Wednesday, 23 September 2020 16:45

'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams

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'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams

Ciarán O'Rourke writes about the thoroughly politicised, internationalist and anti-fascist poetry of William Carlos Williams

“Mourn O Ye Angels of the Left Wing!”, Allen Ginsberg exclaimed in 1963, following the death of William Carlos Williams: “that the poet / of the streets is a skeleton under the pavement now”. The accolade, although brief, was a fitting one. Williams, the documentarian of America’s urban life, now resided “under the pavement ”, an appropriate resting place for a “poet of the streets” who had also been a stalwart “of the Left Wing!”.

Principally remembered today for his literary credo, “No ideas but in things”, as well as for imagistic snapshots such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Williams was in fact a formally adventurous and politically impassioned advocate of literature as an instrument of democratic praxis. For him, art's purpose was to provide a record of lived experience, but one which at the same time shed light on the power dynamics at play in his society – from the gleaming suburbs to the impoverished tenements of New Jersey’s industrial towns, where he worked (for over forty years) as a doctor-on-call and pediatrician. “Poetry is a rival government”, he wrote, remarking elsewhere that the “revolution” will be accomplished when “noble has been / changed to no bull”.

As a poet, Williams balanced stylistic delicacy with an exuberance (sometimes a fury) of political perception. In one piece, the stirring still-life of a “sewing machine / whirling // in the next room” comes to stand for both the financial want and the practical industriousness of a whole community of working-class women – as nearby, the “men at the bar” are “talking of the strike / and cash” (perhaps recalling the 1913 Paterson silk strike).

Likewise, and although he would maintain a personal affection for the three-time President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his later poems remained unflinching in their depiction of post-New Deal American society as one defined by inequality and social neglect. “Election Day” (1941) is a case in point:

Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house –

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

The poem's “broken house” serves to reflect (and maybe also to accuse) the greater house of American democracy, divided or otherwise as it may be. By virtue of its very marginality, the slow, permeating poverty of the old man's surroundings comes to stand in a representational relation to the political system in which he lives.

The radical redness of wheelbarrows

Even Williams's beloved “red wheel / barrow” may be understood as a statement of inclusivity: like the rain that glazes it, the wheelbarrow is a humdrum specificity, now suddenly become general – made luminous by the poet's glancing view. It exists in multiple forms simultaneously: as a thing, a symbol, and a literary experiment in which Williams's readers are actively involved. The redness of this poem-object is radical in its universality, filling in for all the colour and vibrancy of the world at large, as the “yellow, yellow, yellow!” does in his piece, “Primrose”. “It is not a color”, Williams proclaimed in that poem, but rather represents the flash and flow of life itself: “It is summer! / It is the wind on a willow / It is a piece of blue paper / in the grass...”. It is as accessible to us, in our own lives, as it was to him – the very opposite of the literary fetish so prized in academic circles.

Williams himself ascribed his political and observational focus to his being, in some ways, an outsider in America. “My mother was half French [from Puerto Rico]”, he noted in 1954: “My father was English... [and] never became a citizen of the United States though he made no objection to my remaining one after I had been born here.” Such an upbringing, Williams suggested, “led me to look at writing with very different eyes from any to be found about Philadelphia”.

Crucially, however, by choosing to write in what he called “the American grain”, Williams was attempting to tap into an expressive tradition that for him was as politically exemplary as it was culturally original. Perhaps curiously, for so antagonistic a literary innovator, “tradition” was a keyword among Williams's motivating concerns – and was the trope, indeed, that he resurrected in the aftermath of the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, when he searingly blamed the American public (as typified by his suburban neighbours) for the outcome. “Americans”, Williams writes, “You are inheritors of a great / tradition”, despite doing only “what you're told to do. You don't / answer back the way Tommy Jeff did or Ben / Frank [...] You're civilized”.

Whether or not we accept the totalising equation of the radicalism of America’s secessionist settlers with that of persecuted anarchists of the 1920s, the logic here is telling. For if Williams's perennial urge as a poet was to “answer back” to his times, then such an impulsion, in his view, was by definition an American one: to be both dissident and dissonant amid prevailing orthodoxies, like Sacco and Vanzetti themselves.

