Tag-Archive for » William Carlos Williams «

Saturday, May 21st, 2011 | Author:

 

Pink confused with white

I used to think (for good reasons, I believed) that it was mistaken to see metrical feet in free-verse lines. Picking them out was irrelevant as a way of describing the rhythms of free-verse lines, simply because free verse isn’t metrical, and how it works rhythmically has to be described differently because what we feel when reading its rhythms, when feeling them with our own individual readerly rhythmic awareness, is different. Free verse isn’t a bunch of metrical feel amidst other syllables that we don’t feel, rhythmically. It is a number of different, distinctly non-metrical (and in fact anti-metrical) varieties of rhythmic expressiveness.

But now I have come to think that at least in some poets—the ones who invented some of the possibilities of free verse—what we see is rhythmic figures that originated in metrical verse but continued to be used in free verse. These figures not only have expressive value—that is, not only do they emphasize feelings, ideas, movement of events, contrasts of images, etc. (which randomly conspicuous metrical feet in free verse don’t do). They’re also echoes or allusions to metrical verse—that is, they relate the free-verse poem in which they are present to earlier poems and poetics.

I’m going to illustrate the free-verse use of rhythmic figures inherited from metrical verse with a canonical poem by William Carlos Williams (b. 1883). Of course, Williams, Ezra Pound (b. 1885), and T. S. Eliot (b. 1888) were perhaps the three most prominent inventors of modern free verse (of three or more different sorts). (See my earlier post on Pound’s “The Return,” March 6, 2011.) Contemporaneously with the unprecedented free-verse inventiveness of these three poets, others were doing more of the same, even though their work was less influential later, in this regard: Mina Loy (b. 1882), H.D. (b. 1886), Marianne Moore (b. 1887), and others. (The amazing little free-verse poems of Stephen Crane [b. 1871] don’t seem to have echoed in anyone else’s work, while the amazing eccentrically measured lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins [b. 1844!], weren’t published until 1918, long after his death, and richly complicated the modernist-era poetics of rhythm.) As later generations developed, in terms of poetics—ifor example Hart Crane (b. 1899), Langston Hughes (b. 1902), Stanley Kunitz (b. 1905), Theodore Roethke (b. 1908), Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911), Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913), Robert Lowell (b. 1917), Gwendolyn Brooks (b. 1917), Allen Ginsburg (b. 1926), James Wright (b. 1927), Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), Jay Wright (b. 1934) and others—they made the transition from metrical verse to free verse all over again, but in even more various ways, for they had to invent, discover, and extend the poetics of rhythm beyond where the earlier poets had taken it. That is, they moved from metrical to free verse and at the same time had to discover ways of writing free verse that Williams, Pound and Eliot did not, in their way, almost wholly own.

Looking again at that list of the names of poets, I see how massive were the social and political cataclysms around them in their lives.  Through the twentieth century which—despite heroic efforts against the politics of hatred, greed, military power, dictatorship, and ideology—was so violent and rancid, politically, there were always some men and women, including poets, among other artists, who found ways not simply to mimic in their art the shattered circumstances in which they lived, the tragic and murderous fragmentation of life, but also to think and feel for a countergesture, in their search for something restorative, or consoling, or compassionate, or simply honest.  Yet while the political, social and military horrors of the first World War made Pound and Eliot reject the supposed value of European civilization as it stood in their own time, which had had no power against the irrational and stupid ideas that had killed off so many soldiers and civilians, they also sought out the “fragments” of its now shattered achievement (as they saw it) for the sake of building ideals anew.  Even their approach to poetic rhythm was part of this process.  And meanwhile Williams took the position of renouncing all the traditional poetics of English in favor of a new sort of poetry that would depict the everyday reality of ordinary American life.  For him too, creating a new poetic language was extraordinarily important, but instead of basing it on a kind of homage to, or at times parody of, earlier poetic language (including meter and the rhythmic figures within it), he argued for, and exemplified, the use of the rhythms of ordinary, everyday speech (and in Paterson, even newspaper clippings).

How interesting, then, that what he does in practice—in 1923—is to move completely away, in this poem, from “high” subjects and settings, actions and events, to simple description of something inconsequential, while continuing to find his way toward the kind of free verse he left as a legacy to most of American poetry afterward.  

