Section 5 - Williams and Zukofsky
Williams wrote Zukofsky on 2 April 1928 and praised Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’”:
Yes, yes. You have the rare gift. As with everything else there are plans—the tripping rhythm—but not always the tripping rhythm—just sometimes. It spoils the adagio effect. It is noticable that the lines have such an excellent internal necessity that they must be read slowly. It is thoughtful poetry, but actual word stuff, not thoughts for thoughts. It escapes me in its analysis (thank God) and strikes against me a thing (thank God). There are not so many things in the world as we commonly imagine. Plenty of debris, plenty of smudges.1
The meaning of Williams’ term “thing” depends on an assumption of central importance to Imagiste and “Objectivist” poetics—that there exist “things” in the world which may be translated intact not only as one’s direct experience of them but as poetic expressions of those experiences, so that the readers of those poetic expressions may experience the original “things.”
The assumption in Williams’ letter underlies apparent ambiguities in Imagiste and “Objectivist” poetics and may be explained by showing how classes of “objective” existence, experience, and expression are strongly related, by showing that a triplet of ontological, epistemic, and linguistic objects—items within the objective classes of existence, experience, and expression—may have identical significance.
First, the relations among states must be clear. On the one hand, experiences and expression have ontological aspects—the body and the words as words consisting of matter occupying time and space in the world—and assume within these aspects what I term “extensive” forms. On the other hand, expression and existence have epistemic aspects—the meanings and effects of their extensive forms, that is, perceptions and conceptions—and assume within these aspects what I term “intensive” forms. Since the relation between extensive and intensive form is the relation between ontological cause and epistemic effect, certain existences and expressions may be strongly related by virtue of certain intermediary experiences. A corollary of Williams’ assumption, then, is that we have the ability to experience the identical significance of certain triplets of things within each state.
Usually, the objective is said to include objects of action or feeling (or, simply, events outside the mind) as distinct from the subjective, which is said to include the will or knowledge of the agent or subject (events within the mind). This distinction, however, being quantitative rather than qualitative, is not very useful for a poetic theory, which must differentiate the quality of events which are both inside and outside the mind. Furthermore, the usual distinction often leads to two misconceptions: first, that the subjective and objective (mind and body) are mutually exclusive, that the distinction is qualitative, that events inside or outside the mind should be preferred.
First, mind is not an opposite of body or world. As William James writes, “Sensations are cognitive.”2 Some experiences, such as the anger that sees red or the fear that breaks out in a cold sweat, are more objective than their objects, the presumed affront or the imaginary threat. Mind inheres in body as securely as forms and actions inhere in their material objects. In lmagiste and “Objectivist” poetics, ideas and emotions are forms which inhere in the body as in the world, body and world being equally real as existence.
According to these poetics, artistic ideas and emotions—gestalts—are not empathic; they are not subjective states imaginatively projected into objects. Carroll C. Pratt wrote that art succeeds by the presentation of the artist rather than the projection of the art lover. Pratt also confirmed the translatable nature of the gestalt when he wrote of Kohler’s attack on empathy:
An auditory rhythm is auditory, and that’s that; but the same rhythm—a Gestalt—may also be visual or tactual, and the graceful lilt, let us say of a waltz rhythm—a tertiary quality—will be present in all three modalities. Gestalten and their tertiary qualities reveal innumerable iconic relations and resemblances across modalities. Therein lies the great power of art, for the moods and feelings of mankind are capable of iconic presentation in visual and auditory patterns—a mode obviously far more direct and effective than symbolic representation—and when done by the great geniuses of art they become the world’s treasures of painting, music, sculpture, ballet, and architecture.3
Tactual gestalts may be translated into visual or auditory gestalts. The “Objectivists” believed that such gestalts actually inhere in existence and expression as they inhere in experience, and, unlike the method of the symbolists, wished to present these gestalts “directly.”
We should not wish, in any poetics or aesthetics, to dissociate the subjective from the objective. Instead, we should show how the relations between them may be affirmed and used to help us feel what we know and know what we feel. Secondly, therefore, the necessary qualitative distinction is not between existence and experience, but between kinds of things in existence, experience, and expression. The “Objectivists” not only assumed distinctions in each state but assumed relations between the states on the basis of those distinctions. Let us therefore define the collection of “things” in each state which bear this strong relation as “objective” and the collection of “things” in each state which do not bear this strong relation as “subjective,” and let us give an idea of what the “Objectivists” believed characterized each collection.
The usefulness of the following definitions will be evident when one realizes that the Image of Williams’ “thing” is an ontologically, epistemically, and linguistically objective form. It is, in other words, neither ideal nor abstract; it inheres in the particular and its experience is experience of the particular; it is immanent rather than transcendent.
An “Objectivist” would say that a thing is ontologically objective if it has a specific and concrete existence which coheres as a gestalt, such as an apple, a certain melody, or a word as a word. Such things, we say, have formal organic integrity; they constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable from their parts in summation. They are what Wolfgang Kohler describes as “‘segregated’ or ’detached’ wholes” as distinct from the fields in which they occur.4 A thing is ontologically subjective if it has a specific and concrete existence but is so fleeting, random, disordered, faint, or incomplete that its parts do not cohere in one’s experience as a gestalt. Williams called these “debris” and “smudges” in his letter of 2 April. The distinction between ontological objectivity and subjectivity is not fixed but is dependent upon one’s point of view, wisdom of experience, and attention or concentration. Both, however, are real.
An experience is epistemically objective if it is a direct experience of the real, such as one’s physiological responses to eating an apple, hearing a specific tone or rhythm, saying a word, or being confused by some debris or smudge. There are obviously two classes of epistemic objectivity—experiences which cohere as gestalts and experiences which do not. An experience is epistemically subjective if it is an indirect experience of the real. A specific collection of apples and oranges, or melodies, or a set of sentences using a word are ontologically objective or subjective, but fruit, music, and the meanings of words are epistemically subjective.
The distinction between direct and indirect experience is derived from William James’s two types of experience: “knowledge of acquaintance” and “knowledge about.” “Knowledge of acquaintance” is directly dependent upon the materials of sensation and perception, on what Whitehead terms “naive sense experience”; it is individual experience of what seems external to consciousness and it cannot be communicated discursively. To call this kind of experience an “object” or “thing,” in James’s psychology, is a judgement of its intensity relative to “knowledge about,” which is dependent upon thought, memory, or imagination. “Knowledge about” is the mental product of one or more, not necessarily one’s own, direct experiences, seems internal to consciousness, and can be communicated discursive1y.5 Since the “Objectivists” followed James in believing that immediate emotional responses are physiological, epistemic objectivity is for them a subset of the ontological; direct experience is real. The epistemically subjective, however, is not real.
An expression may be linguistically objective in two ways, textually and formally, which are what Zukofsky means by “sincerity.” and “objectification.” If an expression is textually objective or has sincerity, it expresses either epistemically objective or subjective experiences in terms which literally signify ontologically objective things in appropriate forms consisting of melopoeia (rhythm, cadence), phanopoeia (image), and logopoeia (idea). Textual objectivity must account for both the ontological and epistemic aspects of language—its form defined by its words as words and its form defined by its meanings. The terms in appropriate forms of textual objectivity present what Zukofsky called “particulars,” the relevant elements of objective existence. “Impossible to communicate,” Zukofsky wrote, “anything but particulars—historic and contemporary—things, human beings as things their instrumentalities of capillaries and veins binding up and bound up with events and contingencies. The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference.”6 In other words, the textually objective is dependent on the contexts and processes of ontological and epistemic objectivity; words are not isolated figments of human ego; they are parts of the real, bound up with “events and contingencies” as much as is human physiology and psychology. The first Imagiste proscription, “Direct treatment of the ’thing,’ whether subjective or objective,”7 advocates textual objectivity, for which Pound’s term (a half century before Pratt) is “presentation.”
If an expression is textually subjective, it is composed in terms which signify epistemically subjective experience or in forms which are inappropriate to the thing expressed. It is impossible to express with any clarity ontologically objective things in textual subjectivity; it is not impossible to express epistemically subjective experiences clearly in textual objectivity. “The serious artist,” wrote Pound, “is scientific in that he presents the image of his desire, of his hate, of his indifference as precisely that, as precisely the image of his own desire, hate or indifference.”8 The cultivation of objectivity and the delineation of subjectivity are not in mutual opposition.
Finally, if an expression is formally objective or has objectification it is textually objective and has formal integrity, an intensive form capable of being realized by the reader as a gestalt; if an expression is formally subjective its intensive form does not cohere as a gestalt. Formal objectivity is composed of textual objectivity but transcends it as the whole transcends its parts. Textual subjectivity cannot achieve formal integrity.
Formal objectivity is the defining criterion of both “Objectivism” and Imagisme before it, as it is, as Pound and the “Objectivists” would say, of all great literature. The Image and Zukofsky’s “poem as object” are both formally objective. “An ’Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex.” This complex is what I have described as a gestalt.
Pound did not limit the Image to linguistic form. “That which presents” may be linguistic, strictly ontological, or something presented by expression or existence, that is epistemic. “Energy, or emotion, expresses itself in form. . . . When an energy or emotion ’present an image,’ this may find adequate expression in words.”9 “In the writing of poems,” Pound claimed, “the author must use his image because he sees it or feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or some system of ethics or economics.”10 Oppen made the same claim when he wrote that “the image is encountered not found,” not, that is, invented; “it is an account of the poet’s perception, of the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.”11 The epistemically objective is an undisguisable, truthful register of the real. “An image, in our sense, is real because we know it directly,” and “it is our affair to render the image as we have perceived or conceived it,” wrote Pound.12
Pound discussed the translatability between languages of his three “kinds of poetry,” melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia, in How to Read. Melopoeia, the charging of words “with some musical property,” and logopoeia, the charging of words with the properties of usage and aesthetics, are not or not easily translatable, but phanopoeia, “a casting of images on the visual imagination,” can be translated intact.13
The translatable nature of the Image was explicated in Pound’s Vorticist criticism: “The image is not an idea. It is radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are stantly rushing.”14 The vortex is the form in which the thing presents itself to the “vivid consciousness”; it is the thing conveyed by an arrangement of shapes, planes, colors, musical notes, or words.15 The Image is not content; it is form, and must on this basis be distinguished from the visual image. Pound believed th the form of a certain apple, for example, may be experienced and expressed without loss of integrity, even though as an apple it composed of water, fructose, and so forth, as experience it is c posed of physiological and mental impressions, and as expression may be composed of plaster of Paris, oil paints, the notes of a flute, or words of the English language.
