imagination, as defined by Williams, uses words, but is not to be confused with them. Rather, its unique power is to “make words.” It has taken me years, decades in fact, to realize that imagination, as William Carlos Williams employs the term, can only be language. Or more accurately langue, tho not parole. That dimension of language that exists only – and always – as its potential, the entire system & never an instance.

This is what separates

Which makes cats & dogs & the infinite varieties of red. Which determines the exact border between blue and green, which, although it is hard & fast, is in fact different for each one of us, a shade to the left or to the right.

Watching Williams talk of language without a vocabulary for it falls into one of the primary fault lines of modernism, when all of the elements of a linguistic science were starting to come together, but did not yet fully exist. The great tragedy of James Joyce was his reliance on philology, on the 19th century discipline of word roots & origins, with which to mount Finnegan’s Wake. Pound translating from an imaginary Chinese. H.D. in Freud’s care, imagining him as a fellow researcher. Zukofsky’s flirtation with Basic English.

But Williams, like Stein, fundamentally gets it. Though he almost undoubtedly never read a word of Saussure, he writes like someone who has.

What then is imagination?

More to the point, what is it that Williams, in Spring & All, his finest work, is telling us about the role of imagination, of langue, in the poem?

That it is the duty of the poem to make langue visible, perceptible, so vivid you can taste the salt on its surface, can hear its hum. That, he is arguing, is the poem’s only duty.