January 28, 2014

William Carlos Williams: "no ideas but in things"

While I was composing my blog post on John Singleton Copley, which I had titled "The Primacy of the Object", I began thinking of the poet William Carlos Williams whose works focused on the things of this world. In his epic poem "Paterson", he repeated:
––Say it, no ideas but in things––
I confess myself to be a very poor reader of poetry; I have trouble with complex and allusive works. But when I read a Williams poem (especially the early ones), so direct, so visual, so attentive to the world, I am moved. One of my favorite poems is "Pastoral":
When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel-staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best
of all colors. 
        No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.
Why is it that this final thought goes straight through my heart? something simple––a beautiful color––not at all important, and yet yes, for me this small noticing is at the center of life's meaning. I just read an exhilarating lecture by Allen Ginsberg, given in 1975 at the Naropa Institute, "An Exposition of William Carlos Williams' Poetic Practice" in the book The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. In it he quotes from an essay of Williams:
But the thing that always stands permanently in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty which sets a value upon all works of art, and makes them a necessity.
Ginsberg adds: "So 'no ideas but in things', or 'close to the nose'". When a student asks if the poem is so visual, why not take a photograph, Ginsberg responds that the writer is "practicing a speech consciousness, not an eyeball consciousness". As a visual artist, I try to practice that eyeball consciousness, related strongly to Williams' "no ideas but in things". A poem that sticks with me, its glittering image beautiful and hopeful amid detritus, is "Between Walls"
the back wings
of the 
hospital where
will grow lie
in which shine
the broken 
pieces of a green

Williams' most famous poem is probably "The Red Wheelbarrow":
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That "so much depends" focuses our attention on this object, at this moment the center of the world, an ordinary thing that becomes luminous, transcendent. Of this poem Ginsberg says:
I always figured that "so much depends" means he whole mind depends on the image. Or, "so much", a clear apprehension of the entire universe: just being there completely mindful––"I heard a fly buzz––when I died"––that's Emily Dickinson's line. 
 In an essay on Charles Sheeler Williams wrote:
The local is the universal.
Look! that's where painting begins. A bird, up above, flying, may be the essence of it––but a dead canary, with glazed eye, has no less an eye, for the well seen becomes sight and song itself. It is in things that for the artist the power lies, not beyond them. Only where the eye hits does sight occur. 
"It is in things....." and those things can simply be the paint and canvas, but paying attention is key. Here is one more Williams poem (you can find many more online) which Ginsberg called the "acme of tree description" and "a great poem", using the particularity of the tree's top to make it a unique portrait, "Young Sycamore":
I must tell you
this young tree
whose round and firm trunk
between the wet 
pavement and the gutter
(where water
is trickling) rises
into the air with
one undulant
thrust half its height––
and then 
dividing and waning
sending out
young branches on
all sides–– 
hung with cocoons––
it thins
till nothing is left of it
but two 
eccentric knotted
bending forward
hornlike at the top 
"I must tell you" for me is like "so much depends", a call to see what is in front of our eyes, for it enlarges us. Allen Ginsberg ends his essay on Williams, who he calls a "true hero"by discussing his "poetic alchemy":
So––that's what he was trying to do, get that particular flower of perception blooming in America....trying to compose poems that are indistinguishable from the actual perceptions of our ordinary mind; but which when recognized, and appreciated consciously, transform the entire feeling of existence to a totally new sympathetic universe where we're at home, where we're playful, where we're generous, because the mind overflows with its perceptions, and the perceptions are all generous because they're not blocked with anger. 
This is Ginsberg seeing Williams through a Buddhist sensibility, but one attainable, and important, to us all.


  1. Very nice essay, Altoon, and especially timely for me now, as I'm having a sort of WCW fest. I like your point about the "I must tell you" line being similar to "so much depends." The wonderful "This is just to say" opening line of his plum poem works in the same spirit. His autobiography reveals a brilliant, sensitive, empathetic, and humane man, whose work as a doctor was hugely important to his life as a writer. He didn't make a distinction between the two, in fact, but felt one complemented the other. The humanity of his poetic voice is a testament to that.

    1. thanks, Lynne, and I agree with you on the "this is just to say", though it is more gentle and less a strong declarative. In that essay by Ginsberg he talks about the plum poem, saying Williams wrote it as a note to his wife. Ginsberg writes that it's "where life and poetry are identical..." Thanks for the tip on the autobiography; I think I'll order it right away.

  2. Thanks for this, Altoon. Can you link to the Ginsberg essay?

    1. I'm sorry, Susan, I searched but the essay is not available online. I read it in the book I linked to above.

  3. what a good read-

  4. Lovely read and stand out red wheelbarrow. I haven't thought of William Carlos Williams much at all, but enjoyed this introduction or perhaps reintroduction. I am reading Mary Oliver, her older woman thoughts...and thinking about returning to blogland after too much time away.

  5. Thank you, Anonymous and Maggie. Maggie, I too enjoy reading many of Mary Oliver's poems, so sensitive and direct.