Tuesday, February 14, 2012

William Carlos Williams' Legacy: Poetry as Poetry


William Carlos Williams' poetry has never generated a critical canon (unlike texts about Eliot's or Pound's poetry) that's truly appreciative of Williams' primary goal:  Poetry should first and foremost be poetry.  In contrast,  Eliot and Pound seemed forever intent on using poetry as a vehicle to promote culture, history, religion--in short, anything other than simply poetry.  And, true to their nature, the critics took to Eliot and Pound in the same manner that sharks feed in a frenzy:  They couldn't get enough.  Sadly, those same critics largely ignored Williams as if his works exuded a kind of critic repellent.

No wonder most critics often don't know what to say about Williams' work (just as they often don't have anything interesting to say about Whitman's work as well); and, unlike Eliot and Pound, Williams didn't spur critics with metaphors or terms that required exegesis or Greek or Latin or Chinese translations.  Williams utilized the vernacular he spoke and heard in his daily life.  No reader will ever be impressed by literary allusions or extended conceits and metaphors in Williams' poetry, for he rarely relied on or was drawn to such conventions which are often the main reasons critics have written about poetry.  True, the Paterson volumes are Williams' answer to Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's The Pisan Cantos, but one can assume that Williams was human:  He had to prove to the critics that he too could write an epic poem (though, and this is of course highly arguable, epic poems tend to be rather boring no matter the author).

Critics, on the whole, have been blind to the fact that Williams' chief influences were what appear to be two dichotomies:  His interest in the plastic arts, especially Cubism and other Modernist movements, and his outright love for his daily work as a physician.

Cubism nurtured Williams' appreciation for what many avant-garde artists strove for, that paintings (and, analogously, poems) didn't have to be informed by the historical and critical baggage of previous artistic movements.  Specifically, Picasso no longer felt a need to promote verisimilitude and one-point perspective once he gave the finger to the past with what some consider the first Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  One could even argue that he left the painting supposedly unfinished (the areas around the canvas' borders are empty and unpainted) because, if he had finished it, such overall completion would have signaled to Picasso himself that he was finished in changing as an artist; on the contrary, Picasso had just begun to enter a new artistic world that's still evolving.

Not surprisingly, literature students often find Williams' refusal to let literary conventions like metaphors control or even appear in many of his poems discombobulating:  "Mr. Vasquez, what does he mean by 'red wheelbarrow' and 'white chickens'?"  If one responds with the following, "He means exactly what he's referring to--the poem's speaker focuses on the ordinary things of the world, for these things matter in and of themselves and should matter to us all as well," one will find that some students will think less of Williams' work because he often eschewed literary conventions.  However, if one were to note that Williams wrote that poem after visiting a family who had just suffered the loss of a child, the students would be quick to reevaluate and possibly even like the wheelbarrow and the chickens:  "Oh, I see.  These were the things that must have mattered to the child who died."  But Williams chose not to include those tidbits of information in his poem and for good reason:  The poem would have been about death ("Class, what is this poem about?"  "It's about death, Mrs. Marley."), and Williams was not interested in writing poems that could be easily summarized or categorized.  For the world of poetry to change, Williams realized that his appreciation of the world around him had to change if he was to free himself from the literary conventions that all too often dictate a poem's creation even before one stroke of a pen or a typewriter key hits paper.