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.