17 June 2012

Spring and All

The reissue of Spring and All (New Directions Publishing, 2011), which reproduces the original 1923 artifact and contains an introduction by the poet C.D. Wright, rescues William Carlos Williams from the common perception that he is a plain-spoken, Imagist.

No doubt, a false understanding of Williams and his poetry can be attributed to anthologies excerpting “The Red Wheelbarrow” from its broader context. For, indeed, without reading the prose sections that comprise the majority of Spring and All, as well as the more experimental verse found in the collection, one could easily read:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens (74)
as the epitome of Pound's Imagist doctrine that argues for “direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective” and to “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” But the linguistic presentation of a “thing” in a direct and streamlined fashion is not Williams' main priority. Instead,  his overriding concern is an investigation and praise of the imagination; or, in his own words: at “this moment...the only thing in which I am at all interested” is “the imagination. This is its book” (3).

Williams, of course, forwards a nuanced understanding of the imagination, in that it is not a concept set in binary relation to reality. By championing the imagination, the poet does not “divorce [him]self from life,” but, in fact, enables himself to “refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live” (3). In this sense, “works of art,” which flow from the imagination, “must be real, not <<realism>> but reality itself” (45). To further explain the reality of the imagination, Williams writes that poetry, as an extension of the imagination, must contain “the ability to record...the moment when the consciousness is enlarged by the sympathies and the unity of understanding which the imagination gives”; only then “will...writing have reality” (48).

Certainly, Imagism and Realism were different historical and aesthetic moments, but the fact that both movements believed an objective reality of an empirical world could be conveyed through language binds them. As such, to decontextualize Williams as a “red wheelbarrowed” Imagist misrepresents of the poet and his work. Rather, Williams, as a poet of the imagination, seeks to liberate words “from the usual quality of...meaning” (92). Moreover, Williams argues that the imagination must be freed from the “impositions of art” and art movements whenever possible so that it maintains its “force” (92), which he compares “to electricity or steam” (49).

Once he divested himself from the constraints of poetic or artistic movements and gave himself over to the force of imagination, Williams was able to create compositions that defied both genre (in the sense that Spring and All contains both prose and poetry) and aesthetic trends. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from section IX:
What about all this writing?

O “Kiki”
O Miss Margaret Jarvis
The backhandspring

I : clean
      clean : yes.. New-York
Wrigley's, appendecitis, John Marin :
skyscraper soup —

Either that or a bullet!

anything might have happened
You lay relaxed on my knees —
the starry night
spread out warm and blind
above the hospital —


It is unclean
which is not straight to the mark —

In my life the furniture eats me (38-39)
With its introductory interrogative statement, followed by apostrophes, repetitions, non-normative punctuation, fragmented lists, exclamations, and surreal imagery such as “skyscraper soup” and “the furniture eats me,” Williams creates an “unclean” poetry that “is not straight to the mark,” but bends and twists through multiple aesthetics and logics. Indeed, the poet lets the imagination guide him without concern for the “impositions” of a predetermined doctrine.

Allowing the imagination to rise “to drunken heights to destroy the world” (5) in order to recreate “everything afresh” (9), in the end, is Williams's goal. And everything is afresh in a poetry that is “Drunk with goats or pavements” (23), where “to engage roses / becomes a geometry” (31) in the “renaissance / twilight / with triphammers // which pulverize / nitrogen” (56) , and our “sobs soaked through the walls / breaking the hospital into pieces” (40). Indeed, these are the “pure products of America” (64) gone crazy and existing “in a different condition when energized” (75) with the force of “the imagination on which reality rides” (76).

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