previous chapter
William Carlos Williams:Selected Essays
next chapter

William Carlos Williams:
Selected Essays

Selected Essays , by William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1954.

This is a difficult book to find one's way around in, because there are many apparent concerns. Most of these, however, make no more than a superficial continuity. For example, there is a surprising emphasis on poets whom one had not thought to associate with Dr. Williams' own work, since the latter has been so much beyond usual peripheries—even called at times 'antipoetic.' Of the various people whom he has chosen so to recommend, many strike one as, at best, parallel to his own practice, while some seem almost to confute it.

Pound has been one of these last for a long time, and in the early essays Williams gives us some hint of this:[*]

But our prize poems are especially to be damned not because of superficial bad workmanship, but because they are rehash, repetition in another way of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck—conscious or unconscious—just as there were Pound's early paraphrases from Yeats

Black Mountain Review , Winter 1954.


and his constant cribbing from the Renaissance, Provence and the modern French: Men content with the connotations of their masters.

(Prologue to Kora in Hell , 1918)

True or false, this is a persistent judgment, which continues in one character or another throughout Williams' comment. But by 1934 ("A Pound Stein") he can end a thoroughly acute perception of what both have done, saying: "It may be added that both Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound live in Europe." In short, Williams has had, I think, a continual notion that men were wrong per se to run away from 'local conditions'; for himself, they were all that could generate the forms for which he looked. Yet there remained the dilemma of the success of others, come to again and again in both his poems and criticism:

Sometimes I envy others, fear them
a little too, if they write well. . . .

("The Cure")

Of those closer to him, in point of geography at least, Marianne Moore is (in this selection) the most singled out:

Work such as Miss Moore's holds its bloom today not by using slang, not by its moral abandon or puritanical steadfastness, but by the aesthetic pleasure engendered where pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully.

("Marianne Moore," 1931)

Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft. By making these operative, relationships become self-apparent—the animal lives with a human certainty. This is strangely worshipful. Nor does one always know against what one is defending oneself.

("Marianne Moore," 1948)

This is not a fair way of citing such things, but certain discrepancies are clear. The first note, read in its entirety, argues a completely relevant 'value,' e.g., "The 'useful result' is an accuracy to which this simplicity of design greatly adds. The effect is for the effect to remain 'true'; nothing loses its identity because of the composition, but the parts in their assembly remain quite as 'natural' as before they were gathered." The second (more a favor?) is not, however,


this positive in its analyses: "I don't think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought."

Such matters are, of course, minimal, a man has what friends he can have and is biased accordingly. What Williams might say of Marianne Moore's translations of La Fontaine, however interesting, would leave us still beside the point. And this is important to note, because it is so often the case that Williams says things in spite of his 'subject.' There are, for example, essays on the work of Robert Lowell ("It is to assert love, not to win it that the poem exists."), on Karl Shapiro ("Shapiro speaks lovingly of his 'rime' which he defines here and there in his poem—variously, as it should [not] be defined. It is the whole body of the management of words to the formal purposes of expression. We express ourselves there [men] as we might on the whole body of the various female could we ever gain access to her [which we cannot and never shall]"), on Dylan Thomas ("Reading over his collected poems I have thought of what chances he had to enhance his fame by thinking again and perhaps more profoundly of what he had in mind. But what can be more profound than song? The only thing that can be asked is whether a man is content with it.").

So it is a provocative book, for anyone who has either learned from or felt sympathy for Williams' own work. Forgetting the above for the moment (because I believe these 'occasions' to be of little importance), the last piece in the book ("On Measure—Statement for Cid Corman") brings to a head an issue more at root in Williams' sense of structure than even his insistence on the 'local.' It begins:

Verse—we'd better not speak of poetry lest we become confused—verse has always been associated in men's minds with "measure," i.e., with mathematics. In scanning any piece of verse, you "count" the syllables. Let's not speak either of rhythm, an aimless sort of thing without precise meaning of any sort. But measure implies something that can be measured. Today verse has lost all measure.

(I would like to cite two other men here, whose practice and/or belief may have less bearing than I think, but no matter. I am told of an essay by an Elizabethan, Samuel Putman, "On Proportion," wherein he speaks of numbers and measure as being arhythmus; and of that rhythm which we find in poems, as rhythmus . For him, rhythm implied irregularity; he also speaks of poetic rhythm as that "regularity just out of hearing." The other man is Thomas Campion,


who was both musician and poet, and who also said he paid no attention to any 'measure.' He gave his attention to the words and the rhythms which they carried in them, to be related then as they occurred. This is very clear, of course, reading any of his poems:

Kinde are her answers

    Kinde are her answeres,
    But her performance keeps no day;
Breaks time, as dancers
    From their own Musicke when they stray:
    All her free favors and smooth words,
Wing my hopes in vaine.
O did ever voice so sweet but only fain?
    Can true love yeeld such delay,
    Converting joy to pain?

