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The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of…
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The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford

by Wendell Berry

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Wendell Berry should be USA Poet Laureate. If I knew how to start a campaign in his behalf, I would do so immediately, but like other awards for poets, the transactions are behind the scenes, controlled by the poetry Establishment. After a spate of exciting appointments and progressively active Poets Laureate for a decade around 2000 (Rita Dove, Robert Haas, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser), the Establishment has retreated to old-timers with a staid academic reputation (Louise Gluck, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, and W.S. Merwin).

Berry is a man of letters, whose works speak for and to the people. His poetry is accessible, but sensitive and subtle, rewarding but not requiring multiple readings and scholarly analysis. His early collection, The Wheel (North Point Press, 1982) is one of my most cherished books. I keep it at my fingertips. Yes, it’s right there, along with my mother’s well-worn King James Bible, the leather-bound copy of Keats’ works my wife gave me when we first married nearly fifty years ago, the Orion edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Sheldon Cheney’s Men Who Have Walked with God, the paperback edition of Hamlet I taught from during my first few years of teaching, and the Goodpasture Bible I was awarded as a student minister when I graduated from college. These, to me, are inspired and inspiring works, scriptures all if you will. I return to them again and again. Just their presence in my line of vision is reassuring.

I begin with this personal introduction as a context for this review of Berry’s most recent critical work, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Counterpoint, 2011). Berry intentionally delayed the writing of this tribute until his later years (he was born in 1934), “the better to understand both Williams’ work and my own.” After the first autobiographical chapter, the focus is clearly and consistently on Williams and his poems. His praise for Williams is generous and sincere, but it is also sensible, distinguishing between the poet’s mature achievements and his youthful (and some later) works which were definitely less effective. Berry is also quite candid in expressing confusion about some of Williams’ explanations of his strategems and some of his decisions about his major works. There are chapters on the poet’s techniques: his three-part line, his concepts of measure and rhythm, the balance of line and syntax, and the structure of sounds. There is a fairly detailed contrast between Williams and T.S. Eliot, two who might be considered the well-springs of twentieth-century poetry. There are numerous quotations from Williams’ work and sensitive readings of several poems.

However, at the same time, and without detracting from his concentration on Williams, this book is also a kind of valedictory for Berry. His defense of Williams is a defense of himself; as he makes a case for the recognition of Williams’ poetry, in a subtle and under-stated way, he is making a case for recognition of his own poetry – or at least for the type of work he sees them both representing. The key word in the title of this book, as it turns out, is “Rutherford.” One cannot help envisioning some else’s book, somewhere down the line, entitled “The Poetry of Wendell Berry of Port Royal.” For it is both poets' writing about the particularity of their homeplaces that captures our attention. The first third of the book, eight chapters out of twenty-three, is really devoted to an extended essay on what Berry prefers to call “local adaptation.” The “American idiom” that Williams always clung to, Berry insists, was really a local idiom.

The dominant theme and image of Wiiliams’ poetry is “No ideas but in things” – the things and people, the streets and structures, the scenes and situations, encountered in everyday life – in Rutherford, New Jersey, or Port Royal, Kentucky. “The doctor [he could just have well have said farmer] who is a neighbor who is a poet is well placed to see how in the dematerializing . . . modern world the individual person, place, or thing is forever disappearing into averages, statistics, and lists.” The imperative of “local adaptation” is that the poet be a spokesman and teacher for his own community, one who orders what is disorderly in his perceptions of the world around him, who avoids the abstract, the abstruse, the obscure, in favor of direct, accessible details.

In his reading of “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” as a love poem, personal but not self-centered or confessional, Berry comes to his ultimate definition of poetry and the imagination. He arrives at this point only after his extended comments on place and his several chapters on poetic technique. “The poem,” he concludes, “must be authentically a work of art: something said, but also just as necessarily something imagined and made.” Then he goes on to explain, “To Williams, imagination was the power of making real – of formally realizing, in the momentary presence, without the intervention of ‘ideas’ or ‘fixed concepts,’ our actual experience.”

