William Carlos Williams’s “Some Hints Toward the Enjoyment of Modern Verse”
In Quarterly Review of Literature (Volume VII, Number 3, 1953)—an apparently undated piece (according to its listing in the Williams Papers at Yale) deliver’d at a conference on “Experimental and Formal Verse”—hints “related . . . to the elementary construction of the modern poem: why it is, why it came about and what it seeks to do—as a poem, a weapon”—hints “directed . . . to the intelligence, pleasures (if they can be so called), but the pleasure that comes from the understanding of motives and means rather than the sensual satisfactions of lovely lines, enticing images and subtle music, on which those hang as the man upon his bones” (a rather dangerously inorganic metaphor and “stance”—isn’t it nigh to that of those who’d claim a poem is something like a pretty good “idea” gussy’d up and clothed in “doin’ the town” language?) Williams (in full-out ambivalent-toward-“beauty” mode):
Not that these beauties that the poem has celebrated through the ages are not desirable, they are desirable, intensely so. In fact they are the objective of all the arts including modern art but our work today is from a new radix. It has gone back to the roots. It is a baby art, a screaming, sprawling brat. It is in a primary phase and needs to be understood lest we be tempted to strangle it—for relief.Williams running variants along a continuum, reprising the “machine made of words” note of The Wedge, here calling “the physical makeup of the poem itself . . . a small machine constructed of words and the spaces between them.” Or here insisting that one “think of structure, poetic structure, as . . . of engineering: a field of action worthy of masculine [insert obligatory sic here] attack: where invention is not only possible but constitutes one of the most moving elements of our world—or any world”—thus rejecting both “structure as something static” and the notion of prosody as a “fixed dispensation from above” (“as we are taught, to take our prosody without invention and on loan from another language: you take the bottle with its label already applied and fill it with any rot-gut you like. If it fulfils the rules, o.k.”) That point—of indifferently filling the pre-label’d (circa 1975-1980) bottles with rot-gut—one’d argue, is again where “we” find ourselves, in a surround of stale prosody . . . (As Williams suggests of that era’s sonnet-writing “thousand”: “it makes us feel so regular, so warm, so comforted to resemble Dante and Cavalcanti—if only in the shell stage. You know the little crab that scurries along under an armor he has borrowed from a dead sea-snail? There you have us—by the thousand. Lively but undistinguished.”) (Later, referring to “English prosody”—in particular—and its formes recues, Williams calls it “an historical development growing from English conditions—moral and historical which constitute her history. It is also a citadel, a jealously guarded treasure upon which their knowledge and their formal institutions of learning are based. Its forms are the forms of empire. The first thing we must do as poets (poor things!) is throw it out, body and soul.” Oughtn’t one apply that logic now, too, to one’s own moribund imperial forms?) Williams:
The curious thing is that under such circumstances (and of what else does modern criticism consist?) men come to think that the value of a poem in is what is said in the poem. Imagine! Whereas the real value of a poem is in what we make of it, in what it stands to be as a metrical invention, something new in the world that once more asserts the world as real for us.The perceptual act is all, and all-renewing. Think of Spring and All: rejecting the “said” (“Life’s processes are very simple. One or two moves are made and that is the end. The rest is repetitious”) in favor of “what we make” (“I had recourse to the expedient of letting life go completely in order to live in the world for my choice. I let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself.”) (Oddly recalling the Peter Arnett-report’d remark by an unidentify’d U. S. Army major in Vietnam, regarding the provincial capital of Bến Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Visceral abhorrence is one way of making life and art distinct . . .) Williams’s widely-repeat’d “machine” talk differs here in “Some Hints . . .” Here the “simple definition without which it is hard to proceed” reads:
. . . the poem is a small machine made of words (blocks) and the spaces (mortar) between them. Perhaps a musical comparison would be better. Anyhow or words and the spaces between them. At once you get the implication that time is the element most to be considered: a measured sequence . . .And: “. . . a word as used in a poem . . . has two qualities—it has a meaning but it is also a sound. In making the structure of a poem its sound is primary.” That new emphasis, the daubing “space” of “mortar”—the unsong’d blanks between words. I think how—mayhap around the period when Williams is writing “Some Hints . . .”—word is out of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, made in the summer of 1951 at Black Mountain, or how pianist David Tudor’d recently premiere’d John Cage’s 4′33″ (29 August 1952). Drawback to Williams’s block and mortar metaphor: the poem impenetrable and still’d, a wall. Gone the poem as kinetic sculpture (Duchamp re-doing Bicycle Wheel in 1951.)
To note: the opening paragraph or so of Richard Wilbur’s oddly-begrudging-that-he’s-right reply to Williams’s “Some Hints . . .” (under the title “The Bottles Become New, Too”):
What I like about Dr. Williams’ talk is what I like about the letters which Emile Bernard extorted from Cézanne: both are unsatisfactory in an inspiring way. In each case you hear the voice of a practising [sic] master too deep in his own work to talk like a critic. In Cézanne’s most incoherent and contradictory statements, when he is best illustrating his own assertion that “talks on art are almost useless,” you hear the ring of authority, you are aware of a stubborn sureness which depends not on his prowess as an elucidator of art, but wholly on his achievement as a painter. Dr. Williams is not incoherent, but he is certainly eccentric. There is authority in what he says not because what he says makes perfect sense, but because listening to him you are aware that this is the sort of lopsided view of literature a real poet might have to have.And: “I should say that Dr. Williams’ slights on the sonnet, on quatrains, on the British language, on grammatical inversion, Elizabethan rhetoric and so on, are . . . not judicial but strategic. His strategy is successful, there is ample proof of that.” (Thinking what “proof” Wilbur’s pointing to, I recall how A. R. Ammons rather mischievously / maliciously used the word “gelding” or “gelded” to refer, post-reading, to some British poet of the Jon Stallworthy cohort, or to the poetry itself . . .)
In order to write in earnest it is necessary to choose and to make a way of writing, and this involves rejecting other ways of writing, past and present. In some writers this rejection encompasses almost the entire body of literature, and this is perfectly healthy. Very few good writers can afford to admit the existence of “literature” as critics mean that term. The critic thinks of literature as a stream, an unfinished edifice, a series of significant suppurations, or an inexhaustible banquet. He has the privilege of seeing the good in everything. But in proportions as a poet sees the good in everything his own work is likely—just likely—to lack focus and character . . .