The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
The Prophet Williams, William Carlos Williams

The Prophet Williams, William Carlos Williams

Hats off the the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center Archives. If you haven’t heard of it yet, basically, it’s one of the poetry gems on the Web. The 92nd Street Y’s Utenberg Poetry Center has, for decades, been inviting renowned poets to give lectures, read, and teach poetry to readers and writers. And they haven’t lost a step in the digital age. Many new poetry readings are quickly posted online, and they’ve also begun posting archived readings on the Web too.

Just now, I got an subscriber’s email from the Poetry Center Archives that they put up a new post of Williams Carlos Williams, reading from his work in 1954. You can link to it here, but I thought it’d be nice to add a little commentary of my own.

Personally, I’m a huge Williams fan. For a long time I was put off by him though. In fact many modernist poets of his generation — Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, you name it — they were all a bit intimidating. I know it was the intellectually correct position to like them, but the truth was I couldn’t understand a thing that they said.

Then I read Williams.

His poetry seemed to be just what I was looking for: it freed itself of sappy 19th century romanticism, but didn’t mire itself in the esoteria of so many other modernists. You didn’t need to know Noh theater, or the names of Grecian kings, in order, to get him. All you needed was to let his poetry establish its simple, concrete images and let your imagination create its own world from it. He seemed to me the perfect expression of what it meant to be an "Imagist" poet.

If you need a working definition of "Imagist poetry," in fact, the first poem Williams recites in this reading gets right at it: in "A Sort of A Song," he writes: "the writing / be of words, slow and quick, sharp / to strike, quiet to wait…" In other words, Imagist poetry is about using words in as clear, precise and direct a way as possible. A few words alone can knock your socks off — it’s potent stuff. (Which also means Imagist poems are, thankfully, short.) Stripped of allusions or neat rhyming and syntax tricks, the words themselves seem to carry the full weight of the poetry. "No ideas but in things!" Williams writes later in the poem. "Invent!"

You can read something Jewish into this, for sure, like the heavy deference he gives to seeing things as they are — a hard-bitten realist through and through. But I don’t think it’s necessary. (But if you’re interested, Williams wasn’t Jewish, though he was a practing physician his entire life, in New Jersey, and a mentor to Allen Ginsberg).

However, another poem recited in this 92Y reading did strike me as pointedly prophetic, and perhaps even Jewish then too. In "Seafarer" (It starts around minute 2 on the recording), Williams describes a momentous waves crashing on a rock, and notes how the rock, a symbol for man, has no fear. Nay, "He invites the storm, he / lives by it!"

There’s a little bit of the crazy-eyed Captain Ahab in Williams’ rock/man, but it’s hard not to like him. Even as the riotous storm crashes down on ships and the sky seems to swoop down and swallow up the world below, the rock holds fast and says to the storm: "It is I! I who am the rocks! Without me nothing laughs." Those lines seem deeply prophetic, as if the rock/man is channeling his inner Ezra. But maybe he’s stepping outside of his human bounds too, and going into the all-powerful realm of God. Hubris, if so. But also an implicit reminder that religious enthusiasms often contain within them the seeds of our own destruction.

read more: