Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'The Sun Bathers' & 'The Term' by William Carlos Williams

              The Sun Bathers

                   A tramp thawing out
                        on a doorstop
                        against an east wall
                        Nov. 1, 1933:

                        a young man begrimed
                        and in an old
                        army coat
                        wriggling and scratching

                        while a fat negress
                        in a yellow-house window
                        leans out and yawns
                        into the fine weather


              The Term

                   A rumpled sheet
                        of brown paper
                        about the length

                        and apparent bulk
                        of a man was
                        rolling with the

                        wind slowly over
                        and over in
                        the street as

                        a car drove down
                        upon it and
                        crushed it to
                        the ground. Unlike
                        a man it rose
                        again rolling

                        with the wind over
                        and over to be as
                        it was before.


Although all modernists were preoccupied with the idea of representing “reality”, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite different. For Williams, a practicing doctor in a poor neighbourhood, that reality also included the social conditions and lives of those he knew and treated. Although his approach often shares, with Eliot and Stevens, the idea of recording life objectively he had – and only discovered this recently – a strong antipathy towards the high modernist stance of these two poets, particularly that of Eliot.

In many ways I find Eliot a more exciting poet. There is a virtuosity both in form and texture (a kind of sonic pyrotechnics) which is absent – quite deliberately – from these poems. With Williams I find there is rarely a brilliant or memorable line but the poems as a whole are brilliant in their pared back way. I think, temperamentally if nothing else, I’m drawn to this work. It seems to me also, for all its almost documentary objectivity, to have a heart. He just presents what is there (the red wheel-barrow etc) but there is so much care in how he does this. The work has, in the end, an empathy with those it represents (the tramp lying in the doorway, the scruffy young man, the black woman who leans out her window) though like the best documentaries it almost never explicitly states this.

In many ways I think the lyric poem and the photograph have a lot in common. Although a poem is imagistic it also has temporal quality so the analogy is not complete but somehow they seem close. (In a way, a poem has to be an image or sequence of images and cannot be abstract, say, in the way a painting can.) But ‘The Sun Bathers’ and ‘The Term’ are closer to very short, and seemingly random, pieces of video – as though a camera were simply pointed at an average scene (like the bag tossing in the street) and allowed to run for 10 or 15 seconds. The poems have that almost found quality that so many of Williams' peers in the art world were also exploring.

Obviously though, these poems are not casual at all. There is a real art to the images he turns his eye to and the sequence in which they appear. Sometimes they are like a pan-shot that moves slowly from one image to another (from the tramp to the woman in the window in the first poem), or the camera that holds on an image that most people would simply ignore like the cat stepping into a pot, or a bag as portrayed in 'The Term' (“about the length and apparent bulk of a man”) blowing down the street. It is almost impossible to be this direct and simply.

I’ve often wondered if Alan Ball had 'The Term' in mind when he wrote the scene for the film American Beauty where Ricky shows Jane the video footage he has taken of a plastic bag circling round and round as it is caught up in an eddy of wind.

There was a wonderful American documentary series called Voices & Visions which looked at the great American poets of the 20th Century. One episode was dedicated to Williams. Unfortunately it's not possible to embed this material but here are the links that will bring you to two long clips from the episode available to view on Youtube:

Pt 1:
Pt 2:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm...' by James Wright (1961)

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s 
Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadows.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between pines,
Two droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up in golden stones.
I lean back, as evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for a home.
I have wasted my life.

What I am attempting to do by looking at these poems is to learn how poets develop strategies to find structures for experience. The delicate balance between the image and the statement, the passive or intrusive voice and so on. Here, James Wright pushes the balance to the extreme. The entire poem, communicated in the passive (or more accurately, purely observational) voice, relates simply the images and sounds that surrounds him as he lies in a hammock in rural Minnesota – the butterflies, the cowbells, the empty house, the chicken hawk. Then, quite out of the blue, the declarative statement of devastating significance: “I have wasted my life”.

What is the connection between the statement and the images that precedes it? Very little, I think. Yet, that is perhaps the point. Wright makes no attempt to imply or suggest this final revelation in the way that he establishes the images of the poem: the sky is just the sky, the butterfly a butterfly. His observations are essentially a disconnect from his own inner life. It is this lack of intrusion that makes the last line so surprising. There is no hint, no foregrounding, no clues to the outcome. As a reader we might feel that the rustic imagery is leading us towards some statement of personal contentment. Yet, if the last line was positive in this way, the poem would fail to be memorable. It’s the starkness and timing of that line that is so unexpected. It relates a peculiarly modern sense of alienation and regret which we might usually associate with the metropolis, but that is here more arresting for being said as the poet lies on a hammock on a summer’s day in rural tranquility.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

from 'Five Villanelles' by Weldon Kees (1947)

                        from Five Villanelles


                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        It’s mildly cheering to recall
                        That every building has its little flaws.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
                        We can accept the damnest laws.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        And though there’s no one here at all,
                        One searches every room because
                        The crack is moving down the wall.