While truly there is a remarkable amount to think about, regarding poetics, in the following straightforwardly descriptive poem by William Carlos Williams, what’s interesting to me for present purposes is the rhythms of his lines. The poem is in the free verse of 1923, but it makes use of many easily heard metrical figures. By this term I mean rhythmic figures that were invented by metrical poets, but which were then carried over (most audibly by Pound, as I mentioned above), into what was developing as free, i.e., non-metrical, verse. First there’s simply the unmistakably sequence of emphatically, not accidentally, iambic feet; and there’s also the chiasmic metrical figure of the trochee followed by an iamb that metrical verse uses at the beginning of a line or after a caesura, but not elsewhere; the packing of speech stresses into consecutive syllables (perceivable in English beginning with the basic two, a “spondee” in metrical verse, but extending to sequences of more syllables than two while remaining metrical, as in the lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear, “No, no, no, no!” or “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you…” (Act 5, scene 3).

In what follows, I am not “scanning” the poem as if it were metrical, but on the contrary, noticing where the use of speech stress in English, which is not iambic meter but rather the basis of it, echoes or enacts or alludes to metrical figures as free-verse rhythmic figures. That is to say, perhaps, that Williams’s poem is not a free verse isolated from other poetry, but rather a free verse in play with and against the rhythmic basis of iambic meter in English. Williams’s use of the line, which appears to be improvised, in fact echoes metrical verse (Eliot would have said that the “ghost” of meter was behind it), and defines itself rhythmically in that way.

First the poem, then line-by-line a brief commentary:

Spring and All, Chapter XIX, part II.

Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamp’s horn

petals aslant darkened with mauve

red where in whorls
petal lays its glow upon petal
round flamegreen throats

petals radiant with transpiercing light
contending
above

the leaves
reaching up their modest green
from the pot’s rim

and there, wholly dark, the pot
gay with rough moss

 

Pink confused with white (a “headless” iambic line of three clear feet)

flowers and flowers reversed (strongly rhythmic, but dactyllic, not iambic)

take and spill the shaded flame (another “headline” iambic line, four feet)

darting it back (chiasmic metrical/rhythmic figure, i.e. our line-initial trochee + iamb)

into the lamp’s horn (rhythmic figure, two adjacent stressed syllables, i.e. a “spondee”)

petals aslant darkened with mauve (two consecutive trochee + iamb)

red where in whorls (another of the same)

petal lays its glow upon petal (a line with an iambic “ghost”)

round flamegreen throats (four consecutive stressed syllables)

petals radiant with transpiercing light (a “headless” iambic pentameter line)

contending

above

the leaves

reaching up their modest green (a “headless” iambic tetrameter line)

from the pot’s rim (familiar metrical figure of pyhrric + spondee)

and there, wholly dark, the pot

gay with rough moss (to conclude, the most emphatic rhythmic figures of the whole poem, the presentation of 9 stressed syllables in the last 13)

All of these rhythmic elements are expressive. Williams isolates what the metrical echoes in distinct lines. There’s no need to piece together a string of iambic feet or a rhythmic figure by joining, say, the last words of one line to the first words of the next. For example, the clearly iambic fourth line from the end, “reaching up their modest green” reminds the reader that the apparent casualness of the description of which the poem entirely consists (presenting merely a sequence of literal images which happens to suggest broader meaning in the words that appear ordinary but have metaphorical or metonymical meaning also, such as “confused,” “modest,” “gay”) is in fact highly deliberated. This is a poem, not a newspaper clipping.

Monday, March 14th, 2011 | Author:



A little more about how we got to free verse.  Ezra Pound’s early version of free verse is at work in his most famous poem (published, like “The Return,” in 1913; Pound was 28):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet black bough.

Let’s scan this:

………/……. /……… /…………../………../…………/

The ap |pari | tion of | these fac | es in | the crowd;

…/………../………../………….. /

pet | als on | a wet | black bough.


The first line is six iambic feet and has a light, swift tread because it has only three speech stresses.  The second line is a “headless” line of four iambic feet.  “Headless” is a metrical convention—it means that the poet leaves out the expected unaccented first syllable of the first foot.  Which we can guess at, as Pound meant us to: it would have been “like.”  But he didn’t want a simile, a comparison; he wanted a transformation.  So the faces are the petals, and the gloom behind them is the bough, and both petals and human faces are fragile and temporary.  And beautiful against the darkness of change and time.  And all of that he says in perfectly iambic lines, which we tend to read as free verse simply because the swift first line is followed by the very emphatic rhythm of the second line, with its speech stress in the first syllable and then the three in a row at the end, and what we hear is the contrast between the swift and the emphatically slow rhythms.