But even in the articles upon which the Imagist movement predicated, Flint’s “Imagisme” and Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” published in Poetry in March 1913, Pound tried to describe the discipline, direct presentation, which presents the Image. The possibility of direct presentation is the single assumption upon which the three Imagiste prescriptions are based. Its practice is “direct treatment” (the first prescription), which is enhanced by condensation (the second—“To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”) and carried by absolute rhythm (the third—“As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase . . .”). Direct presentation provides, in William James’s term, knowledge of acquaintance. It therefore depends on linguistic objectivity—specific and concrete terms which present the material of naive sense experience, and relies on the poet’s ability to find the absolute forms of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia to reproduce exactly the intended emotion, thing, and idea. Its object and effect is the Image. It is neither projection nor representation. It produces in intensive form the particulars of sincerity and history within the poem to cohere as the “poem as object.”
The perception of a formal whole, upon which Williams’ “thing,” Pound’s Image, and their ontological, epistemic, and linguistic identity depends, is the very backbone of Imagist and “Objectivist” poetics. In the beginning of Imagisme, on 29 November 1912, Pound wrote Williams:
Your perception of the “unit” is the most gratifying. That of course is the artistic triumph. To produce the whole which ceases to exist if one of the component parts be removed or permitted.
=or rather the “whole that has no parts.”16
The perception of the whole distinguishes Pound’s Imagisme and, later, “Objectivism,” from the free-verse movement. The dilutors of Imagisme rarely achieved more formal significance than phanopoeia, and the images which constitutes their phanopoeia rarely formed Images. Their cadences were rarely more than speech rhythms with a decorative purpose. In Pound’s point of view, they wrote impressionistically rather than Imagistically because they failed to require in their work the conciseness necessary to achieve formal objectivity. They did not realize that their poems as a whole must give not only image but melody and logic a coherence by which the poem can survive as a thing in the world of things.
Most particularly, according to Pound, the free-versists erred in not satisfying the second Imagiste proscription:
This school [Imagisme, 1912] has since been “joined” or “followed” by numerous people who, whatever their merits, do not show any signs of agreeing with the second specification. Indeed vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it. It has brought faults of its own. The actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shoveled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound. Whether or not the phrases followed by the followers are musical must be left to the reader’s decision. At times I can find a marked metre in “vers libres,” as stale and hackneyed as any pseudo-Swinburnian, at times the writers seem to follow no musical structure whatever.17
To complete his derision, Pound elsewhere called such free-versists “Amygists,” after Amy Lowell who had usurped his editorial control of the movement. Apparently Pound had not explained his principles to his colleagues18 and had been able to represent some of the contributors to Des Imagistes as Imagists only by judiciously selecting and editing their work. After Pound’s anthology in 1914, Lowell afforded a series of three anthologies from 1915 to 1917 titled Some Imagist Poets, each time publishing work by four writers whom Pound had included (Richard Aldington, H.D., F. S. Flint, and Amy Lowell herself) and two others (John Gould Fletcher and D. H. Lawrence).
The failure of the followers (who were not of course limited to Lowell’s anthologies) to satisfy the second specification is symptomatic of their root lack of understanding of Imagiste form. One must have a sense of the formal limits of the Image before one knows whether a word contributes to its presentation; they did not have this sense. Their images and cadences were too often mere mimesis—pictures and speech rhythms. Restriction to phanopoeia and the language of the tribe could not alone produce the essential.
Nevertheless, Amygism and lmagisme (misunderstood) created a sensation in English poetry. They freed writers from the falsities of the imitation of great poets either distant or dead, clearing their airs of affectation and archaism.
Williams recalled the situation in his autobiography:
The Objectivist theory was this: We had “Imagism” (Amygism, as Pound had called it), which ran quickly out. That, though it had been useful in ridding the field of verbiage, had no formal necessity implicit in it. It had already dribbled off into so called “free verse” which, as we saw, was a misnomer. There is no such thing as free verse! Verse is measure of some sort. “Free verse” was without measure and needed none for its projected objectification. Thus the poem had run down and become formally non extant.
Williams did not make the distinction between Imagisme, which Pound established and whose principles are embodied in his critical writings, and Amygism. Imagisme had been Pound’s cure for the “diluted Tennysonism”19 of the teens. But by the twenties Imagisme had itself become diluted into a poison which retained its liberties without its responsibilities. “Objectivism” was an “antidote” to this poison in that it redeveloped those responsibilities. Williams continues:
But, we argued, the poem, like every other form of art, is an object, an object that in itself formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes. Therefore, being an object, it should be so treated and controlled—but not as in the past. For past objects have about them past necessities—like the sonnet—which have conditioned them and from which, as a form itself, they cannot be freed.
The poem being an object (like a symphony or cubist painting) it must be the purpose of the poet to make his words a new form: to invent, that is, an object consonant with his day. This is what we wished to imply by Objectivism, an antidote, in a sense, to the bare image haphazardly presented in loose verse.20
Strictly speaking, all things, all writings, have form. The form of free verse, however, was conceived without necessary function. Its “measure,” which Williams thought should be conditioned by the present necessities of the poet, his place, and his time, was nonexistent; it had “no formal necessity implicit in it”; it did not present in its integrity a form to be, like any other object, experienced as a gestalt.
