Thursday, June 21, 2018

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

Portrait of obe Postma from his collection Fan wjerklank en bisinnen (Drachten, 1957) 

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

In 2018 Leeuwarden is not only capital of the province of Friesland, but also European Capital of Culture. 
To celebrate this special year I shall be writing a series of blog posts on our holdings of Frisian literature throughout the year. As it happens today (29 March) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Friesland’s best known and most prolific poets: Obe Postma.
He was the son of a farmer from Koarnwerd, Friesland. The Frisian landscape in which he grew up became his life-long inspiration for his poetry, even when he moved to Amsterdam to study mathematics and physics. He would never live in the countryside again, teaching mathematics and mechanics at the HBS (Higher Civil School) in Groningen for his whole working life. After retirement he moved to Leeuwarden, where he died in 1963.
A Frisian landscape: ‘Nieuwebrug ‘, oil on canvas by Bonne Dijkstra, reproduced in Sjouke Visser (ed.) Het Friese landschap (Harlingen, 1986) LB.31.b.309
Postma’s career as a poet took off relatively late, at the age of 34, but continued right up to his last days, spanning six decades. In 1918, at the age of 50, he published his first collection of poetry:Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben
Cover of Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben (Snits, 1918) 011557.l.33
His early career is characterised by poetry about the Frisian landscape, which earned him the accolade of ‘Poet of the Frisian Landscape’. Postma is sometimes seen as a ‘naïve’ and nostalgic, even ‘provincial’ poet, but this ignores the fact that he was deeply influenced by literature and philosophy, as well as by his scientific background. He knew what was going on in the world of poetry, both in Friesland and beyond. He combined a sharp eye for the simple day-to-day realities, such as a flower meadow, with a feeling for the sublime, with ‘beauty as living principle within the cosmos, the infinite that penetrates the finite, the absolute in the relative.’
Postma saw in Emily Dickinson a kindred spirit. He placed her alongside Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë as one of the greatest female poets. Dickinson’s lack of sentimentality, her sober choice of words, range of subject matter, but perhaps most of all her love of nature appealed to him. In his literary notes Postma writes: ‘She has played a unique role in restoring to poetry those important characteristics of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion.’ Like no other poet Dickinson expressed most clearly his ideas about what ‘nature’ is and what ‘culture’. He writes that in order to grasp this, ‘ I need to go to Emily Dickinson’s bees.’ 

Above: Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Murmuring of Bees’, from The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (London, 1975) X.909/40625. Below: Obe Postma’s translation, ‘Ut Natûr’, from Samle fersen (Baarn, 1978) X.950.11642.

The British Library holds one anthology of Postma’s poems in English translation, published in 2004. ‘Easter Monday’ is an example of Postma’s early work in which he shows signs of his later philosophy, setting his senses wide open to the wider context in which his beloved Frisian landscape sits.
‘Easter Monday’, originally published in 1927, in De Ljochte Ierde (Snits, 1929) X.909/88993. Translated into English by Anthony Paul and published in What the Poet Must Know (Leeuwarden, 2004) YK.2006.a.1764.
Marja Kingma , Curator Germanic Collections.
References/further reading:
De dichters en de filosofen, ed. Philippus Breuker en Jan Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2008). YF.2009.a.25393
Emily Dickinson in leven en dood, ed. Philippus Breuker and J. Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2009) YF.2011.a.6038. I am particularly indebted to Albertina Soepboer’s article on Postma and Dickinson in this collection (pp. 62-75)
In útjefte ta gelegenheid fan de ûntbleating fan de búste fan de dichter en wittenskipsman Obe Postma (1868-1963) ed. Geart van der Meer, Jan Gulmans. (Ljouwert, 2014). YF.2017.a.9947
 Posted by Susan Reed at 1:16 PM

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Maya Angelou and me / Adapting her memoirs brought me eye to eye with an icon

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou and me: adapting her memoirs brought me eye to eye with an icon

She lived a sensational life – but it was her assumption of her equality that made Maya Angelou radical, as I rediscovered when turning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings into radio drama

Patricia Cumper
Wed 13 jun 2018

’ve been adapting novels and plays for radio for well over a decade. And I’ve adapted wonderful work: BelovedThe Darker Face of the EarthSmall IslandThe Color Purple. But adapting the work of Maya Angelou for BBC Radio 4 was the first time I dramatised a memoir. I am used to ferreting out the intentions of the writer between the lines of a play and among the events in a novel. With Maya Angelou’s memoirs, she was right there in front of me, looking me in the eye. It is a bold adapter who wouldn’t feel intimidated. It would also be a foolish one who didn’t grab the opportunity to bring her words to the ear.

