July 7, 2011
A World Detached (on Williams and Pound)
A WORLD DETACHED
by Douglas Messerli
William Carlos Williams Poems (Rutherford, New Jersey: Privately printed, 1909)
Ezra Pound The Spirit of Romance: An Attempt to Define Somewhat the Charm of the
Pre-Renaissance Literature of Latin Europe (London, J. M. Dent, 1910)
William Carlos Williams The Tempers (London: Elkin Mathews, 1913)
William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: Four Seas, 1920)
William Carlos Williams Sour Grapes (Boston: Four Seas, 1921)
William Carlos Williams Spring and All (Paris: Contact Editions, 1923)
William Carlos Williams The Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1951)
Ezra Pound Selected Letters 1907-1941, Edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1950)
William Carlos Williams, The Selected Letters, Edited by John C. Thirwall (New York: McDowell,Obolensky, 1957)
Williams Carlos Williams in conversation with Edith Heal I Wanted to Write a Poem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958)
William Carlos Williams The Selected Prose: 1909-1965 (New York: New Directions, 1973)
William Carlos Wiliams The Embodiment of Knowledge, edited with an Introduction by Ron Loewinsohn (New York: New Directions, 1974)
Among critics and scholars of American poetry, it has long been generally acknowledged, if less generally discussed, that Ezra Pound was the dominating influence upon the early poetics of William Carlos Williams. The irascible “missionary”—an epithet to which Pound himself admitted (see The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941, in which Pound writes to George Santayana: “I plead the missionary sperrit: GUILTY!!”)—began what amounted to a personal jihad to convert Williams to his viewpoints. This effort began as early as their first encounters in the University of Pennsylvania dormitories and would last throughout Williams’ life. It is as if upon taking up his violin to antiphonally respond to the piano music of Morrison Robb Van Cleve—which led, a short while later, to his being introduced to Pound—Williams interned himself to a mentor more zealous and jealous than any university don or religious guru could have been. The relationship with Pound, unquestionably, was “a painful experience”—as Williams decries what it was like to listen to Pound read from the poems of A Lume Spento (Williams, The Autobiography). “…He bore with me for sixty years,” Pound confessed via cable upon hearing of Williams’ death.
It is easy to envision Williams, in this context, as a grandly patient assimilator, quietly enduring Pound’s harangues to sort out those truths applicable to his own poetry and life—a picture Williams himself encourages throughout his writings by stressing his uncertainty about his own critical comments and by emphasizing his early stance as observer and listener. “I paid attention very assiduously to what I was told,” he writes in his 1948 “autobiography” I Wanted to Write a Poem; “I often reacted violently, but I weighed what had been told me thoroughly.”
There is little doubt that Williams did seriously pay “attention to what he was told,” particularly by Pound. The radical differences between Williams’ Poems of 1909—of which Pound writes, “Your book would not attract even passing attention here” [here being London]—and The Tempers of 1913, reveal the enormous influence of Pound’s and the Imagists’ manifestoes, the origins of which Pound outlined in his famous letter to Williams of 1908. One need only compare a poem such as the 1909 poem “The Uses of Poetry”:
I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,
Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frightened with our boat’s long sway.
with “Contemporania” of 1913:
I go back and forth now
And the little leaves follow me
Talking of the great rain,
Of branches broken,
And the farmer’s curses!
But I go back and forth
In this corner of a garden
And the green shoots follow me
Praising the great rain.
to perceive that the “mushy technique” of Williams’ earlier work (Pound’s phrase used to describe the poetry of the Symbolists) had given way in a few short years to a “direct treatment of the thing” and “rhythm composed in the sequence of the metrical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome” (statements from the Imagist manifesto published in Poetry in 1913). Williams’ critical observations in Five Philosophical Essays, written during this period, often parallel Pound’s ideas as expressed in the first decade or so of their acquaintance. Arguments Williams makes for economy in living, for example—
Insofar as life is to see, it is: “Do not waste space.” Thus we see that life is to confine our energy and for us to expand our view. Which, again, shows that a perfection is the object of our activity, any perfection which alone at once contains a universal expansion concentrated into a minimum of elements constituting it, for in a perfection is no waste.—
unavoidably remind one of Pound’s and the Imagists’ insistence upon using “absolutely no word” in poetry “that does not contribute to the presentation.” While Pound aspires to a poetry free from didacticism (“The poet grinds the axe for no dogma,” from “The Wisdom of Poetry,” 1912), Williams attacks dead words “which are symbols of symbols, twice removed from vitality” (The Embodiment of Knowledge), contending that man’s only actions can be “to prance to cheer and to point, all of which are but one thing: praise.” And like Pound, Williams links these ideas of art and poetry with his concept of beauty:
We shall have the most beautiful before us; singing and architecture and painting and poetry, not as the dirty Cinderella of worship as it is now but as the thing itself [EoK, p. 181].
Certainly, several of these ideas were current among poets and painters in these years from 1902 to 1913, and some of Williams’ concepts have roots that go back farther than his first encounter with “sweet Ezra” (Williams’ endearment for Pound expressed in The Autobiography), but one cannot dismiss the impact of Pound upon Williams’ critical writings of this period, and, particularly, upon what was to become the rallying-cry of Williams’ poetics: “Nothing is good save the new” [Kora in Hell]. Observations such as those Williams makes in his Philosophical Essays—
But shall we not find this freedom appearing under other names? …It is universal change, it is the new, it is that no two trees are alike, it is the thrill of surprise, mystery, the unaccountable against the accountable…. It is change, then, against the unchanged…[EoK, p. 171]—
and in his chastisement of Harriet Monroe in 1913—
Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive to life as it was the moment before—always new, irregular. Verse to be alive must have infused into it something of the same order, some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution, an ethereal reversal, let me say. I am speaking of modern verse. [Selected Letters, pp. 23-24]—
clearly re-echo Pound’s statements expressed in The Spirit of Romance in 1910:
Art is a fluid moving above or over the minds of men.
Let us consider the body as pure mechanism. Our kinship to the ox we have constantly thrust upon us; but beneath this is our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree and the living rock, and, because this is less obvious—and possibly more interesting—we forget it.
We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of the wood alive, of stone alive….
Indeed, Pound’s continual exhortation for a poetry that functions as a “liberating force” [“The Wisdom of Poetry”], for a poetry through which the poet can create experience anew, was quickly to become the major issue of Williams’ aesthetics. Not surprisingly, Williams acknowledges in I Wanted to Write a Poem that “Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D.”
Yet, on the very next page of that 1958 text, Williams states what seems to be a contradiction: “I was a listener. I always kept myself free from anything Pound said” [p. 6]. One may, a first, simply shrug off such a comment—which appears to be a disavowal of Pound’s influence—as part of Williams’ endeavor to establish a poetic identity separate from that of his mentor-friend’s, an endeavor that began with his quoting of Pound’s letter in the 1920 introduction to Kora in Hell and with his criticism of Pound in “Yours, O Youth” a few months later. But, by the late 1950s, when Williams surely had sufficiently accomplished that dissociation, it seems somewhat insincere of him to admit to the impact of Pound upon his life while denying the influence of what Pound said—irrational almost, unless in his use of the word “free,” Williams means something other than a disregard of or a disconnection from Pound’s early poetics. If we explore this issue a bit further, perhaps we can better comprehend why in 1958 Williams takes this position.
Several of Williams’ concepts of freedom—that it is inextricably connected with universal change, which opposes it to the “unchanged,” “The old,” and the “permanent”—have already been mentioned. In his early essay, “Constancy and Freedom,” Williams further explores how those notions of freedom seem diametrically opposed to the values of “persistency, solidity, permanency,” opposed even to the constancy necessary for friendships and love [EoK, p. 170]. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that such an opposition between the two does not really exist—at least in the abstract. The knowledge of our limitations and possibilities is the “ultimate freedom,” Williams argues, and it is only in knowledge that a human can be truly free. For knowledge or truth seeks to distinguish natural laws—laws to which we are subject by ignorance; and, in that distinction, it points to our human limitations, one of the most obvious of which is our inability to explore all possibilities equally. Because of time and energy, human beings cannot seek for truth in all its forms through all vocations; recognizing the law of economy, knowledge teaches humankind the need for constancy, which, when enacted, leads to the revelation of similar abstract truths in each vocation. Thus, in theory, there can be no opposition between constancy and freedom, since they result in the same knowledge. It is only ignorance, Williams claims, that leads us to see these two forces as a duality. As Williams restates time and again in his later work, however, humankind, as the embodiment of that knowledge, wanders through “the forests of ignorance” [EoK, p. 64], unable to resolve the duality and to live with the paradox.
