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Friday, July 29, 2011

The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford--Wendell Berry

Literary criticism is the sincerest form of fiction.  It wasn't actually this book that inspired the thought, but it helped to carry the thought to its fruition--I was reading a book on Ulysses by one of the great Joyce scholars and thought what an elaborate array of fictive devises had been invented to explain what essentially needs no explanation.  Literary criticism was the predecessor (and now shares the domain with) fan fiction.

I'll elaborate more on that point at another time--but for now let's consider Wendell Berry's book on William Carlos Williams.  What I profoundly admired in this book was not so much the image of Williams or of Williams's poetry that comes forth (upon reading the book I did not/do not feel inspired to run out and try to push myself--once again--through the book-length maundering Paterson) but some of the observations about literature, life, and writing that occur along the way.  For example

from The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
Wendell Berry
Dante, as Williams would have known, put the usurers in Hell among the violent, because in defiance of Genesis 3:19, which requires us to live from nature and our work, they took "another way" (altra via). the other way is abstraction breeding on itself, increasing without connection to work, nature, or God. Inflation is a destabilized relation between money and goods, manipulable by the wealthy against the less wealthy, leading to an economy of "bubbles" exactly analogous to the abstract language that is manipulable by the powerful against the weak: political bubbles.  (p. 49)
Berry uses the themes of the Williams books to reinvestigate some of the concerns he has expressed in other essays and in his own works of poetry and fiction.  Here we see the agrarian economist.    Here we have his view of poetry as art:


But of course everybody's brains, by nature and circumstances, are scattered aimlessly; if the mind is to be orderly it must be made orderly. Williams' reply, "Of necessity," is at once personal and cultural, and also deliberately ambiguous.  Poems worthy of the name and of the effort to make them, are made of necessity by inspiration and because they are needed. But if we are to have them, we must have a way of making them: an art.  (p. 60)

Poems are "made of necessity by inspiration" which seems an odd way of looking at a poem.  Is necessity itself an inspiration--perhaps.  And what is the necessity of poetry?  How does this necessity come about?  Is it a necessity like that of food?  Or is it a necessity of mind--poems exist because the mind exists.  In which case they are less a necessity than they are a concomitant.  But the point is interesting, and I do not mean to imply that it is any way wrong--just through provoking.

The following passage I preserve largely for the power of the last sentence:

But because of the complexity of its relation to its origin, its subject, every good poem has its own perimeter of obscurity. Within a somewhat larger perimeter this obscurity may be clarified by insight and discussion, but at a boundary still further the obscurity becomes authentically mysterious, and there inquiry needs to stop.An indispensable propriety of explanation is in knowing when to stop.

And this is something the literary establishment, and more particularly the peculiar institution that is our high-school and college education systems have failed to understand.  There is a limit to explanatory capability--a right, just, and reasonable limit.  There is a perimeter of explanation beyond which we have mere authorial assertion and ones own ideas layered over the work under discussion.  Whether or not Joyce actually put all that material that Stuart Gilbert asserts in his study--we now have to spend time tossing it aside because it has been slathered on as though originally there--even if not.

Perhaps my favorite passage of the book:

What does this passage mean?  I have so far avoided any direct dealing with the word "meaning" because, though I can't always avoid it, I don't much like it.  "Meaning belongs to the same family of words as "environment." It is a distancing word of abstraction and displacement, seeming always to refer to an idea that is separable and separate from any thing. If you say, "The poem means. . . ," you are about to say something in a language different from that of the poem, and also something similar to the "meaning of any number of other poems. 
In the passage at hand, as I think in all of Williams' poetry, there is no difference between what the lines say and what they mean. Their meaning is incarnate in what the poet has imagined and made, and what they say could have been said only in this poem.  (p. 119)

My paraphrase--to state the meaning of a poem in anything other than the poem itself is not to state the meaning of the poem for a poem ceases to mean when taken out of itself.  I have contended this from my high-school days (at which time I was roundly chastised for the assertion that the meaning of poetry was implicit in the joy of reading it).  I continue to assert it.  The first and only meaning of the poem is whatever the reader obtains from reading the poem and not from trying to pick it apart symbol by symbol, strophe by strophe, word by word.  If the meaning that one derives from "The Wasteland" is that the world is a difficult, complex, perhaps incomprehensible place full of the half-formed and the ugly--well then, that is the meaning of the poem whether or not that is was T.S. Eliot wrote.  Does authorial intent mean anything?  Or is authorial intent another form of fiction?  It is my contention that most authorial intent is expressed and described ex post facto and is therefore part of the metafictional aura that the author has painted over the experience of writing--in short another act of fiction itself.

Another favorite passage for what it has to say about the post-modernist movement and the vast majority of highly touted fiction today.

The imagination may show us Hell, but not Hell alone. It shows us, beyond Hell, the beckoning light, to be reached even by descent. And thus the literature of unrelieved pain and horror is wrong. It is neither reality nor imagination but a strange nihilism of the modern mind that cherishes and dwells upon whatever is worst, "the death of all/that's past//all being" that Williams openly mocked. . . ( p. 120)


Whereas Ulysses is or seems to me to be a celebration of life in all of its messiness--most post-modern fiction is so terrified of life that the fiction itself never lives.

And lastly the "regional" poet speaks--he speaks as he always has done, of the concerns deeply rooted in his heart.

In fact, we have always needed distinctly local arts of poetry, storytelling, painting, and music in America, just as we have always needed distinctly local arts of agriculture fishing, and forestry. Without such rootedness in locality considerably adapted to local conditions, we get what we now have got: a country half destroyed, toxic, and in every way abused; a deluded people tricked out in gauds without traditions of any kind to give them character; a politics of expediency dictated by the wealth; a disintegrating economy founded upon fantasy, fraud, and ecological ruin.  (p. 176)

Whether regional poetry and art are needed--I cannot say--but Wendell Berry makes a good case for them--for poetry rooted in real place and real things--for poetry that has escaped from the horrid halls of academia where it has been corrupted to the purposes of those who really haven't a notion about what poetry was supposed to be.

I don't know that I came out of this book with any better understanding or appreciation of Williams, but I did leave refreshed and revived from having spent some time with someone who is a deep thinker and a passionate person--a person of his own profound convictions.

Highly recommended, even, or perhaps especially, to those who have no interest in Williams as a poet--*****

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