The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form

Bruce Holsapple
University of New Mexico Press ($59.95)

by Michael Boughn

William Carlos Williams was arguably the most important poet of his generation, especially for those of us who came of poetic age in the 1960s. Taking his lead from H.D.’s radical rethinking of the line, Williams ran with it, opening the field with Spring and All to an unprecedented range and focus of thinking, attention, language, and imagination. Lacking Wallace Stevens’s mellifluous iambic pentameter and philosophical obscurantism, Ezra Pound’s pyrotechnic compositional razzle dazzle and grand Euro-pretense, and Pastor Eliot’s Ironic Doom Program and late sweet harmonies, Williams was largely unrecognizable to contemporary critics, even when they praised him for his observational accuracy. Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Babette Deutsch, and others either dismissed Williams’s work outright or damned it with faint, highly qualified praise.

Williams’s line became the pale beyond which poetry dared not pass if it wanted the recognition and approval of the Poetic Authorities. It confused them because they had no ear for it; their America was still beholden to lingering rhythms from Europe. Eliot, their spokesman, abandoned Missouri for London’s hoity-toity lit scene—which he conquered and ruled from a pew in the High Anglican Church. Williams, meanwhile, delivered babies to Polish immigrant women on the farms around Paterson, N.J. He faced the profound fact of America as it played out all around him in the unfolding of an unprecedented world. He witnessed extraordinary, unmapped extravagances, grotesqueries, and brilliance in the forms of a new ordinary. Call it plums or a red wheelbarrow or shards of a broken green bottle in a pile of ashes, its beauty and occult complexities were beyond the rhythms of the old world. It was a chance not so much to make it new, as Pound urged, as to open it up to what was beneath the interest of the authorities: the riff raff tawdriness of something called, loosely, democracy.

Two terms provide the master tones of Williams’s thinkingwriting through this knowing: imagination and measure/form, which become identical in the way a chiasma both creates and undoes identity. In that sense, there is no more realist modern poet than Williams. The issue is the nature of the real that he knew and courageously presented in his work, in which entangled form/line/meaning further entangled itself with the projective powers of the imagination to liberate the word—to “bare handed contend with the sky . . . freed from the handcuffs of ‘art’.” Deeply Emersonian in his commitments, Williams freed attention from the established line, with imagination as both its liberator and its accomplice in the jailbreak.

Bruce Holsapple’s recent book puts the issue front and center in its title and boldly enters into an ongoing conversation concerning Williams’s thinking about form in general, prosody in particular, and imagination’s cosmological implications in relation to them. Holsapple, a poet whose own work is deeply indebted to its long conversation with Williams’s work, brings an important new address to the issue. His insights are most valuable where he is closest to the work, hence the fundamental understanding that informs imagination as an organ of vision (he quotes Blake) that is also a kind of knowing. Holsapple slowly and surely builds an argument, which is to say a vision, a seen in this light, of the fundamental importance of Williams’s work to a deeper understanding of where we now stand, groundless and dis-oriented, and how to find a way to stand there.

Poetry, then, as a mode of knowing (rather than knowledge or, god help us, expression) is the issue. As a mode, it is always actively entangled with a larger world of thinking and other modes of measure equally addressed to the emergent world. Holsapple usefully explicates, for example, Williams’s reading of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World in relation to The Embodiment of Knowledge. Whitehead’s sense of our condition in terms of embeddeness and process resonates strongly with Williams’s understanding of “a new order of knowing” commensurate to a world of a new order(ing). While Holsapple argues that “influence” may be too strong a word to apply to Williams’s relation to Whitehead, there is no question that Williams read him with intense interest, especially as he weighed in on the significance of developments in relativity and quantum theory, two other new modes of measure that revealed previously unrecognized depths and complexities to the world. Einstein, Apollinaire, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Marsden Hartley, and Wassily Kandinsky, among many others, are also part of the community of minds Williams draws together.

While other approaches to Williams have emphasized a chronological development of his work, Holsapple’s contribution is particularly valuable in the way he organizes our attention around a specific chronology of Williams’s thinking and writing regarding form and imagination. Holsapple meticulously tracks through Williams’s reading as well as his correspondence with numerous contemporaries ranging from artists like Charles Demuth to philosophical critics like Kenneth Burke. As a record of a particular poetmind at work on a fundamental question over the course of a life, The Birth of the Imagination paints a fascinating portrait of Williams doggedly pursuing various implications, contradictions, and prospective possibilities.

Many readers will find the closing chapter on Williams and Dada particularly interesting. Discussion of Williams’s relation to Dada often present the European anti-art movement as determining significant aspects of his thinking after the Dada migration to New York before and during the First Great Slaughter of the twentieth century. The sense of the integrity of Williams’s commitment to his spiritualpoetic ordeal, to his particular quest to find/create/reveal a measure adequate to the turmoil of emergent America is sometimes lost or diminished in proposals that allege his indebtedness to Dada, especially in the early years of Spring and All and Kora in Hell. Holsapple very carefully and meticulously dismantles those claims, citing both biographical and textual evidence (lots of good literary gossip here) to argue that Williams’s “improvisations” are other than Dada’s nihilistic disruptions. Williams’s practice is aimed at opening the poem’s form into experiences of unprecedented meaning rather than negating or diminishing the possibility of meaning. That impulse went on to influence much of the most important and interesting poetry to come out of the movement that began in the 1960s.

Williams’s reputation can only increase in significance as the full import of his accomplishment becomes clearer, and Bruce Holsapple’s book is an important contribution to that ongoing process. Anyone interested in Williams’s work, and especially in witnessing the fascinating growth of his thinking about form and imagination over the many decades of his fierce engagement with poetry, will find The Birth of the Imagination an essential addition to their reading.

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