The “Objectivists” therefore returned to the modernist inventions and studied how not to imitate but to develop and adapt them to the needs of their own time, place, and personalities. Since Pound and Williams had also developed relevant concepts, Zukofsky recognized them as not only mentors but members of the group. Pound had been able to free his Image from stasis in Vorticism and to create extended Images in his Cantos because he knew that images and cadences were merely pigments to be used to create significant form. Williams, too, as Zukofsky noted, extended “the monolinear image . . . to include ‘a greater accessibility to experience.’”21 The “Objectivists” sought to replace the simple phanopoeia of the twenties by significant form into which the ear and the mind could enter as well as the eye.
Zukofsky admitted that he wrote “Poem beginning ‘The’” in a logopoeaic mode in reaction to Eliot’s grandiose, imagistic motifs in The Waste Land.22 I believe it is also true that he wrote it in reaction to the Amygists’ too-simple reliance on phanopoeia. Zukofsky’s intuition that significant form could be achieved with logopoeia was confirmed and perhaps even made conscious by Williams’ statement that “Poem beginning ‘The’” was “thoughtful poetry, but actual word stuff, not thoughts for thoughts.” By direct presentation (textual objectivity, sincerity), Zukofsky had presented thoughts in words that evoked knowledge of acquaintance rather than knowledge about.
Although Williams could acknowledge Zukofsky’s success on the level of direct experience, he did not at first understand how Zukofsky succeeded, since he did not fully understand the implications of Pound’s “intellectual and emotional complex.” He knew, however, why, when Zukofsky failed, he failed. On 5 July 1928 Williams wrote of Zukofsky’s juvenalia:
Poems are richer in thought as image. Your early poems even when the thought has enough force or freshness have not been objectivized in new or fresh observations. But if it is the music even that is not inventive enough to make up for images which give an overwhelming effect of triteness—as it has been said. The language is stilted “poetic” except in the piece I marked.
Eyes have always stood first in the poet’s equipment. If you are mostly ear—a newer rhythm must come in more strongly than has been the case so far.
Yet I am willing to grant—to listen.23
This letter indicates the difference in poetics that concerned Williams and Zukofsky at this time, at first during personal meetings, to which Williams seems to refer: “as it has been said.” Williams was too much a poet of phanopoeia to accept Zukofsky’s tendency toward logopoeia easily. According to Williams, ideas must be expressed as visual images, since “eyes have always stood first in the poet’s equipment.” The phrase “thought as image” indicates what one has in a poem when fresh or forceful thought has been “objectivized in new or fresh observations.”
Zukofsky would have agreed that thought should be “objectivized in new or fresh observations,” but not that such observations must be visual. He realized that the necessary objectivization should achieve not merely phanopoeia but significant form, and he thought that abstract diction could be carried by the music of the poem.
Williams’ concept of the poem as a thing reoccurs in his letter to Zukofsky of 18 July 1928, which praises Zukofsky’s poem “Memory of V. I. Ulianov” (originally titled “Constellation: In Memory of V. I. Ulianov.”)24 Williams wrote:
Dear Louis: Certainly the “Lenin” outdistances anything in the earlier book of poems as the effect of a “thing” surpasses all thought about it. It is the second poem of yours that I like, the first being the long one. In some ways this poem is your best work (that I have seen). It has the surging rhythm that in itself embodies all that is necessary to say, but it carries the words nevertheless and the theme helplessly with it. The word “continual” at the end is fine.
It is this, the thing that this poem is, that makes you what you are today—I hope you’re satisfied! No doubt it is the underlying theme to me of whatever feeling we have for each other. It seems to me surely the contrabass for everything else we may do. If there is not that under our feet (though I realize that you are speaking of a star), then we cannot go on elaborating our stuff.25
Williams’ admiration for Zukofsky’s poem is evidence of more than the merit of the poem; it is evidence of their poetic agreement. The fully successful “Objectivist” poem has an “effect of a thing” created by a prosodic structure which embodies or organizes a semantic structure.
A “thing” may be felt before it is understood. Zukofsky achieves this effect, as do Williams and Pound, by creating an equation of correspondences, in rhythms and symbols, to form the Image. “Objectivism,” like Imagisme, relies on a faith in entities, and in a language for them of rhythm and symbol, neither symbolical nor allegorical, whose meanings have not been described in dictionaries.26 Thinking in this language, a poet is aware of the expressiveness of each formal aspect of poetic technique. The successful poem seems like a “thing,” like a piece of sculpture composed of planes defining masses in relation.27 Thus Williams recognized in Zukofsky’s poem “the surging rhythm that in itself embodies all that is necessary to say.” And when he writes that “it is the underlying theme to me of whatever feeling we have for each other” he refers to their shared sense of the poem as a “thing.”
Williams’ letter continues, registering now their differences:
Sometimes though I don’t like your language. It probably is me and not you who should be blamed for this. You are wrestling with the antagonist under newer rules. But I can’t see “all live processes,” “orbit-trembling,” “our consciousness,” “the sources of being”—what the hell? I’m not finding fault. I’m just trying to nail what troubles me. It may be that I am too literal in my search for objective clarities of image. It may be that you are completely right in forcing abstract conceptions into the sound pattern. I dunno. Anyhow, there you are.
I will say that in this case the abstract, philosophic-jargonist language is not an obstruction. It may be that when the force of the conception is sufficiently strong it can carry this sort of thing. If the force were weaker the whole poem would fall apart. Good, perhaps. Perhaps by my picayune, imagistic mannerisms I hold together what should by all means fall apart. . . .
Later: . . . virtue exists like a small flower on a loose piece of earth above a precipice. And isn’t it a fine day.28
Williams reveals in this letter the same habit of conception that be reveals in his letter of 5 July above. He had not understood before Zukofsky’s tutelage that phanopoeia was the only means of producing the “whole that has no parts.”
In his afterward to “A” 1-12, Williams admitted:
One lack with imagism, as a definition of effort, is that it is not definite enough. It is true enough, God knows, to the immediate object it represents but what is that related to the poet’s personal and emotional and intellectual meanings?
Realizing that he “was baffled” by Zukofsky, Williams found two “disturbing” elements. One was “his relation to music. . . . It was never a simple song as it was, for instance, in my case.” Another was “the concentration and the breaks in the language . . . I didn’t realize how close my attention to detail had to be to follow the really very simple language. . . . After all a poem is a matter of words, the meaning of words.” Williams continued:
The meaning. I was seeking, perhaps, a picture (as an imagist poet) to relate my poem to; the intellectual meaning of the word, the pure meaning, was lost, we’ll say, on me . . . . Intent on the portrayal of the visual image in a poem my perception has been thrown frequently out of gear [by Zukofsky’s work]. I was looking for the wrong things. The poems whatever else they are are grammatical units intent on making a meaning unrelated to a mere pictorial image.29
In the two poems, at least, and increasingly thereafter, Zukofsky moved beyond “objective clarities of image.” He had moved toward objective clarities of conception. For Williams, conceptions were hopelessly abstract; he could not “see,” for example, “our consciousness.” But for Zukofsky, concrete diction could describe not only sensed but perceived particulars of whatever nature: “objects, states, acts, interrelations, thoughts about them.”30 Such particulars were, to him, objective, which meant, to him, that the terms which presented them were used in their literal denotative senses. His conceptual diction exactly corresponds to the details of the real, the details which present the intellectual and emotional complex. These details are particular because they correspond absolutely to elements of the original or generative experience and because that correspondence guarantees them, in the poem, specific effects.
Zukofsky’s understanding of an objective conception which makes a poem is like the “abstraction” of Kandinsky. It may have intrinsic form without being pictoral representation. Zukofsky termed the record of particulars “sincerity” and the realization of the intrinsic form of the poem “objectification.” The conception of Image is far different from the “picayune, imagistic mannerisms” to which Williams confessed. “Objectivism” frees the poet to use effects of wider scope than the simply sensual or visual. “Objectivist” poems, Zukofsky wrote, “do not form mere pretty bits (American poetry, circa 1913).”31
“Memory of V. I. Ulianov” presents the complex of Zukofsky’s responses to seeing a star through the leaves of an elm. The star is and will be, literally, “immemorial,” extending beyond the reach of memory, although the term evokes no visual image. “White” and “orbit-trembling” give the star’s visual qualities. Although the star’s orbit is movement occurring beyond the moment of Zukofsky’s immediate perception of it, the compound “orbit-trembling” signifies that the star is trembling in its orbit, a visually precise position realized in Zukofsky’s moment of immediate conception. “Proportionately vast” by itself would be vague, but in context refers to the star’s distance in space, as Zukofsky conceived it, relative to the perceptible dimensions of the elm. “Live processes” would also by itself be abstract, but here it is particularized as that of the star, its conversion of mass to energy radiated into space, which seems continual to us who are, like the elm leaves, in its light.
Thus the first fifteen lines address the star, describing it. The first verb is in line sixteen and the first sentence ends with line twenty-three. When we feel like a star, alone and secure, the poem tells us, we speak to it. Our fate, which we share with the star, is to be of an everlasting process.
My analysis of the poem so far disregards the title. The name of Lenin brings in a realm of political connotations. In “A Retrospect” Pound wrote:
I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use ‘symbols’ he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.32
In Zukofsky’s poem the star is a star—and a symbol. It is, contrary to Lowell’s “silver hail-stones,” what I have called, after Pound, a natural symbol. Its literal, denotative significance is neither lost nor obtrudes to foil the feeling of the whole. Similarly, “live processes” denotes stellar fusion and connotes any live process which gives off energy to stimulate life, such as the class struggle, one star of which is Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin, whose light is his leadership and writings. The elm, perhaps, is Russia, and we, the proletarian masses, are moths who beat their wings in the night attracted by a light sometimes eclipsed.
This analogical reading of the poem’s symbols is in accord with its relation to the revolutionary pessimism of Bunyan and Sorel. The poem’s original epigraph underscores not only some of its terms but also its tone: “—Wherefore being come out of the River, they saluted them saying, We are ministering Spirits, sent forth to minister for those that be heirs of salvation. —PILGRIM’S PROGRESS.”33
Zukofsky’s admiration here was not of nation, government, or party, but of an ideology consistent not only with being communist but also with being American and Jewish. Zukofsky identified with the masses, who, in their escape from suppression (“in strange hegira”), appeal to Lenin to be their leader (“we speak to you”). The balance of individual and communal alliances (“Singles we are, the others still may be with us/And we for others”), and of conscious and unconscious actions (“we do not sink with every wave” and yet “Rush as of river courses,/Change within change of forces”) finds as their center allegiance to and identification with the dictatorial Lenin (“And we in turn/Share now your fate”). It took a nation of individuals to work the revolution (“we in turn”); now they share its leader’s fate, and see it cannot have been otherwise (“Irrevocable you, too,/O star, we speaking to you”). Lenin appropriately expresses, against other perhaps larger forces, the strivings of the masses, just as the star expresses, against the elm leaves in the night, Lenin. Leader, people, and nation are parts of the continual process realized momentarily in star and elm to present an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.
