The “Awkwardness” of William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

A colleague passed along Adam Kirsch’s recent review of books pertaining to William Carlos Williams, his work, and his struggle to be confident as a poet. It’s a fascinating read, and pretty informative. I like how Kirsch writes and I find his criticism (in general) engaging and challenging. In this critique, Kirsch writes, “In his lonely opposition to Pound, Eliot, and company, Williams had need of the courage he described in “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!

Constructions like “realizable actual” and “toward which you lend” are examples of the awkwardness to which Williams is prone, especially when he is dealing in abstractions or trying to sound elevated or fancy.”

Kirsch accuses Williams of trying to sound sophisticated,  resulting in sounding “awkward.”  While Kirsch’s overall assertion may hold true, is this the best poem to use as an example?

Walt Whitman

Titled “El Hombre”, the poem (quoted in it’s entirety above) pays homage to Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman’s long poem ends with the lines “You furnish your parts toward eternity, / Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul” (ln. 131-32). Throughout the poem, Whitman emphasizes perseverance, continuation, and moving forward. Williams’ short little poem actually does a phenomenal job encompassing Whitman’s work while adding his own voice. This instance of apostrophe/allusion/reflection is by no means awkward.

Do any of Williams’ poems fulfill Kirsch’s charge that he’s awkwardly over-trying? Which ones? I’d enjoy reading your thoughts and comments!

Shanxing Wang, Updike, and Whitman

I recently purchased Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang. An interesting interview that helps explain some things in the collection is here. (Thanks, Joe for the links and suggestion!) I am currently working on putting together my capstone project exploring the behavior of light. Wang’s work of poems and prose definitely pushes the limits on form and originality. The voice throughout is completely scientific, and Wang, a native Chinese speaker, is free to play with the English language and word associations that sound similar but mean something different (ex: birch and bitch, he and she, is and it, is and si, etc.). This leads to a playful reading experience amongst a very formal, acedmic voice. I admire Wang for incorporating scientific attiributes to his poetry, using variable for people and places, and equations for situations. I connect with this because I see so many things as equations–not always in the sense of solving but in the sense of representations, replacements, and bridges to other ideas.

The collection starts (seemingly) as a poetic expression of reading an academic paper at a conference. The room is divided into quadraints and we see rotations in the speakers eyes and mind. Before long, we realize that this is not just about reading an academic paper, but talking about poetry, the learning of, the expression of, the interaction with, and the insuing (mis)understanding. By the time the reader concludes the first section, the question seems to be offered: What is poetry? If I stop and listen, can I hear it?

I have been mulling over this work for a month now. At first I was astonished at the newness of this type of writing–freshness. But alas, nothing is new under the sun. I came across a John Updike poem this week, with just as much scientific language and equationary wordings. “Midpoint” is divided into 5 sections, with each section beginning with an Argument. The first section is written in three line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme (loosely) of aba bcb cdc etc.  The second section is mostly photographs, and the third section hammer home the science. The first few stanzas:

All things are Atoms: Earth and Water, Air
And Fire, all, Democritus foretold.
Swiss Paracelsus, in’s alchemic lair,
Saw Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury unfold
Amid MIllenial hopes of faking Gold.
Lavoisier dethroned Phlogiston; then
Molecular Analysis made bold
Foray into the gases: Hydrogen
Stood naked in the dazzled sight of Learned Men.

The Solid State, however, kept its grains
Of Microstructure coarsely veiled until
X-ray diffraction pierced the Crystal Planes
That roofed the giddy dance, the taut Quadrille
Where Silicon and Carbon Atoms will
Link Valencies, four-figured, hand in hand
With common Ions and Rare Earths to fill
The lattices of Matter, Salt or Sand,
With tiny Excitations, quantitively grand.

Later in that same section, Updike turns to equationary language with “T=3Nk is much too neat; / A rigid Crystal’s not a fluid Gas.”

The final stanza is all about Atoms and magnetism. The fourth section dives into the complete abondonment of traditional form and uses diagrams, arrows, text pictures, indentations, and side thoughts. Much like Wang’s Mad Science! Still, Updike provides a further link into history by quoting Whitman in the final two sections.

Wang pushes the limits of questioning form and word choice, thus bringing pleasure to the p-a crowd. But the irony is it isn’t new, as Updike (and I’m sure numerous others) accomplished the same thing. I’m struck that this ties back to Whitman, a seemingly unending source of inspiring newness. So maybe it is impossible to be truly post-avante, truly new, truly original. Maybe that’s a chink in the p-a armor, but it’s a good reminder to simply write; write the best and the most creative work possible. Experiment. Grow. Create. Ah, my poetic dream!

Whitman and the Post-Avant

In Ron Silliman’s explanation of how to teach poetry, he made a comment about Whitman and the P-A movement:

Anyone – anyone! – who argues that either Dickinson or Whitman leads you to the School of Quietude (tho they won’t call it that) is a fraud. Tho it is worth noting that Dickinson & Whitman will lead you to very different parts of the post-avant spectrum.

I already linked to Joseph Hutchison’s response that this type of statement creates a “you vs. me” sentimentality where “me” is always right. I would assert that while Whitman was writing things in a completely new way (another element of P-A: newness, pushing the envelope, etc.), he does not point the attitude often presented by the P-A crowd. Whitman himself tried to imitate the long line structure of the Psalms, so that wasn’t entirely new. He wrote very openly about his sexuality, which was new in America but not necessarily in literature. He wrote about the self (not just sexuality) with complete openness, which was a bit risque for the time and culture. Maybe combining all of these into one explosion of lawn snippings is one reason for his revolutionary style of writing. However, Whitman’s poetry does not maintain or condone the attitude presented by many P-As.

Some examples:

Song of Myself

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….


I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men

I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.

Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,…


I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any


Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

This doesn’t include “One Self I Sing” or “I Hear America Singing.”

Whitman was P-A in his time because of his “newness” and his controversial statements (What? Men and women can be equal???). However, time and time again his poetry suggests the unity of things, each profession, each poet, each artist playing his/her part in the greater song. There wasn’t a voice too quiet, a job too old fashioned, a poem too new that couldn’t fit into the impending symphony.

Finally, this quote from John Gallaher in the comment section of the same article:

“Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs.”

Well, I posit that there are some poems are not poems anyone needs, and actually block what poetry can do. I’ll go way out there and say an easy example of that would be the poetry (and theory) of Ted Kooser. The less said the better.

And from Whitman’s Song of Myself 16:

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
the palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

I wonder if this whole discussion of these parties is simply a microcosm, a separate peace.