Section 4 - William Carlos Williams
I. Zukofsky and Williams
The extent of the friendship and mutual influence of Zukofsky and Williams is not sufficiently known. Williams’ autobiography records that the two were “good friends” but not that they read and criticized each other’s work with interest and a sense of common purpose from the day they met until Williams died. Critics fail to acknowledge the importance of Zukofsky and “Objectivism” to Williams and his work because they do not know the facts. Webster Schott, for example, fails to credit Zukofsky for editing The Descent of Winter for Pound’s Exile and A Novelette and Other Prose for the Oppens’ To Publishers.1
Pound’s letter of 5 March 1928 suggested that Zukofsky meet William Carlos Williams: “Re/ private life: Do go down an’ stir up ole Bill Willyums, 9 Ridge Rd. Rutherford (W. C. Williams M.D.) and tell him I tole you. He is still the best human value on my murkin. visiting list.” It also enlisted Zukofsky’s service as editor: “I shd. be inclined to print anything of Bill Wm’s that you picked out. Editing ought really to be done by the young (?? what/ d-- age are you) not by the senile or even by the mature. -eh- save for the purpose of commerce.”2 Pound was 42; Williams, 44; Zukofsky, 23. Zukofsky responded to this on 20 March 1928 by noting that he had written Williams and Cummings and that, meaningfully, his previous letter to Pound, which crossed Pound’s in the mail, had expressed interest in meeting Williams.3
Williams replied to Zukofsky on 23 March, beginning: “My dear Zukofsky: By ’human values’ I suppose Ezrie means that in his opinion I can’t write. Dammit, who can write, isolated as we all find ourselves and robbed of the natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments?” Apparently mistaking Zukofsky’s role as editor, Williams wrote: “So you are responsible for Exile now. Is that so?” Since Zukofsky came “with an introduction from my old friend,” Williams invited him to Rutherford “for a country meal and a ta1k.”4
Zukofsky wrote that he could visit Saturday, but Williams countered on 28 March that he would “not be home this Saturday evening” but that he could meet Zukofsky “in the city” after “being interviewed ---- at five o’clock by some stranger.”5 The two met, then, on 1 April 1928. Williams remembered in his autobiography that “one day I met Louis Zukofsky in the city after I had been sketched for a caricature by a person named Hoffman. Louis and I became good friends.”6 This friendship brought Zukofsky to Rutherford in April, and repeatedly thereafter, affording, as Pound observed, “some pleasure and consolation” to them both.7
The facts of William Carlos Williams’ life are well-known. He was born 17 September 1883. Although, as Mike Weaver wrote, “He was half English, one-quarter Basque, and one-quarter Jewish,”8 he is known for his insistence on the value of the American language and locale. Like Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and Rakosi, his American values were not inherited; they were earned.
Williams met his life-long friend Ezra Pound while he was in medical school and Pound was in graduate school studying romance languages. Pound involved him in the free verse movement. His job as a general practitioner with specialties in pediatrics and obstetrics left him little time for his main passion, his writing. In 1928 he was feeling the lack of recognition that should normally come to a writer of his merit in middle age. He felt isolated. Attention from other writers more than flattered him; it provided the “natural friendly stimuli on which we rest, at least, in our lesser moments.”
Of the years following his return from Europe in 1924, he remembered:
These were the lush Republican years when money flourished like skunk cabbages in the swamps in April. . . .
