William Carlos Williams: the power and the limits of poetry

William Carlos Williams’ The Flower (a petal, colorless) from 1930 is to my mind a quintessential Williams poem (you can read it here if you bear in mind that Williams wrote it in couplets). No one else could have written it, and not just because it’s autobiographical. Not that it’s one of his best poems, but it has the ingredients one associates with his poetry: imagination as personal affirmation, ideas in things, imagism, low and high juxtaposition, and the relationship between the personal and the social or public—these ingredients are presented in American vernacular English—a combination that has served American poetry well for one hundred years.

The poem foreshadows Paterson in vision—that is, in how vision functions in the poem. In Paterson the city is imagined as an organic being, like a man. In The Flower the vision of the city becomes a flower so that a man can grasp it in poetic imagination. It is the root, the seed, the beginning of Paterson. The flower becomes the device that powers the poetic engine, as does the man later in Paterson. It’s a fantastic device capable of traveling anywhere in space and time. Such is the power of the imagination. Yet a flower’s life is short compared to that of a man and The Flower, clipped fresh, begins to fade in the end.

Poetic power, it is true, has no power in the real world. The poem states it most baldly in the word plan. “I plan one thing,” he says. Isn’t that what the men with the power do—plan? They design, they devise, they concoct and then they build—buildings, laws, governments—am I not a man? he seems to ask. But he can only plan one thing, and in the end it’s as useless as a wish. We know he won’t build the buttons on the machine that will do the healing for him. The flower, so vivid and promising, droops its head and begins to fade. And so the poem fades away like a lament.

It’s too bad, because it was going so well! I particularly love the way Williams shows us poverty, dirt—ugliness, if you will. His vision does not shy away from garbage, decay, or death. He was a doctor, after all. He had to look at disease and decay every day. His brutal presentation of such elements as well as his jarring juxtapositions and autobiographical notes reminds me a little of the way Frank O’Hara did it, who was much celebrated for it (as if it were something new).

It has been much noted that women often feature in Williams’ vision but it is perhaps less noted that women aren’t singled out. Everything falls within Williams’ field of vision. Observing a woman, or comparing something to a naked woman strikes the contemporary reader—on the face of it—as outmoded. It makes us a little queasy. It’s as wrong in today’s parlance as saying, “a man does (this or that)” instead of saying, a person does…. But this does not mean that women are objectified (in the pejorative sense we use today) by Williams. Notice that the woman in The Flower isn’t simply looked at, she is appreciated for her mind and her experience and she is responsible for the primary insight that gave birth to the poem in the first place. Someone might throw my observation back in my face and say, everything is fodder for the Williams imagination machine. Well, maybe. But if we were to have that philosophical argument then I might be able to show that, in a manner of speaking, all poets do this. Poetry does not meet the world halfway, it exists parallel to the world. Bottom line: the way a heterosexual man today is permitted to observe a woman is in question (at the same time he is not permitted to question how women present themselves to men or anyone else), and we project our debates backward onto Williams. There was a fascinating discussion of this debate at the Kelly Writers House. I recommend following the link to the complete video which includes Jena Osman’s complete talk, since the edited video here only introduces the theme.

Finally I’d like to compare The Flower to one of my favorites to show how, in my view, the special Williams ingredients can result in poetic triumph. In Danse Russe we are confronted with the same limitation of poetic imagination—how it keeps the poet in a realm parallel but separate from the real world. But here the spotlight is narrowed way down to the world of the poet’s own household. Here a woman’s body is not under view, but the poet’s own body. And it’s not a pretty sight. And yet it’s not a lament, either, but a celebration. Even though this is an earlier poem than The Flower it is more mature than that one in the sense that Williams is very far from having to say anything like, “This is no more a romance than an allegory.” Go ahead and knock him down. He’s laughing at himself! This may be the only happiness that a poet can ever expect to have.

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4 Responses to William Carlos Williams: the power and the limits of poetry

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I had never read this poem and am glad to be pointed to it. His conceit of following where the petals lead is wonderful, and I did particularly appreciate the exchange between the speaker and the woman in the poem. It seemed quite natural and true. Your observation about projecting debates backward is an interesting one, and, you are right, if I am reading you correctly, that it is fraught with the danger of misinterpretation. At the same time, the project of rethinking something, whether a past historical moment or a past work of art, poetry, or literature can be illuminating, too. As one example, I saw the documentary, “King in the Wilderness” recently, and what struck and stayed with me was a combination of my ostensibly strong familiarity with those years and a countermanding realization of how much that historical moment got tamed and trampled as King was transformed by memory into an icon. (PS: I thought the Lou Reed lyric was gorgeous.)

    • Are you referring to your memory of King or that of others?

      I’m a student of Foucault, so I feel that we can’t help but view history through contemporary lenses. That’s why it’s important to make the effort to try and understand historical moments or artifacts in the context of their own time. To my mind, the best kind of rethinking has the goal of gaining a more accurate historical understanding, because our views are always being pressed by forces all around to see everything from our own–that is contemporary–perspectives.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    In answer to your question, my own memory, primarily. Your observation in the comment is spot on and beautifully stated. I might add, in addition to the pressure of contemporary perspectives, that what we were taught and absorbed about history in the past can also affect our ability to take in newly recognized/available historical information. As a long ago student of American history who relished historical rethinking while at university that overturned the flawed conventional wisdom in my high school texts, I’m repeatedly struck by newly available, or at least newly recognized, historical information that overrides, or was missing from, what I learned while in college. (An example is the recently-discussed historical information about the genesis of statues honoring Confederate generals and the like. There wasn’t any historical information/discussion about that when I was in college in the late sixties.)

    • It would seem until recently very few people knew anything about the history of Confederate statuary. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how in a manner of speaking the past keeps changing as we dig and read and piece together and how this work helps us make ourselves today. All hope for civilization may not be lost!

      Your comment about how what we have learned affects our ability to take in the new reminds me of things I’ve been reading in William James. He says that a person is a collection of habits, beliefs and opinions and we’re very conservative in this sense and loath to give them up. We are capable of changing but with the least amount of disturbance to our stock of beliefs etc. It takes a lot of effort.

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