John Hollander: On "Spring and All"

This is a poem of discovery, of the gradual emergence of the sense of spring from what looks otherwise like a disease of winter. The "contagious hospital" is both a colloquial usage, by doctors and patients, for the longer name, and a hospital that is itself contagious, that leaks its presence out onto the road. The cold wind will be revealed as a spring wind, but not before the poem's complex act of noticing has been completed. The meter here is a typographic strip about 30 ems wide with a general tendency to break syntax at tight points (lines 3 and 4 are normal, rather than exceptional); but notice the traditional use of discovery-enjambment in lines 2 and 3—"under the surge of the blue" because of its audible dactylic melody aims the syntax at a noun version of "blue," a metonymy for sky. But the next line discovers its mere adjectival use, appositively with "mottled," and the hopefulness of upward motion, the brief bit of visual and perhaps spiritual ascendancy is undercut by the bleakness of the wintry scene, and the totality of the non-greenness, even the exclusion of available blue. For the buds of spring do indeed look, at first, like tumorous nastinesses of the branch. But the poem moves toward the avowal of the discovery: "Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf." Its real conclusion, however, is revealed in the final moralization: "One by one objects are defined-- / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf." The action of the poem is specifically discovered to be one of focusing; as one rotates a knob on the consciousness, the objects are defined, both in the world of the poem and by the poem, by poems in general. In its moralization, the poem is like "The Red Wheelbarrow," a manifesto about poetry. It is full of light, too, which it does not directly confront, the light that, as a younger poet has put it "wipes each thing to what it is,'' the light that takes us past what Stevens called "the evasions of metaphor." This is as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting, now revealing its depths and, as the conscious wind of attention blows over it, now displaying the wavy texture of its surface. Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no rhetorical sound. But its shape has become a familiar one—particularly for contemporary poetry of the eye—about its possibilities, betrayals and rewards, about rediscoveries of the visionary in the visual.

[. . . .]

Williams employs an enjambment which is directly in the line of Milton's type of revisionary disclosure:

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

"Blue" in the second line might be nominal, and the surge of azure sky might be a too-easily gained sign of spring; the enjambment pulls it back into adjectival status, paired with, and half-modifying, "mottled." The fairly hard but merely systematic enjambments of "the" in the next two lines tend to soften, in retrospect, the modulation of "blue," as if to suggest, perhaps, that closure is no norm, that linearity has no marked integrity other than the rough typographical width of somewhere around thirty ems.

From Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright  1975 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title John Hollander: On "Spring and All" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Hollander Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form
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