Person, place, or thing – that is the stuff of poetry, but raised by the “measure” of poetry (that is, its language, its sounds, its forms) to a level of imagination that is, if not sublime, at least beyond the ordinary. . In their own voices, both Williams and Berry are just as determined as William Blake “to see the world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower.” Their sense of the “momentary presence” is not unlike John Keats’ idea of “heaven’s bourne,” in which a moment in time achieves an intensity that is timeless. Eternal life is not merely the unconsciousness of time and certainly not the endless continuation of time, but the awareness of each moment intensified and "realized." The embodiment of such a “momentary presence” in language results from the poet’s craft, but also goes somehow beyond it, requiring both talent and inspiration, both of which are mysterious phenomena. The phenomena, Berry insists, can never be explained, for they are inexplicable to the finite mind.

As interesting as it may be to see Williams through Berry’s eyes, and to see them as “two of a kind,” there is nothing novel or unexpected in this kind of commentary. What is particularly provocative – and somewhat unexpected – is the political dimension of Berry’s reflective study. Not that he refers to his ideas explicitly as partisan, though they certainly are political – and passionately stated and restated. Referring to a book by Ellen Davis, entitled Scripture, Culture, Agriculture (Cambridge UP, 2009), Berry summarizes the antagonism between the particularities of Williams’ imaginative language and the generalities of discursive intellect.

"If you allow embodied thought or embodied imagination to be replaced by abstract thought, the fairly immediate result will be political and economic abstractions, reducing the living world and its creatures to quantities, rules, and cases. Such abstractions, in default of local cultures articulate and coherent enough to resist, become totally domineering and exploitive, imperial – as 'backward' or 'provincial' communities in Williams’ time and ours . . . have reason to know. . . . This articulate, humble, practical local intelligence is antithetical to imperial rule, and it is the only effective way of resistance." (p51)

Early in Paterson, according to Berry, Williams speaks of the divorce between ideas and things, the intangible and tangible, which is “capricious and dangerous both to things and ideas.” (p53). Berry does not hesitate to make that danger explicit nor to apply it to current political pressures:

"An idea so abstract [as patriotism] is readily subverted by a 'national economy' or a 'global economy' of corporations using money (an idea divorced from things of actual value) to expropriate the people and exploit (and destroy) the land. . . . Anyone who in the age of industrialism makes common cause with a place, and who looks, will see that it is always under threat of damage or destruction for the sake of money." (p54)

Nor, according to Berry, does Williams excuse the academic Establishment:

"First of all we must rescue our language from the generalizers, the categorizers, the classifiers, the reducers of things to ideas, the mongers of stereotypes and clichés, the “clerks” of the universities who, Williams says in Paterson, have got out of hand, forgetting for the most part to whom they are beholden:

spitted on fixed concepts like
roasting hogs, sputtering, their drip sizzling
in the fire."


Berry goes on to even more vociferous accusations:

"To the academic professionals, any local loyalty or the adoption of local well-being as a standard of work would seem “provincial” and beneath notice. They have generated an epidemic of specialized or professional languages that are ugly, intentionally obscure, pretentious, and incapable of particularity, affection, humility, or wonder. These languages are readily usable for commercial and political lies, and are sometimes taught at public expense for that purpose." (58f)

So there you have it. Berry does not refer directly to academic poets, who owe their livelihood and their reputation, to the"“intentionally obscure, pretentious” language of modernist poetry, nor to the tenured professors in poetry workshops in colleges and universities all across the country and the literary scholars and critics whose livelihood and reputation depend on interpretations, analyses, and critiques of their academic colleagues. However, it is clear that these professionals are the ones who have labeled Williams and Berry and their ilk as “provincial” and “mindless,” even a “muddle-head,” not worthy of their attention. Furthermore, he sees them as aligned with a corporate oligarchy and imperial oppression. His language (“epidemic,” “ugly,” “incapable”) leaves no doubt as to his passion. This stance is refreshing, more intense and more confrontational than most books dealing with poetry and politics (for example, Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, W.W. Norton, 1993, 2003)