Williams’ description in his autobiography of the Amygists’ work as having “no formal necessity implicit in it” and his description of lines of Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’” as having “such an excellent internal necessity that they must be read slowly” both refer to Wassily Kandinsky’s concept of “Inner Necessity.”
Williams’ affinity with Kandinsky stemmed from Kandinsky’s adoption by the Vorticists. In “Vortex,” under “ANCESTRY,” in Blast, Pound wrote: “Picasso, Kandinski, father and mother, classicism and romanticism of the movement.”34 In his memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound wrote that “the image is the poet’s pigment; with that in mind you can go ahead and apply Kandinsky, you can transpose his chapter on the language of form and colour and apply it to the writing of verse.”35 Pound illustrated his affinity with Kandinsky’s principles by describing the genesis of his famous poem “In a Station of the Metro.” It is a “one image poem” composed of the Vorticist “primary pigment,” the original form of impressions produced in Pound’s consciousness by his experience in the metro station at La Concorde in Paris of seeing a sequence of beautiful faces.
In one of the passages from Chapter IV, “The Language of Form and Color” of Ueber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) which Edward Wadsworth translated for Blast in 1914, Kandinsky defines “Inner Necessity” in terms of the distinction between extensive and intensive form:
Form in the narrower sense is, however, nothing more than the boundaries between one surface and another. This is its external meaning. But since everything external implicitly conceals an interior (which comes to light forcibly or feebly), so also every form has an inner content.
FORM IS THEN THE UTTERANCES OF ITS INNER CONTENT. This is its inner meaning. One must think here of the simile of the piano, but apply “form” instead of “colour.” The artist is the hand, which, through this or that key (=form) makes the human soul vibrate appropriately. It is clear then that the harmony of form must be based only on the appropriate striking of the human soul.
This we termed the Principle of Inner Necessity.
The two aspects of form just mentioned are at the same time its two aims. And on account of this the external limitation is thoroughly appropriate only when it best expresses the inner meaning of the form.36
The extensive aspect of form, Kandinsky’s “form in the narrower sense,” is the set of tautological relations among the elements of the medium, such as the angles and lines in a plane composing a rectangle. Form in the wider sense, however, has referential relations and experiential effects, and so we may think of a rectangle as a box and feel a certain way about it according to its scale and proportions. This aspect of form is intensive; it is the set of relations between extensive form and the complex messages and effects of its elements. In poetry, extensive form may be conceived and measured regardless of content, such as the iambic pentameters, the sonnet, and an amateur’s “free verse” (which is not to say that a particular sonnet or work in free verse is not also intensive). Intensive form is organic and relative to person, place, and time. It must be experienced; it cannot be merely measured.
Kandinsky’s Principle of Inner Necessity is the stipulation that the elements of the medium (whether musical notes, painting pigments, or words) should be controlled to affect the human soul according to the intentions of the artist. This principle produces what we may call significant form, form which coheres so that it may be experienced as a gestalt, a “thing.”
In a passage not given in Wadsworth’s review in Blast, Kandinsky wrote of the necessity sometimes to use an abstract object to reproduce the necessary inner vibration:
Once more the metaphor of the piano applies: for “color” or “form” substitute “object.” Every object (whether a natural form or man-made) has its own life and therefore its own potency. . . . Nature, that is to say, the ever changing surroundings of men, sets in vibration the strings of the piano (the soul) by manipulation of the keys (various objects with their specific potentialities).37
This passage, with the passage above (“the harmony of form must be based on the appropriate striking of the human soul”), could be behind Williams’ statement that Zukofsky’s poem “strikes against me a thing.” A poem seems a thing only if one believes as Kandinsky believed that even man-made objects have their specific spiritual potencies, that all form has intensive significance. Zukofsky’s “abstract” diction, being abstract in the same sense as are Kandinsky’s objects, that is, man-made, have therefore, as forms, objective significance.
In the practice of writing poetry, the discipline of Inner Necessity is direct presentation. Since words can never be divorced from their referential significance and since the epistemic values of the objective are more clear and vivid than of the subjective, Inner Necessity requires that the expression be formally objective, that is, that it both be textually objective and cohere to strike the reader as a gestalt, a “thing.”
Mike Weaver writes, “In the prologue to Kora in Hell Williams makes a brief reference to Kandinsky’s famous little treatise On the Spiritual in Art, paraphrasing the three fundamental principles every artist would accept if he expected to create a work possessed of the ‘inner necessity.’”38 This is Williams’ paraphrase:
- Every artist has to express himself.
- Every artist has to express his epoch.
- Every artist has to express the pure and eternal qualities
- of the art of all men.39
In Wadsworth’s translation, these “three mystical necessities” are followed by the statement that “it is necessary to penetrate with one’s mental vision only the first two elements in order to see this third element exposed.”40 Although I think Kandinsky means that the first two aspects obscure one’s understanding of the third, which is the only ultimately important aspect, I also think that Weaver correctly describes Williams’ understanding of Kandinsky’s intentions when he writes that “from these principles Kandinsky developed a fourth; that the first two elements only needed to be practiced for the third to follow of itself.”41 The formally objective, composed in the relative terms of the artist and his epoch, according to the “Objectivists,” presents the Image, which conveys the qualities of all men and all epochs.
If Williams’ concept of “thing” was first influenced by his understanding of Kandinsky’s Principle of Inner Necessity, it was secondly influenced by his understanding of Alfred North Whitehead. On the boat back from Europe in 1927, Williams inscribed in his copy of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World this inscription: “Finished reading it at sea, Sept. 26, 1927mdash;A milestone surely in my career, should I have the force and imagination to go on with my work.”42
In his book, Whitehead describes his objectivist position:
This creed is that the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world; and that this world is a complex of things, including indeed our acts of cognition, but transcending them. According to this point of view the things experienced are to be distinguished from our knowledge of them. So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa. But the point is that the actual things experienced enter into a common world which transcends knowledge, though it includes knowledge. The intermediate subjectivists would hold that the things experienced only indirectly enter into the common world by reason of their dependence on the subject who is cognising. The objectivist holds that the things experienced and the cognisant subject enter into the common world on equal terms.43
Williams was, in Whitehead’s sense, an objectivist. The philosophy, however, must be distinguished from the art. The objectivist philosopher believes in what I call epistemic objectivity; the “Objectivist” writer, although he is also an objectivist in philosophy, believes in linguistic objectivity. The philosophy rests on the assumption of a human ability of direct experience; the art rests on the ability of poetic discipline to represent all experience. A writer can precisely present his feelings, even though his feelings may not be precise.
The equal realness of things experienced and cognizant subject suggests—if the elements of the poem are precisely, absolutely derived from the thing experienced—the equal realness of the experience of the poem and the experience of the thing. Whitehead wrote that “in the use of language there is a double symbolic reference:—from things to words on the part of the speaker, and from words back to things on the part of the listener.” Of the word “trees,” he wrote:
Both the word itself and trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the word ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.44
The “Objectivists” believed not simply that trees and “trees” are equally real, however; they believed that the thing experienced and words presenting the thing experienced could evoke in the consciousness of the reader the same primary form. The words composing the Image do not simply refer to experience; they are experience.
The objectivist’s belief that the things experienced are not dependent on our knowledge of them affirms naive sense experience. Whitehead gave this affirmation as a reason for basing his own philosophy on the objectivist position:
I hold that the ultimate appeal is to naive sense experience and that is why I lay such stress on the evidence of poetry. My point is, that in our sense-experience we know away from and beyond our own personality; whereas the subjectivist holds that in such experience we merely know about our own personality.45
Whitehead thus at once affirmed Williams’ predilections and validated Williams’ art.
John Riordan gave Whitehead’s book to Williams in December 192546 to help explain to Williams what he called “Precision Poetry.” Williams was prepared for the theories of Riordan and Whitehead by the implications of Pound’s poetics. Pound assumed that poetic elements like cadence and diction could, if composed with “exactitude,” present to the consciousness of the reader as directly as would the thing experienced the essential form of the experience.47 Poetic structure can affect directly the reader’s physiological and emotional consciousness. Riordan wrote Williams:
The difficulties in writing a poem are as immense as those of writing a philosophy, and when anyone begins to know anything about what we call “emotions” and “nerve adjustments” it will be found that the structure of your poems (written intuitively) is as rigid as any mathematical solution.48
Riordan’s “Precisionism” was a theory to achieve in art the precision that mechanistic science achieved by eliminating the human observer with “invariable measuring instruments” and eliminating the variations of chance with abstraction. Riordan thought poetry could achieve this precision by reestablishing the variables. “He referred to A. N. Whitehead s analysis of perception,” which is a generalization of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, “identifying three relationships in the act of perception: the observer, position in space, and point in time.” Riordan’s point was that each relationship—the observer’s, the spatial, and the temporal—had to have as important a role in influencing the artist’s act of perception as they had in life according to Einstein and Whitehead. To reestablish the observer, “the writer had to become his own reader, a functioning perceiver observing himself in action.” The observer could not remain “simply an inattentive recipient of the writer’s conveyed intentions”; he had to become a participant in the experience, which had to be objectivized as any other experience.49
According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, space and time are not fixed; they vary depending on the conditions under which they are observed. Similarly, according to Whitehead’s theory of organic mechanism, as Mike Weaver writes, “the general laws of mechanistic science were modified according to the organic situation in which they were objectivized.” Weaver claims these concepts were useful to Williams in creating his “variable foot.” Since the duration of time depends in “the relative speed of the moving body,” Williams allowed the length of the foot to depend on the relative speed of “the projected voice of the poet.”50
The idea of the variable foot is much misunderstood,51 even though it takes no more liberty than is allowed the Old English alliterative foot and the sprung rhythm of Hopkins, and no more rigor than is required by the Imagiste principle of composing “in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” The desired event “in the accepted prosody,” wrote Williams in 1948, “is similar to what must have been the early feelings of Einstein toward the laws of Isaac Newton in physics. Thus from being fixed, our prosodic values should rightly be seen as only relatively true. Einstein had the speed of light as a constant—his only constant—What have we? Perhaps our concept of musical time.”52 To satisfy Williams’ parameters, the variable foot might be a phrase or unit of the line containing one major stressed syllable (which is determined by the rhythm of common speech) and any number of unstressed or minor stressed syllables. The practice would be to vary the length of the foot by varying the number of syllables according to the effects intended to be registered by the pace of the voice, the flow of the verse.
