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Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

03 October 2011

To hell with you and your poetry

Tom sat upon the shore fishing, with the arid plain behind him—those fragments he shored against his ruin—lamenting his Shantih shantih shantih—when the rude obstetrician burst in, bloody babe in each hand, crying Spring!

First, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All is a manifesto and an ars poetica (as noted by Emily Lambeth-Climaco), or rather first it’s a poem, for as the question of prose v. poetry is itself worked in the last third of the book the whole thing comes down decisively on the poetry side, that is, a thing. Creation v. reportage. As WCW puts it, “prose has to do with the fact of an emotion ; poetry has to do with the dynamisation of emotion into a separate form” (67).

So, Spring and All is a poem comprising 27 free verse sections interspersed with paragraphs. Then second it’s a manifesto and ars poetica. Third, it’s a repudiation of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the publication of which Williams described as a “great catastrophe” (however one can only look askance at Peter Quartermain’s flat-footed caricature of Eliot—though he copped to being a hollow man, Eliot is not the straw man Quartermain makes him—and what’s more, I don’t even know what to do with a statement like “Williams is exactly the opposite of Eliot in almost every respect.” As satisfying as it must be to set up simple dualities, Williams and Eliot have a great deal in common, which is why their differences are interesting.). Published in 1923 in 300 copies, mostly seized at customs or destroyed, then only excerpted until it was reprinted in Imaginations (1970), Spring and All is now returned to readers “smeared a bluish green / that properly weathered / pleases me best of all colors.”

It is not, pace James Clifford (and his follower Joshua Schuster), ethnography. There is much to be said contra Clifford, despite the recuperation Joshua Schuster works to argue that indeed, yes, Williams might have probably maybe read Franz Boas, so Clifford’s “ethnographic modernism” isn’t just pure specious metaphorizing, which it is, and unexaminedly troubled metaphorizing as well, as if ethnography/anthropology hadn’t grown root-and-branch with various imperialisms—which is merely to say it’s not available as the easy metaphor of magic local-pluralism Clifford wants to use it for in his tedious narrative of lapsarian modernity.

But back to Williams, who is no moralist of the modern, at least—which is where Clifford seems to get him most exactly wrong, turning To Elsie into Hugh Selwyn Mauberly when in fact Williams is a native American futurist—what is going on in Spring and All?

All of the above, a paean to imagination, a new argument for art for art’s sake, the thing itself not as a representation nor for its uplift but as a thing: “The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escaped plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation” (35). Creation, indeed, poetic or otherwise, is the key to Spring and All. Williams writes about the years immediately preceding, in his Autobiography:

Practice was going well. My wonderful friends, the Wops of Guinea Hill, were calling me regularly now that their old friend Doctor Calhoun, who had first introduced me to them, was getting tired. At one time during those years I ‘gave birth,’ as one woman phrased it, to nearly every baby born on those streets above the old copper mines (149).
He then proceeds to tell stories about extracting retarded placentas and hydrocephalic heads. Not the sterility and impotence of Prufrockian ascetic aestheticism here, but gutsy, gusty, blousy life. Art, then, for Williams, is more mere creation—must be—not copying nature but imitating it, making more reality, making experience. And each birth—for this man who delivered hundreds (thousands?) of babies—is unique, willful, self-willed.
There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other. There is nothing in 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 (Prologue to Kora in Hell, 16).
Or more restrainedly:
In the composition, the artist does exactly what every eye must do with life, fix the particular with the universality of his own personality—Taught by the largeness of his imagination to feel every form which he sees moving within himself, he must prove the truth of this by expression.
The contraction which is felt (27).
But more than that, for all his enthusiastic insistence on the word—imagination—as creation, as nature itself, when we come to some of the key moments in Spring and All (or at least some of the more shocking turns of recognition), here too Williams shows an ambivalence—again signaled early: “There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between” (1). Does this—does he mean what comes between the reader and the text-as-thing-in-the-world? Or does he mean the rest of the world? Is the word what comes between? The world comes between the reader and the world? That can’t be right.

I’m not sure what to do with objects and images, description and representation, gazes and authenticity (see, to start, Lambeth-Climaco and Pickard—or Plato, Pliny, and Aristotle). A poem is a thing, simply, and the words in it are things, definitely, but the things those words refer to only might or might not be things, depending on what we mean. What the poem means. Which “meaning” isn’t really a thing, but what? A feeling? Ok. The whole problem of mimesis and representation is both troubled and enacted in Spring and All, at no better point than in the sequence XIX to XII, which ends:


one day in Paradise
a Gipsy

to see the blandness

of the leaves —
so many

so lascivious
and still


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
He goes on: “The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal—essential to every activity. But they exist—but not as dead dissections” (75).

Wah! The “so’s” in XXI resound in XXII, the still, lascivious leaves contrast the red metal and white chickens, the Gipsy smiles watching in Paradise, never mind the lilacs, satyrs, kisses, and booming oceans that came before and led us to this one perception, moment, image, object. It would take pages to unpack what happens here. It’s not about the wheelbarrow, as I was taught in high school, but about the movement. Yet the red is real too. There remains a question, behind the rhetoric of imagination, of perception, and of the world as it is and is seen.

As when “The pure products of America” comes in after “Our orchestra / is the cat’s nuts—”… Here, though, it’s less a question of seing than being—and something about the fragility of the imagination, the rarity of its transcendence beyond oblivious banality, the problem of dreaming as not creation but escape, or maybe they’re the same—and this is where Spring and All transcends mere manifesto to become poetry—in the ambivalence Williams himself enacts, in the fineness of the line, the form of the life, “rich / in savagery —”: “So most of my life has been lived in hell—a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration, when a poem such as this or that would appear” (43).


Clifford, James. Introduction to The Predicament of Culture.

Lambeth-Climaco, Emily. “ ‘This Rhetoric is Real’: William Carlos Williams’s Recalibration of Language and Things.” Williams Carlos Williams Review 28:1-2 (Spring/Fall 2008), 35-53. Project Muse.

Pickard, Zachariah. “William Carlos Williams, Description, and the Avant-Garde.” American Literary History 22:1 (Spring 2010), 85-109. Project Muse.

Quartermain, Peter. “Canonical Strategies and the Question of Authority: Eliot and Williams.” (2011).

Schuster, Joshua. “William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, and the Anthropological Imaginary.” Journal of Modern Literature 30:3 (Spring 2007), 116-132. Project Muse.

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1951.

—————. Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920.

—————. Spring and All. New York: New Directions, 2011 (1923).

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