Damn it, the phone ringing again. . . . That was Mr. Taylor who said excitedly, You never wrote a poem in your life, Doc. What you write is prose, like Shakespeare.
when Doc. K. was selling week-ends at two hundred dollars a shot, complete: liquor, keep and a woman guaranteed; and when stupidity had no measure.9
Mr. Taylor’s stupidity makes his criticism into praise. Coolidge prosperity did not improve the intelligence or integrity of Williams’ contemporaries. “Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found.” In these years, Williams banged off his work between patients. “Then would come the trial. The poem would be submitted to some random editor, or otherwise meet its fate in the world. I would observe that fate and so come to judge the intelligence of my contemporaries.”10
Zukofsky swiftly became Williams’ special editor and critic, extending the care taken between Williams’ creation and submission. His first visits left Williams with suggestions for cutting deadwood from his first novel, A Voyage to Pagany, which was in progress and would be published in September 1928.11 Williams wrote to Zukofsky on 17 May 1928: “What you had to say about the novel did me much good. I felt that you had hit on some very raw spots. Oh well, I can’t quite bring myself to throw the thing away though I wanted to do so after you had left.” 12 And, on 25 June 1928, after working on it, Williams added that “the book looks about as presentable as I can make it. I cut out a lot about the Rhine! which should give you a special pleasure.”13
Williams’ novel was based on his trip to Europe with his wife in 1924. When in Vienna, as he described it in Chapter XXVI, titled “Bach,” he attended a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Soon after their first meeting, Zukofsky invited Williams to attend with him a performance of the Passion at Carnegie Hall. Williams could not make it. His letter of regret on 2 April 1928 attested to the importance of this new friendship:
This has been a pleasure, the reading of your poem. You make me want to carry out deferred designs. Don’t take my theories too seriously. They are not for you--or for you, of course, or anybody.
I’d give my shirt to hear the Matthaus “Passion” this week, but I doubt if it can be done. If I do get there in spite of everything, I’ll cast an eye around for you.
But your work’s the thing. It encourages me in my designs. Makes me anxious to get at my notes and the things (thank God) which I did not tell the gentlemen. Thanks for the supper. As soon as work lightens a bit for me here in the suburbs, I want you to come out. I congratulate Pound on his luck in finding you. You are another nail in the --coffin. Damn fools.14
It is likely that Williams and Zukofsky had read together “Poem beginning ’The,’” Zukofsky explaining its allusions and structure and Williams, as he suggested, extemporizing poetic theory. Already Williams had found Zukofsky to be a compatriot and perhaps a disciple in his struggle against the “damn fools” who did not accept the value of his work.
Zukofsky went to the Passion alone; “A”-1 is his reaction to the performance:
- The Passion According to Matthew,
- Composed seventeen twenty-nine,
- Rendered at Carnegie Hall,
- Nineteen twenty-eight,
- Thursday evening, the fifth of April.15
“As a matter of fact,” Celia Zukofsky remembered, “the poem 'A' started out as a letter to William Carlos Williams.”16 The Passion became one of the themes for this work, whose 24 movements took Zukofsky the next 46 years to complete:
- of a life
- —and a time
Bach is a theme all thru the poem, the music first heard in 1928 affecting the recurrences or changes as may be of the story or history.17
Zukofsky referred in “A”-1 to A Voyage to Pagany directly and indirectly. The lines “I heard him agonizing, / I saw him inside” are unchanged from their occurrence at the end of “Bach” chapter, where they form the thought of Williams’ protagonist, Evans, after the performance in Vienna, and refer to Bach empathizing with Christ.18 Further, Zukofsky’s vision of Bach hurrying to church, “Ah, there’s the Kapellmeister / in a terrible hurry— / Johann Sebastian, twenty-two / children!” reflects Williams’: “Funny old figure he must have been going across the street after having generated another child in the night.”19
Williams’ letter to Zukofsky on Easter expresses his feeling of direct relation between himself and Zukofsky:
I did not wish to be twenty years younger and surely I did not wish to be twenty years older. I was happy to find a link between myself and another wave of it. Sometimes one thinks the thing has died down. I believe that somehow you have benefited by my work. Not that you have even seen it fully but it proves to me (God Damn this machine) that the thing moves by a direct relationship between men from generation to generation. And that no matter how we may be ignored, maligned, left unnoticed, yet by doing straight-forward work we do somehow reach the right people.