Just as Williams was keen to place his work on the side of rebels of varying political stripes, his modernism was remarkable for the insight into industrial modernity it conveyed. He portrays New York city as a conglomerate of “[s]weatshops / and railroad yards at dusk / (puffed up by fantasy / to seem real)”, a vista that chimes with a later, quietly irreverent portrait of Henry Ford as “[a] tin bucket / full of small used parts / nuts and short bolts / slowly draining onto / the dented bottom” and “forming a heavy sludge / of oil”.

Analysing the phenomenon of Fordism from afar, Antonio Gramsci had argued that “the new type of man demanded by the rationalisation of production and work cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it too has been rationalised.... In America, rationalisation of work and prohibition are undoubtedly connected”. If Williams's poems were intended, as he put it, to resemble a “machine made of words”, their outlook nevertheless presented a counter-vision to the mechanisations and resulting alienations identified by Gramsci here – presenting an alternative literary narrative, with all the lasting force (and occasionally the same slapstick sincerity) of a Charlie Chaplin picture on the big screen.

Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) in fact pivots on exactly those material contrasts and contradictions on which Williams's poems themselves so frequently hinge. In the film, the gloriously haywire dance of the main character's “nervous breakdown” in the factory (due to the repetition and strain of the job) makes for superb entertainment, recalling poet Hart Crane's gleeful celebration of Chaplin's key artistic insight: that “we can still love the world”, despite the “meek adjustments” and “random consolations” of contemporary experience.

But the performance also speaks to that condition of social invisibility, that deformity-in-labour, which repeatedly inscribes Williams's literary portraits, jotted down in stray moments during his medical visits among America's swelling population of “the very poor”. “The only human value of anything, writing included,” he summarised, “is intense vision of the facts.”

America adores violence

Given such concerns, it’s perhaps curious that Williams was firm in voicing his opposition to Marxism, which represented, for him, “the regimentation of thought and action”. And yet, his appreciation of daily “things” often served as an exposé of those hierarchies of power on which the development of capital in America depended. “America adores violence”, Williams declaimed, “we have violence for service [...] Battleships for peace. The force of enterprise for bringing bananas to the breakfast table”.

The internationalism of Williams’s perspective is notable here. Also obvious is that his approach was aesthetic and critical, rather than jargonistic, as the entwined imagistic elegance and political feist of his piece, “Proletarian Portrait”, similarly attests. It reads:

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

Williams's avowedly sympathetic stance toward the women he encountered and sought to praise in his poems is by no means immune from critical scrutiny – tending as he does to objectify and sexualise them as symbols of his own desires. The social voltage of this piece, however, is arguably comparable to the fine-tuned dispatches of George Orwell from revolutionary Catalonia in the 1930s: describing faces caught in “sudden glimpses” that stayed “vividly in my memory”, Orwell wrote, and somehow conveyed an “idea of what it felt like to be in the middle of the Barcelona” at the time. Williams's “young bareheaded woman” proletarian would not be out of place among such figures, or indeed among the revolutionaries photographed by Robert Capa in the same conflict – although never (and here lies the crux of Williams's insight into American life) “in an apron”.

“The bourgeois [is] tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be”, Adorno posited; and yet often Williams's social portraits are remarkable for their affectionate identification of both states, his insistent belief that in the very physicality of their dis-enfranchisement may lie the political promise of his subjects – as we see in the closing gesture of the piece above, when the woman is described, with both literalistic precision and parabolic force, reaching into her shoe to remove “the nail / That has been hurting her”.

If the juxtaposition of Williams's poems of urban New Jersey with Orwell's notes from war-torn Spain seems arbitrary, the truth is that Williams himself was often swift to propose such a context for his work. In 1944, Williams was forthright in arguing that the social scenes recorded in his poems were “the war, or a part of it”, constituting “merely a different sector of the field”. Indeed, one of the most compelling assertions engrained throughout his writing is that of the violence of ordinary life, which he, as a doctor on-call, served as a kind of first-hand witness. This perspective informs his account of attending to a “woman with a dead face” who “has seven foster children” and needs “pills // for an abortion” – a scene pointedly entitled, “A Cold Front”: “In a case like this I know / quick action is the main thing.” Williams was a vocal supporter of Margaret Sanger and the movement for reproductive rights in the USA.

