Peter Halter

Peter Halter: On "The Young Sycamore"

A complex iconic use of eye movement is made in "Young Sycamore"/ The poem, which is based on Stieglitz's photograph Spring Showers, as Bram Dijkstra has shown, records the eye's linear movement as it follows the tree from bottom to top. . . .

A peculiar tension in this poem results from the fact that the process of reading takes us down the page while the inward eye is moving upward, so that the iconic dimension comes in via inversion. (The very last word at the bottom of the poem is "top.") This inversion has its deeper justification in the fact that the life force embodied in the tree (with which the speaker's self and we with him empathize: "I must tell you / this young tree") exists in a world of process in which growth and decay, creation and destruction are simultaneous. Thus Peter Schmidt's interpretation indicates that - perhaps unintended but nonetheless present - the movement upward contains its inversion or counterpart:

A second reading ... will show that the poem is hardly without personification or metaphor, although they are implied rather than stated. Williams hints that Stieglitz's sycamore is also a tree of life, starting with youth's "round and firm trunk" and then "waning" gradually until the branches are "bending forward" like the bodies of the old. Both men and trees have offspring: seed "cocoons" hang from the leafless branches. The eye's movement thus merges with the inner eye's vision of time's passage. ("Modernist Pastoral," p. 391)

In such poems as "Young Sycamore," Williams makes a particularly effective use of iconicity. It blends the sequential act of reading with the eye's and the mind's step-by-step appraisal of the object under scrutiny to the point where the linguistic force is coextensive with the life force of the tree and thus brings about an empathetic fusion of self and scene in a space-time continuum. The unfolding or expansion of the poem becomes an icon for the unfolding and expansion of the tree, and thus mirrors the process. Together with the sum total of the other poetic devices, such as the force contained in the many finite and nonfinite verbs ("rises," "undulant / thrust," "dividing and waning," "hung," "thins," "knotted," and "bending") and the words that activate the sense of touch and the sense of hearing ("round and firm trunk," "rises / bodily," "where water / is trickling"), the poem can no longer be said to simply talk about the tree but rather becomes an object that shares or embodies the tree's life. Such a poem is, as Williams says, not opposed to nature but apposed to it. The process of exploration and appropriation (of which the poem is an icon) and the involvement of several senses beyond the distancing sense of sight make of the poem a kinesthetic and synesthetic object in which the self relives or recreates the life of the tree, in a way that fully justifies Williams's dictum, "A thing known passes out of the mind into the muscles."

From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © Cambridge University Press.

Peter Halter: On "The Great Figure"

For Williams's friends, "The Great Figure," with its sensitivity to things completely outside the confines of Art, Beauty, and Culture, was a paradigmatic achievement. It was this poem in particular that Kenneth Burke singled out for praise in one of the earliest appraisals of Williams's art in 1922: "What, for instance, could be more lost, more uncorrelated, a closer Contact, a greater triumph of antiCulture, than this poem" ("William Carlos Williams," p. 50). . . .

The image of the firetruck racing through the city in the midst of the frenzy of "gong clangs" and "siren howls" evokes the enthusiasm of the Futurists for the dynamic chaos of the modern urban civilization. The poem is, together with a few others (e.g., "Overture to a Dance of Locomotives"), clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for the Futurists, the epitome of a teeming life force with myriad nodes of energy. . . . 

The golden 5 in Williams's poem is the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world. . . .

In Williams's poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the "I," the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is "unheeded" by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.

"The Great Figure" is also one of the poems that recall Duchamp's influence, in particular that of his ready-mades: The golden figure 5 is a veritable objet trouvé, discovered by the poet among the innumerable things that belong to the neglected "soulless" present-day technological environment so systematically bypassed by the more traditional artists. It is evident that Williams's poem belongs within the wider context of Duchamp's praise of American technology and the new self-confidence that this praise instigated in the American avantgardists. In addition to that, as pointed out earlier, the Frenchman's provocative ready-mades undoubtedly helped Williams to come to the conviction that a poem, like any other work of art, "can be made of anything." The very title of "The Great Figure" contains this conviction in a nutshell: In 1920, when the poem was published for the first time, a reader probably expected it to be about a figure of public importance rather than about a number, or immediately realized the clash between what one could generally expect to find in poetry and what one found here - a poem that violated the basic poetic conventions by almost any standard.

Apart from influences from the visual arts, there are of course also literary ones. Al Que Quiere! and Sour Grapes, shows how Williams adopted Imagist techniques for his poems of discovery, as one could call them. It reflects some of the basic tenets of Imagism, such as the utmost concentration on one or a few images, and the total absence of "verbiage" or outworn poetic diction. But here, too, there are differences; it is characteristic of Williams that he refuses to invariably "poeticize" the details on which the poem focuses by means of overt metaphors and similes. Hence Williams hardly ever takes up the Imagists' haiku-inspired practice of linking up an "outward" image to an "inward" metaphorical one but tries to remain as faithful as possible to the immediate sensory experience. This might, but as often did not, necessitate the introduction of overt metaphors and similes. . . .

