Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Poetry Tuesday-William Carlos Williams

Every English major has read Williams' most famous poem:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

because its easy to anthologize and nobody complains about having to read it.  It's short.  It doesn't even seem like a poem.  Anyone can do that.

Except you can't.  It's like a Jackson Pollock painting.  It looks like splatters of paint, something any two-year-old could do, until you try to do it yourself.  And "the red wheel barrow" turns out to be perfectly balanced-- line length, stresses, the weight given to each stanza.  It's like a zen koan.  It's short and seemingly simple, but there's nothing about it you could change.

Williams wrote several of these (try the plums poem for another), and they are what he is famous for.  But who knew? Late in life, he also wrote "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower," which has to be one of the most beautiful poems I've ever read.  It's an autobiographical poem, written to his wife of forty years as an extended elegy for their long marriage.  On the evidence of the poem, he was not a perfect spouse (who is?)  He is alternately regretful, joyful, groveling, demanding, and proud.  But always stubbornly loyal to her and to the life they had together.  There's a long (*sneezes* *boring*) bit in the middle where he tries to put their marriage in the context of the times in which they lived, but the beginning and the end are just.... lovely.

For background, in Greek mythology, the asphodel is a flower that grows in the underworld.  And you'll have to forgive the line arrangement-- HTML won't reproduce the line breaks correctly without me doing a bunch of CSS coding, which I don't have time for.  So imagine this more spread out on the page. It is way longer than this, I left out pages.

Of asphodel, that greeny flower...
     I come, my sweet,
         to sing to you.
We lived long together
     a life filled,
          if you will,
with flowers.  So that
     I was cheered
          when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
     in hell.

....There is something
          something urgent
I have to say to you
     and you alone
          but it must wait
while I drink in
     the joy of your approach
          perhaps for the last time.
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.
     It will not be
         for long.....

I cannot say
     that I have gone to hell
         for your love
but often
     found myself there
         in your pursuit.
I do not like it
     and wanted to be
         in heaven.  Hear me out.
Do not turn away.

....It is ridiculous
what airs we put on
    to seem profound
         while our hearts
gasp dying
     for want of love.
         Having your love
I was rich.
     Thinking to have lost it
         I am tortured
and cannot rest.
     I do not come to you
with confessions of my faults,
     I have confessed,
         all of them.
In the name of love
     I come proudly
         as to an equal
to be forgiven.

....Lean cheeked
I say to myself
     kindness moves her
         shall she not be kind
also to me?  At this
     courage possessed me finally
         to go on.
Sweet, creep into my arms!
     I spoke hurriedly
         in the spell
of some wry impulse
     when I boasted
         that there was
any pride left in me.
     Do not believe it.

And there's plenty more, too, but that's probably enough.  Poetry moment over.

It always seems that when I write one of those "I'm offline for awhile" posts,  I immediately have lots to say.

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