by ROBERT LOWELL
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.
THE CATHOLIC BELLS
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
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.