Thus in "The Great Figure" only one word--"tense"--is used metaphorically: The poet,in an empathetic identification with the tenseness of the firemen and the whole situation, projects it onto the firetruck and the golden 5 itself.

The short lines are another device that can be related to Imagist tenets, since they direct the attention to each single detail; only when these details stand out in utmost clarity can they fully display their "virtues of form and color." The effect, however, is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem, as the various lengths of the lines indicate. Even in this short poem there is a clear progression from beginning to middle and end. The opening lines focus on two details of the city and night - "rain" and "lights" - and in very few words create the atmosphere of a specific setting. Then the poem moves on quickly to the center of interest. Once its focus is fully on the number 5, the even shorter lines slow it down and arrest our attention by throwing each detail of the seemingly trivial object into relief. The most striking element is, of course, the gold, which "jolts the poem into life," as James Breslin remarked in his excellent analysis of the poem, "seeming to leap out at us and demand our attention." Part of this effect is rhythmic: If we take the first two lines as a unit - "Among the rain and lights" - we get, together with the third line, two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:

Among the rain / and lights

I saw the figure 5

Coming after this, the exclamatory "in gold" receives the greatest possible emphasis, with the sole beat of the line on "gold" and a pause after it (or a fermata, musically speaking) that adds to its impact. In addition to this, the lines following ("on a red / firetruck") mark a complete rhythmic change; "in gold" thus becomes the climactic endpoint of the first iambic part of the poem, which is followed in the second part by a more complex and tenser rhythm.

This change in rhythm coincides with the change in focus - the view is gradually enlarged from the gold to the "red / firetruck" and from the truck to the hectic movement and the nerve-racking sounds; in a series of powerful syncopated double-beat lines:

to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.

In the end, when the dramatic moment is over, the poem is also over, with the firetruck disappearing into the night. Thus the last line takes us back to the beginning; the poem opens and closes with a wide-angle shot, so to speak, of the dark city with its rain and lights, a background which very effectively frames the sudden appearance of the golden figure in an exciting flash of color, sound, and movement.

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 By Cambridge University Press.

Peter Halter: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

In "Queen Anne's Lace," a paysage de femme poem which fuses the white of a woman's body with a field of white flowers, a basic tension is expressed through the different impact of the two shades and textures of white embodied in the anemone on the one hand and the wild carrot on the other.

. . .

The smooth, delicate, and pure white of the anemone petals seems passive, fragile, almost incorporeal and related to the virginal when compared to the wild carrot, which is not "so remote a thing" but active to the point of "taking / the field by force"--a paradox which recalls the androgynous nature of flowers. With the wild carrot there is "no question of whiteness, / white as can be"; the added purple mole at the center of each flower makes it approachable. It is turned into a flower-woman that is desired by the sun-poet and desirous of him, caressed and caressing: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one."

Here, where there is desire, love, warmth, and fertility, whiteness does not reign supreme; it is not the spotless purity of the dematerialized absolute. Although it still contains the "pious wish to whiteness," it is "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--." Gone over to where? Whiteness of Apollonian clarity

and restraint gone over to whiteness of Dionysian ecstasy, gone over to the climactic moment in which the field of erotic encounter is "empty" of everything but the "white desire" to collapse into the "nothing" at the very end of the poem, when the imaginative ecstatic union of the male sun-poet with the female field of flowers has reached its orgasmic height and the poet is thrown back on himself, on his own separate consciousness.

. . .

Such a pan-erotic empathetic identification of the poet with the sun in his encounter with the field of flowers is only possible in a poem whose aesthetics of energy transcends the fixed categories of the rationalist technological outlook and makes no fundamental difference between human and nonhuman realms. The poem becomes a field of action into which the poet's consciousness enters, in the double movement of appropriating it and being exposed to it with "the mind turned inside out." And the colors in this field of action are an essential part of the basic forces interacting with each other.

The specific process that gives direction to these interacting forces is often that of form being born out of the formless ground. In this context "Queen Anne's Lace" is of particular interest because it paradigmatically enacts this process on the level of colors: It begins and ends with color being born, so to speak, through the subtlest distinction of white. The white of the wild carrot is not "white as can be," which, as an endpoint on a scale, turns into its own negation into an absence of color which is an absence of life, the "nothingness that is before birth." Hence the sense of purity conveyed by total whiteness can only be a purity beyond fruition.

Approached from this angle, the "nothing" of the last line acquires a second meaning, which becomes clearer when we realize that syntactically it stands in opposition to the previous eight lines: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch ... until the whole field is ... a pious, wish to whiteness gone over - / or nothing." Life begins where the sterility and nonform of absolute whiteness "[goes] over" into something else - life begins where color begins, and a color can be perceived only in its relation to another color.

