Topical Verse: Williams’s Widow

To simplify the literary-historical narrative a whole lot, William Carlos Williams is often placed in opposition to Wallace Stevens. To simplify this post, both poets are fantastic, and you should read as much of their work as you can starting right now.

Williams is reputedly the more “American” in voice and subject matter; not exactly plainspoken, but carefully ordinary. To the extent that such a thing is possible in writing, he tried—as he spent his career telling everybody who would listen—to build and arrange his lines based on what he considered the rhythms of mid-century conversation and thought. The lines usually break where one can imagine a person taking a breath, changing the subject, or shifting from one mental association to another. This might make you think of the parts of Ulysses that aren’t boring. Charles Olson, a poet I generally dislike but agree with here, praises texts where “The contingent motion of / each line” ending leaves us hungry for a qualifier or a completion. (Charles Tomlinson first explained that point to me.) Williams routinely achieves this effect with clever syntactic breaks (e.g. splitting text between a noun phrase / and the subsequent phrase / that elaborates on it), instead of the containment structures of end rhyme and accentual-syllabic meter. (Roses are red, violets are blue, / Even blogs are a kind of poetry, too.)

Meanwhile (goes the narrative), although Stevens’s work is likewise obsessed with the corkscrews of human thought, he cultivates an aristocratic, ornate, Europhilic, philosophically gregarious, iambically oriented style that plays around with but eventually confirms the Anglo-American lyric tradition, wherein a delicate subjectivity (such as the poet’s) absorbs, interprets, and responds to the teeming world. In other words, even when Stevens’s poems are tongue-in-cheek (“Unsnack your snood, madanna“) or jauntily nonsensical (“The Emperor of Ice Cream”), they aspire to at least sound rhetorically conclusive.

Ironically, this oppositional narrative encompasses and, to a significant extent, relies on similarities. The poets were about the same age. Both spoke Romance languages in addition to their native English; were well-educated Easterners; enjoyed theorizing exuberantly about the power of a world-remaking, almost mystical poetic “Imagination”; and became large literary figures by late middle age. And no garrets for them, they had serious careers outside of poetry. Stevens was an insurance-company executive, and Williams, a family doctor, delivered thousands of babies in north Jersey. (It was easier for middle-class male poets to have demanding day jobs back when wives would customarily take care of scrubbing the bathroom and cooking dinner. Shacked-up poets my age are rightly expected to split the chores. Bachelor poets of course handle one hundred percent.)

A number of critics, such as James Longenbach in Modern Poetry After Modernism, disdain the tidy Stevens/Williams split, along with other reductive mega-narratives about how some phenomenon called “modernism” led straight into whatever the hell “postmodernism” is, or about how Poet A influenced Poets B and C, who in turn bequeathed major parts of their sensibilities to Poet D, who, unlike Poet E, didn’t end up rejecting that aesthetic worldview. And so forth. Marjorie Perloff argues that Williams’s true foe was not Stevens but T.S. Eliot—Williams distrusted what he saw as Eliot’s patrician nihilism—while Stevens was actually the antagonist of Ezra Pound, whom by many accounts he considered a fraud. (Which isn’t an untenable opinion. Unlike Stevens and Williams, Pound was always—rather than just some of the time—pompously self-important about his views of Art and Culture, and when it comes to most of his work after about 1930 there isn’t enough musical pleasure to excuse or obscure a mind that revered Mussolini and deemed a thousand pages of largely incoherent bricolage the right sort of “epic” for the modern age—just try slogging through his Cantos. A few are good. Most will make your forehead throb.)

Still, the Williams v. Stevens deal is not entirely fatuous. The former’s writing truly is less bookish and more at home in the twentieth century, even its grubby parts, hence the well-known wheelbarrows, county hospitals, and baseball games. The USA of his lifetime didn’t unsettle him too much. Stevens, on the other hand, might have hailed from rural Pennsylvania, but in poems he often views the universe as a tourist or collector would. The man was detached about his detachment. Even when his poems name American places (Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma, New Haven), they are not “about” or situated in those places, which in Stevens’s hands become emptied-out terms, or “shadow worlds,” as Perloff has it. His poems love the world yet aren’t completely comfortable there, so instead of presenting themselves as referential, they turn real spaces into what often seem to be stages, curio cases, dioramas, such as with the famous moonshine jar. Stevens is also a much bigger fan of commas.

But as the decades keep passing—these “modern” writers came onto the scene almost a century ago and were dead before JFK was—grand categories make little sense outside of academic careerism and scholarly quibbling. Besides, literary competition, whether cooked up by a writer or a reader, is stupid, because there is always plenty of language to go around. While it would be difficult to mistake one writer’s work for the other’s, style-wise, if you have read enough of Williams and Stevens they begin to sound like half-siblings. Not brothers, but not distant cousins either, and certainly not strangers.

So how to explain this? Like all poets who are good at writing poetry, whatever forms they prefer, Stevens and Williams sought to reproduce “radiant gists” (WCW’s phrase) of identifiable experience, a goal most readily realized in lyric poems, and indeed these dudes are at their best when they keep things under a couple pages and play up the overlapping sounds and lovely pictures. Unfortunately, each also wrote lots of long, uneven poems. Paterson, Williams’s epic, has numerous prosy stretches that suuuuck, while Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is a congeries of lyrics, not a unified epic, a reality many scholars ignore in spite of the title. (NOTES!) Further, their strongest texts are visually acute, rich in half- and internal rhymes, frequently arranged into stanzas or couplets, and redolent of symbolism, in the sense that they tease the reader into thinking that some object (a bouquet, a fish, a factory) in a text represents a Bigger Concept, while also frustrating any attempts to track and clarify the perceived symbolism. They are both funnier than readers usually realize.

This poem, “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1921), isn’t a funny one, though. Like a lot of lyrics, it confronts death, in this case a death that has already happened; and like most lyrics written in English since about 1580,  it is based on the conceit that readers are overhearing a lone, conflicted speaker. That said, it is not a tragic poem. The widow’s marriage was long. She grieves immensely but her son is alive, and it is no catastrophe for a child to bury a parent. (The reverse is.) Although it would be a stretch to say that a feeling for nature is somehow healing her, the widow’s mourning is implicitly tied to biospheric arcs of death, decay, and regrowth. Williams’s debt to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and its quasi-ecological conception of eternity (“there is really no death“) is evident here. Anyway, I’ll stop talking. “Widow’s Lament” is great. Enjoy. You are lucky to live in a place in a time in the world where you can read poems. Don’t sleep on that.

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before, but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirty-five years
I lived with my husband.
The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

One thought on “Topical Verse: Williams’s Widow

  1. Pingback: Friday Night Songs: Housman! Herrick! Springsteen! | The General Reader

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