Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Week 08, W.C. Williams and Stevens

William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Williams’ selections (1263-81). Stevens’ selections (1234-51).

Page-by-Page Notes on William Carlos Williams’ Selections (1263-81).

“The Young Housewife” (1265). The speaker—presumably a doctor like Williams himself, making his rounds—seems to observe the young woman more than once. He creates a metaphor to describe her, then “runs over” the fleeting figure. What does the metaphor itself imply? Is it a “throw-away metaphor,” a testament to the transient quality of metaphors?

“Portrait of a Lady” (1266). The poem has a painterly theme. It makes fun of itself, while praising Watteau’s idealism about erotic representations. The speaker really isn’t sure what to do with all the comparisons that come to mind.

Willow Poem” (1266). Do willows lose their leaves late, or is this just “the last willow standing”? In any case, it’s worth noting how Williams sequentially introduces the elements—river and wind. The speaker’s focus is on the leaves, which are “drunk” with the wind and the river. (That’s a fine instance of what John Ruskin describes as “the pathetic fallacy”—attributing human qualities to inanimate objects.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace” (1267). Here whiteness is given a different connotation than that of simply purity. White skin responds to a desire-laden touch, becomes pink, then returns to whiteness.

“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1267-68). The loss of the woman’s husband causes her to withdraw her gaze from the flowers that once gave her joy. The flowers and the yard still serve as figures, ways to mark her feelings.

“Spring and All” (1268). Spring is represented here not in its green glory, but at the point where foliage awakens in its “stark dignity” and begins to look distinct. This is a poem about a landscape where there isn’t yet much to notice, except minute signs of change.

“To Elsie” (1269-70). Elsie Borden was Williams’ disturbed or mentally handicapped maid. I’ve read that the poem can be interpreted as representing America’s failure to imagine itself in a sustainable way—the country seems rootless, unrealistic, in this presentation. The poem’s pronouns seem deliberately vague, as if people are living their lives indistinctly. Dreams of success, progress, paradise, don’t match the ignorance and ugly reality of the dreamers. One may retain some “flecks” of hope, but it’s hard to see what to do with them. The “car” in which we are riding has no driver, no direction.

“The Red Wheelbarrow” (1271). This poem reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” (1241, written 1931). A central human-made object reorganizes everything around it. The order of perception seems key to the poem’s effect. First we see the barrow, then its attributes’ then the chickens congregating around it. Well, what is the “so much” that depends on the barrow? Is it the life surrounding the scene? The poem itself? What is important here? Not just things, but also their situatedness, their attributes, their contexts. One must pay attention to all of those factors.

“The Dead Baby” (1271). Williams was a pediatrician. The death of a child should be private, but here it seems as if the parents are on a stage acting a part. A “clean sweep” is to be made of the whole event. Perhaps our clinical way of handling death demeans it.

“The Wind Increases” (1272). This poem offers the traditional metaphor of poetic inspiration as wind, spiritus. Words bite like a stiff March wind—crisp, clear, wakening, and their purpose is (as Walter Pater the Impressionist would say) is to startle the perceiver into “a sharp and eager observation” of everything around. Williams’ syntax and punctuation are difficult here as usual, forcing us to stop and contemplate which thoughts suit with which.

“Death” (1272-73). Is the point of this poem that only death frees a person from loving? All love can do is get the corpse buried? Perhaps we have a Hamlet-like speaker make fun of a Polonius.

“This is Just to Say” (1274). This poem is simplicity itself. It reads like something we might tack onto the fridge—on one hand it’s a kind note, but it also reminds the addressee about the pleasure that the speaker has robbed her of, the small inconvenience he knowingly caused. It memorializes an impulse—so this “note-poem” is a little challenge to the way we think about poetic form and proper subjects for poetry. Questions: In what way does this little poem challenge the ordinary way of thinking about poetic form and subject-matter? If someone were to say, “but this isn’t poetry at all!” how might you defend it?