What I like best about Berry’s treatment of Williams, however, is his reading of poems. He is delicate, gentle, fresh, illuminating, and always respectful, as of an elder in the tribe. Otherwise, ironically, the tenderest and most fulfilling passages in his book are in the four chapters (18-21) devoted to Spring and Fall (1923), especially the intentionally “modernist” prose passages. Perhaps, Berry suggests, Williams was simply “deliberately pulling the noses of Very Serious Critics who would offer their noses to be pulled.” (p134)

But, in fact, embedded in that prose, Berry finds, and explicates, Williams’ profound meditations on imagination and invention. One should not read his prose as if he were drawing on “a complete ars poetica.” Instead, he was working all his life, sometimes effectively, sometimes not, “toward an ars poetica, not from one.” This section of the book is so simple, yet so subtle, than I dare not try to summarize it. Instead, I shall limit myself to a few brief quotations of the sort that, in context, made me catch my breath and continue contemplating them even after I had put the book down.

"It is this, the convergence of the eternal and the present, that is possible and that is real only in imagination. ¶ Poetry, then, is the means of giving to realizations of the fleeting eternal moment a kind of permanent presence, so that amid the confusions of the ever-accumulating mass of details that can be returned to, not as ends in themselves, I assume, but as reminders of an indispensable possibility, a wakefulness belong to the highest definition of our humanity". (p143)

"As a poet, and also as a local citizen, he wishes to include all his world in his art, and thus to bring it under the rule and into the dignity, the usefulness, the truth and beauty, of imagination. But the place does not exist to be made into art, but has an independent existence of its own. Sometimes by the power of art the place can be persuaded, within limits, to submit to imagination; sometimes it resists". (p147)

"Perhaps our natural response to abundance is gluttony or greed . . . . That this is an issue at once cultural and economic is clearly implied by Williams’ language and his metaphor, and the gravity of this issue has increased distressingly in the eighty-seven years since the publication of Spring and Fall. For in that time those who adhere to greed as the proper motive and mode of life have established all-consumption as the paramount doctrine: unlimited economic growth." (p150)

"Imagination and its works give us the possibility of completeness short of totality or infinity. If we are complete [i.e., satisfied in the “momentary presence” of art], then we don’t have to be limitlessly greedy – and forever disappointed." (p151)

"To copy nature may require great skill but, in Williams’ terms, an inferior art. To imitate the creativity of nature, on the contrary, requires the art of a maker or creator who makes, not a mirror image, but a new creature. And this requires always, and in the highest sense, the use of imagination." (p156)

Hence, in Berry’s understanding of William Carlos Williams, the poet begins with persons, places, and things – not abstractions or generalities. The mysterious factors of inspiration and talent act upon this raw material. Through the imagination, he “realizes,” or envisions all this in an eternal moment. Through an act of invention, the imagination embodies the moment and shares it with readers.

Hayden Carruth once asked Berry why a poet on a farm in Kentucky would read the poems of a poet from the industrial suburbs of New Jersey. “It has been so important,” Berry replies, “because Williams’ place was as marginal in its way as my own . . . . For half a century his example has been always near to my thoughts, his poems always at hand.” (p177) Reading this book, one learns almostt as much about Berry as about Williams, and finds much to admire in both. The book is very readable; the chapters, short and thought-provoking. Maybe there’s more repetition than one needs and more vagaries that one would prefer, but one comes close to seeing these two poets in action, and one finds a critique of our society as relevant today as it was at the beginning and during the height of both their careers.

Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

(”Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)
1 vote bfrank | Jul 14, 2011 |
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