And by the time Pound wrote his Canto II, he was, in parallel with the work of other “imagists” and T. S. Eliot during the war and post-war years, writing a more truly free verse, with speech stresses packed close together, and by Canto IX he was extending the rhythms of the Cantos all the way to documentary prose.  His was the first documentary poem, I believe.  (His A Draft of XVI Cantos was published in 1925—Pound was forty.  The next great documentary poem in the U. S. was Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, published in 1938).

From Canto II:

So-shu churned in the sea.

Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash.

Sleek head, daughter of Lir,

eyes of Picasso

Under black fur-hood [...]

In these five lines, there are three sequences of three consecutive speech stresses, then a sequence of five, then another of three at the end.  I mean speech stresses, not metrical accents.  Speech stresses are apparent in any text or utterance; metrical accents are only apparent in metrical verse, and as I mentioned in the last post, it’s the interplay between them that makes for the rhythmic energy of metrical verse.  In fact, even these lines can be scanned as metrical!—but the feeling of meter is gone.  Pound is still thinking in meter—as how could he not, after all the ear-training he had done before creating a new way of writing—but he has broken it loose from the pattern of alternating syllables that have a considerable difference in emphasis, which is the basis of iambic meter.  So not only is his line broken up into short chunks, as in “The Return,” but now it also has really been packed with consecutive speech stresses that somehow, because of their emphatic rhythm, heighten the visual clarity of the description, give the visual images more vividness.  It’s a kind of high-def rhythm, you might say.

By 1923, William Carlos Williams, who turned forty that year, had been writing in truly free verse for a while and his themes were maturing; he published the book that broke the freedom of poetic rhythm open for him and for just about anybody else who wanted to be open, Spring and All.  After the opening sections in prose, the first piece in that book that is in lines (well-known as one of his best poems) begins this way:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen [...]


Then he keeps going in that modest, beautiful way–deferring the subject and the verb, continuing to “break” the lines just where the syntax absolute requires the next word (such as “the / waste”) , and letting these truly free rhythms of English go at a more relaxed pace (but without losing any of the visual vividness that Pound, too, wanted).  Williams uses the enjambment and the syntax to differentiate his lines from both prose, on the one hand, and from metrical verse, on the other.  (In contrast, and effective in a different way at creating a new kind of poetic writing, Pound avoided such strong enjambments and used other means to mark his free verse as being poetry—mythological and other allusions to evoke a vast context of poetry and history and language, speech stresses packed close together, elliptical narratives and trains of thought, and a diction that is not at all the everyday language that Williams preferred.)

Most of the poets—that is to say, almost all of us—in all the succeeding generations after Pound and Williams, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore, have tended to follow Williams rather than Pound.  It’s not that Williams couldn’t produce an emphatic rhythm, though. Here are lines 9-13 of that same poem:

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

[and] leafless vines

But Williams doesn’t let that “ghost” of iambic meter show—no, I’m only testing you; he does show it.  Here’s how: “All | along | the road | the red | dish purp| lish, forked, | upstand |ing, twig | gy stuff | of bush | es and | small trees | with dead, | brown leaves“— all of that, if it were disposed properly in a metrical poem, would be heard as iambic meter without a single substitution (except for the “headless” first foot).  But Williams, unlike Pound, takes his lines out of any metrical context, and simply uses the iambic rhythms that English gives him.  Well, perhaps he makes them somewhat more regular, but his lines feel free to us, nevertheless.  And in this same amazing book, he has the wonderful poem that begins this way (it’s part XVIII):

The pure products of America

go crazy—

mountain folk from Kentucky


or the ribbed north end of

Jersey

with its isolate lakes and


valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves

old names

and promiscuity between [...]


He too can set up a sequence of five consecutive speech stresses, or let the rhythms run quickly, in a way that we hear as very free and yet very expressive.

I had intended to stick with meter, but I got distracted by the way meter is re-mixed, if that’s the right word, as the first free verse.  There are some good sources on this, especially Charles O. Hartmann’s Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, which is still probably the best such, although I have not read it for so long that for all I know I got these very examples from it.  (And if so, then thank you, Charles.)

