Saturday, December 8, 2012

Aimless Reading: The W's, Part 26.1 (William Carlos Williams)

Selected Essays
Williams, William Carlos
Selected Essays


Purchased at the Fordham University bookstore for a graduate coure on modernist poetry that I took in my final semester as an undergraduate. As I recall, the course was rather schematic. In almost every case, we purchased one volume of essays and one volume of poems by the poet under discussion. We read selections from the essays that contained concise statements of poetics and followed this by reading the poems against these statements to see how they did or did not measure up to the claims being made. I think we may also have read some biographical material and looked at the poems through that lens as well.

I always found that approach stifling, though my credulousness at the time led me to see it as relevant. I often find now that the last thing I want to know about a poet is what kind of relationship he had with his mother, or she we with her husband, etc. I do like reading statements of poetics, but more to test them out against my own thoughts and my own poems than to gain any understanding of the poet's. I often find that it is the failure of a poem to follow it's author's own prescriptions to the letter, or even the spirit -- call it a poetic hypocrisy -- that makes the relationship between the two interesting.

A poetics becomes interesting not because of the truth value of the claims it makes, but because of its generative nature. Do they produce interesting thought or writing in their wake? Though I guess I also wonder, saying that, what quality of the writing we could point to that could be characterized as "generative." I can't say for sure if it has to do with the passion of the writing or the quality of the ideas or the disjunction between the poetics of the poet and her poems. I guess it's as the judge in the Ulysses case said famously of pornography -- I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

from The Poem as a Field of Action

We seek profusion, the Mass–heterogeneous–ill-assorted–quite breathless–grasping at all kinds of things–as if–like Audobon shooting some little bird, really only to look at it the better.

If any man's work lacks the distinction to be expected from the finished artists, we might well think of the profusion of Rabelais–as against a limited output. It is as thought the moment we should be profuse, we Americans; we need to build up a mass, a conglomerate maybe, containing few gems but bits of them–Brazillian–that shine of themselves, uncut as they are.

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