Willliams had relied since the beginning of Imagisme on concrete details to present the forms of the subjective—of states of feeling and abstract relations. The abstract statement lacks precision. But Whitehead’s statement, “So far as there is dependence, the things pave the way for the cognition, rather than vice versa,” may have suggested to Williams the formulation of his dictum, “No ideas but in things.” Whitehead’s affirmation of naive sense experience would at least have justified Williams’ belief that presentation of things is more clear and vivid than of ideas.53
Whitehead’s philosophy did more than justify and clarify Williams’ poetic practice; it fed his distrust of the civilization that did not recognize him for his art. Whitehead’s organic mechanism advocated an antidote to scientific materialism and to the devastating effects of modern industrial capitalism. Whitehead discussed not only the relativity of space, time, and matter, but also the relativity of body, mind, and world. Together, he claimed, Einstein and William James represented the modern challenge to Descartes.54 Consciousness, said James, is not an entity; it is a function. This brought about the end of the Cartesian bifurcation of mind and body, just as Einstein’s theory that matter is energy brought about the end of space, time, and matter as absolute quantities.
In the last chapter of Science and the Modern World, “Requisites for Social Progress,” Whitehead discussed the bad effects of educational abstraction and professional specialization, and advocated a renewed emphasis on concrete experience and aesthetic appreciation not only of the human but of the whole field of an activity’s interrelations:
What we want to do is to draw out habits of aesthetic appreciation. According to the metaphysical doctrine which I have been developing, to do so is to increase the depth of individuality. . . . We must foster the creative initiative toward the maintenance of objective values. You will not obtain the apprehension without the initiative, or the initiative without the apprehension. As soon as you get towards the concrete, you cannot exclude action. Sensitiveness without impulse spells decadence, and impulse without sensitiveness spells brutality. I am using the word “sensitiveness” in its most general signification, so as to include apprehension of what lies beyond oneself; that is to say, sensitiveness to all the facts in the case. Thus “art” in the general sense which I require is any selection by which concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them.55
Williams’ poem “Paterson” is a work in Whitehead’s general sense of art. Paterson the man, a personification of the river and the city, is a “philosopher” whose ideas are in concrete things, the particulars of the river and city, as if they were a work of his art. The first strophe is:
- Before the grass is out the people are out
- and bare twigs still whip the wind—
- when there is nothing, in the pause between
- snow and grass in the parks and at the street ends
- —Say it, no ideas but in things—
- nothing but the blank faces of the houses
- and cylindrical trees
- bent, forked by preconception and accident
- split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained
- secret—into the body of the light—
- These are the ideas, savage and tender
- somewhat of the music, et cetera
- of Paterson, that great philosopher—
This poem, like many of Williams’ “Objectivist” poems, is not restricted simply to a selection of concrete facts; it contains explicit statements regarding objective values . . . and aesthetic discipline:
- Defeated in achieving the solution they
- fall back among cheap pictures, furniture
- filled silk, cardboard shoes, bad dentistry
- windows that will not open, poisonous gin
- scurvy, toothache—
- . . .
- But never, in despair and anxiety
- forget to drive wit in, in till it
- discover that his thoughts are decorous and simple
- and never forget that though his thoughts are decorous
- and simple, the despair and anxiety
- the grace and detail of
- a dynamo—56
This is a directive toward action, action according to values realizable by the facts of Paterson.
VI. A Thing
Williams’ understanding of Zukofsky’s reestablishment of poetic essentials, of Pound’s Imagisme, of Kandinsky’s Principle of Inner Necessity, and of Whitehead’s objectivist position were all behind his statement that Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’” struck against him a thing.
Williams’ “thing” is a natural or man-made object whose potency clearly affects the human soul, allowing it to exist with clarity in the world. Williams’ statement, like Kandinsky’s treatise, equates the ontological form and the linguistic form. As such, it is a judgement of the affectiveness and clarity of Zukofsky’s poem.
We may see this achievement as the conclusion of a transitive relation whose first premise is Zukofsky’s success with Pound’s direct presentation, with equating the linguistic object and the epistemic object (l=e)—that is, with creating a poem which is an experience— and whose second premise is the belief that the epistemic object is equivalent to the ontological object (e=o)—that is, that the experience reproduces the experienced. In formula:
If l=e and e=o, then l=o.
This formula means, in other words, that if the poem reproduces experience and experience reproduces the experienced, then the poem may be experienced as a thing in the world. Or, to reverse the relation, the fact that the poem strikes against Williams a thing both complements Zukofsky on his technique and presumes a philosophical belief in the validity of direct experience—that, as Whitehead put it, “the actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world.” I believe that Williams received this second premise from Whitehead and that Zukofsky received it from Williams. I believe that Whitehead was the agent in their becoming conscious of their fundamental philosophical positions.
The fact that a poet may recognize the form inhering in experience that inheres in the experienced and create an expression in which that form inheres rests on a basic assumption of Imagiste and “Objectivist” poetics: namely, that there exist forms which may be identically inherent in particular sets of ontological, epistemic, and linguistic objects, and so may be translated among them in direct experience and by poetic technique. The Image and the Vortex are exactly such forms; the “poem as object” and Williams’ “thing” present such forms. Williams’ statement that Zukofsky’s poem struck against him a thing, therefore, informed Zukofsky’s concept of objectification, which he first defined almost two years later, around January 1930. Objectification is the presentation of the “thing” in terms of the objects of sincerity and history, that is, in textual objectivity; it is the process which reduces the poem to terms whose form reproduces the “objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars,”57 that is, to formal objectivity. The “poem as object” was thus a synthesis and development of concepts inherent in the modernist poetic tradition.