Richard R. Frye

Richard R. Frye: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

In part, Spring and All manifests certain ontological reassurances. One of these is that the artist's relation to nature is not causal; Williams' poems become sullen in the company of Edmund Husserl's phenomenological applications. Instead, the different realms of nature and art are homologous; the former "possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is opposed to art but apposed to it" (121). Poem interrogates ontology; it begs the question—"is perception reality or figment?":

so much depends

  upon

a red wheel 

barrow

glazed with rain 

water

beside the white 

chickens

Hugh Kenner, in A Homemade World (1975), locates the poem's typographical "suspension system" in an imaginative zone as precarious as art; but Williams may be troping on an adjacent zone (59). Any special space that art inhabits implies another to which it is apposed; Williams, adducing from the synthetic cubists independent but homologous structures for nature and art, early in the twenties began calling that space the imagination:

Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it—It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but— (SAA 149-50)

One point that emerges from poem XXII is that there is a world to begin with for art to affirm; not that Williams possesses categorizations, etc. of a particular kind unnecessary for the poem to verbalize (Kenner's remark: "he has cunningly not said what depends"), but that "out there" are chickens, rainwater, and wheelbarrows to evoke; they aren't some purely solipsistic image. The ontological status of the image depends upon whether or not the poem constitutes a psychophysical event; for only then is it useful both as a psychological correlative and as a way of understanding human experience.

From "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Richard R. Frye: On "To Elsie"

Williams was certain his friends and neighbors (and in particular the mentally handicapped young nursemaid, Elsie, who came over from time to time to help Flossie clean house) were out of contact with the "American place," and the image that came into his mind was that of a driverless automobile careening out of control. The doctor's well-known directive, from poem XVII, is to steer clear of empty material aspirations and establish roots in "the earth under our feet":

                            some Elsie— 

voluptuous water 

expressing with broken

 

brain the truth about us— 

her great 

ungainly hips and flopping breasts

 

addressed to cheap 

jewelry 

and rich young men with fine eyes

 

as if the earth under our feet 

were 

an excrement of some sky

Williams' grouse "to" Elsie, among those Zukofsky selected for the elder poet's Collected Poems: 1921-31 (1934), prescribes this remedial "grounding" act as an alternative to self-destruction.

From "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Richard R. Frye: On "Spring and All"

Williams' Spring and All begins with a straight-forward set of impressions in a poem that moves into a quickened vision, by way of imagination, of what is stirring into being beneath the surface. The first four stanzas of poem I, quoted above, consist of a succession of what Kenneth Burke, in a well-known instance, called "minute fixations"; but those serried minutiae that follow in the stanzas thereafter are much more than the resolute observations of a connoisseur of perception (48). In stanza five a subtle change in tone signals a shift in perspective:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches—

Hitherto a literal rendering of a series of visual fixations of objects in fields past which the poet is apparently driving, in this second phase the poem moves into a realm something like visionary personification. An emergent consciousness begins an intrinsic identification with "sluggish / dazed spring." The "objects" in the fields, as Stephen Tapscott notes, narrowly miss anthropomorphosis, assuming an energetic sentience flexible enough to service a complex network of analogous meanings (41).

This "second phase" constitutes a kind of clarified vision on the part of the mind within whose field of consciousness the scene appears that develops over the first four stanzas. Poem I, like the poems that follow it in Spring and All, represents (among other of Williams' assignments) a conscious attempt to externalize the form of the mind's perceptual intake of sense-experience. In the transition from perception to imagination, reality isn't changed but more fully and imaginatively entered. The description of a late-winter landscape metamorphoses, once the poet apprehends in advance the miraculous quickening of incipient life. In stanzas six and seven the process through which "dazed spring approaches" displays unmistakable dramatic elements; as a consequence, life in the poem bursts imaginatively into being:

They enter the new world naked, 

cold, uncertain of all 

save that they enter. All about them 

the cold, familiar wind—

 

Now the grass, tomorrow 

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

The point at which the planes-in-relation converge in poem I penetrates many subtle disguises; the "process of miraculous verisimilitude," the agent of which is the regenerative power of the imagination, compels the barren late-winter landscape into flourishing life—and resonates on several levels (SAA 95). Perhaps one is a swipe at T. S. Eliot, in whose "waste" Williams discovers merely dormant life:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches— (my emphasis)

These lines appear to have been written within weeks after The Dial published Eliot's "The Waste Land." The connecting series of verb phrases, primarily participles, with which Eliot’s poem begins is perhaps subtly parodied in Williams' own series of prepositional phrases at the start of poem I. Here is Eliot's famous opening to The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding 

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring 

Dull roots with spring rain. 

Winter kept us warm, covering 

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 

A little life with dried tubers.

These sentences act to appeal ironically to the reverdie tradition in English poetry (especially as rendered in Chaucer's "The General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales: "Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote"). Eliot reverses the reverdie's popular form: a celebratory dance poem which serves as herald to spring. In The Waste Land, Tiresias instead laments the coming of spring; winter is recalled fondly, "feeding / A little life with dried tubers" but, mostly, "covering Earth in forgetful snow." Williams' opening lines, on the other hand, evoke an ostensibly sterile winter scene, the objective correlative, it would seem, of Tiresias' state of mind:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the

 

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water 

the scattering of tall trees

Significantly, however, "the stark dignity" of Williams' barren field is "Lifeless in appearance" only; eventually, at the poem's close, "dazed spring approaches," its new green celebrated.

Another plane-convergence in the poem, the ambiguous pronoun reference in stanzas six through eight, also reaches several ways. While the "it" in stanza eight may refer exclusively to the burgeoning plant growth, it may also refer to the poet's perceptual linguistic rendering of that process. Perhaps it insinuates as well the early American settlers, about whom Williams was writing in 1923; most of In the American Grain (1925) was composed that year:

They enter the new world naked,  cold, uncertain of all  save that they enter. All about them  the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow  the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—  It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

These stanzas relate as well the transition of the vegetal world of vines to Williams' obstetrics; the poem's pronouns themselves intimate this: "All along the road the reddish . . . stuff . . . / They enter the new world naked." Why else this change in subject? And Audrey T. Rodgers, in Virgin and Whore (1987), offers yet another possible untrammeling: "The mythic theme of Kore—the rebirth and return to life to the soil out of pain and suffering"—which has "its counterpart in human birth" (36).

In Williams' idiosyncratic use of "planes in the geometric sense" the thrust is away from individual "signifiers" and toward the immutable structure of relations by which all the elements in a given poem are patterned. The tone of starkness and sterility early in poem I is a carefully crafted embodiment of a late-winter landscape. Williams apparently decided that if he could simulate in poetry the process of incipient growth which experience had taught him to be only latent beneath the barren ground, it would stand also as a linguistic graph of the mind's perceptual process. Ideally, the notion that the landscape and the mind share what amounts to a common process might provoke in the reader an awareness of systems of interconnectedness in which, conceivably, countless versions of a single process could be layered, one atop the other, in a unified, "objective" vision of the oneness of all initiation into life.

The use of geometric planes promotes multiple perspectives by careful arrangement of sentence elements. The primary syntactical unit by which setting-in-relation is enacted linguistically is the preposition:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the

 

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water 

the scattering of tall trees

From these exertions a veritable landscape emerges, presupposing, as it heaves itself into focus, a mind quite experienced in distinguishing among such apparently familiar objects and in acknowledging their relation to one another.

From "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3