"Williams and the Ek-stasy of Beginnings", by Joseph N. Riddel
Chapter 5: Modern Critical Interpretations: William Carlos Williams, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986: 183


Reviewed by Jeff Martin


Oh, the irony.
It seems fitting, given the amount of time we've spent in class talking about the constant presence of irony in 20th century American literature, to learn that behind the often extraordinarily short and "simple" poems of William Carlos Williams (many of his poems contain barely fifty words), there lies an incredibly complicated philosophy of writing which, as Riddel points out, parallels the equally complicated thought of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Considering all the nuance and mental gymnastics Riddel takes us through in his quest to use Heidegger to discern the concepts behind Williams' work, it's almost too easy to point out that flipping the last two letters of Riddel's name gives us the word that basically summarizes the whole exercise. Oh, the irony.
Regardless, it's an interesting exercise. Riddel starts with an idea we should find familiar from the past weeks of Eliot and Stevens - that modern poetry "envisions a world with an absence rather than a presence at its center, and thus a world, or more precisely, an 'aesthetic' that is different from the old." Sound depressing? It's more than depressing, Riddel suggests, it's also confusing, because we can't use any of the old aesthetics (read: traditional approaches) to discern truth anymore - truth instead becomes concealed from us, and no one likes that.
But how did we get a world with an absence at its center in the first place? Enter Heidegger with an answer. The problem, he says, is the rift that developed in between pre-Socratic and Socratic philosophy and which separated logos (thought) and physis (being) into two entirely disparate things - a problem we still have today. We don't like to mix the two - professors should be professors, and football players should be football players. But, says Heidegger, we can't do this, because logos and physis are, as Riddel puts it, "reciprocal differences" that require the play of their opposite to reveal truth and "unconceal" the world for us.
But who wants to go to all the work of unconcealing the world for us? The poet, that's who, says Heidegger. The poet, as Heidegger artfully phrases it, stands between the gods and the people, and is therefore closer to the source of the beginnings of things, which in turn gives him the unique perspective of being able to stand in the middle of the darkness of concealed truth and the light of emerging understanding - and from there, he can use those "reciprocal differences" to guide the rest of us uninformed saps to the truth. The poet then, as Riddel says, is truly "an in-between man", an ek-static in the truest Greek sense of the word: "one who is out of place," wandering the murky middle ground between the concealed and the revealed.
It's still a lot of theory and not much practicality, though. Thankfully, Riddel connects us to Williams at this point, who gives us something more solid and real than philosophic imaginings to work with. Williams, as Riddel says, wanted to create a "new aesthetic", one which demanded "incessant new beginnings" - something Stevens railed against, as we learned in class, because he thought "incessant new beginnings" would never amount to anything substantial. As Williams' said, his new aesthetic "wouldn't follow prescriptions of beauty and truth...will not metaphorize or anthropomorphize nature". Instead, modern poetry should be a "wanderer" working in a place of constant change that necessitates constant new beginnings - which sounds very much like that middle ground Heidegger also suggests.
Therefore, to Williams, the way to reveal (or "unconceal") the world was to take "familiar, simple things" and "arrange them contiguously to compose a new space." That is, combine common objects in strange ways (combine harmonious opposites, Heidegger would say) in order to detach them from their original meanings and create new meanings for them in the imagination of the reader. Even more simply put, Williams wants us to look at the world in a new and different way so we see things we may not have seen before. If we do it right, he seems to suggest, we might even see the truth - whatever that truth may be. Having said all this, I think it's much easier now for us to understand the disappointment Williams said he felt when Eliot exploded on the literary scene (see the Williams homepage on the class website). Instead of focusing on the present and familiar and revealing truth therein, Eliot flung his focus back on the past - no new beginnings happening there - and made it the greatest influence over the present moment. What a killjoy, Heidegger might have said, if he knew any American slang, this Mr. Eliot concealed everything all over again.

RETURN TO REVIEWS 2 HOMEPAGE