Saturday, December 31, 2011

Early Poems by William Carlos Williams

Source of book: I own this

While I had previously read a few poems by William Carlos Williams, I was encouraged to read more by my English teacher cousin-in-law Jennifer. This particular collection is published by Dover, and contains selections from his collections Al Que Quiere!, The Tempers, and Sour Grapes; along with selections previously published in various magazines. Like most books published by Dover, it is a simple paperback, and so inexpensive as to be nearly free. It was a good introduction, but I enjoyed it enough to keep my eyes open for a larger hardback collection.

Williams was born in New Jersey to an English father and a Puerto Rican mother. His first career was that of a physician, with an emphasis on pediatrics. He was also successful as a writer and poet, but continued to practice medicine throughout his working years. He was also notable as a mentor to younger poets, the best known of which was Allen Ginsberg. I find this connection to be interesting because I am not particularly fond of Ginsberg but really, really, enjoyed Williams. (See endnote for further discussion of my feelings on this issue.)

Williams wrote primarily in free verse. Unfortunately, this form (or lack of form in some cases) has been overused and abused over the last century by poet wannabes who seem to think that it is the way to write. All one has to do is break up a thought into uneven lines, make the language obscure and inscrutable, and bingo! A “poem”. Williams is a perfect example of the distinction between “poetry” and true poetry.

One of the things I really like about Williams is his use of line length. He chooses the length of line in a given poem, and within a given poem, to suit the impression he wishes to create. To that end as well, he selects his words and the way they fit together to make the reader’s voice create the desired impression. For example, in In Harbor, from Al Que Quiere!, he uses primarily long lines, with long sounds (among, moored) to create a smooth, rocking rhythm as he describes the ships.

Surely there, among the great docks, is peace, my mind;
there with the ships moored in the river.
Go out, timid child,
and snuggle in among the great ships talking so quietly.
Maybe you will even fall asleep near them and be
lifted into one of their laps, and in the morning—
There is always the morning in which to remember it all!

Of what are they gossiping? God knows.
And God knows it matters little for we cannot understand them.
Yet it is certainly of the sea, of that there can be no question.
It is a quiet sound. Rest! That's all I care for now.
The smell of them will put us to sleep presently.
Smell! It is the sea water mingling here into the river—
at least so it seems—perhaps it is something else—but what matter?

The sea water! It is quiet and smooth here!
How slowly they move, little by little trying
the hawsers that drop and groan with their agony.
Yes, it is certainly of the high sea they are talking.

In contrast to these lines are those of Winter Sunset, from the same collection. Williams uses the short lines to recreate the way the eye is drawn from one part of the vista to another.

Then I raised my head
and stared out over
the blue February waste
to the blue bank of hill
with stars on it
in strings and festoons—
but above that:
one opaque
stone of a cloud
just on the hill
left and right
as far as I could see;
and above that
a red streak, then
icy blue sky!

It was a fearful thing
to come into a man's heart
at that time: that stone
over the little blinking stars
they'd set there.

This poem also demonstrates another facet of Williams’ genius: his use of color. He seems to be painting with blues, when he suddenly splashes this unexpected red across the canvas. He also uses this technique in his description of a failed relationship in A Portrait in Greys.

Will it never be possible
to separate you from your greyness?
Must you be always sinking backward
into your grey-brown landscapes—and trees
always in the distance, always against
a grey sky?
               Must I be always
moving counter to you? Is there no place
where we can be at peace together
and the motion of our drawing apart
be altogether taken up?
                      I see myself
standing upon your shoulders touching
a grey, broken sky—
but you, weighted down with me,
yet gripping my ankles,—move
                    laboriously on,
where it is level and undisturbed by colors.

The repetition of grey, as with his repetition of blue in the previous poem, creates a monochromatic effect. The use, or omission, of a contrasting color is the fulcrum on which the whole poem turns.

In another poem which is too long to quote in full, To A Solitary Disciple, he further makes effective use of visual effect as he (sarcastically, in my opinion) contrasts the poetic point of view with that of the surveyor or draftsman. My favorite line from this poem is “smooth as turquoise”, which is, of course, not smooth at all.