Williams’ feeling is confirmed by a consideration of the importance of the two other topics in his letter in the history of their work and association. First, Williams expressed curiosity and regret, having missed the performance of the Matthew’s “Passion.” Such interest had already inspired the beginning of Zukofsky’s life’s work, “A”. Secondly, Williams claimed:
There must be an American magazine. As I have gotten older, I am less volatile over projects such as this (a magazine) less willing to say much but more determined to make a go of it finally—after I am 70 perhaps—. Perhaps it will crystalize soon.20
Williams and Zukofsky continued in the years that followed to be interested in publishing the “straightforward work” which others ignored.
Williams was temporarily rescued from the need to begin a new magazine by a request from Pound that he help with the Exile. Williams responded on 16 April 1928:
Dear Ezra: Your present letter rescued me from an oozy hell. Your offer is generous. I hereby give up any thought of a new magazine. Within two weeks I’ll let you know what kind of material—what kind of impetus it is that has been stirring in me. If you feel impelled to give me a whole number of Exile when you have the material in hand, well and good. But I’ll be content with as much space as comes my way.
But it is a delight to me to feel a possible bond of workmanship being exercised between us today. Damn it, why don’t--why didn’t I seek you sooner? Exile is a good venture; let me from now on really throw my energy into it—not for my name or for myself in any way, but just to do it. I’ll do it. For a year at least I’ll shower you with anything I can rustle up or squeeze out. I want to. I need to. I have felt sometimes of late that I am sinking forever.
This is just to accept your offer. More later. I heartily support your judgment of Zukofsky’s excellence (in the one poem at least) and he seems worth while personally.21
Williams again referring to Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ’The,’” in Exile 3, perhaps one of the reasons he considered Exile “a good venture.”
II. The Descent of Winter
Zukofsky took Ezra Pound’s suggestion to edit The Descent of Winter by William Carlos Williams for Exile 4.22
Williams began the sequence “on board the S. S. Pennland in the fall of 1927 . . . having left his wife in Europe to care for their two sons who were attending school in Switzerland for a year,”23 and he continued and finished it living with his mother in Rutherford.
Zukofsky sent his edited version of the manuscript to Pound on 28 May 1928, noting that the Sundays he had spent with Williams in Rutherford had been more than reassuring.24 The first two months of their friendship had established lasting trust and understanding between them, a secure basis for future collaboration. Pound received the manuscript and wrote Williams to make further suggestions. Williams replied on 25 June 1928, and noted: “I’m really delighted that you like Zukofsky’s batch of choosings. You’d be amused to see the stuff he didn’t take. Yet he did a fine job, believe me—”25 On 1 July 1928 Pound wrote Zukofsky: “/// Re/ the Bill Wms. I have merely deleted 4 lines. Any further emendations HE chooses to make, might be added to mss. (or deleted from same) before it goes to press) . . . Bill seems please[d] with the way you have edited his mss.”26
The Descent of Winter, one of the first results of collaboration between “Objectivists,” is important not only to the relationship between Williams and Zukofsky, but to the history of the “Objectivist” movement. Editing Williams’ work for Pound must have taught Zukofsky or confirmed in him the poetic values which Pound and Williams had developed from their innovations in the second decade of the 20th century.
The Descent of Winter remains in the journal format in which Williams wrote it; each piece is dated, beginning “9/27” (27 September 1927) and ending “12/18” (18 December 1927). These dates, as Webster Schott notes, “literally document Williams’ title. Winter was coming.”27 Williams had just turned 45 and felt the descent personally; however, in his work, corresponding to the archetype of Kora in Hell which was rooted in his psyche, he found Persephone’s blessings in the imagination’s revitalizing of physical perception, in the spontaneous creations of his mind, and in his old mother’s memories of her childhood in Mayaguez. These blessings countered his disgust with the death he felt of art and culture. The central concern of his attempted revitalization was writing itself. His restoration of the problems of art and culture to the writer’s poetic discipline proved to be characteristic of “Objectivism.” Williams attacked the death of his art by experimenting with form and content, and by directly attacking the problems before him either metaphorically (9/30 “There are no perfect waves— / Your writings are a sea / . . .”) or critically (11/1 “Introduction / in almost all verse you read, mine or anybody’s else, . . .”).
