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!

The Red Wheel Barrow, Imagination, and the Christian Poet

It has been too long since I last posted, as bronchitis and sinusitis descended into my system and knocked me out for awhile. Unfortunately, my blog and writing had to take a back seat until I had the energy and ability to write without abandoning my family and my job. Hopefully, this blog finds you in good (or returning to good!) health. I’m pleased to announce that my review of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All has been published by the Englewood Review of Books. An excerpt:

Originally published in 1923, Spring and All, Williams’s manifesto of imagination and poetry, became one of, if not the most, influential works for mid to late twentieth-century poets. Produced on the heels of the Great War, Williams calls for new forms, new images, new beings, and new cultures because all previous forms and ideas had led us into destruction and death. Today, we again find our American selves faced with war and economic and food crises. In a country where politicians are calling for thousands of math and science teachers, where standardized tests and business skills trump imagination and art, Williams’s monumental work yet again stands at the threshold of form and tradition, begging for a savior.

Read the entire review here. Don’t forget to share your thoughts–is it too much to associate imagination and creativity with Jesus?

No Ideas But in Things

I came across this great article by Ed Wickliffe, where he explores William Carlos Williams now famous quote, “No ideas but in things.” I’ve had numerous instructors interpret this idea to mean that a poem should only be about an object/image–everything must stem from that object. Wickliffe states that this anthem does indeed call for a focus on an object, as it guarantees an image, guarantees concreteness that allows (forces?) the reader to connect on some level. Wickliffe then explains how two imagism rules support Williams’ idea (which isn’t really original, as the author points out), and the impact such a stance has had on poetry.

What do you think? Is there room for the experiential in poetry, or must every poem be based on a thing?

And On and On

I last blogged several months ago when I had my head above water with school work. Well, school’s out so I can now return to the blogosphere in full force. I have lots to write about, and am reading William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All. I’ll post thoughts as the summer progresses.

I will leave you with an anecdote about people invalidating the importance and usefulness of poetry–and I do seem to be surrounded by them lately, from family members to coworkers, to students.

I was bemoaning the absence of poetry from the senior curriculum to my seniors a month ago. I suggested we hurry through our last work so that we can squeeze in a poetry unit. The groans were deafening (not surprised by that actually). One student, a baseball player, blurted out that poetry was boring (really? That’s all you have? Boring? Good to see a senior in high school using such a well-developed vocabulary). I laughed and said that many people would say the same about baseball. He responded by saying that he played baseball, which was way more fun than watching it. Jackpot. I told him that writing poetry can be more fulfilling (and exciting) than reading it. (I know, I know. Everyone’s a poet but nobody’s a reader. I get it. But I think we can better appreciate an art form when we’ve tried it out for ourselves. Writing is only step 1).

The student sat there silently with a stupid grin on his face. And then, “Nope. I don’t know what I’d write about.” So there we have it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Oh well. I’m still pretty confident that the most one of the most ancient forms of writing can’t be snuffed out by laziness and entitlement. Kind of confident. Okay, maybe just plain hopeful. Here’s to doing my part.