On Reading William Carlos Williams on Christmas Day

It’s Christmas and I don’t have to go
It’s Christmas and I have a place to stay

Not writing but reading
my favorite thing
Picking my way
through the delicate mechanisms
Not by the clock
but all day to lightly tread
So as not to trample
my own tomorrow

Williams wrote that, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found in” poems. Now I do not in a strict sense believe that. Men and women and children certainly die miserably every day for many reasons, or for no reason at all. More to the point, it seems to me men often live to a ripe old age without indulging in one ounce of poetry. Moreover, we all need food and shelter and basic health first, before we can begin to think about a surplus such as art. But I do believe it could be true for some who have died and that it is a partial truth for many of us living in the sense that we would not want to live without it. I cannot imagine any life worth living without art.

I woke up this Christmas Day with no pressing needs and, well aware of that blessing, thought what better way to both relax and celebrate than to read. I chose Williams, for I could think of no better use of my reading time. I came across “A Foot-Note” he wrote in 1933. He warns that if you “Walk on the delicate parts / of necessary mechanisms” you will soon have nothing. I immediately thought of that fragile machinery as poetry since it is a peculiarity of mine to think of my poems as machines. The full note seemed to bear this out:

A Foot-Note
by William Carlos Williams

Walk on the delicate parts
of necessary mechanisms
and you will pretty soon have
neither food, clothing, nor
even Communism itself,
Comrades. Read good poetry!

Once again, I cannot agree with this in the strict sense, but with a full heart in the narrower sense. You cannot run roughshod over poetry any more than you could a field of flowers–not without trampling them. Williams says that “Nothing is more certain than the flower”–another untruth in the strict sense, but absolute in the poem’s sense. In Two Aspects of April Williams states that Spring comes blowing in and gets things done, maybe not perfectly but it establishes a basis for life, like a field for playing ball. It’s in your hands now, get it done!

This is your responsibility. Nothing is more important. Now, look at this extraordinary poem with the humble title, “The Entity”:

The Entity
by William Carlos Williams

Antipoetic is the thing
flowers mostly in the spring
and when it dies it lives again
first the egg and then the hen

Or is this merely an unreason
flowerless the which we beg
antipoetic mocks the season
first the hen and then the egg

Oh, you can live without poetry, but is it a life worth living? and when you do read poetry, make sure that you understand your responsibility–to it, to yourself, to the life you live. Happy Holidays and all the best in 2019.

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2 Responses to On Reading William Carlos Williams on Christmas Day

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    An excellent way to spend today, or any day. The Entity is wonderfully strange. With warmest wishes to you and Victoria for the holidays and the New Year to come.

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