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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Good News for the Poetry Crowd

Good news in the form of a book: The Poetry of William Carlos Willims of Rutherford by Wendell Berry.

For those who respect Berry's voice, thought, and approach, this is an unabashed tribute and appreciation the goal of which is succinctly stated in the prologue:

from The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
Wendell Berry

To the extent that a life can have an agenda, my life's agenda for a long time has included some sort of deliberative writing about the poetry of William Carlos Williams, not as an "objective academic endeavor, for which I had no need, but rather as a payment or at least an acknowledgement of a personal debt. I would need to do this late in my life, I thought, the better to understand both Williams' effort and my own, and therefore the character and size of my debt to him. Through most of my life as a writer, I have taken an increasingly familiar pleasure and an invaluable sustenance and reassurance from his poetry And there was a time in my early years, as I was struggling to find my way through much misapprehension and error, when his example was indispensable.

I have not yet finished the book, but have read enough to say that it goes on into a detailed appreciation of the poetry.  I won't say analysis, because I have precious little use for analysis in poetry or in much of literature.  Most analysis tells us more about the person writing than the person written about.  I suppose Freud would term it "projection."  In any competent work of literature (much less great work of literary art) it is possible to read into more than read--and so one must exercise caution in finding Christian symbolism in Shelley or Harte Crane.  If it gives one comfort to think that it is there--no harm is done--but if it is erected as a critical structure over a body of work--well, come to think of it, no harm done either--for what is most criticism but building castles in the sand--work that will perish long before  the matter under examination.  The next critical tide washes through and most criticism is washed away.  How many scholars today spend much time with the scholars and the critics of even the 1920s, much less earlier times.  Criticism is of its time--an interpretative apparatus driven by the agenda of the day--but a true work of art is for all time and will be subject to the vagaries of countless critical agendas and interpretative structures.

Oops.  I was supposed to be talking about Wendell Berry's book.  I say appreciation, because while there are details of what Berry truly admires in Williams's poetry, there is no critical apparatus erected over the opus.  There is no intent to tell us how we should read Williams.  Rather, there is clear instruction in how we should hear Williams as we read.  Study of prosody, meter, and other aspects of the poetic art against the backdrop of Williams's mostly spare opus.

Perhaps more about this later--but I just wanted to let everyone know that it's available, and from my brief reading so far, it is well worth your time if you have any interest at all in twentieth and twenty-first century poetry.

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