Wednesday, February 22, 2017

There is no confusion – only difficulties - Spring and All, where WCW cuts loose

I’ve been reading William Carlos Williams much like I have been reading Conrad Aiken – why not shovel it all in, up to a point.  I wrote an uncomprehending post about his second book, The Tempers (1913), in which I made two points, first, this stuff hardly sounded like Williams and second, this poet sure likes leaves.

Since then I read Al Que Quiere! (1917) and Sour Grapes (1921) – those are good titles – but did not write about them.  More Williams flavor, and lots more leaves.  I guess a poet as Whitman-like as Williams has no choice.

Now I have hit the pure stuff, the crazy hybrid Spring and All (1923):

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
 One by one objects are defined –
It quickens : clarity, outline of leaf

That’s an almost baldly programmatic bit of Poem I, “By the road to the contagious hospital.”  I had to do a head-to-head comparison to Sour Grapes to see the difference.  Many of the earlier poems are fine as they are:

Complete Destruction

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set match to it.

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

But others must have still seemed too poetical to Williams.  Sour Grapes opens with “The Late Singer”:

Here it is spring again
and I still a young man!
I am late at my singing.

Then there is a sparrow, grass, the moon, and guess what leaves (“brown and yellow moth-flowers”).  To most of is this sounds pretty plain, but Williams thinks it’s missing something.

The 2011 New Directions reissue of Spring and All has a terrific introduction by C. D. Wright.  Here’s how she describes the change:

The year before, 1922, was high tide in poetry: The Duino Elegies, Trilce, and The Waste Land.  The latter was a head blow to William Carlos Williams…  Then came The Waste Land, all tricked out with Sanscrit and Latin ornaments.  The impact was as useful as it was painful.  Whap.  Now he knew what he was opposing…  (p. viii)

Spring and All is full of nonsense, upside-down chapter titles, misspellings, and general goofiness.  The poems are embedded in a prose manifesto that is written “con brio,” to borrow the title of one of his earliest poems.  It is energetic:

    If I could say what was in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity ; the formality of its boredom ; the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill ! kill ! let there be fresh meat…  (Chapter 19, p. 5, ellipses in original)

But the manifesto is at heart not negative or prescriptive but personal, a portrait of the creative self.

  Poetry is something quite different. Poetry has to do with the crystallization of the imagination – the perfection of new forms as additions to nature – Prose may follow to enlighten but poetry –  (p. 78)

The, or a, joke being that Spring and All is mostly prose.  “There is no confusion – only difficulties.”  Maybe.

He who has kissed
a leaf

need look no further –
I ascend

a canopy of leaves

and at the same time
I descend

for I do nothing
unusual –   (from XXIV)

No, even for 1923, that’s not true.


  1. My experiences with WCW's difficulties are limited, but I have always been intrigued by this one in which imagery is evocative and meaning is ineffable:

  2. That's poem from this very book, poem XXII from Spring and All. The perfect example of Williams stripping out everything he thinks is falsely poetic.

  3. The year before, 1922, was high tide in poetry: The Duino Elegies, Trilce, and The Waste Land.

    That sent me back to my copy of Trilce, where I was astonished to find bits that could have come straight out of Spring and All, e.g. (from LXXIII) "Tengo pues derecho/ a estar verde y contento y peligroso" [I have the right then/ to be green and happy and dangerous] and (from XVI) "Ea! Buen primero!" [Hey! A good start!]. And there's even a leaf: from LXXV: "El ser hoja seca sin haber sido verde jamás" [Being a dry leaf without ever having been green]. O zeitgeist, how do you work your magic?

  4. I had wondered why Wright mentioned Trilce specifically - then I did what you did. A ferment of ideas, a global poetic influenza.

  5. Just ran across this in a book on inter-American poetics: "the New World Americanisms emerging with William Carlos Williams and César Vallejo in the 1920s were structured as cognate negations of European influence." I wouldn't have thought of pairing them, and now I see them everywhere!