J. Hillis Miller: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

Finally there is "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," the extraordinary love poem of Williams' old age. This poem has the quiet mastery of supreme attainment. Like Paterson Five and "The Desert Music," "Asphodel" gathers the world together and the lines rise continuously from a center which is everywhere. Since the lines ascend one by one from the same unfathomable ground, each is the equivalent of the others, the same and yet different. Flowers are facts, poems flowers, And "all works of the imagination,/interchangeable." Each object could be substituted for any of the others, for all say the same thing, do that one thing which all poetic speech does - perpetuate the dance. In the extreme reach of his imagination the poet enters a space where:

no distinction

any more suffices to differentiate

the particulars

of place and condition

Interchangeability enters in yet another way, for in "Asphodel" beauty is expressed not in a single image, of dance or music, but in a group of images all standing side by side in the poem to say the same thing, each saying it perfectly but in a unique way. The space of the poem is the poet's memory. Everything which has ever happened to him is brought back in its substantiality, "a whole flood/of sister memories." It is also, and pre-eminently, the space of love, for "Asphodel" is a poem "of love, abiding love," the poet's final affirmation of his love for his wife and of the way the relation between them creates and sustains the world. The poem is also the space of language, of a murmuring speech which the poet prolongs defiantly and yet precariously, with infinite gentleness, against time and death:

And so

with fear in my heart

I drag it out

and keep on talking

for I dare not stop.

Listen while I talk on

against time.

The space of the poet's sustaining speech is the realm of the imagination, "the place made/in our lives/for the poem." This place is also the sea, or rather the waves on the surface of the sea. The sea is the profound depth from which all things have come to dance like waves as the lines dance in the poem. The "sea/which no one tends/is also a garden," earth giving birth to flowers as the sea to waves. Sea, garden, poem, love, and memory are equivalents, and "the glint of waves," "the free interchange/of light over their surface," is the play of words in the poem, the blossoming of flowers in a garden.

These images lead to others. The poem is speech in defiance of death. Here, at the very end of Williams' career, death appears in his world for almost the first time. It is another name for the unfathomable ground. The poem flowers from it and yet contains it.

As Asphodel is the flower of hell but still triumphs over the darkness, so the space of the poem is not hell but is the flower which rises above death, for "love and the imagination/are of a piece,/swift as the light/to avoid destruction." This leads to a final group of images, once more interchangeable with the others. Asphodel, the flower of hell, is the atomic bomb, since "the bomb/also/is a flower." The exploding bomb is equated with a distant thunderstorm over the sea which the poet watches with his wife. The poem prolongs indefinitely the moment just before death. It is speech in the shadow of death and dwells in the light of a perpetual present, between the lightning and the thunderclap, between the sight of the exploding bomb and the coming of annihilating heat. In "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" light, the sea, memory, speech, the garden, and love are the same, and the poem maintains forever in living poise the moment between birth and death. As long as that moment lasts the flame of beauty is held in the open:

The light

for all time shall outspeed

the thunder crack.

This radiant promise is the climax of Williams' writing, and the climax too of the development so far of twentieth-century poetry.

From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Copyright © 1965 by the President and Fellows of Harvard University.


Title J. Hillis Miller: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author J. Hillis Miller Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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