Monday, September 17, 2007

In Memoriam WCW

Were he still alive, today would be William Carlos Williams's birthday. The "Carlos" came from his mother, who hailed from Puerto Rico. Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended Ezra Pound and Hilda Dolittle (usually known by her initials, H.D.) He became a pediatrician, but he always wrote -- not just poetry, but prose as well.

His poetry was strongly influenced by his love of the classics and of Keats, and his poems seem to be a more modern take on Keats -- sort of a fusion of Walt Whitman and Keats, really.

Here's one from his early work called "Willow Poem", which is in the public domain. It seems to me the right sort of a poem for a day in mid-September when the morning air was cool enough to see a bit of a breath cloud. Willows usually have a lachrymose sort of symbolism in poetry, but this poem seems to be about the strength of the tree itself, rather than about an emotional state.

Willow Poem
by William Carlos Williams

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loth to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river --
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

Williams died in 1963 (his 80th year); as a result, many of his poems are still protected by copyright. But here's a wee bit from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, an extremely long work from late in Williams's life. It was begun in the early 1950's, after a heart attack and several strokes, and at the start of a depression that required hospitalization for a time. (The depression was exacerbated by his own experience with McCarthyism -- he was offered an honor by the Library of Congress, which was rescinded pending a "loyalty investigation." The position had evaporated by the time the investigation was completed.)

Asphodel is a love poem to his wife of 40 years, Florence (called "Flossie"), written after he'd confessed a number of past infidelities. Written when it was, it also encompassed the idea of possible nuclear annhilation, in the age of "the bomb." It is written using a stepped triadic line (that is, a long line separated into three segments, usually (but not always) echoing the natural pause that might occur during speech).

Here are two brief excerpts from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

From Book I, Journey to Love, 1955

I cannot say

&emsp &emsp &emsp that I have gone to hell

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp for your love

but often

&emsp &emsp &emsp found myself there

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in your pursuit.

I do not like it

&emsp &emsp &emsp and wanted to be

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in heaven. Hear me out.

Do not turn away.

I have learned much in my life

&emsp &emsp &emsp from books

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp and out of them

about love.

&emsp &emsp &emsp Death

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp is not the end of it.

And from later in Book I, Journey to Love, 1955:

If a man die

&emsp &emsp &emsp it is because death

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp has first

possessed his imagination.

&emsp &emsp &emsp But if he refuse death--

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp no greater evil

can befall him

&emsp &emsp &emsp unless it be the death of love

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp meet him

in full career.

&emsp &emsp &emsp Then indeed

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp for him

the light has gone out.

But love and the imagination

&emsp &emsp &emsp are of a piece,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp swift as the light

to avoid destruction.

&emsp &emsp &emsp So we come to watch time's flight

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp as we might watch

summer lightning

&emsp &emsp &emsp or fireflies, secure,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp by grace of the imagination,

safe in its care.

&emsp &emsp &emsp For if

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp the light itself

has escaped,

&emsp &emsp &emsp the whole edifice opposed to it

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp goes down.

Light, the imagination

&emsp &emsp &emsp and love,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in our age,

by natural law,

&emsp &emsp &emsp which we worship,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp maintain

all of a piece

&emsp &emsp &emsp their dominance.

Did I give you really long quotes? Yes. But this is one really long poem (it runs over 40 pages in length), and to have stopped the second quote shorter would have diminished it unfairly in meaning. I hope that wherever William Carlos Williams is now, he is filled with light and imagination. And I believe he is correct, that death is not the end of love.

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