Without giving undue emphasis to Edith Heal’s records of Williams’ statements or the philosophical musings of an adolescent poet, I suggest that it is in the context of this paradox or tension between freedom and continuity in which we must consider Williams’ accounts of Pound and of his relationships with his fellow poets in general. Although Williams apparently comprehended that his poetic development was dependent, in part, upon a contiguity and continuity of personal friendships with poets—was dependent, if you will, upon contact—his aggrandizement of freedom led him throughout his life to argue not only against the past and for renewal, but to actively work against his own past, his friends, and their influence—to detach himself from all that might preclude growth and divergence. Ezra Pound, for Williams, was just such a force.
Certainly, there were more aggravating opponents in Williams’ career. In 1920 he took on Wallace Stevens in Kora in Hell, addressing him as “dear fat Stevens,” and likening him (in a description borrowed from Skipworth Cannell) to “a Pennsylvania Dutchman who has suddenly become aware of his habits and taken to ‘society’ in self defense.” And in the same work, Williams begins what was to become a lifelong campaign against T. S. Eliot [KiH, p. 24]—the whipping boy of Pound and Wynham Lewis as well—that can be summed up in his 1958 reflections:
I had a violent feeling that Eliot had betrayed what I believed in. He was looking backward; I was looking forward. He was a conformist, with wit, learning I did not possess. He knew French, Latin, Arabic, god knows what. I was interested in that. But I felt he had rejected America and I refused to be rejected and so my reaction was violent [IWTWAP, p. 30].
But the fact that he also sounds off in the Prologue about his friends Hilda Doolittle and Pound should indicate that Williams’ gripes were not simply an evincing of “sour grapes" (the words Williams chose to title the book of poetry he published in the following year), that he was not just lashing back at his fellow poets for their criticism of his poetry, but was responding to specific attitudes that belied their criticisms: attitudes which he felt demanded a constancy—consistency of viewpoint (Stevens), uniformity of language (H. D.), and continuation of the Tradition (Eliot)—which translated in his thinking to arrestment and death. For Williams, reaction was directly bound to his ideas on personal freedom, a phenomenon which he most clearly reveals in his response to the letter from H.D.:
There is nothing in a literature but change and change is mockery. I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it [KiH, p. 13].
Predictably, his reactions to Pound are related to these very issues of change and freedom. For Pound, according to Williams’ logic, had committed two major sins: like Eliot, he overvalued the Tradition and he had abandoned his country to write. To Williams these were inseparable issues; his lifelong commitment to primary knowledge over authoritarian knowledge, to the modern over the Tradition, and to the present over the past were grounded in his belief that such values were peculiarly American; that American culture had made a necessary and irreparable “break” with the classical valuation of education over knowledge [EoK, p. 146]. The American artist, accordingly, cannot go to Paris to study art, Williams avers, because there he can learn only French art; as an American, the artist can come to his own art only through contact with his culture and country. “France is France,” he wrote Harriet Monroe in 1913, “We are not France” [SL, pp. 25-26]. Or, as he put it in Contact 4:
Nothing will be forwarded, as it is persistently coughed at us for our children to believe, by a conscious regard for traditions which have arrived at their perfection by force of the stimuli of special circumstances foreign to us, the same which gave them birth and dynamise them to-day [“Sample Critical Statement/Comment,” Contact 4, 18].
By essay’s end, Pound is linked with Eliot to those who Williams is soon to call the “Traditionalists of Plagiarism,” those who would tell him to read Laforgue rather than “believe in [his] bayonets” [see Williams’ “The Writers of the American Revolution,” Selected Essays]. A few years later, Williams proclaims, “Ezra Pound is already looking backward” [A Novelette in Imaginations, 54].
This reaction against Pound, however, was not limited to such literal accusations, but found more artful expression in Spring and All, the document central to Williams’ early critical theory. For in the first half of his pivotal work—a work which I read as a more-or-less coherent manifesto rather than as a potpourri of poetry and prose—Williams chooses the most common of poetic subjects: night, spring, and flowers, not to mention trees, wind, clouds, rain, and war—the very subjects, in fact, which Pound ridiculed in his letter to Williams of 1908:
Why write what I can translate out of Renaissance Latin or crib from the
Here are a list of facts on which I and 9,000,000 other poets have spieled
1. Spring is a pleasant season. The flower, etc. etc. sprout, bloom
2. Young man’s fancy. Lightly, heavily gaily etc. etc.
3. Love, a delightsome tickling. Indefinable etc.
4. Trees, hills etc. are by a provident nature arranged diversely, in
5. Winds, clouds, rains, etc. flop thru and over ‘em.
6. Men love women….
7 Men fight battles, etc. etc.
8. Men go on voyages.
[Pound, Selected Letters, 4-5]
It seems extraordinarily unlikely, after having accused Pound of being too reliant upon the Tradition, that Williams should accidentally have taken up the subjects which Pound argues are better copied than re-employed by modern poets. Rather, it is apparent that in Spring and All Williams confronts Pound on his own turf, so to speak. For what Williams seems previously to have been unable to convey to Pound—let alone to Stevens, Eliot, and the American reader—is that his pursuit of the NEW—his focus on change as freedom—does not demand a break with reality, the commonplace, or nature. To the contrary, as Williams comes to perceive in Spring and All, spring, love, flowers, trees, winds, clouds, war, and rain are subjects worthy of a lifelong investigation. “Thank you, I know well that I am plagiarizing,” he exclaims in the midst of his commentary in Chapter XIII [printed reversed], as if addressing his 1908 correspondent. However, as Williams is soon to explain, what he means by plagiarism is something different from what Pound argues. The confusion arose, Williams suggests, at least as far back as Samuel Butler, who observed that “There are two who can invent some extraordinary thing to one who can properly employ that which has been made use of before” [S and A, p. 97]. The Traditionalist of Plagiarism have seized upon this statement, Williams argues, to proclaim the value of past traditions in literature, which has resulted, he hints, in poets like Eliot and Pound looking backwards and in a constant reference to the poets of the past, their metrics, their rhetorical devices, their themes. Williams, on the other hand, would retain the same subjects as past poets, but would endow them, through the imagination (the key word of Spring and All), with new life, a life detached from that of the everyday world because it emanates not from nature itself, or from an illusionary presentation of nature, but from an emotionally-charged consciousness reflecting its existence from moment to moment in nature. Pound, Williams implies, has got it all wrong; the plagiarism does not lie in using the same subjects, but in cribbing from “the sainted dead” (something Pound would do in poetry throughout his life). While Pound argues in his 1908 letter for a manipulation of past methods (“Sometimes I use rules of Spanish, Anglo-Saxon and Greek metric that are not common in the English of Milton’s and Miss Austen’s day,” [SL, p. 4] and against the use of timeworn subjects, Williams contends in Spring and All that the subjects of the past can be revitalized, but its methods are unusable because they do not permit the expression of the modern poets’ imagination. As a subject for poetry, “The rose is obsolete,” he tentatively admits, (and his conjunction is the pivot of the poem), "but each petal ends in / an edge”… “so that to engage in roses / becomes a geometry…” as polymorphic as the individual personality [S and A, p. 107-108].
This distinction between his own thinking and Pound’s is an important one, for it recapitulates the same duality that Williams attempted to tackle in his early essay on “Constancy and Freedom.” Obviously, Williams understood that Pound was an ally in his struggle for a new poetry, for a freedom of poetic expression; in his attachment to the methods of the Tradition, however, Pound could not but have appeared to Williams as opting for constancy over freedom, to be electing the European tradition over the American landscape and the predisposition of its artists to remain separate, detached, even isolate. “My whole life,” Williams summarizes in Spring and All, “has been spent (so far) in seeking to place a value upon experience that would satisfy my sense of inclusiveness without redundancy—completeness…with the liberty of choice” [italics mine, S and A, 116].
Williams comprehended that, as a modern American poet, as a representative of the new American poetics—in short, as a leonine abstraction—Pound stood for causes similar to his own. Wrote Williams in 1919, two years before his attack on Pound in Contact:
I find matter for serious attention in Ezra Pound’s discordant shrieking….
It is the NEW! not one more youthful singer, one more lovely poem. The NEW, the everlasting NEW, the everlasting defiance. Ezra has the smell of it. Any man can slip into the mud, Any man can go to school [“Belly Music,”Others 5 (July 1919), 28].
From this perspective, in his vision of Pound as a pioneer of American poetics, there was no question of influence. “Ain’t it enuf that you so deeply influenced my formative years without your wanting to influence also my later ones?” he asked Pound in a letter of 1954. But as a fellow poet, as a living, breathing, speaking, shrieking being, Pound, like so many others, was someone from whom Williams felt he had to free himself, was someone against whom he had to fight to live in “A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him…with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independent—moving at will from one thing to another—as he pleases, unbound, complete” [S and A, p. 121].
Reprinted from Sagetrieb, III, no. 2 (Fall 1984).
Presented as a talk on August 24th, 1983 at the University of Maine, Williams Carlos Williams Centennial Conference.