Anti-fascist poetry

In this and other respects, and whatever the limitations of his approach, Williams's poetry may provide an alternative model of literary politics to that associated with many writers among whom he is regularly ranked today, including Ezra Pound. A longstanding friend – from their time as university students together until Williams's death in the early 1960s – Pound offered formative criticism of Williams's early work, and remained an important influence thereafter. Pound, of course, welcomed the rise of Italian fascism, and became notorious for broadcasting openly anti-Semitic views.

Williams, by contrast, was forthright in his condemnation of political movements that propounded racist and anti-Semitic ideological concepts. Expressing his contempt for “that murderous gang [Pound] says he's for” (referring to the fascist parties of Hitler and Mussolini), Williams vented a despair that was both personal and political:

The logicallity [sic] of fascist rationalizations is soon going to kill him. You can't argue away wanton slaughter of innocent women and children by the neo-scholasticism of a controlled economy program.

Once signalled, Williams’s divergence from Pound is everywhere to be found in his work. “[Whenever] I see a newspaper that mentions Hitler or Abyssinia”, Marianne Moore wrote to him in 1935, “I wonder why I do not walk up and down the street like a sandwich-man wearing as broadside your [poem] 'Item', for good though certain other things are, this says it all.” Suffused with Goya-esque dread, the poem depicts a woman “with a face / like a mashed blood orange” who wears a “thick, ragged coat” and “broken shoes”, and goes “stumbling for dread” as soldiers “with their gun-butts / shove her // sprawling”. Few of his contemporaries were so attuned to the violence and foreboding of the times.

Williams's art was often silence-breaking. The central character of his late modernist epic, Paterson, sets himself the task of “loaning blood / to the past”, before pinpointing episodes of ethnic and colonial violence from New Jersey's history. The poem thus highlights the murder (in the mid-nineteenth century) of a group of native Americans, accused of “killing two or three pigs” that had in fact “been butchered by the white men themselves”, quoting documentary sources that recorded the original incident:

The first of these savages, having received a frightful wound, desired them to permit him to dance the Kinte Kaye, a religious use among them before death; he received, however, so many wounds that he dropped dead. The soldiers then cut strips down the other's body [while some stood] laughing heartily at the fun... he dancing the Kinte Kaye all the time, [they] mutilated him, and at last cut off his head.

The brutality and racism recounted here present a reproach to the nostalgia of traditional narratives of the emerging nation, which even the poet himself occasionally indulges. The episode likewise closes with clamour and impotent grief, as a captive group of indigenous women “held up their arms, and in their language exclaimed, 'For shame! For shame! Such unheard of cruelty was never known, or even thought of, among us.' [emphasis mine]”

It is all for you

If it would be misleading to depict him as a post-colonial writer, as the segments here suggest, he at least engages a colonially conscious understanding of American space and history – and one often matched by an equally visceral acknowledgement of the formal inadequacy (and historical complicity) of American English as a mode of expressing this understanding. “What do I do?”, asks the narrator in the poem above, “I listen” in silence: “This is my entire / occupation.”

Voiced with an energy entirely his own, Williams’s work is the outcome of a thoroughly politicised historical and environmental consciousness. Ranging from delicately seething portraits of his locale to the vivid imagination of atrocities suppressed from history, Williams's chronicle of his times sought to effect change – if not political change, then communication in a new mode, which for him was perhaps the deeper necessity. “[H]ave you read anything that I have written?”, he once asked, declaring with a flourish, “It is all for you” – a credo that may be taken by readers everywhere as an invitation to construct from his work not only a record of his place and time, but an image (and a critical understanding) of our own.

Read 331 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2020 13:06
Ciaran O Rourke

Ciarán O'Rourke is a widely published Irish poet, living in Leitrim. His poetry appears in the Culture Matters anthology, Children of the Nation, and his first collection, The Buried Breath, is available here