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Thursday, May 5, 2011

More on Williams

from The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
Wendell Berry

The now-prevailing idea seems to be that poets occupy their designated place in the departmented structure of the arts and sciences, of which the increasingly industrialized modern university is the model. Poets, that is to say, are professional like other professionals and specialists like other specialists. Their business is to produce, ideally, perfect poems of lasting value individually, as objects of art or "high culture." This assumption seems to underlie the judgment of such dismissive critics as Donald Davie and Bruce Bawer. Precedent to them was Yvor Winters, who, admirable as he was in some ways, ranked individual poems as the greatest ever, greatest in English, etc. as if the art of poetry were a sort of contest. Increasingly, moreover, poets are attached to universities and are dependent upon them for a living. I have been at times so attached and so dependent myself, and thus I know something of what is involved. Unless university poets are actually from some place in particular, and unless they have the good fortune to be employed somewhere near their homes, they tend to be careerists an migrants, without local knowledge or affection or loyalty, like their professional and specialist colleagues.  They are therefore under pressure to conform to, and they have no immediate reason to resist, the industrialist order represented by their university. They, like their critics are inclined to think that the arts are under obligation to keep up with the times, and to conform to the industrial values and the advances of technology.

Of course, given the title of the work, we knew we were to work our way around to the themes close to the heart of Wendell Berry.  I do not know that I necessarily agree with his poetic theory.  Nor am I certain that I would agree with his evaluation of Williams in this light.  But what I do see here is what I see in so much criticism, a revelation of a person in the light of his reading.  Whether or not Williams is indeed a regional poet (a matter that can be debated endlessly, I suppose) what really matters is that Berry read and reads him as such and reading him as such has proven influential in Berry's own work. 

Do I care whether or not Albert Camus cherished Christian values--not at all.  Can I find delineations of classical Christian values in Camus's work--undoubtedly.  But, and here's the trick, that doesn't mean he put them there--that means only that I am capable of finding them where there is work strong enough to support any critical apparatus.  Obviously that says a great deal more about me than about Camus.  Likewise, those who read say Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor and fail to see the very obvious and pointed references to Christian Theology and values are constructing their own works rather than reading what is on the page. 

Not that constructing one's own work is such a bad thing--literature is a cooperative endeavor.  We consent to be guided by the author, but we do not consent to be blinkered.  We will see what we will see whether or not that was what the author intended for us to see.  While there is an importance to authorial intention, it is not the ultimate importance in reading and understanding a work of literature.  I think this is what Harold Bloom means when he speaks of great works of literature "reading us." We will see as in a glass (sometimes darkly) what we are in the great works.  We will make of them some mix of what the author made of them and what we already are in our experience. Thus we will engage with each in quite different ways.  It is why one so widely read and so thoroughly conversant with literature as Bloom can have such a stubborn blind spot in his vision when it comes to someone like Edgar Allan Poe--nothing there engages Bloom and so Poe is not great. 

But this is where Bloom makes his mistake--Poe can still be great even if Bloom finds nothing there for himself.  This is mystifying to Bloom, you can see his comments in several works on this mystery.  There is about Poe something of greatness--is it in his prose?  Probably not--but whatever it is, it lasts, it grows, and it is highly influential.

So, when Berry reads Williams, he reads a regional poet.  When I read Williams, I read an imagist, and is some cases a near surrealist who transcends any region and, who in fact, is less likely to take me to a specific place than a poet like, say Wordsworth.  Which is Williams?  Well, in fact, through the magic of collaboration--he is both.  I come to know a new Williams by reading Berry's appreciation of him.

So, the value of critics and of criticism.  They force us, for a moment, to look outside of our own narrow worldviews and participate in the world views of others.  Not necessarily those of the author under discussion--and so, in a sense--literature and criticism were a very early form of social networking with the author providing a base and all of the commenters building up a community--sometimes antagonistically (as happens today) sometimes not.

Perhaps more later about Berry's view of Williams, but it is a quick, deep, refreshing read.  I am not a profound fan of much of Williams, but Berry's work suggests that I need to look to Williams for what he does well, not for what I want to find.

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