“A Sort of a Song” (1274). There are “no ideas but in things,” so the poet forswears abstractions. Well, that’s an interesting thought and opens up a fine way to narrow the poet’s and reader’s focus. It’s as if Williams likes to break composition down to its simplest elements. But what is metaphor? Here, the poem’s language creeps along like a snake, sending veins through rock, reconciling humanity to inanimate stones, the familiar to the unfamiliar. A sentence writhes, undulates, waits, and strikes—but it never “sleeps,” never loses its power to signify. But what about “splitting”—isn’t that different from reconciling things? The saxifrage splits the hardest material objects, rocks. But does that mean it solves the mysteries of those things? Usually, metaphor explains spiritual or non-material things by means of easy-to-grasp material ones. But in this poem, it seems that the metaphors employed are supposed to reconcile us to material things: “through metaphor to reconcile / the people and the stones.” Questions: What relationship between words and things does this poem advocate? How is the metaphor of the “Saxifrage” herb useful to the poet in that regard? What about the comparison between “snakes” and the words of a poem—how does that help?

“The Dance” (1274-75). I think the speaker is simply capturing the voluptuousness of the dancers. It’s a roly-poly poem that mimics the rollicking dance.

“Burning the Christmas Greens” (1275-76). Green symbolizes hope, and red is often the color of purification. Both colors make for exhilarating ritual here. The searchers gather the greens, and only later do they consider why.

“Lear” (1277). This poem presents an archetypal romantic moment: the storm matches King Lear’s madness. Which creates the greater discord? Here the storm is greater, and it makes us passive. We can howl and talk at the storm, but the value of the interaction is that it composes us, not that we assert control over the storm. As for women, we may recall that Lear blames his daughters Regan and Goneril for his misfortunes, though in the end her reconciles briefly with his youngest daughter Cordelia.

“The Ivy Crown” (1277-79). This poem contrasts the ecstasy of young love with the combination of will and wisdom required to keep love going in age. Young love is selfish, cruel, and obtuse. Older lovers need the power of imagination to sustain them.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1279-80). In this poem about poetic anxiety, the usual suspects make their appearance: what if my description is mere imitation (as some landscape painting is)? And what if daily concerns like ploughing one’s fields in spring keeps people from appreciating the insights that poetry can bring? Why should busy people care about Icarus’ daring flight towards the sun?

“The Dance” (1280-81). The important thing seems to be the dance—partners change.

“Yachts” (Not in anthology, so not assigned). The perspective here is from a “boat’s eye view.” The people are belittled into nothingness by the sea. Moreover, the poem’s abrupt shift towards the end, combined with enjambment throughout, captures something of the ocean’s caprice. How do we make sense of the event that the poem describes? Well, perhaps we really don’t. Questions: How is this poem—at least to an extent—mimetic? That is, how does its structure mimic the ocean’s unpredictable movements? And what’s the idea behind giving us a “boat’s eye view” of the event that constitutes the poem’s subject matter?

Page-by-Page Notes on Wallace Stevens’ Selections (1234-51).

“The Snow Man” (1238-39). Poets usually write about spring, summer, and fall, not about winter. Well, Stevens and Frost like winter, as does Coleridge. Here is a kind of reverse-romanticism: to write about winter, you have to become “every dead thing” (Donne), not glad and cheerful. You must know how to behold “nothing.” Is there a language appropriate to that, one that wouldn’t animate what is dead but would respect its deadness, and not, thereby, strip it of its meditative value? Does the poem convey this kind of beholding? Seeing something and writing about something aren’t the same thing. Question: How does this poem counter the “romantic” way of relating to and representing nature as an expressive vehicle? What must happen, according to the speaker, for someone to write about winter accurately?

“Anecdote of the Jar” (1241). The simple jar, a trivial if useful human product, swallows up the landscape and dominates it, un-wilds it. “Dominion” is a term from Genesis, King James translation—we were given dominion over the earth and its creatures, and our perceptions and perspectives have a similarly dominant effect. So again we find the nature/humanity theme. But another possibility is that Stevens enjoys investigating how we focus on things, on the way perception begins with one narrow thing and then one percept or one thought, to borrow a phrase from William Blake, “fills immensity.” This way of focusing seems to be a human imperative, and Stevens isn’t always certain about its results. He’s interested in a basic philosophical question: what can we know, and how can we know it? Questions: Why does the simple jar that the speaker has placed on a hill dominate everything around it? How do you interpret the thought that the jar does not “give of bird or bush”?

