"The Poem as Still-Life" by Bram Dijkstra, in The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech: Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1969: 161-198

Reviewed by Robin Freed

In the introduction to his book, Bram Dijkstra explains that he "does not intend to prove that Williams was not influenced by literary sources...this book simply hopes to illuminate some of the ways in which painting, in its own right, influenced Williams' literary concerns" (xii). Dijkstra remains true to this mission by providing an insightful commentary that explores the dialectic that exists between the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the avant- garde art of Cubism and Futurism. The crux of Dijkstra's argument lies in his method of situating Williams among late teens and early 1920's cultural icons such as artist Charles Demuth and photographer Alfred Stieglitz and in his analysis of Williams' poems and his autobiographical writing. Dijkstra's argument is not far-fetched as he notes that Williams believed "under different circumstances I would rather have been a painter than to bother with these god-damn words" (qtd. in Dijkstra 70). In Dijkstra's mind, Williams is the apotheosis of the poet who escaped literary conventions by adhering to clear descriptions of the visual world, thus "by imitating the methods and theories of painting, [Williams] tried to diminish the gap between the two media" (198). Thanks to the influence of artists like Demuth and Sheeler, "the work of these artists taught Williams to see the objective world with photographic precision and to translate its materials into words of equal clarity" (182). Dijkstra believes that Williams was able to use the image as a subject instead of the image as a metaphor because "Williams...was convinced that only by adhering closely to the visual world of the painters could he avoid the deadening conventionality and colorless monotony of poetry." (189).
While Dijkstra briefly examines Williams' failure at creating a visual language in the poem "Daisy" by comparing it to Demuth's 1918 painting "Daisies," most of Dijkstra's analyses of Williams' poetry center around the poems in which he believes Williams truly achieves a visual rendering of words. Although Dijkstra contends that "Williams' ...description of the most important features of the daisy has a quality which is analogous to the visual qualities of the flower Demuth makes us notice on closer observation of his watercolor," he argues that Demuth's watercolor contains a sense of unity "which we do not get from Williams' attempt at still-life" (163). "Daisy" is the only poem in which Dijkstra truly criticizes Williams' effort to create an object-image poem, and even then he never fully interrogates his argument to explore the tension that exists between image and word. On the other hand, Dijkstra finds "The Red Wheelbarrow" to be "one of the best examples of the object-image poetry [Williams] was developing" (167). According to Dijkstra, "The poem is a perfect representation of the kind of painting or photography the Stieglitz group might have produced: it is a moment, caught at the point of its highest visual significance" because "the words are facts, the direct linguistic equivalents to the visual objects under scrutiny" (168). Such an analysis augments the class lecture about Williams and his interest in perception; his poems are not just about perception as we noted in class, but the poems also function as an exercise as to how an individual tries to translate his/her perception. Dijkstra's praise of "The Rose," a poem inspired by Juan Gris's collage "Roses," sums up why he finds Williams' talent so compelling; "Williams translates the tactile reality of the rose into words which by the very intensity of their tactile associations force us to consider the rose completely in terms of the concrete existence it represents, rather than allowing us to give it a metaphorical, or otherwise literary 'significance'" (174).
Overall, Dijkstra's presentation of Williams enhances the understanding of Williams' poetry and his techniques by carefully situating the poet within the cultural context of the historical moment during which he was writing. Whether or not Williams fully achieved the status of the poet who transformed words into images is debatable. Even Dijkstra recognizes that "[Williams] was too much grounded in the formal conventions of writing to be able to delete the voice of the poety, his subjective interpretation of the thing seen" (170). Suprisingly, Dijkstra never once cites the inherent linearity of words and writing as another factor impeding Williams' attempt to create a visual language. Dijkstra seems more concerned with arguing that art and poetry have an undeniable connection instead of addressing the tension that exists between the image and the word even though this very tension forms the basis for his discussion about Williams. At times the text of the book depends too heavily on the overtly subjective opinion of Dijkstra, yet his reliance on Williams' autobiographical writing lends credence to his assumption that "[Williams] believed that if he could only succeed in approximating the concentration of statement which could be found in even simple watercolor, he might be able to turn words into visual objects, into those hieroglyphics of a new speech which he considered far more powerful...than any existing language" (198). By presenting William Carlos Williams in such a way, it is ultimately up to the mind and perception of the reader to determine just how successful Williams was in creating a "new speech" and just how much "depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow."