Lynn Keller: On "The Descent of Winter"

[Keller is comparing Williams’ The Descent of Winter with Robert Creeley’s Pieces (1968)]

This series of lyrics [The Descent of Winter] written during the fall of 1927 uses dates rather than titles and, like Pieces, records a scattering of the poet's immediate impressions--descriptions of autumn weeds or the passing of a freight train, casual thoughts about his likes and dislikes, bits of others' speech. Yet Williams describes common sights and ordinary people with such detailed care that the very particularity of his attention implies the significance of these humble subjects. Williams' imagery as well as his use of simile and metaphor give grand resonance to "trivia." A canna becomes the "darkly crimson heart / of this poor yard"; the town idiot is a figure of all aging men; a label above the poet's berth and the two nails fastening it are "like stars / beside / the moon"; and a sunlit beech tree glows "with a soft stript light / of love / over the brittle / grass." Mundane sights call to Williams' mind the most sweeping human problems: A pile of rubbish burning in a field of dead weeds prompts him to comment upon the suffering of the aged; a poor organ grinder forcing his tunes on passersby brings to mind "the meanness of love." Williams often suggests psychological, sociological, and historical patterns within which bits of local color can be understood; even the tiniest actions and objects have a place in cosmic patterns of descent and ascent, destruction and rebirth. Beneath the unassuming and fragmented surfaces of these poems lies a moralistic exhortation to the reader to search out underlying coherence: Williams is more than half serious that "someone should summarize these things / in the interest of local government."

For Creeley the "trivial" takes on importance in a far more inward, and more abstractly philosophical way. He less frequently transforms its scale or generalizes its meaning, since his intention is not, like Williams', to proclaim the dignity of the poor and commonplace or to correct conventional misconceptions about the unimportance of what is small and familiar. Creeley's descriptions, like Ashbery's, do not give sharper definition to what appears blurred or drab in ordinary living. Instead, he immerses himself in domestic and linguistic banality--"our businesses of the / evening, eating supper, talking, / watching television, then / going to bed, making love" --because this is the stuff of his life in which he can locate his own here and now. The whole volume addresses--and attempts to redress--the problem that "'Here' as a habit is what we are lacking here." "Grease / on the hands - " is a complete poetic unit simply because in the moment of writing it, Creeley is present experiencing his own body; that is its significance. While Williams, securely located in the present, demonstrates for his readers acts of attention or social perspectives within which "trivia" can be recognized as untrivial, Creeley pushes anxiously moment by moment and syllable by syllable to make contact with his "now," the material and linguistic contents of which happen most often to be "trivial."

Individual poems in The Descent of Winter are often unified by a propositional declaration that appears in either the opening or closing lines--e.g., "The justice of poverty / its shame its dirt / are one with the meanness / of love"; "What an image in the face of Almighty God is she"; "That river will be clean / before ever you will be." The presence of such summary statements reveals a "will to closure" that Creeley regards as "the whole pattern of intention in the Moderns"--"the ability to see beyond the world as given to some not idealization . . . but [a] very hopeful sense of resolution and [a will to] bring it to a coherence." According to Creeley, the world now "has become immensely larger or immensely more diverse and immensely more present" so that contemporary artists honestly engaged with "the real" have had to abandon aspirations for coherence.

From Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press

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Criticism Overview
Title Lynn Keller: On "The Descent of Winter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lynn Keller Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition
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