A busy week that I began in one state and finished in another, playing catchup all the while. I decided to pick up my Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams this week, since reading H.D. put me in the mood for another Imagist-ish poet, and I particularly enjoy the short descriptive verses from WCW’s earlier collections. Besides, spending time with family in Memphis put me in mind of Monday’s poem.
I went looking for “January Morning” before I flew back home to Philadelphia. It’s longer than most of the WCW poems I love, but arranged in short stanzas with roman numerals. It’s a little bit ars poetica–opening with the odd claim that the domes of a Weehawken can be just as beautiful as more celebrated European cathedrals and most of the subsequent stanzas offer snapshots of life in a small New Jersey town–in keeping with WCW’s lifelong commitment to writing what he saw. He writes himself into the poem as a gleeful figure, the “young doctor dancing with happiness,” which is really how I see him when I read his poetry. I hear the final section, XV, in my mind whenever I am thinking about what I want to do with my expensive and sometimes burdensome education or when I am explaining my passions to the people I love.
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write you a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
If you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard–
Well, you know how
The young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
That’s the way it is with me somehow.
In my mind, I nearly always hear the last line as “That’s the way it is with me sometimes.”
“Transitional” is one of my favorite poems, period–it’s short and simple, and its argument still bears a lot of relevance. The narrator begins: “First he said:/ It is the woman in us/ That makes us write–” (note the rather Dickinsonian dash at the end there. I like to imagine “he” is Ezra Pound, a fried with formative influence on WCW’s young life and early literary explorations. “He” goes on to suggest that their “two sides”–the masculinity they were born with and the femininity they experience in writing, presumably–essentially makes them better writers. The narrator is scandalized by this suggestion, but the poem ends on a vague but positive affirmation: “he” answers, “am I not I–here?”
This idea–that writing is somehow a feminine thing to do–haunts more than one early twentieth century writer. I’m not quite sure why; women’s writing wasn’t very well celebrated at any point in history. I suppose that male poets have often been depicted as womanish, or perhaps the surprisingly modern poetry of Amy Lowell had her modernist male contemporaries on edge. In any case, the poem’s “he” is not the only one to declare himself somehow superior for being male with feminine powers of poesy: Henry Miller, the classic image of a hardboiled novelist, sometimes depicted his writing process as birthing. I was reminded of this when one of my own press’s authors did the same thing in a recent Email, which is only the second weird way he has appropriated female experience to describe his book.)
“To a Poor Old Woman” used to disturb me, because I didn’t like the thought of WCW watching and pitying the old woman sucking on fruit in sensual enjoyment. But re-reading it, I like it more. I don’t read pity in his repetition of “They taste good to her,” and if he’s a little patronizing in his projection that she finds comfort and solace in them, at least the whole poem is given over to her pleasure.
“Apology.” [Link goes to a JSTOR viewing window.] Writing about writing, with very little embellishment or mystification of the writing process. “Why do I write today?/ The beauty of/ the terrible faces/ of our nonentities/ stirs me to it.”
Flipping through idly, I found “Mujer,” a quite short poem with a quite simple premise: his black Persian cat is pregnant again. What makes this a poem? It rolls easily off the tongue, but its rhythm is not finely calculated, nor does it have much of an argument. It feels as though the poet said to himself, “Oh, black Persian cat. Was your life not already cursed with offspring?” and then, noting the meter of what he just said, jotted it down in a notebook with line breaks. (I am projecting: this is how I wrote many haiku for a haiku year once I got sufficiently in the habit of counting syllables.) I like this poem for its brevity and directness, as well as the reminder that a poem doesn’t have to reach for a higher argument about the condition of life. It could just be a sublunary lyric, an everyday chant.
Finally a weekend at home, and time for a longer poem from one of WCW’s later collections, playing more wildly with form (wide open spaces) and punctuation (or lack thereof): “Rain,” which caught my eye because of its beautiful last lines.
But love is
comes of it but love
and falling endlessly
The poem compares (but does not equate) love and rain; both fall everywhere, into anything that’s open. But not everything is open; the narrator describes the dry rooms “of illicit love” which contain beautiful objects (and “all the whorishness”) but are not “washed” (he writes “wash” more than once) by the rain. It’s hard not to read a contrast between marital love and extramarital love there, especially considering the ongoing speculation about WCW’s faithfulness or lack thereof–he writes so openly and frankly and greedily about admiring beautiful women. But though he writes about seeing the rain fall from the window of the dry room, and admits so much of his life is spent “to keep out love,” he also writes of the “kind physician” “running in between/ the drops” of love, which falls like rain.
I find this poem lovely, but sad and exhausting. I’ve watched love from the dry room of worldly objects, and I’ve also been the female natural world dripping seemingly inexhaustible love always and everywhere. Both positions were unhappy, and I read of the kind physician running in the rain with envy, though I think it’s just as impossible a position as the rest of this yearning poem describes.