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.

I just love how the impression of the sky as turquoise, with all its “blemishes” and markings truly resonates as an unexpected analogue to the sky with a few clouds.

Williams, like many great poets, thrives on the unexpected. To me, this is one of the true joys of poetry – to discover something new and unexpected, that speaks to something deep inside and unknown until the poet brought it to light. Another great example of this is his longer poem A Goodnight, which is truly an anti-lullaby. The whole poem seems calculated to feel anything but restful, anything but peaceful, and to lead to anything but sleep. The first stanza is perhaps the most truthful depiction of gulls I have ever read.

Go to sleep--though of course you will not--
to tideless waves thundering slantwise against
strong embankments, rattle and swish of spray
dashed thirty feet high, caught by the lake wind,
scattered and strewn broadcast in over the steady
car rails! Sleep, sleep! Gulls' cries in a wind-gust
broken by the wind; calculating wings set above
the field of waves breaking.
Go to sleep to the lunge between foam-crests,
refuse churned in the recoil. Food! Food!
Offal! Offal! that holds them in the air, wave-white
for the one purpose, feather upon feather, the wild
chill in their eyes, the hoarseness in their voices--
sleep, sleep . . .

There are far too many good poems to quote, so I will suggest that the reader seek out Smell!, a none-too-fond tribute to the poet’s nose; and Pastoral, with its memorable image. Two more, however, demand to be quoted in full:

Peace on Earth

The Archer is wake!
The Swan is flying!
Gold against blue
An Arrow is lying.
There is hunting in heaven--
Sleep safe till tomorrow.

The Bears are abroad!
The Eagle is screaming!
Gold against blue
Their eyes are gleaming!
Sleep safe till tomorrow.

The Sisters lie
With their arms intertwining;
Gold against blue
Their hair is shining!
The Serpent writhes!
Orion is listening!
Gold against blue
His sword is glistening!
There is hunting in heaven--
Sleep safe till tomorrow.

It took me a while to realize that this was about the constellations. This is why each poem should be read aloud at least twice. I cannot say how much I love “gold against blue”.

Finally, a perfect poem for a winter storm, for a musician, and for the first month of 2012. It occurs to me that “perfect fifths of derision” is not only one of the best lines in the whole collection, but also a great name for a heavy metal band. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)


Again I reply to the triple winds
running chromatic fifths of derision
outside my window:
Play louder.
You will not succeed. I am
bound more to my sentences
the more you batter at me
to follow you.
And the wind,
as before, fingers perfectly
its derisive music.

Note on Allen Ginsberg:

I find Allen Ginsberg to be irritating for the same reason I find Walt Whitman to be irritating. To me, they both seem to make lists rather than music. The idea of stream-of-consciousness writing is risky because it can become bloated and free of focus and clarity. Some people really enjoy it, but it has never done anything for me. I emotionally respond to a clear and striking image, but not to an abundance of images in rapid succession. This may be related to my introverted tendencies – I am looking for something that resonates with my inner self, which is somehow quieter than all that. I think this is related to my dislike of crowds. I can handle a little, particularly if I can withdraw into my own mind for a break once in a while. However, if I am placed in the middle of the cacophony with no escape, no order, no direction; I just do not enjoy the experience. I also find I have a difficult time seeing the point of both Whitman and Ginsberg. Perhaps their champions can set me straight, but I feel like they lack discipline and purpose. It is enough to throw some paint at the canvas. Never mind the idea of purpose, which to me is the key to good poetry. Anyone can look at the world. Many can write down the details. Only a true poet can draw an unexpected and enlightening meaning from what he or she sees.


  1. At first glance, I thought Williams only meant the color turquoise for the smoothness of the sky. However, that little article "a" is there. I have seen smooth turquoise skies and motled ones.

    I saw quickly that Peace on Earth was about stars. I recognized those friends of mine. There is something profoundly restful about knowing the order of the universe is still in place.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I like these! I'm buying one of his collections on Kindle right now :)