Feb 022003

Over at Tightly Wound, in a post appealingly titled, “Note to Poets Everywhere — Basically, You Suck,” Big Arm Woman nominates William Carlos Williams as the all-time poetry villain. It’s a curious choice. I’d have to go with Milton myself, for throwing over the logical structure of the Renaissance, nearly single-handedly, in favor of sentimental associationism. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” was a syllogism; less than fifty years later Milton is getting away with “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” collections of details loosely related to joy and melancholy, respectively. Milton also wrote a bizarre cognate of English, mixed with Latin, and, as Donald Sutherland says in Animal House, his jokes are terrible.

Williams, it is true, is usually a bore, though never as resounding a bore as Milton, and his slogan, “No ideas but in things,” indicates Williams’ distant acquaintance with the intellect. Nonetheless his talent was real, and his poems only superficially resemble the slack stuff that you find in the poetry journals nowadays. His best poem, I am sure, is “To a Dead Journalist”:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Any mildly attentive reader can hear that the rhythms are of verse, not prose. The metaphor for the experience of recognizing death is better than anything outside of Emily Dickinson. The three near-spondees, ending with “too late,” cleave life and death absolutely.

Even the notorious red wheelbarrow:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The first line is unforgivable, and the poem is tiny, but the miraculous “glazed” stamps the image in my mind indelibly. Nothing so well-executed is to be despised.

Big Arm Woman may object more to Williams’ influence than to Williams himself. There are writers — Wyndham Lewis calls them “literary barrens” — who are great themselves but disastrous as influences; Joyce is the best example. Except Williams wasn’t one of them. He was the opposite of an innovator: he adopted uncritically a literary movement (Imagism, the brainchild of Pound and H.D.) popular in his youth, never strayed, and brought it to its highest polish.

She mysteriously proceeds to plump for Whitman, who, um, sucks. He doesn’t even scan. Maybe it’s because he’s patriotic. He sounds patriotic, anyway, but Whitman is a transcendentalist. Remember Mikey in the Life cereal commercials, the kid who hates everything? Transcendentalists love everything, America included. It’s all part of the universal current:

One thought ever at the fore —
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe together sail, sail the same voyage, are bound to the same destination.

Bad as the verse is, the thought is worse, and both are characteristic.

Big Arm Woman points out that Whitman served as a nurse in the Civil War, which is supposed to make his war poetry, which she discreetly refrains from quoting, “haunting and moving in ways that Adrienne Rich should weep over.” Unfortunately his service failed to endow with him talent. The most haunting and moving novel I know about war is The Red Badge of Courage, written by a man who had never seen a shot fired. I have no use for Adrienne Rich either, but if any of Whitman’s war poetry is half as good as the Williams poem I’ve cited, I’ve yet to encounter it.