                        Repairs? But how can one begin?
                        The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.

                        These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
                        The sort of thing that gives one pause.
                        The crack is moving down the wall.
                        We must remain until the roof falls in.


The challenge of any poem is finding the form that best suits the content. With a fixed form like the villanelle the form itself, to a very large extent, dictates the content (more so than any other form I think). The great difficulty is finding a subject matter that works well in this context and also finding lines that are good enough to bear repetition. For me, the problem is that good villanelles are few and far between and so you tend to hear the same ones repeated over and over as examples – ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ by Thomas and ‘Antarctica’ by Derek Mahon, at least the latter in Ireland. I love both these poems, but they’ve grown a little too familiar and perhaps worn out by being cited so often. It has also created the sense, for me at least, that the villanelle best handles poems of intense emotion told with a kind of epic grandeur (which the repetition of lines definitely generates in both poems mentioned above).

What is refreshing in this poem by Weldon Kees (written before Thomas’ or Mahon’s as it turns out) is that it shows that the repetition can be used to an entirely different effect: the grinding and hopeless realities of daily life. There is nothing epic in this; just something relentless and incremental in “the crack is moving down the wall”. 

I think Kees exploits the repetition of the form to create the droll and sardonic attitude of a man who sees his life crumbling around him, but has another gin in the kitchen as he watches. It’s too late to stop but there is still a black sense of humour that recognizes, “We must remain until the roof falls in.” Obviously, the fact that the central image is of a crumbling house (and that there is a “we” in the poem) adds a whole range of associations: about marriage, about life, about the cracks that form in the person as well as on the wall.

This is the house that Weldon built and one gathers it was a difficult place to live. I am relieved though, above all, to have found a new villanelle which opens up so many possibilities for the form that I hadn’t noticed before now.

Kees published three collections of poetry from the late 40s to the mid-50s, which went almost entirely unnoticed at the time. He also did very interesting experiments with observational photography and was an accomplished jazz pianist. In 1955 his car was found by the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. When the police went to Kees’ flat they found a pair of red socks soaking in the sink. He was never seen again. It was thanks firstly to Donald Justice and, more recently, the critic and poet Dana Gioia, that his reputation has been resuscitated. Reading the collected poems reveals Kees as one of the most important mid-century poets in America. It’s a great shame he never lived to know that he would be seen as such.

You can find here Dana Gioia's intriguing essay, ''The Cult of Weldon Kees'.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

'Anahorish' by Seamus Heaney' & 'Epic' by Patrick Kavanagh

                   I have lived in important places, times
                        When great events were decided, who owned
                        That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
                        Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
                        I have heard the Duffy’s shouting “Damn your soul”
                        And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
                        Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
                        “Here is the march along these iron stones.”
                        That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.




My ‘place of clear water’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

those mound dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.


Against the almost ontological response to the natural world found in the Stevens and Bonnefoy pieces, these two poems from Kavanagh and Heaney show an entirely different emphasis. Like the ‘Snowman’ and ‘Place of the Salamander’, both poems attempt an negotiation between the poet and the environment, but here the negotiation is one imbued with a sense of the historical/mythological context. To put it differently, for Heaney and Kavanagh, the natural world is not just place but place and memory. And memory moves down through the strata of place and personal history, forming a dialogue between geographical places and the lives of those who have lived in them.

While Kavanagh’s poem attempts explicitly to locate the human drama in a mythical landscape (as the title suggests), he does this not by abstracting or generalising the historical but by bringing it back to its local origins. In this way, he establishes the significance of the lives of people and the places where those lives happen as McCabe and Duffy fight over a land boundary. And in doing this Kavanagh doesn’t expend with the actualities of either the people involved or the seeming-small nature of the dispute. In other words, he restores ‘epic’ events to their real locations. His backdrops are not painted. They are tactile and necessary. There is a sense of deep history at work: “...Homer’s ghost came whispering/ To my mind. He said: I made the Iliad from such/ A local row...”

If Bonnefoy had written about a place like ‘Anahorish’ he probably would’ve simply called it ‘A Hill’ or ‘A Spring’. For Heaney, though, it is crucial that this location has a place-name and an historical orientation through this act of naming – and by historical here, I mean that again in the local sense. It is, for Heaney, as if the place name and the place are equally significant and inform each other. In the end, they are inseperable. He writes:

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings...

Yet, the place is not diminished by this process of locating it in historical and even mythological time (he calls it 'the first hill in the world'). The naming is part of the relationship with those who have lived there, establishing this encounter (the poem) in a lineage of many such encounters. The process is open-ended, aware of the presence of the past but capable of allowing the personal present to co-exist, in a sense, with the pressure of the historical to find his ‘place of clear water’. It also represents a preoccupation in Irish poetry about 'named' place. One might say, to a point, sometimes, of a refusal to a more universal sense of displacement to the ontological, as found in French poetry...