Next time I will get back to meter, and luxuriate in its more traditional modern practitioners, although I am also eventually going to go back to Gerard Manley Hopkins.



Monday, January 11th, 2010 | Author:

It is thought that by around 7000 BCE the first sizable human communities were established in Mesopotamia. Over the next two thousand years, the idea of the town moved west into the European continent, people made pottery and jewelry, buried the powerful dead in graves with offerings. Along the way cattle, sheep, goats, and dogs traveled with human migrants westward. Invaders from the steppes to the east, where the horse had been domesticated, seem to have ridden west to destroy older, settled communities.


(One thinks of the high-status individuals buried in stone tombs with valuable artisanry as grave-offerings, as opposed to a pit dug in the earth for the horse-sacrifice at the tombs of nomadic leaders. At both such graves, though, poet-priests chanted or sang the poems of those days, celebrating and grieving.  The excitement of archeological discoveries tends to suppress in us the awareness that some of those who were buried with such ceremony and offerings were the warlords of their day–murdering and protecting, commanding till defeated or dead of murder, illness or accident…. yet of course they had their poets, whom they paid for the skills of reciting genealogies, cosmologies, curses and blessings, messages from the gods.)


I cannot be the first to think of what’s in the following paragraphs, but perhaps it is worth saying again:


Often poets, and once in a while a scholar or critic, will hold that Adam was not only the first man, but also the first poet, because his naming of the animals (Genesis 2.19) was the first instance of what we think of as a central element in what poets do: naming.


I regard this as the fanciful and self-flattering idea of modern poets, since the poets of prehistoric times, and through much of historical antiquity, had a far larger task at which to work, which was underlining (the first metaphor that occurs to me is of course from print culture rather than the oral culture of those poets), that is, uttering again in formally distinct ways, the relationship between the human and the divine (which included nature as a kind of theater of divine action). The formal distinctions that made poetry different from other language were at the heart of the specific craft of poets (and priests, shamans, and others who used language in a way that they hoped and believed might have an effect on the physical world and on divine attitudes and action).


So I think that to regard the story of Adam’s naming of the animals as the birth of poetry is to mistake what poetry is–by putting naming at the center of it. (And I don’t doubt that there are social reasons—both present-day and historical–why we might believe this mistake.) Naming would be the assigning of noun-words to animals. But then, we might ask–to all objects, and then the assigning of adjective-words to qualities, and the assigning of verbs to actions, and so on…?


But all this would be a utilization of only the representational function of language. I do not think that Elohim/Yahweh, creator of all, would have been so narrow in his attention to human language–that most remarkable of all human capabilities which the divine ruler had himself invested in what he is said to have regarded as his highest creature. (But yes, now that you mention it, I agree that it is interesting that one other creature in Eden was given the power of thought and speech, and only one: that dread serpent. Did that, in the minds of those who compiled and edited the book of Genesis, make the serpent almost human? Or on the other hand did it make human beings almost serpentine?)


Far from limiting itself to mere naming, language and (hence) poetry make meaning with all the functions of language. While some of the pleasure of poetry may lie in eloquence, in memorability of phrasing, in the clarity and aptness of the way it names (especially when the “name” for what it names is not one word or even a whole line but a whole stanza or passage), much of a poem’s pleasure and, if it has any, its power, lies in how it makes possible (or necessary) a use of language apart from our customary use of it. Even when the language of a poem is at its plainest in the modern world–beginning especially, in American poetry, with works by William Carlos Williams–the poem makes it possible for us to hear more meaning, and more complicated, richer meaning, than we would have heard even in that same sequence of words if we were to encounter it in another context. One of the reasons (just one) why we get pleasure from poetry–pleasure in the sheer richness of ways in which language makes meaning–may be because we are recuperating, albeit unwittingly, the pleasures we got in language when we were first acquiring it, when we were beginning to understand (unconsciously) how to use all of its functions, and making them work to achieve our desires of expression and of being.


Mutually engaging our attention with another person, invoking beings and things, events and places that are not present, establishing our own presence, attempting to regulate the presence of others, or successfully avoiding being regulated by their language, and so on, we use language in different ways. (See my post of September 21, 2009, “Poetry and language use,” on the several functions of language.) At any rate, making meaning not only with the definitions of words but also with their sounds, with all sorts of morphological and rhythmic devices and strategies, with the way in which syntax unfolds–these lie beyond the merely semantic function of putting a name in relation to what it signifies.