“Peter Quince” (1242-43). In what sense is the beauty “in the flesh” immortal, and not the abstract or Kantian kind of beauty as form? Susannah’s beautiful body escaped the elders, and still reminds us of its purity.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1243-45). Blackbirds are everywhere, between everything and everything else, active and yet watching and waiting. It is necessary that they should be there, but we pay them no mind. Stevens may be asking with this poem what gets bracketed out when we think, when we write, or when we perceive in our everyday fashion. The blackbird isn’t exactly romantic “transcendence,” but it’s outside the field of ordinary human perceptions and affairs. It is everywhere and nowhere. Another way to interpret the poem is to suggest that the speaker wants to know how everything—bird, beholder, landscape—hangs together, how it all makes sense. But the poem offers no final answer. Questions: The blackbird is hardly a creature we associate with romantic transcendence of the ordinary—so what is special about the blackbirds in this poem? With what does the speaker intimately connect them, and why? Why are there thirteen ways (and counting, we may suppose) of looking at a blackbird?

“The Idea of Order at Key West” (1245-47). Fishing boat lights order the seascape. We judge and set our boundaries with reference to human artifacts. Would nature swallow us up otherwise? Or would there be no meaning? But the voice sings or makes a world, creates it—a world quite aside from nature. This voice creates a linguistic universe. Is the order of language commensurate with the material order (or with thought)? The sea-song isn’t what the speaker and Ramon Fernandez hear, it seems. Rather, I would say that the poem privileges the human maker, the Joycean female “artificer.” But does that world get passed along to the audience? Or are the speaker and Ramon even an audience for her? The phrase “rage for order”—is meaning proper to one person, something more or less private? Or is it beyond that scope, a phenomenon that begins with one person and the becomes its own world? (Really what I should do is compare this approach to the one that would say language is an order that is from the outset beyond the individual.) Questions: The speaker says that he and his companion “Ramon Fernandez” hear the poem’s “she” and “not the sea” (14). What relation, if any, does the speaker posit between the female singer and the ocean scene around her? Who is the “maker” referenced in line 53, and what is the “rage for order” that the speaker says governs that maker?

We might use this poem as a hedge against both the claims of neoclassicism and romanticism: Stevens tries to describe the order of the sea, but doesn’t claim that there is a “correspondent breeze” or any understandable connection, emotional or otherwise, between him and the sea. He is not privileged to convey the sea’s “order” to us or even to himself. Neither is he able to understand how the sea works in rational terms.

Stanzas 1-2. The lady’s voice and the sea don’t seem to be commensurate; her song didn’t come from the sea, and the sea’s cry doesn’t pattern her thoughts or words.

Stanza 3. We confront the question of spirit: does the lady’s song come from her spirit?

Stanza 4. This stanza tells us that the song is more than just the singer’s voice and the seascape together; her voice gives a different order to the sea. Does that mean the poem addresses the way we search for hints of something transcendental, something beyond the material (here, the sea), beyond even the human voice? Does some spiritual order embrace the lady, the sea, and speaker? If so, is that order something we can grasp as intelligible? The singer’s song may reveal a process that is the source of the “blessed rage for order” to which the speaker attests—we were told in the second stanza that (as the case must be) the song was “uttered word by word.” That is perhaps how the order takes shape –one word at a time, language creates its own order that orders everything around it.

Stanza 5. The singer’s voice (we don’t know the words she sings) draws the sea’s self into her own—she has something like the creative power of a goddess. Yet what is created is only “for her.” Her only world appears to be the one she sings by the margin of the sea. Doesn’t that imply that her beholders/hearers really can’t enter the world she creates?

Stanza 6. Why does a new order, a new symmetry, emerge with the cessation of the singing and the daylight? Fishing lights, put where they are by humans, “fix” the sea and the night, remaking them as objects of perception. Critics have long puzzled over the stanza’s mention of Ramon Fernandez, and one interpretation I’ve read is that Fernandez, a leftist who had veered to that position from the opposite perspective, was always nothing if not certain about his views. In the poem’s perspective, that kind of certainty seems out of place.

Stanza 7. The poem that has spent its time apparently praising “creative song” now suggests, perhaps, that “the words she sang” are “of our origins.” Has the lady uttered nothing less than herself, word by word? Still, for all our power to order things, do we know what “ghostlier demarcations” make us?

“Study of Two Pears” (1248). This poem offers an ethics of seeing. Color, texture, and so forth, are of course subjective experiences. But this rootedness in subjectivity doesn’t respond to our will. The speaker doesn’t will to see the pears a certain way. Instead, it is as if he must see them in a certain way, as if they command his attention. Seeing has its rigors, makes its demands on us; objects of perception will assert their sway.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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