Thus the interaction of colors enacts in a paradigmatic way what happens also on all other levels (that is, the level on which the sounds and forms of the words making up the poem interact as well as the level of the interaction of the things denoted).

From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

Peter Halter: On "The Great Figure"

For Williams's friends, "The Great Figure," with its sensitivity to things completely outside the confines of Art, Beauty, and Culture, was a paradigmatic achievement. It was this poem in particular that Kenneth Burke singled out for praise in one of the earliest appraisals of Williams's art in 1922: "What, for instance, could be more lost, more uncorrelated, a closer Contact, a greater triumph of antiCulture, than this poem" ("William Carlos Williams," p. 50). . . .

The image of the firetruck racing through the city in the midst of the frenzy of "gong clangs" and "siren howls" evokes the enthusiasm of the Futurists for the dynamic chaos of the modern urban civilization. The poem is, together with a few others (e.g., "Overture to a Dance of Locomotives"), clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for the Futurists, the epitome of a teeming life force with myriad nodes of energy. . . . 

The golden 5 in Williams's poem is the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world. . . .

In Williams's poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the "I," the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is "unheeded" by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.

"The Great Figure" is also one of the poems that recall Duchamp's influence, in particular that of his ready-mades: The golden figure 5 is a veritable objet trouvé, discovered by the poet among the innumerable things that belong to the neglected "soulless" present-day technological environment so systematically bypassed by the more traditional artists. It is evident that Williams's poem belongs within the wider context of Duchamp's praise of American technology and the new self-confidence that this praise instigated in the American avantgardists. In addition to that, as pointed out earlier, the Frenchman's provocative ready-mades undoubtedly helped Williams to come to the conviction that a poem, like any other work of art, "can be made of anything." The very title of "The Great Figure" contains this conviction in a nutshell: In 1920, when the poem was published for the first time, a reader probably expected it to be about a figure of public importance rather than about a number, or immediately realized the clash between what one could generally expect to find in poetry and what one found here - a poem that violated the basic poetic conventions by almost any standard.

Apart from influences from the visual arts, there are of course also literary ones. Al Que Quiere! and Sour Grapes, shows how Williams adopted Imagist techniques for his poems of discovery, as one could call them. It reflects some of the basic tenets of Imagism, such as the utmost concentration on one or a few images, and the total absence of "verbiage" or outworn poetic diction. But here, too, there are differences; it is characteristic of Williams that he refuses to invariably "poeticize" the details on which the poem focuses by means of overt metaphors and similes. Hence Williams hardly ever takes up the Imagists' haiku-inspired practice of linking up an "outward" image to an "inward" metaphorical one but tries to remain as faithful as possible to the immediate sensory experience. This might, but as often did not, necessitate the introduction of overt metaphors and similes. . . .

Thus in "The Great Figure" only one word--"tense"--is used metaphorically: The poet,in an empathetic identification with the tenseness of the firemen and the whole situation, projects it onto the firetruck and the golden 5 itself.

The short lines are another device that can be related to Imagist tenets, since they direct the attention to each single detail; only when these details stand out in utmost clarity can they fully display their "virtues of form and color." The effect, however, is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem, as the various lengths of the lines indicate. Even in this short poem there is a clear progression from beginning to middle and end. The opening lines focus on two details of the city and night - "rain" and "lights" - and in very few words create the atmosphere of a specific setting. Then the poem moves on quickly to the center of interest. Once its focus is fully on the number 5, the even shorter lines slow it down and arrest our attention by throwing each detail of the seemingly trivial object into relief. The most striking element is, of course, the gold, which "jolts the poem into life," as James Breslin remarked in his excellent analysis of the poem, "seeming to leap out at us and demand our attention." Part of this effect is rhythmic: If we take the first two lines as a unit - "Among the rain and lights" - we get, together with the third line, two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:

Among the rain / and lights I saw the figure 5

Coming after this, the exclamatory "in gold" receives the greatest possible emphasis, with the sole beat of the line on "gold" and a pause after it (or a fermata, musically speaking) that adds to its impact. In addition to this, the lines following ("on a red / firetruck") mark a complete rhythmic change; "in gold" thus becomes the climactic endpoint of the first iambic part of the poem, which is followed in the second part by a more complex and tenser rhythm.

This change in rhythm coincides with the change in focus - the view is gradually enlarged from the gold to the "red / firetruck" and from the truck to the hectic movement and the nerve-racking sounds; in a series of powerful syncopated double-beat lines:

to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city.

In the end, when the dramatic moment is over, the poem is also over, with the firetruck disappearing into the night. Thus the last line takes us back to the beginning; the poem opens and closes with a wide-angle shot, so to speak, of the dark city with its rain and lights, a background which very effectively frames the sudden appearance of the golden figure in an exciting flash of color, sound, and movement.

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 By Cambridge University Press.