I’m travelling these days (Sumer! Family!), so I’ve not really the time to sit and do a proper job
with any of the things I’m thinking.I’ve
choices then.And the choice I’m making
is to just toss off some notes. Which, at least today, kind of fits the spirit
of the source material.
I love that someone’s talking about William Carlos Williams!
This is certainly good news.And I felt the need to write a bit in the margins, which I’ll do
here.Just to gloss a bit.
Jordan Davis: No one seems to know why (let alone how) to
read William Carlos Williams anymore.
I Reply: I kind of agree with this. But there’s a corollary
that I also kind of agree with: Everyone thinks they know why someone should or
shouldn’t read Williams.Also everyone
thinks they know how.
Really it’s probably neither of these assertions, Davis’s or
mine. But these are the sorts of things one does with Williams, and it’s a
strong argument for his importance.
This is my favorite part:
Jordan Davis: If they’re still minimizing your
accomplishments fifty years after you die, you didn’t just change the game, you
won. How did William Carlos Williams do it?
I reply: This is the same argument one could make about
other “problematic” pillars of recent poetry, Gertrude Stein and John Ashbery,
The trick with art is to find your own way past the things
people say about it.Things people say
can help, true, but they mostly just kind of make stuff up.Some of the ways I’ve found a lot of critics
helpful over the years is as examples of how to pretty much ruin art for nearly
everyone. On the other hand, there’s a
kind of easy way a lot of artists hand our conceptions of ourselves back to
us.It’s easy to like these artists, and
to praise them.Williams isn’t like
that, and that’s one of the reasons why some people try to write him out. He makes
Jordan Davis: Jarrell is quite good about the presence among
those successes of incomplete and slightly off material, and I’m pretty sure
this is where readers unsympathetic to Williams’s aesthetics and politics are
relieved to disqualify him—too many clunkers, they say, and head off to read
any of the hundreds of cautious imitators of Williams who’ve found wider
immediate success (Pinsky, Levine) or the dozens of imitators even more
reckless than Williams whose work stands a chance of being read a hundred years
from now (Ginsberg, Lowell).
I Reply: The imitators! Yeah, I’ve always been shocked by
the people who’ve said Williams is foundational to their aesthetic.Levine, especially.Yikes.If I didn’t know Williams and came across Levine talking about Williams’s
importance to him, I’d end up not at all interested in Williams.I’m glad to have missed that.Lowell and Ginsberg are more interesting
cases.Lowell, especially.Williams was inspirational to Lowell, but
only theoretically.Williams gave Lowell
the “courage” to break with Tate, right?Lowell was unsatisfied with how his formal poetry sounded.He was becoming terminally unhip, and he
could feel it.Williams gave him an out,
but not really a model.At least that’s
how I read them.
A lot of poets these days get compared to Wallace Stevens.
“Wallace Stevens” is IN.Or at least he
has been for the past 15 or so years.Maybe that’s changing?Anyway,
poets get compared to him a lot, but who gets compared to Williams? And for
what aspect of Williams? The fact that poets such as Levine and Pinsky are
inheritors of Williams should be cause for a revolution.And the case that Ron Silliman and Philip
Levine both count Williams in their foundations should say something.Maybe it’s a generational thing.In the 70s/80s everyone was claiming
Williams, and then something happened.
What is it about Williams that makes it so difficult to see
as an influence in very recent poetry?Is it that his use of voice was quickly switched over to The New York
School?O’Hara, for instance, also
shared with Williams an ability to jump into his enthusiasms, so that now, that
aspect of Williams also seems that it’s come from O’Hara, which, of course, it
very well might have.That’s the problem
with inheritance.And, now, with the prevalence
of Stevens in book reviews of recent poetry that bears little resemblance to
either Stevens or to other poets who are also being compared to Stevens, it’s
not much of a leap to imagine that Stevens will undergo the same “writing out”
that Williams went through. Perhaps Ashbery will replace Stevens as O’Hara has—in some circles—replaced Williams.And Eliot? Is there anyone out there who’s
ever compared to Eliot?Stein’s doing
well.Cummings, though, he’s in much
worse shape than Williams, it seems.It’s
not a game of Highlander, you know? There doesn’t have to be “only one.”
Williams disliked what Eliot did to poetry, how he “sent us
back to the classroom.”But we, later,
can be influenced by both.It all
Anyway, none of this is meant to be an argument with
Davis.I enjoyed his piece quite a bit,
and look forward to the further installments.