And finally, even though, according to the myth, Adam was given by Yahweh the power or responsibility or onerous duty or sheer pleasure of naming the animals, Eve (if she had existed—but according to this creation myth, the first of two at the beginning of Genesis, she was created after all the animals, according to verse 2.22)–Eve, I’m saying, could have done it also. Was she too not human? And since she was Eve, not Adam, she would have done it differently. She might have been a greater namer than Adam. (That Yahweh did not make her such leads me to think that many centuries later, the text-compiling priests, however pious, could not possibly have conceived of such a possibility, even if it had been true. Included among them, by the way, there had to be some who composed hymns and prayers; that is, poets.) (Many years ago, Susan Donnelly published a poem with a title that neatly filled the empty space that had existed for two and a half millennia, “Eve Names the Animals.”)


Among all those creatures were what Genesis calls the “cattle,” meaning all the four-footed herd animals of the ancient Middle East–cows, sheep and goats. In the Judeo-Christian myth, Yahweh creates these domestic creatures alongside the wild ones. Donnelly proposed a few of Eve’s animal names in our English; my liking for trying to think with several functions of language at once leads me to add a few more (and recall that at the time of the naming, there is no violence in Eden): “Why Sky Brightens After Night,” “Withholding Nothing,” “Beautifully Bizarre Way of Walking,” while Adam’s names (or for that matter Eve’s, if this was her temperament) might have been “Milk-Giving,” “Shear It,” “Tastes Sweet.” “Stop That!”

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 | Author:

The Modernist writers of the early twentieth century, impelled partly by what they felt to be the inadequacy of language and forms of art after World War I, because no articulation of the horror of those years could be adequate, wanted to push language off its course of routine expression and perception, to freshen it (as poetry has almost always done, from its beginnings, by the use of poetic devices and tropes).  The wartime experience of the survivors was shattering; that of the victims was horrific and final.  With The Waste Land and The Cantos, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, among English-language writers, deliberately broke the inherited sense of the shape of a poem.  Even William Carlos Williams, who abhorred the way Eliot and Pound based their remaking of poetry on earlier European culture, also remade poetry in a similar spirit, leaping abruptly from his immature work to his new-found syncopation of rhythms, simplicity of diction, and use of everyday subjects and images of a kind that had not appeared in poetry before.  A very compact example is this little poem (1938):

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

The language was freshened by being broken up and by its having been used to create a visual image of something so everyday (in some neighborhoods, anyway), humble, and insignificant that it really does not usually even register on our senses as a thing in itself to which we pay direct attention.  Yet to bring it to our attention, in the way that Williams does, changes our experience of perceiving, and even of using words.

Then writers, and many others, became more aware, after the midpoint of the twentieth century, that language was not only subject to routinizing, which dulls our thinking, feeling, and perceiving, but was also becoming more and more the tool of a deliberate routinizing of thought, feeling and perception by political regimes and by advertising, as media expanded enormously and began to saturate the mental environment.  Would a second remaking of poetry, especially, break language out of these new routines, especially those that had been created, and were and are constantly being renewed, specifically in order to make conformism (especially the conformism of illusory individualism) and consumerism seem “natural”?  (To say nothing of much darker ruts of idea and emotion, like xenophobia, racism, sexism–I grew up in a white zone of segregated Texas, a pretty long time ago, and these large prejudices were the unwitting ground and basis of everyday conversation among my schoolmates, and presumably their parents.)

In fact, there have been many instances of poetic attempts to free language from such associations–instances of different kinds, from poets with different approaches to poetry: organic form poets, surrealists, beat poets, Bolinas poets, Black Arts poets, worker poets, Nuyorican poets, “language” poets, and many more.  Why was there never a mass appetite for freshened language?  (Some of this poetry, in all these groups and others, was very good; some was, and is, as we should expect, sloppy, easy, trendy, bad.)  Maybe I should ask: Why was a genuine appreciation of freshened language not more genuinely widespread in our culture except in the form of a liking for certain clever advertisements?)

Might it be that with the passing of decades of ever more saturating media–which have resorted more and more to spectacle (fictional and real), violence (real and fictional), fear (real and artificial), and humor (satirical and stereotyping and ultimately only reinforcing received thought about what is “natural” and desirable)–we have grown more accustomed than we realize to living in a media echo chamber–so much so that being apart from it is what has come to seem unnatural?  Endlessly we adapt–like some small plant or water creature which over time adapts to the salinization of its wetlands and clings to existence as a species that is not aware of its own changes?

