Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jordan Davis On William Carlos Willims

Boom!  Bang!

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, for example. 

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 categories problematic. 

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 becomes froth. 

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. 

 Or maybe it is.


At 7/11/2012 5:34 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I kind of get the connection between Williams and Language Poetry, but for me it's easier to relate the latter to Dada. The parataxis of the new sentence is like that of Tzara's hat poems, Burroughs' cut-ups, and--what the hell--Radiohead lyrics. When I read "What had you been thinking about/the face studiously bloodied/heaven blotted region", I have to imagine a pensive student with a blood-blotted face, the blood somehow heavenly--maybe a red rorschach blot shaped like heaven. I HAVE to "connect up" Ashbery's--& Silliman's--non sequitars, just as, when I look at Franz Kline's Painting Number Two, I have to see a jet-propelled wheelchair flying among girders of a skeletal building. The mind can't help trying to make coherence and meaning in this way. You have to force it to stop looking for the gestalt and focus on the constituent parts. I'll always sooner relate Silliman to The Tennis Court Oath than to anything like Joseph Massey.

At 7/11/2012 6:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I agree, but I have just as much difficulty seeing Williams in Levine and Pinsky. Maybe I could be convinced there’s a Williams influence on Rae Armantrout? Anyway, Williams, when it comes to influence, reminds me of John Berger, talking about the tradition of oil painting:

“The essential character of oil painting has been obscured by an almost universal misreading of the relationship between its ‘tradition’ and its ‘masters.’ Certain exceptional artists in exceptional circumstances broke free of the norms of the tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values; yet these artists are acclaimed as the tradition’s supreme representatives: a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work, incorporating minor technical innovations, and continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed.”

At 7/14/2012 6:50 PM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

Wait. You've taken your family to Sumer??

At 7/14/2012 6:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Summer. Indeed. Quick typing.

And we had to drive through Baraboo, right past the Circus World Museum. My heart cried out.


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