The work opens with two poems, “9/27” and “9/29,” both of which present objects at that time new to poetry. “9/27” (printed in quotation marks and italics) expresses a man’s elation at discovering the underwear he had long taken for granted. “9/29” focuses on the oval celluloid disc in Williams’ sleeping cabin which identified the “No. 2” berth. The form of each poem is uniquely adapted to its feeling, and the feeling is a direct response to the object:
- My bed is narrow
- in a small room
- at sea28
“9/30” begins Williams’ direct confrontation with the problems of writing. His language like the sea is imperfect—broken, restless, monotonous, and uninhabitable. But perhaps in it is “a coral island slowly / slowly forming and waiting / for birds to drop the seeds.”29
Subsequent entries are seeds, some of which fall on fertile ground. “10/23” begins a long section of free-form prose which reveals Williams’ refusal to take the marksman’s properly rigid stance but also shows his ability sometimes to hit the mark. He begins by declaring: “I will make a big, serious portrait of my time,” which is only partly ironic. It will be like the Aztec calendar which survives its cheap Mexican imitation. As in the opening of Spring and All, Williams felt that poetic excellence repels idiots but suffers because of its nakedness:
. . . the art of writing is to do work so excellent that by its excellence it repels all idiots but idiots are like leaves and excellence of any sort is a tree when the leaves fall the tree is naked and the wind thrashes it till it howls it cannot get a book published it can only get poems into certain magazines that are suppressed . . .30
Williams howled when his work lost its leaves as winter descended. He felt his poems in the world were like seeds drowning in gasoline.
Yet inherent in their construction is “the great law”: that care for quality, for integrity of materials, is love:
. . . and all I say brings to mind the rock shingles of Cherbourg, on the new houses they have put cheap tile which overlaps but the old roofs had flat stone sides steep but of stones fitted together and that is love there is no portrait without that [that] has not turned to prose love is my hero who does not live, a man, but speaks of it everyday.31
Love is the attention which creates objects that will not date or decay. It is an active and creative assertion of the value of the part of the whole, of the order which frees not only the creator’s energy but can free the energy of others and of the world. Zukofsky’s natura naturans (nature creating rather than created) is such “love, whose proof in writing is “sincerity” (Section 8). Williams’ concept of love is further elaborated in January: A Novelette (Section 10). Here, he continued:
But there is a great law over him which—is as it is. The wind blowing, the mud spots on the polished surface, the face reflected in the glass which as you advance the features disappear leaving only the hat and as you draw back . . .32
Attention to the effects of “the great law” revealed to Williams the relevance of the birth of Dolores Marie Pischak in Fairfield, September 1927, which he celebrated in “10/28.” Her birth killed the decency and order that obstruct creation and writing. She was a seed dropped to germinate on a coral island; she was Williams’ “hero,” and so her portrait is the portrait of his time:
born, September 15, 1927, 2nd child, wt. 6 lbs. 2 ozs. The hero is Dolores Marie Pischak, the place Fairfield, in my own state, my own country, its largest city, my own time. This is her portrait: O future worlds, this is her portrait —order be God damned. Fairfield is the place where the October marigolds go over into the empty lot with dead grass like Polish children’s hair and the nauseous, the stupifying monotony of decency is dead, unkindled even by art or anything—dead: by God because Fairfield is alive, coming strong.33
Williams abolished in his creation the order in her birth love abolished. Poetic liberation established for the “Objectivist” a political liberation. Williams became free from the loveless and pleasureless monotony of the suburbs:
Oh, blessed love where are you there, pleasure given out, order triumphant, one house like another, grass cut to pay lovelessly. Bored we turn to cars to take us to “the country” to “nature” to breathe her good air. Jesus Christ. To nature. It’s about time, for most of us.34
Nature is disorderly. To order is to drive out pleasure and health: “A cat licking herself solves most of the problems of infection. We wash too much and finally it kills us.”35 Writing must reveal the vivid “truth of the object”36 without attempting to order it, to clean it up; it must experience the poverty and dirtiness of nature without comparing it to something else:
- and the late, high growing red rose
- it is their time
- of a small garden
poetry should strive for nothing else, this vividness alone, per se, for itself. The realization of this has its own internal fire that is “like” nothing. Therefore the bastardy of the simile. That thing, the vividness which is poetry by itself, makes the poem. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem. This is modern, not the saga. There are no sagas”*only trees now, animals, engines: There’s that.37
The thing itself reveals the whole of which it is a part, synecdochic. The universal is in the particular, the idea in the thing. This became the ultimate justification of “Objectivist” sincerity—their emphasis on concrete and specific particulars, their distrust of abstraction and generality. In The Descent of Winter, “Russia is every country,” and in “A Morning Imagination of Russia,” a man frees himself of everything (sleep, cities, walls, rooms, elevators, files, fashion, shaving) that comes between himself and the earth and sky.38
Williams’ love is a development of Keats’s negative capability. Both react against the rationality that interferes with creativity. “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” Just as Keats felt the setting sun always set him to rights “—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel,”39 so Williams praised Shakespeare’s “mean ability to fuse himself with everyone which nobodies have . . . that is what made him the great dramatist.“40
“11/13 SHAKESPEARE” continues this argument, and here, where Williams described the “unemployable world” of Shakespeare’s mind outlasting those destroyed by their artificiality, it is clear that Shakespeare’s virtue applies as well to Williams. The “scaffolding of the academic, which is a ‘lie’ in that it is inessential to the purpose as to the design,” and the “defense of the economists and modern rationalists of literature” are done away with by “intelligence . . . subjected to the instinctive whole,” by the poet who “lives because he sinks back . . . into the mass.”41
The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them—clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.
God—Sure if it makes sense. “God” is poetic for the unobtainable. Sense is hard to get but it can be got. Certainly that destroys “God,” it destroys everything that interferes with simple clarity of apprehension.42
To sense the plain core of the facts and the natural “stores of the mind”43 is difficult but not impossible. This core is not therefore transcendental but immanent. Creation from this “simple clarity” is freer from the perverse, inane, oppressive, cheap, and “fragmentary stupidity of modern life.”44
“Genius” is realizing this intense clarity: “It is to see the track, to smell it out, to know it inevitable—sense sticking out all round feeling, feeling, seeing—hearing touching.”45 Genius is the corollary to “the great law” of love. Great art is the product of this genius. The dramatist must identify “situations of the soul (Lear, Harpagon, Oedipus Rex, Electra)” so closely with life “that they become people,” and he must identify so closely with these people that the drama comes to life. “But to labor over the ’construction’ over the ’technique’ is to defeat, to tie up the drama itself. One cannot live after a prearranged pattern, it is all simply dead.”46 The theater is dead unless the actor does more than mimic the script, and unless the script does more than mimic the life. To be scrupulously realistic, to copy the prearranged pattern, kills the life. “The painfully scrupulous verisimilitude which honesty affects drill, discipline defeats its own ends in—”47 Creation depends on the subject as well as the object; life depends on author as well as nature.
Shakespeare’s ability to “live,” like Williams’ ability to “love,” was to escape the rational inhibitions and inane imperfections of language and of the world for the full realization, in the mind and in the senses, of the vivid truth of the object. The Descent of Winter therefore established the “Objectivist” solution of political and personal problems as a poetic concerned with registering “clarity of apprehension” in terms of facts objectified by a structure within which both the human psyche and the shared world participate.
Permission to quote the letter by Ezra Pound at note 26 from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Permission to quote the letters by Ezra Pound at notes 2 and 7 from POUND/ZUKOFSKY, copyright © 1981, 1987 by the Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.