Most poetry, even some of the best, is readily understandable.  A large portion, including more of the best, is not so available to a reader unaccustomed to reading poems.  Bad poetry is often unconvincing and predictable even on its own terms of resistance to what it supposedly opposes or resists.  Given how many poetic groupings, movements, schools, etc., there have been and are now, we might well wonder if the impulse to create art in such a way that it cannot be mistaken for anything else–and especially cannot be mistaken for what it opposes–has not led poets to a proliferation of gestures of freshening either our accounts of (mostly) ourselves, or our language(s).  Mere gestures.

People’s resistance to assaults–existential, philosophical, political, moral, spiritual, ethical, practical–dissipates as a state of assault endures and people adapt, as to a siege in wartime, or die, at least linguistically.  Many talking political heads on television are dead, as are many of the elected politicians they mostly associate with or chase after or theatrically condemn.  Listening to such media-heads is a kind of linguistic torture, as well as a moral one.  Perhaps we all cannot perceive fully the insanity of such a state of being.  Every time a new change occurs, we must adapt to that, in order to survive, and even our own earlier resistance, the resistance of earlier generations, may be forgotten in both form and substance.  And we do adapt to the water that grows increasingly salty, at least for a while.

Do we watch video of demonstrators in the streets of Tehran with fear for them?  Excitement?  Does it not become entertainment of a particularly vicious kind, very quickly?

I used to think we were trapped, in the USA, in a general media narrative–despite infinite amounts of evidence to the contrary–of good fortune (spiced by the usual racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.).  Even after 2001.  (The good-fortune mode of self-defining–largely unconscious, to be sure–contains a subset of self-pity, among some: “Why do they hate us?  Us!”))  The narrative of good fortune holds up our economy.  While for most human beings, after all, for most of the life of our species, the feast has been an exceptional experience associated with beliefs in supernatural powers and blessings, with rituals or worship in observance of those powers, for us the feast is a continuously played, fragmented, TV Mahabharata of Money.  It seems that without a myth of the feast as a continuing, 24/7 experience, American consumerism would collapse.  (How ironic that the economic power that feeds our feasting has at its core a narrative of famine; but that is changing.)

In response to all this–genuine horrors, the saturation of the media and of the contemporary ideals of consumerism by the false idea of a continuous feast, and the ease with which we fall into routines of thought because of routines of language, and on the other hand, the infinite resources of language and the extraordinary riches of world poetry–what does poetry do?

Friday, May 29th, 2009 | Author:

Self Within Self

On a page of a small cheap notebook orphaned by his death, the American fiction writer William Goyen (1915-1983) wrote:

1. Writing is waiting (for)
2. Finding the Voice.
Hearing the Voice.  Story is told to me,  I tell it to you.
Otherwise I don’t write–or can’t write.

Within the writer, another speaks–and says what we may not have expected, or may not have even wished to say.  Or what we expected not to want to say.  You must write what nobody wants to hear, Grace Paley used to say to fellow writers.  One of the most important keys to the doors of writing is that one must find a way to free oneself to write, to have written, already, what one had not entirely wished to say beforehand.  In the writing practice of H駘鈩e Cixous, an unforeseen, unanticipated and apparently mistaken articulation is the unpredicted and invaluable entrance to imaginative freedom.  In what way?  In that we can sometimes see in such apparent accidents or supposed slips the same readiness of the unconscious, the intuition, that is, the full imagination, to bring to conscious awareness something that we are ready to perceive and to acknowledge and, as writers, to use.

In the American writer William Maxwell’s last novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), the author-narrator (Maxwell’s very explicit blurring of a distinction between the two is part of this novel’s strength) describes a moment in his boyhood when, after having moved from a small town in Illinois to Chicago, he saw, or thought he saw, to his surprise, in the crowded hallway of his new high school, a boy he had once known–to whom he did not speak as they passed each other, because the author-narrator’s pained knowledge of the other boy’s tragic childhood in that same small town inhibited him from offering a greeting.  Instead, as he feels it decades later, he snubbed the other boy.