    Lost is our freedome,
    When we submit to women so:
Why doe wee neede them,
    When in their best they worke our woe?
    There is no wisedome
Can alter ends, by Fate prefixt.
O why is the good of man with evill mixt?
    Never were days yet cal'd two,
    But one night went betwixt.

To 'scan' this is hardly possible, nor, more actually, at all the point. The 'process' is literally the same as that by which Williams himself writes, or any man who can effect such things with words. In any case, here is Williams:

The World Narrowed to a Point

Liquor and love
when the mind is dull
focus the wit
on a world of form

The eye awakes
perfumes are defined
ride the quick ear

Liquor and love
rescue the cloudy sense
banish its despair
give it a home.


This is not the 'same,' granted, but see that the second verse, in particular, involves us in that same character of variation which makes Campion himself a delight.)

Williams continues:

Most poems I see today are concerned with what they are saying , how profound they have been given to be. So true is this that those who write them have forgotten to make poems at all of them. Thank God we're not musicians, with our lack of structural invention we'd be ashamed to look ourselves in the face otherwise. There is nothing interesting in the construction of our poems, nothing that can jog the ear out of its boredom. I for one can't read them. There is nothing in their metrical construction to attract me, so I fall back on e. e. cummings and the disguised conventions that he presents which are at least amusing—as amusing as "Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, in a shower of rain."

The charge is reasonable enough, but for one thing—it seems to posit an either/or choice for "metrical construction" (?) versus some other means. But it is not metrics that are the fact in any of this, since, to compose 'metrically' would oblige one literally to an assumption of the 'foot' and the patterns then possible well before any poem could be written. This is the confusion, I think. Also—that it seems to be 'metrical construction' as against some form of 'typographical' construction (?); "It [the poem] is all over the page at the mere whim of the man who has composed it." But Stevens, for one, answered this, when he said there were those who thought of form as if it were a derivative of plastic shape. Which it is not, etc.

Without measure we are lost. But we have lost even the ability to count. Actually we are not as bad as that. Instinctively we have continued to count as always but it has become not a conscious process and being unconscious has descended to a low level of invention. . . . I have accordingly made a few experiments which will appear in a new book shortly [The Desert Music ]. . . . There will be other experiments but all will be directed toward the discovery of a new measure by which may be ordered our poems as well as our lives.

That, in brief, is the substance of the essay in question (here dated 1953). The first essay in the book is dated 1920. The first preoccupations are with the poem's structure—apart from content. This must be the issue of the place where it occurs—an answer, a disattachment, to the past. The line must be 'retaken,' reasserted, in terms of an immediate context. Against 'old forms,' congealed


casts, which Williams names "the sonnet." ("To me the sonnet form is thoroughly banal because it is a word in itself whose meaning is definitely fascistic.") "Measure" is first spoken of in "Pound's Eleven New 'Cantos'" (1934):

The line must be measured to be in measure—but this does not mean disfigurement to fit an imposed meter. It's a matter of technique or the philosophy of poetry. Difficult to find many who will agree about it. With Pound it is in itself a revolution—how difficult to comprehend: unless the term revolution be well understood.

That is part and parcel with the "relatively stable foot" called for in "On Measure," i.e., it is, I think, a confusion. To take literally the first of the sentence, "The line must be measured to be in measure . . . ," is to involve oneself in an obviously vicious circle. No poem was ever written "in this direction."

So, then, what does it all come to. That the words in a poem must cohere in terms of their rhythms and sound weights—this is reasonable enough. We have lost considerable ground—if one wishes to speak of it all as ground covered—by thinking too literally of 'quantitative verse,' and then, in a form of reflex, of that which we have been given by poets in our own immediate tradition. But 'measure,' bitterly enough, has most usually been that means by which lesser men made patterns from the work of better—so to perpetuate their own failure. There is even a hint of this in a review published in the London Times Literary Supplement , of Williams' Collected Later Poems: "But his forms are so irregular in outline that there is no way of measuring them. Any metrical ideas which the reader retains while reading him will be an interruption." So much for 'measure' (which has nothing to do with rhythm , which, as Olson reminds us, the "pedants of Alexandria made it"). But Williams no longer trusts rhythm—"an aimless sort of thing without precise meaning of any sort."

It all goes around and around. That I suppose would hold as true of the world as anything else would. Let's measure that?


previous chapter
William Carlos Williams:Selected Essays
next chapter