"William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of
Measure," by Stephen Cushman.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Reviewed by Sasha Wilson
University of Virginia professor Stephen Cushman's book William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure demands to be examined in its entirety. In a text that discusses the many "measures" of Williams' work, it would be both counterproductive and counter to the author's argument to extract only a single chapter, a solitary comment, or no more than one close reading. Just as Cushman treats Williams' experimentations with meter, his symmetry with stanzas, and his contradictory commentaries as a case study on the author as a whole, so too, must Cushman's reader assess his multiple analyses together as a working body. Cushman carefully crafts his argument by systematically explaining why Williams' theory on measure matters, how the definitions of "measure" influence the poet, what role enjambment plays in Williams' verse, which visual techniques frame the poems, and finally, where the broader, figurative implications of these innovative poetic measures lie.
Cushman's analytical construction reads fluidly and cogently, defining terms as basic as free verse and as complicated as typographic symmetry. Thus, the book is helpful for literary scholars that might be familiar with Berry, Perlof, and Sayre, the contemporary critics to whom Cushman alludes, but it is also accessible to novice reviewers such as myself. Much of the accessibility comes as a result of Cushman's logical, and at times rather candid, narrative development. The author asks simple questions in the text, just as his readers come up with them in their minds. For example, in his discussion of "To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven" at the end of chapter two, he states, "The poem then returns to the elegiac pattern and continues without variation to the end" (92). Cushman's train of thought then follows the readers: "Why should Williams vary the pattern here?" he asks. Unlike some critics, he actually answers the question, saying, "The added lines suggest the typographic analogue of hypermetrics" and that perhaps "the reader is to infer that a sudden intensity of feeling forces Williams beyond his measure" (92). Cushman takes the rhetoric out of such frequently used rhetorical questions. Thankfully he takes on the task of not only asking the difficult questions surrounding Williams' seemingly contradictory methods of writing, but he also actually provides the equally difficult answers.
In chapter three, cleverly titled, "The World is Not Iambic," Cushman continues this clear and candid commentary as he writes, "Exploring Williams' theory of measure entails a certain amount of deciphering, translating, and filling in of blanks. Here is what Williams says his verse is doing, and here is what it actually does" (94). After openly addressing the complicated and somewhat convoluted nature of Williams' theory versus Williams' poetry, Cushman then goes on to ask simply: "Can the two be reconciled?" He then spends the rest of the chapter explaining how they can. This excerpt exemplifies why Cushman should consider this, his first endeavor into the world of literary criticism, a true success; he sets out his goals for the study in the Introduction: "No Verse Is Free," and he meets them through the course of the book.
Some highlights from these developing chapters include close readings of "The Banner Bearer" and "The Fish," where Cushman examines the effect of both line enjambment and single word enjambment. His discussion of this word splicing is particularly interesting as he writes, "Whereas we usually think of a single word as the basic unit of both the sentence and the line, the division of this unit into smaller units dramatizes the building of words out of subverbal blocks of meaning" (26). He goes on to point out how "splitting a word across a line boundary momentarily magnifies the discrete parts of which the whole is composed" (26). Here, Cushman demonstrates his ability to break down a poem like "The Fish" and explain not only its prosody, but the subtleties behind that prosody. He reasons why Williams might split the word "ac--/cident" into two lines. And he takes the time to then look at the "subverbal blocks of meaning" that such deliberate experimentation leaves us with.
His discussion of asymmetric and symmetric typography is equally intriguing. He takes a number of poems from Spring and All into close consideration for their visual representation as well as their metered verse. I found that this commentary on the visual separations of the stanzas and lines really builds upon the enjambment argument of the first chapter. His assertion that "Typographic isolation does not 'emphasize'; it frames, rendering a familiar word or phrase momentarily unfamiliar" was creative and effective. Here the critic branches from the traditional assessments of poet's "emphasis" on individual words to an innovative evaluation of Williams' word play where he uses visual cues to make the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. This is not only a sound literary analysis for fellow critics; it also serves as an insightful writing device for aspiring poets. Cushman adds to his close reading comments some beautifully phrases ideas about poetry and the significance of the poetic in larger contexts. Some of these well written metaphors include: "A poet is someone whose words bite the way a sharp wind bites" (64) and "A poet is not just someone with an imagination upon which inspiration plays like wind on an Aeolian harp" (64). Both of these lines serve as pleasing poetic mantras, but more importantly, they serve to attest to the way that Cushman reads Williams. "For Williams the poet is someone who moves through words, giving them 'the form/ of motion,' as the wind moves through the trees and flowers" (65). I found myself reading his analytical prose with the "wind-like" pacing of Williams' work. Cushman convinces his readers by the end that indeed, "William Carlos Williams is a poet because only the poem, with its formal schemes and figurative tropes, encloses a world that is sufficiently ordered" (122).
But Cushman's argument leaves his readers with some remaining questions. While his commentary takes Williams' contradictory theory and work to be just that, it does not always explain some of the contributing factors behind these apparent contradictions. He writes, "Williams theory of measure grew, in part, out of his response to Whitman," but he does not address exactly how this response is significant (126). I would be very interested to read more about the comparative elements of Williams' work with his predecessors in addition to learning about Williams' own innovative style. Also, Cushman only briefly touches on the how the subject matter relates to the prosody. For example, at the end of his discussion of enjambment, he shows how in the poem "The Right of Way," "pleasure also comes with the imaginative suspense of crossing a line boundary and seeing a one-legged girls bcome a girl with two legs, one on either side of a balcony rail" (50). Here, he poignantly points out, "She is the emblem of enjambment, the straddler, the local genius of the line ending who invests it with meaning, while linking one line with the next" (50). This is an excellent means by which meaning meets measure. Cushman could only enhance his argument by looking for similar connections in other poems, such as "Spring and All" where it seems that the line breaks follow the thematic development of the poem as a whole. Otherwise, Cushman wonderfully captures the "heel to toe dance of Williams' work" in his own carefully crafted and finely measured book.
RETURN TO REVIEWS 2 HOMEPAGE