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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Number 13: William Carlos Williams "The Great Figure"

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

--William Carlos Williams

Hap Notes: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a dynamo who was both a physician and a highly acclaimed poet. He was always listening, writing and absorbing as he made his daily rounds or house calls. He wanted poetry to change and he tried to drag it towards a more fluid, easier to understand medium. His influence, which came into play much later than he'd have liked, is huge. Almost everyone who has ever written one lick of poetry in America over the last 70 years owes him something. Not just published poets- everyone.

He is so beloved by readers of poetry that it's hard to understand how his verses could have been controversial or critically panned. Williams himself was a little overwhelmed by it. It all started when T.S. Eliot published that neutron bomb of poetry called The Waste Land. While Williams was writing imaginative, loosely structured sensory poems, Eliot had turned the poetry world on its ear by sending it to an academic appreciation of words.

I think of it as Eliot serving a complex fruit cup in a cut crystal dish composed of strange fruits that one eats with a filigreed silver spoon, while Williams, on the other hand, is serving you one perfect peach. Turns out, the critics liked the fruit cup and thought the peach was too simple (and yes, I am making a bit of a statement about Eliot's line in Prufock- "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Good call.) I love Eliot's work and I often think Williams a bit twee and/or confusing, but I'll defend to the death the theories of WCW. Williams told Allen Ginsburg that "Howl" should be cut by half. I agree. But I'm getting ahead of the story- sorry.

In the end, Williams was extraordinarily influential, even Robert Lowell, with his stiff early formality and later confessional style, said Williams had changed everything. If you've ever gone to a poetry slam or written a scrap of free verse you're working on the ground that Williams had to plow by himself for almost 20 years. Some of that ground has yielded perfect peaches and much of it has been sown with sour fruit but, there you have it. (And, to be fair, the ground that Eliot plowed yielded some pretty dull, soggy fruit cups, too.)

"The Great Figure" is an amazing amalgam of art and poetry. Williams was visiting the artist Marsden Hartley's studio when the fire truck went by and he wrote a quick poem about his impression. Later, Charles DeMuth painted "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold," based on the poem. The painting is a pretty good illustration of the poem and I often have to disentangle my love of the painting from that of the poem. (P.S. see the "Bill" in the painting? And the "Carlos?" I think there's a "WCW" in there, too.)

Surely you have been somewhere and seen something that, for a moment, made the whole world slow down. You heard no sound and just saw the object- maybe a scrolled letter on a sign or the curve of someone's wrist. That something, that object- strikes you with such momentary force that it is like your breath is taken away for a seond. In the poem, there is rain and there are lights and a firetruck and the "dark city," can't you see this, in your mind's eye, fleeting by you? And then hear the roar and the rumbling?

Here's where Williams is so brilliantly successful when he hits it right; you know the old saying "A picture paints a thousand words?" Well, Williams lets a couple dozen words paint a thousand pictures. How awesome is that? That's poetry muscle right there.

Here's a good Williams quote, he's commenting about The Waste Land: ""I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit."

You can find more Williams here:

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