Monday, April 1, 2013

NPM: Spring and All and the Red Wheel Barrow

Salvador Dali, The First Day of Spring

It's that time again. National Poetry Month is upon us!

For the third April in a row, this humble blog will be ladling out a Mulligan stew of collected verses for your enjoyment and edification. Even if you're usually not inclined to read poetry, it would mean a lot to me if, throughout the month, you occasionally had a look at and tried to engage with what's being served up here. I guarantee it will be five minutes better spent than the perusing the latest ephemera on your newsgossip site of choice. READ LESS GAWKER, READ MORE POETRY. That's our motto at Beyond Easy!

We will be workshopping this motto at our weekly staff meeting.

Also, Beyond Easy has no staff. What I actually intend to do is sit in the bathtub and bounce ideas off the chickens.

At this point all I can do to save face is get on with it.

We begin once again with William Carlos Williams, one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. Anyone who's ever taken Composition 101 will be familiar with his poem about the red wheelbarrow. But what you might not know is that it was not published as a standalone piece; it is a component of a much longer work called Spring and All, a chimeric manifesto composed as a reaction to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which in 1922 established itself as the barycenter of English poetry. The Poetry Foundation gives us the scoop:

What Williams did not foresee, however, was the "atom bomb" on modern poetry—T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot's genius—he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale"—but, simply, "we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English." As he explained in his Autobiography, "I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit." Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot's success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, "he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co-author of Eliot's poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism." But while the Eliot wave undoubtedly sank his spirits, at the same time it buoyed his determination: "It was a shock to me that he was so tremendously successful," Williams admitted. "My contemporaries flocked to himaway from what I wanted. It forced me to be successful."

According to Breslin, The Waste Land was one of the "major influence[s] on that remarkable volume," Williams's next book, Spring and All. The last in a decade of experimental poetry, Spring and All viewed the same American landscape as did Eliot but interpreted it differently. Williams "saw his poetic task was to affirm the self-reliant, sympathetic consciousness of Whitman in a broken industrialized world," Stauffer noted. "But unlike Eliot, who responded negatively to the harsh realities of this world, Williams saw his task as breaking through restrictions and generating new growth."

In the long run, Williams probably came out on top. Judging from my experience, many more people outside of English programs are reading Williams today than Eliot.

Well. Without further ado, let's look at an except from Spring and All -- specifically, the section beginning with everybody's favorite vignette about the red wheelbarrow on which so much depends. When Williams has a point to make, he tends to make it wanderingly, obliquely (as we've already seen in one of his essays), but he does make a point.

From Spring and All (1923)
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Lovingly transcribed from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I.


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

   The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal——essential to every activity. But they exist——but not as dead dissections.

   The curriculum of knowledge cannot but be divided into the sciences, the thousand and one groups of data, scientific, philosophic and whatnot——as may as there exist in Shakespeare——things that make him appear the university of all ages.

   But this is not the thing. In the galvanic category of——The same things exist, but in a different condition when energized by the imagination.

   The whole field of education is affected——there is no end of detail that is without significance.

   Education would begin by placing in the mind of the student the nature of knowledge——in the dead state and the nature of the force which may energize it.

   This would clarify his field at once——He would then see the use of data

   But at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative.

   nothing could be more ridiculous. To data there is no end. There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge——

   It is the imagination that——

   That is: life is absolutely simple. In any civilized society everyone should know EVERYTHING there is to know about life at once and always. There should never be permitted, confusion——

   There are difficulties to life, under conditions that are impasses, life may prove impossible——But it must never be lost——as it is today——

   I remember so distinctly the young Pole in Leipzig going with hushed breath to hear the Wundt lecture——In this mass of intricate philosophic data what one of the listeners was able to maintain himself for the winking of an eyelash. Not one. The inundation of the intelligence by masses of complicated fact is not knowledge. There is no end——

   And what is the fourth dimension? It is the endlessness of knowledge——

   It is the imagination on which reality rides——It is the imagination——It is a cleavage through everything by a force that does not exist in the mass and therefore can never be discovered by its anatomization.

   It is for this reason that I have always placed art first and esteemed it over science——in spite of everything.

   Art is the pure effect of the force upon which science depends for its reality——Poetry

   The effect of this realization upon life will be the emplacement of knowledge into a living current——which it has always sought——

   In other times——men counted it a tragedy to be dislocated from sense——Today boys are sent with dullest faith to technical schools of all sorts——broken, bruised

   few escape whole——slaughter. This is not civilization but stupidity——Before entering knowledge the integrity of the imagination——

   The effect will be to give importance to the subdivisions of experience——which today are absolutely lost——There exists simply nothing.

   Prose——When values are important, such——For example there is no use denying that prose and poetry are not by any means the same IN INTENTION. But then what is prose? There is no need for it to approach poetry except to be weakened.

   With decent knowledge to hand we can tell what things are for

   I expect to see values blossom. I expect to see prose be prose. Prose, relieved of extraneous, unrelated values must return to its only purpose: to clarity to enlighten the understanding. There is no form to prose but that which depends on clarity. If prose is not accurately adjusted to the exposition of facts it does not exist——Its form is that alone. To penetrate everywhere with enlightenment——

   Poetry is something quite different. Poetry has to do with the crystallization of the imagination——the perfection of new forms as additions to nature——Prose may follow to enlighten but poetry——

   Is what I have written prose? The only answer is that form in prose ends with the end of that which is being communicated——If the power to go on falters in the middle of a sentence——that is the end of the sentence——Or if a new phrase enters at that point it is only stupidity to go on.

   There is no confusion——only difficulties.


  1. I think I get the point: that creation of art has been superceded by the pursuit of (meaningless?) details and statistics? I just don't get how the red wheelbarrow has any relevance to that

    1. Maybe it doesn't? Williams can be obscure -- but rarely, I think, obfuscatory.

      I guess I rather read it as a vignette that segues into the first paragraph about 'the fixed categories into which life is divided.'

      In any case, I definitely wouldn't go so far as to say the wheelbarrow is a metaphor for the imagination or anything like that.

  2. OK, but if Gawker starts doing articles in iambic pentameter, does that count as my poetry quota?

    1. If Gawker starts doing articles in iambic pentameter, I will join the clergy.