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.

  12 Responses to “Williams, Whitman, Others”

  1. Qua poet, Whitman sucks. He should not even be mentioned in the same essay as Dickinson in that regard. But are you saying, Aaron, that your spiritual affinity, your "sense of life," is closer to that of Williams and Dickinson (and Joyce?!) over that of Whitman and the Transcendentalists?? I will always have a soft spot for Whitman. Maybe I’m too "American" or "optimistic" or whatever, but poetry has content not just form, Aaron.

  2. Jim: No, I’m not saying that. But a poem is a statement about an experience, and it is valuable to the degree that it renders and judges that experience exactly. Williams, in the poems I quote, is genuinely engaged with the world where Whitman is not. Bad poetry that expresses your own sentiments is still bad.

  3. I can’t say I’ve ever managed to get into Whitman, but surely he doesn’t deserve to be quoted extensively in Counterpunch, home of the aptly named "Poets’ Basement", as he was last week. From what I’ve read of Whitman (not much, so this post might be easy to criticize) , he fails to pull off his "transcendental vision" of the world, because the lists in his poems of all the things he loves in the world tend to the obvious. If Whitman was writing about a house, he would probably say "I love the roof and the windows and the doors and the walls and the ceiling no less than the floor. I love the bedroom and the bathroom and the dining room and the front room and the landing and the hallway etc. etc." Too often he ends up sounding like a thesaurus. However, he did influence Jorge Luis Borges, whose "list" poems and stories like "The Aleph" are much more successful (in my opinion) at conveying a vision of the vastness and variety of the universe, because he makes a far more interesting, far more selective choice of details, giving them their individuality in his descriptions of them. Borges also doesn’t exclude the intellectual sphere from his world.

  4. Foreign influences are weird. The great French poets of the 19th century, like Baudelaire and Verlaine, went in big for Poe, who is awful, I suspect because Poe writes a sort of French poetry in English. (Don’t ask me about Jerry Lewis or Mickey Rourke.)

    Perhaps Whitman’s long lines have some sort of analogue in Spanish; I don’t know Spanish poetry well enough to say.

  5. Hmm, maybe Whitman has some appeal to Latin Americans. Neruda also loved him. Borges liked some English poetry we would now consider pretty oddball, like the epics of William Morris. But his English was good enough to recognize Edgar Allan Poe as the "jingle man". Poe is supposed to sound much better in French, in the translations of Baudelaire and Mallarm. Likewise, the French don’t really like Jules Laforgue, who had a big influence on modern English-language poetry (e.g. Eliot), although some people have alleged that this was mainly because Laforgue made the mistake of quoting Shakespeare too often, rarely a good idea in France.

  6. Hi Aaron –

    Yeah, I understand your views on the poetry. And to clarify, I am usually no big fan of Whitman. Inexplicably, however, I find his Vigil Strange.. poem very moving, and extremely topical, given the protesters’ subject matter–that drove the rec. more than his overall body of work. I will never Sing the Body Electric, that’s for sure.

    You’re right on about my beef with Williams–I see him more as a symbol of influence than anything else, mainly because his stuff annoys me. But that’s a personal call, and neither here nor there.

    And to be fair, I think perhaps Williams annoys me so much because I am constantly confronted with pallid ripoffs of his style when I pick up current literary mags.

    When it comes down to it, my favorite verse is Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, Dickinson, and Frost. Yeah, I know. Hardly a trailblzer, but there you go.

  7. It’s probably true that many bad modern poets who imitate Williams don’t have the slightest idea who Williams was imitating. In that sense he may well be a pernicious influence.

    I can understand why you like Vigil Strange…; it shows Whitman much closer to his subject than usual. If you like Beowulf I encourage you to check out Alan Sullivan’s and Tim Murphy’s new translation.

    And nobody’s gonna blaze any trails on my blog if I can help it.

  8. I’ve never really been a big one for poetry, and my general feeling is that most kinds of stylized art does an extremely poor job of representing the reality of war anyway. (Novelists and film makers are the notable exception, but that’s not "stylized". Generally speaking, painting and poetry and dance have done a dreadful job of it.)

    That said, one poet whose works about war definitely are worthy of attention is Wilfred Owen. He was a British soldier serving in France in WWI and wrote his poetry literally in the trenches. He was wounded once, spent time in hospital, returned to the front, and died in combat in 1918 at age 25, seven days before the armistice was signed.

    I first learned of his poetry because it makes up part of the lyrics used by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem. It is a beautiful and terrible piece of music, and fantastically complicated to actually perform because it requires a pipe organ, a chamber orchestra, a full orchestra, a boy’s choir, a full adult choir, and a bass and a tenor as soloists.

    The two choirs sing the latin words of the Requiem Mass. The bass and tenor sing several of Owen’s poems, in English; they represent the actual soldiers. I cannot recommend the piece highly enough; it is a stunning work of art, and Owen’s poetry is an essential piece of the whole. Britten wrote it for the reopening of Canterbury Cathedral after the damage done to it in WWII was repaired.

    But Owen’s poetry stands on its own without Britten’s music. It was published posthumously.

  9. I guess I should explain that when I say the War Requiem is "beautiful and terrible" I don’t mean by "terrible" that it sucks. What I mean is that what it is about sucks. Part of why Britten used Owen’s poetry in it was to make sure that it didn’t glorify war; his purpose was to mourn the dead but not celebrate how they died.

  10. Steven: "Terrible" as in "A terrible beauty is born": you were clear enough. I haven’t read Owen recently enough to do him anything like justice, but the subjects of war poetry, and poetry’s uses in wartime, on which the WSJ had an article today, are interesting and topical and I will try to write about them soon.

  11. For truly awful poetry read James Joyce’s verse.

  12. Whitman was utterly incapable of being the "Father of American Poetry" as he is so often touted. Fathers must breed with Mothers. Whitman simply wrote half-erotic letters to soldier boys and butchered his lines into dubious "breath units". His influence on Ginsburg–a man whose tacky taste lead him to ironically embrace Fascist Uncle Ezra–only confirms the fact that, as Gump would say, "stupid is as stupid does".

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