William Carlos Williams Lecture

I spent the class trying to answer the question WCW begs in "The Red Wheelbarrow" -- exactly what ("beside the chickens") depends on the wheelbarrow? By way of answering, I spent about 15 minutes comparing T.S. Eliot & The Waste Land to Walt Whitman & "Song of Myself." The two works have in common a desire to make a definitive statement about the relationship between consciousness & reality, but in most respects Eliot's poem is a kind of anti-"Song of Myself." I emphasized especially the way there is absolutely no trace of "America" in The Waste Land, the way the whole "new world" that defined where Whitman's poet came from, what Whitman's poem celebrated and where it was intended to carry the reader had disappeared. Eliot's poem is a kind of culmination of the pattern of identifying American experience with "coming east" that we noted begins with James. There is no way in The Waste Land to escape the "old world," decayed and dying "with a little patience."

To get from that to the wheelbarrow, we looked at how WCW said the publication of The Waste Land threatened to destroy his project as a poet (this quotation, and a couple others, are on the WCW homepage).Most of the poems I asked you to read were first published in Spring and All, WCW's sixth book of poetry, & one that appeared in 1923, the year after The Waste Land. Eliot's poem lies behind what WCW is up against & up to in those poems, as WCW tries to write in rather than against "the American grain" of the Whitman tradition.

We looked most closely at "To Elsie" and "Spring and All." Both poems invite misreading. "To Elsie" can seem a kind of confirmation of Eliot's disgust at lower class fecundity, but to me the "it" that "somehow . . . seems to destroy us" is not the presence of people like Elsie, but in fact the way both Elsie and the poet long for a higher, more ideal world, "as if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky." When WCW writes at the end that there is "no one to drive the car," he's not complaining about the servant problem (though Elsie was in his home as a domestic), but instead, like Elsie, offering his services -- as American poet, to take American readers "home," to show them the wonder and beauty of the world they live in, to "witness" that world, to "adjust" their expectations to their perceptions, to root their lives in the local & give them "a ground sense." The same process can be seen in "Spring and All." The poem begins by looking upward (like Elsie with her cheap gauds, designed to attract rich young men), but proceeds (like the spring) to bring things into definition by rooting downward. The poem starts in Eliot's landscape (a "waste") but tries to show it to its readers as still Whitman's land of promise (a "new world" -- "naked"). What spring does, by gripping down, is to bring life into new definition -- that's the "and all" of the title, still possible despite the death of the idea of "spring" because spring as a thing can still be observed, and that's what WCW tries to do in his poems.

I ended with the poem that seems to me miraculous in its ability to take Eliot's world on its bleakest terms and as an act of perception reveal it as the source of wonder & beauty -- "Between Walls." Litter, broken, "nothing" -- but as seen by the poem, those pieces of green glass shine like a kind of flower. What WCW attempts in a poem like this is to give us a (concrete, clear but also inspiring) way to see even modern, urban, ostensibly "unpoetic" reality. And that, I said, is my answer to the question I began with. What depends on the wheelbarrow? Williams does. His whole project as a poet does. The wheelbarrow, as a material fact of ordinary life -- that's the "anti-poetic" material he's got to work with. Can it "carry" the kind of meaning & wonder & beauty that Whitman saw in reality, and that WCW still hopes to introduce us to? Can his poetry & its account of ordinary reality "carry" us "home," to America & to the world which, as he says in Patterson, is "the only truth"?

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