The intimacy of radio meant that having Maya’s words spoken by a narrated version of herself was a given. Without the distraction of visuals, life in the deep south during Jim Crow, the characters hustling on the streets of postwar San Francisco, a teenaged Maya driving over the Mexican border having never driven before, and her life as an expat in Ghana can all be imagined and savoured. But there were decisions to be made about which moments would take to being dramatised, which ones should be reported, and which should not be included in this adaptation. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to make these omissions.

Some adaptations involve giving the audience a series of glimpses of the core events in the story and tying them together as best you can. Others are like producing the best line drawing you can achieve from your observations of an oil painting. About halfway through the process of recording the episodes of Maya’s first and most famous volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsit occurred to me that what we were producing this time, in great and careful detail, was a quilt: a stitching together of vivid scraps of the story of her life to create a representation for the audience that we hoped was both complex and subtle.
An adaptation is not a purely academic exercise. It can also be a deeply emotional experience. There are huge recognisable commonalities between the historical black American and Caribbean experiences: the transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath, discrimination, racism, learning to exist and thrive in societies where the financial and social structures are biased against progress. These are also societies that created cultures that protected, strengthened and uplifted themselves; that created new musical and dance forms, that blended languages, that invested in passing on a body of rich folk wisdom, that transformed religious worship from obedience to resistance. I was born and raised in the Caribbean. I recognised these aspects of Maya’s story.

As a black woman, she spoke directly to me about everything from body consciousness (I, too, am tall and gap-toothed) to the difficulty in negotiating relationships with black men. She pulled no punches in describing the choices she made in her life. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she was raised by her grandmother, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, was a teenage mother, worked as a short-order cook, a waitress, a dancer, a brothel madam and a prostitute – all before she was 20. Sensational as all that sounds, there is not a word of self-pity in her memoir. Compassion for her youthful self, perhaps, but never self-pity. Instead, what shines through is her powerful intellect and incredible talent, her ability to observe the world around her and to look inside herself with the same compassionate objectivity.
There is also a grand and dangerous idea at the centre of her work. She grants herself what the world around her was unwilling to: equality. It is what Beyoncé does when she performs the Black Power salute at the Super Bowl. It is what Childish Gambino does when he creates a video in which he personifies his country in This Is America. When Stormzy calls the government to account, or David Lammy lambasts the Home Office treatment of the children of the Windrush generation. Angelou is part of the wellspring from which these public figures drank. They have assumed their equality and not waited for it to be granted to them.
Maya Angelou in 2008.
 ‘She pulled no punches’ … Maya Angelou in 2008. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
Quotes from Maya Angelou pop up on my Twitter feed at regular intervals. She is very quotable. The story of how Marguerite Annie Johnson became famous worldwide, forged careers as a memoirist and poet, singer and composer, civil rights activist, lecturer and public speaker, and downright national and international treasure, is well known and gives hope to many from all backgrounds and persuasions. She is inspirational. Her death was mourned worldwide. Her work, though absolutely rooted in place and time, is timeless in its celebration of our common humanity. My job was to find her in the pages of her books, to help put her words into the mouths of some of the UK’s leading actors, and not to look away from the fierceness of her gaze. To instead bring the audience into the celebration of the human spirit in all its complexity and glory that drives and defines the words of Dr Maya Angelou.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Pablo Neruda / Bird

by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda / Pájaro

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air -
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography -
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

From Plenos Poderes / Fully Empowered (1962)

Friday, May 11, 2018

Endless Poetry review / Jodorowsky's shocking thrill ride into his past

Startling theatricality … Endless Poetry

Endless Poetry review – Jodorowsky's shocking thrill ride into his past

Bursting with gusto and energy, the second part of the director’s autobiographical trilogy is as bewildering as a laudanum dream

Peter Bradshaw
Thu 5 Jan 2017

he countercultural magus, film-maker and tarot fetishist Alejandro Jodorowsky has found a terrific new surge of energy in his 80s with a richly enjoyable autobiographical movie trilogy, as crazy as a laudanum dream. This is the second part; the first was The Dance of Reality in 2013. 
It doesn’t look like an old man’s film to me: there is gusto and energy, a need to excite, shock, bewilder. You can sense here something you rarely experience, even in the very best films: how much the director is simply enjoying himself. And it’s down to Jodorowsky’s fictional confrontation with his father, played by the director’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky. Alejandro himself is played as a young man by his younger son Adan.


This Freudian primal scene has detonated a new burst of creativity. The final reckoning has turned up every dial. You can tell how liberating and therapeutic it is for him – and Jodorowsky obviously loved his own cameo performances, intervening in the action, giving the characters, including his younger self, a piece of his mind. The final transformative encounter with his father, who shaves his head and moustache, before kissing his son on the lips, is compellingly weird.
Endless Poetry broadly covers the period in Jodorowsky’s life when he left home for a bohemian life in the Chilean capital of Santiago, dabbling in poetry and performance, before finally moving on to Paris in the 50s and bidding a painful final farewell to his father, who has now evolved from a stern communist to being just a fierce and closed-minded shopkeeper who doesn’t scruple to assault and humiliate shoplifters. His mother (Pamela Flores) only ever sings her lines in the manner of an opera diva: a bizarre convention that you cease to notice almost immediately.

The circuses, clowns and dwarves have understandably led many to compare this to Fellini; I would also suggest a bit of Kusturica. But the early scenes are very literary and interestingly Dickensian. Alejandro’s parents are larger than life in the right way – and so are his dodgy cousins and grandma who cheat at cards when Alejandro is dragged round for a get-together In a rage, Alejandro chops down a tree, which triggers his final showdown. He walks out and finds himself living in a raucous – and Dickensian – colony of artists, one of whom falls poignantly and unrequitedly in love with him.
And there are more Freudian fireworks. He has an affair with a bad-girl poet called Stella Díaz, who is played by Pamela Flores – that is, his mother. There is an extraordinary, erotic scene when they are naked, having agreed on a non-penetrative relationship, and she reveals herself to have a string of skull tattoos up her spine. There are moments of startling theatricality and fourth-wall high jinks as black-clad figures, like stagehand ninjas, stealthily creep on, handing props to the characters. Jodorowsky also has very funny deadpan lines of dialogue. Stella demands to know if the moody, aggressive Alejandro is carrying a knife: the answer is yes, but only to cut the quills he uses to write his poetry. Actually, the act of writing is more or less absent from the film; Alejandro improvises lines of poetry on the spot, in conversation.
Their relationship is a great romance, in its way: Stella finds him as innocent as a pierrot and makes him pose by a movie poster for Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Alejandro is to transfer his affections to his best friend, Enrique (Leandro Taub) but is also to betray him.

It’s a real flight of fancy. Enrique tells Alejandro that “poetry, like the shadow of a flying eagle, leaves no trace on land”. You can’t really say that about Endless Poetry, which leaves its own trace of enjoyment. Unlike a lot of flaccid and directionless magic realism, there is a narrative drive: the traditional drive towards getting on and getting laid of course, but also this impulse to go out and prove himself to his father but also to destroy his father, who kept calling him a maricón, a fag. As it happens, he isn’t. But being a poet is much worse in his homophobic father’s eyes anyway.
I can’t wait to see what happens in the third and final part: it could be Jodorowsky’s masterpiece.


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Leonard Cohen / Dance Me To The End Of Love

Leonard Cohen 
Dance Me To The End Of Love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, we're both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Friday, April 20, 2018

Les Murray / The Mitchells

Les Murray
Poster by T. A.
The Mitchells

by Murray
I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise 
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white

bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.

The first man, if asked, would say I'm one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I'm one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Ethnic Radio, 1977

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Robert Lowell / Dr. Williams

Dr. Williams

Dr. Williams and his work are part of me, yet I come on them as a critical intruder. I fear I shall spoil what I have to say, just as I somehow got off on the wrong note about Williams with Ford Madox Ford twenty-five years ago. Ford was wearing a stained robin's-egg-blue pajama top, reading Theocritus in Greek, and guying me about my butterfly existence," so removed from the labors of a professional writer. I was saying something awkward, green, and intense in praise of Williams, and, while agreeing, Ford managed to make me feel that I was far too provincial, genteel, and puritanical to understand what I was saying. 
And why not? Wasn't I, as Ford assumed, the grandson or something of James Russell Lowell and the cousin of Lawrence Lowell, a young man doomed to trifle with poetry and end up as president of Harvard or ambassador to England?
I have stepped over these pitfalls. I have conquered my hereditary disadvantages. Except for writing, nothing I've touched has shone. When I think about writing on Dr. Williams, I feel a chaos of thoughts and images, images cracking open to admit a thought, thoughts dragging their roots for the soil of an image. When I woke up this morning, something unusual for this summer was going on! - pinpricks of rain were falling in a reliable, comforting simmer. Our town was blanketed in the rain of rot and the rain of renewal. New life was muscling in, everything growing moved on its one-way trip to the ground. I could feel this, yet believe our universal misfortune was bearable and even welcome. An image held my mind during these moments and kept returning - an old-fashioned New England cottage freshly painted white. I saw a shaggy, triangular shade on the house, trees, a hedge, or their shadows, the blotch of decay.
The house might have been the house I was now living in, but it wasn't; it came from the time when I was a child, still unable to read, and living in the small town of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Inside the house was a bird book with an old stiff and steely engraving of a sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk's legs had a reddish-brown buffalo fuzz on them; behind was the blue sky, bare and abstracted from the world. In the present, pinpricks of rain were falling on everything I could see, and even on the white house in my mind, but the hawk's picture, being indoors I suppose, was more or less spared. Since I saw the picture of the hawk, the pinpricks of rain have gone on, half the people I once knew are dead, half the people I now know were then unborn, and I have learned to read.
An image of a white house with a blotch on it this is perhaps the start of a Williams poem. If I held this image closely and honestly enough, the stabbing detail might come and with it the universal that belonged to this detail and nowhere else. Much wrapping would have to be cut away and many elegiac cadences with their worn eloquence and loftiness. This is how I would like to write about Dr. Williams. I would collect impressions, stare them into Tightness, and let my mind-work and judgments come as they might naturally.
When I was a freshman at Harvard, nothing hit me so hard as the Norton Lectures given by Robert Frost. Frost's revolutionary power, however, was not in his followers, nor in the student literary magazine, the Advocate, whose editor had just written a piece on speech rhythms in the "Hired Man," a much less up-to-date thing to do then than now. Our only strong and avant-garde man was James Laughlin. He was much taller and older than we were. He knew Henry Miller, and exotic young American poetesses in Paris, spent summers at Rapallo with Ezra Pound, and was getting out the first number of his experimental annual, New Directions. He knew the greats, and he himself wrote deliberately flat descriptive and anecdotal poems.
We were sarcastic about them, but they made us feel secretly that we didn't know what was up in poetry. They used no punctuation or capitals, and their only rule was that each line should be eleven or fifteen typewriter spaces long. The author explained that this metric was "as rational as any other" and was based on the practice of W. C. Williams, a poet and pediatrician living in Rutherford, New Jersey. About this time, Laughlin published a review somewhere, perhaps even in the Advocate, of Williams's last small volume. In it, he pushed the metric of typewriter spaces, and quoted from a poem, "The Catholic Bells," to show us Williams's "mature style at fifty"! This was a memorable phrase, and one that made maturity seem possible, but a long way off. I more or less memorized "The Catholic Bells," and spent months trying to console myself by detecting immaturities in whatever Williams had written before he was fifty.
Tho' I'm no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church
ring down the leaves
ring in the frost upon them
and the death of the flowers
ring out the grackle
toward the south, the sky
darkened by them, ring in
the new baby of Mr. and Mrs.
Krantz which cannot
for the fat of its cheeks
open well its eyes . . .
What I liked about "The Catholic Bells" were the irrelevant associations I hung on the words frost and Catholic, and still more its misleading similarity to the "Ring out wild bells" section of In Memoriam. Other things upset and fascinated me and made me feel I was in a world I would never quite understand. Was the spelling "Tho'" strange in a realistic writer, and the iambic rhythm of the first seven words part of some inevitable sound pattern? I had dipped into Edith Sitwell's criticism and was full of inevitable sound patterns. I was sure that somewhere hidden was a key that would make this poem as regular as the regular meters of Tennyson.
There had to be something outside the poem I could hang on to because what was inside dizzied me: the shocking scramble of the august and the crass in making the Catholic church "new" and "yellow-brick," the cherubic ugliness of the baby, belonging rather horribly to "Mr. and Mrs. / Krantz," and seen by the experienced, mature pediatrician as unable to see "for the fat of its cheeks" - this last a cunning shift into anapests. I was surprised that Williams used commas, and that my three or four methods of adjusting his lines to uniform typewriter spaces failed. I supposed he had gone on to some bolder and still more mature system.
To explain the full punishment I felt on first reading Williams, I should say a little about what I was studying at the time. A year or so before, I had read some introductory books on the enjoyment of poetry, and was knocked over by the examples in the free-verse sections. When I arrived at college, independent, fearful of advice, and with all the world before me, I began to rummage through the Cambridge bookshops. I found books that must have been looking for a buyer since the student days of Trumbull Stickney: soiled metrical treatises written by obscure English professors in the eighteen-nineties. They were full of glorious things: rising rhythm, falling rhythm, feet with Greek names, stanzas from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," John Drinkwater, and Swinburne. Nothing seemed simpler than meter.
I began experiments with an exotic foot, short, long, two shorts, then fell back on iambics. My material now took twice as many words, and I rolled out Spenserian stanzas on Job and Jonah surrounded by recently seen Nantucket scenery. Everything I did was grand, ungrammatical, and had a timeless, hackneyed quality. All this was ended by reading Williams. It was as though some homemade ship, part Spanish galleon, part paddle-wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands and worked by hand, had anchored to a filling station."
In "The Catholic Bells," the joining of religion and non-religion, of piety and a hard, nervous secular knowingness are typical of Williams. Further along in this poem, there is a piece of mere description that has always stuck in my mind.
grapes still hanging to
the vines along the nearby
Concordia Halle like broken
teeth in the head of an
old man)
Take out the Concordia Halle and the grapevines crackle in the wind with a sour, impoverished dryness; take out the vines and the Concordia Halle has lost its world. Williams has pages and pages of description that are as good as this. It is his equivalent of, say, the Miltonic sentence, the dazzling staple and excellence which he can always produce. Williams has said that he uses the forms he does for quick changes of tone, atmosphere, and speed. This makes him dangerous and difficult to imitate, because most poets have little change of tone, atmosphere, and speed in them.
I have emphasized Williams's simplicity and nakedness and have no doubt been misleading. His idiom comes from many sources, from speech and reading, both of various kinds; the blend, which is his own invention, is generous and even exotic. Few poets can come near to his wide clarity and dashing Tightness with words, his dignity and almost Alexandrian modulations of voice. His short lines often speed up and simplify hugely drawn out and ornate sentence structures. I once typed out his direct but densely observed poem, "The Semblables," in a single prose paragraph. Not a word or its placing had been changed, but the poem had changed into a piece of smothering, magnificent rhetoric, much more like Faulkner than the original Williams.
The difficulties I found in Williams twenty-five years ago are still difficulties for me. Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him. Of course, one cannot catch any good writer's voice or breathe his air. But there's something more. It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language. Or rather, he sees and hears what we all see and hear and what is the most obvious, but no one else has found this a help or an inspiration. This may come naturally to Dr. Williams from his character, surroundings, and occupation. I can see him rushing from his practice to his typewriter, happy that so much of the world has rubbed off on him, maddened by its hurry. Perhaps he had no choice. Anyway, what other poets have spent lifetimes in building up personal styles to gather what has been snatched up on the run by Dr. Williams?
When I say that I cannot enter him, I am almost saying that I cannot enter America. This troubles me. I am not satisfied to let it be. Like others, I have picked up things here and there from Williams, but this only makes me marvel all the more at his unique and searing journey. It is a Dantesque journey, for he loves America excessively, as if it were the truth and the subject; his exasperation is also excessive, as if there were no other hell. His flowers rustle by the superhighways and pick up all our voices.
A seemingly unending war has been going on for as long as I can remember between Williams and his disciples and the principals and disciples of another school of modern poetry. The Beats are on one side, the university poets are on the other. Lately [in the sixties] the gunfire has been hot. With such unlikely Williams recruits as Karl Shapiro blasting away, it has become unpleasant to stand in the middle in a position of impartiality.
The war is an old one for me. In the late thirties, I was at Kenyon College to study under John Crowe Ransom. The times hummed with catastrophe and ideological violence, both political and aesthetical. The English departments were clogged with worthy but outworn and backwardlooking scholars whose tastes in the moderns were most often superficial, random, and vulgar. Students who. wanted to write got little practical help from their professors. They studied the classics as monsters that were slowly losing their fur and feathers and leaking a little sawdust. What one did oneself was all chance and shallowness, and no profession seemed wispier and less needed than that of the poet.
My own group, that of Tate and Ransom, was all for the high discipline, for putting on the full armor of the past, for making poetry something that would take a man's full weight and that would bear his complete intelligence, passion, and subtlety. Almost anything, the Greek and Roman classics, Elizabethan dramatic poetry, seventeenth-century metaphysical verse, old and modern critics, aestheticians and philosophers, could be suppled up and again made necessary. The struggle perhaps centered on making the old metrical forms usable again to express the depths of one's experience.
For us, Williams was of course part of the revolution that had renewed poetry, but he was a byline. Opinions varied on his work. It was something fresh, secondary, and minor, or it was the best that free verse could do. He was the one writer with the substance, daring, and staying power to make the short free-verse poem something considerable. One was shaken when the radical conservative critic Yvor Winters spoke of Williams's "By the road to the contagious hospital" as a finer, more lasting piece of craftsmanship than "Gerontion."
Well, nothing will do for everyone. It's hard for me to see how I and the younger poets I was close to could at that time have learned much from Williams. It was all we could do to keep alive and follow our own heavy program. That time is gone, and now young poets are perhaps more conscious of the burden and the hardening of this old formalism. Too many poems have been written to rule. They show off their authors' efforts and mind, but little more. Often the culture seems to have passed them by. And, once more, Dr. Williams is a model and a liberator. What will come, I don't know.
Williams, unlike, say, Marianne Moore, seems to be one of those poets who can be imitated anonymously. His style is almost a common style and even what he claims for it the American style. Somehow, written without his speed and genius, the results are usually dull, a poem at best well-made but without breath.
Williams is part of the great breath of our literature. Paterson is our Leaves of Grass. The times have changed. A drastic experimental art is now expected and demanded. The scene is dense with the dirt and power of industrial society. Williams looks on it with exasperation, terror, and a kind of love. His short poems are singularly perfect thrusts, maybe the best that will ever be written of their kind, because neither the man nor the pressure will be found again. When I think of his last, longish autobiographical poems, I remember his last reading I heard. It was at Wellesley. I think about three thousand students attended. It couldn't have been more crowded in the widegalleried hall and I had to sit in the aisle. The poet appeared, one whole side partly paralyzed, his voice just audible, and here and there a word misread. No one stirred. In the silence he read his great poem "Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," a triumph of simple confession - somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry.
I think of going with Dr. Williams and his son to visit his mother, very old, almost a hundred, and unknowing, her black eyes boring through. And Williams saying to her, "Which would you rather see, us or three beautiful blonds?" As we left, he said, "The old bitch will live on but I may die tomorrow!" You could not feel shocked.
Few men had felt and respected anyone more than Williams had his old mother. And in seeing him out strolling on a Sunday after a heart attack: the town seemed to know him and love him and take him in its stride, as we will do with his great pouring of books, his part in the air we breathe and will breathe.
Robert Lowell died after suffering a heart attack in a New York City taxi in 1977.