Sunday, December 18, 2016

paterson, a painter of the moulin rouge, & haujobb

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)

Lately I've been reading William Carlos Williams' Paterson (1946–1958). Yes, Willy was a Jersey boy.

I'm not certain Williams is my favorite poet, but I've probably perused more of his oeuvre than I have any other poet's (give or take a Shakespeare or Whitman), and he's appeared on this blog more times (uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, sechs, sieben, eight) than any other specimen of his breed. And in spite of this, I still don't have a declarative understanding of how he thinks.

That's the Modernists for you: in trying to Make It New, to devise ways of expressing, via English set down on paper, things that no one had yet thought express during the thousand years since English words started being written down, they turned out material that tended to be nonlinear, nebulous, or outright impenetrable without a scholar's annotations. This is why, when I got it in my head to transcribe and post The Descent of Winter a few years back, I appended Williams' entries with images of cubist and expressionist paintings (mostly), and mostly from the early twentieth century. Williams' cohort and the cubists were two flowers budding from the same stem. In painting, the impulse to "break through the skull of tradition" (W.C.W.'s words) vitalized work that aggressively flouted devotion to verisimilitude, conveying feelings instead of depicting things, or trying to express the essence of a subject by distorting it—in other words, going about things much in the same mode as their counterparts in the belles-lettres.

In my exploration of Williams' body of work (which is not at all exhaustive), I don't believe I've seen him mention any painters until Book III of Paterson, where the name "Toulouse Lautrec" comes up. I thought it sounded familiar, and a google search confirmed it: I've seen one of Lautrec's pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (top). Evidently Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a predilection for absinthe and prostitutes, and Williams admired him enough to dedicate Book V of Paterson to his memory.

Those lines referring to Toulouse-Lautrec in Book III are:

Try another book.
Break through the dry air of the place.

An insane god
nights in a brothel  .
        And if I had  .
What then?
—made brothels my home?
      (Toulouse Lautrec
      again  .  )

Say I am the locus
       where two women meet

One from the backwoods
      a touch of the savage
      and of T.B.
      (a scar on the thigh)

The other  ——  wanting,
       from an old culture  .
——and offer the same dish
       different ways

Let the colors run  .

Toulouse Lautrec witnessed
it: limbs relaxed
all religions
       have excluded it——
at ease, the tendons
untensed  .

And so he recorded them

——a stone
thrust flint blue
up through the sandstone
of which, broken,
        but unbreakable
we build our roads  .

——we stammer and elect  .

Hmm. The last two stanzas are disorienting in their abrupt change of topic, but the indentations in the text mark them as belonging to the same section as the previous lines. In the broader context of Paterson, these evocations of bedrock and infrastructure are not incongruous with lines about men, women, and the things men do to/with women. Some notes written by Williams for the dust jacket of Book III's first edition shed some light on what's happening here:
Paterson is a man (since I am a man) who dives from cliffs and the edges of waterfalls to his death——finally. But for all that he is a woman (since I am not a woman) who is the cliff and the waterfall. She spreads protecting fingers about him as he plummets to his conclusions to keep the winds from blowing him out of his path. But he escapes, in the end, as I have said.

As he dies the rocks fission gradually into wild flowers the better to voice their sorrow, a language that would have liberated them both from their distresses had they but known it in time to prevent catastrophe.
Even though Williams has something of a reputation for being more accessible than his contemporaries Eliot and Pound, he's cut from the same cloth and, even though he uses words most of us can understand without reaching for a dictionary, his poems no less often require some effort to decrypt. Paterson is no exception. But again, that's what this push in literature was all about: getting at ideas people haven't gotten at before, expressing emotions that don't have names. The results aren't going to be sonnets or lyric verse, and they're not going to have the same taste or texture on the mind's palate. Williams' poetry often reminds me of the band Haujobb, whom I admire precisely because it is so strange and cool to listen to music that doesn't hit any of the usual facile feely buttons—that avoids "good safe stereotype," to borrow more of Williams' phrasing.

Anyway yeah Paterson is p good

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