The reader meditating on this passage may feel that the author-narrator snubs the other boy because by the other boy the author-narrator is unconsciously reminded of his own continuing grief over the death of his mother during his childhood.  To keep from feeling his own pain, he refuses to empathize with that of the other boy.  But artistically I find it more productive to think of this moment the other way around–because of living in the aftermath of his own grief, ever present but unacknowledged, the author-narrator is unable, among his welter of impressions in the school hallway, not to see a boy who is or who resembles someone he knew elsewhere.  He sees that boy because the two of them are in one way the same (their grief) even though they are also completely different.  In the emotional structure of the novel, the other boy is a metonym for the author-narrator’s own feelings.  The author-narrator already is unconsciously seeking a vision of the other boy, and finds it, or is called by it.

So it happens that unconsciously we call for certain texts to call us.  We are read, as we read, by those texts that enable us to read what we are now prepared to read but have not yet read (even if we have read it before).  And we are written, sometimes with the effect of falsifying ourselves, but at other times with the effect of liberating ourselves–by language, by other texts, by our own effort to produce an authentic widening of our experience–to articulate “a truth won from life against all odds, because a truth in and about a mode of experience to which the mind is normally closed,” as the English poet Donald Davie once put it.

This process is not merely self-reflexive, which would become self-oppressive and is in any case insufficient to consciousness; the process also brings to our awareness our unconscious understanding of words and the world, of self and of our past selves, and this allows us to change our understanding.

As I write, what follows my sense of myself is my sense of my not-self and of my after-self, as the impulse to write is followed by the writing–there, on the paper, on the desk, outside of me.

The productive effect of the writer’s differentiation from himself or herself, the writer’s self-alienation, I myself first understood in a social sense, when reading Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams.  These writers could not address in their writings the communities of those whose experience they shared and on whom they drew for the substance of their work, because those communities were cut off from–respectively–literacy, in the case of the American slaves, whose way of life Douglass had escaped; poetic innovation and mastery, to say nothing of highly unconventional metaphysical daring and God-doubting in the case of Dickinson’s backwater Amherst (and, as it turned out, sophisticated Boston as well); and again literacy, both literal and cultural, in the case of the immigrant families whom Williams treated as a physician, and about whom he wrote out of his intense responsiveness to their experience (see his poem “Complaint,” published in 1921, and his well-known story, “The Use of Force,” collected in 1950 but originally published earlier–and I do not forget his remarkable In the American Grain, but I have no space at present in which to try to put this thinking into relationship with Williams’s sense of how we Americans have been formed in a grain that is distinct from that of the European colonizers of this continent).  Douglass’s eloquent sentences include the famous juxtaposition of a symbol of the slave’s deprivation and suffering with a symbol of the literate man’s opportunity and obligation to write of the slave: “My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”   Dickinson’s poetico-theological challenges can still affright conventional belief.  None of these three wrote in order to please, yet each of them might well have wanted very much to please a community to which they could not write, a community of their own that would not understand what they were saying.

After I came to recognize the paradox of these writers’ having been separated from their own communities by their very purposes and practices of writing about, and on behalf of, but not to, and even against the grain of, those communities, I realized that Rimbaud’s formulation of poetic liberation, “je est un autre” ["I" is an other], might be not only a given or sought-for psychological state but equally a state socially produced in the writer, and in fact a valuable effect both psychological and social of the very act of writing.  (William Goyen used this famous motto of Rimbaud as one of the epigraphs to his novel The House of Breath [1950], where it has the effect of alerting the reader in advance to the multiplicity of selves who narrate the book, all of them also in some sense the author-narrator “Goyen.”)  The act and result of writing place something that was inside oneself outside oneself, since writing is not at all a wholly internal process, even when a poet composes in his mind before recording the poem, but an act that produces this something that then exists outside the writer.  “Writing” does not necessarily exist at all inside oneself beforehand.  Helene Cixous says, “This is how I write: as if the secret that is in me were before me” (Rootprints, 67).

Among other reasons, writing is disruptive because paradoxically it is a release from, yet also an intrusion on, the non-writing or preliterate part of ourselves.  Writing may solace many of those who write and read, but at times it also disturbs those who do, a disturbance that is itself an energy carrying the writer into the work.  Trauma again.  Perhaps writing often disturbs those who do not write and read, for whom the act of writing seems to be a falsification of the potential veracity of the living voice.  This belief is without foundation, but it is understandable.  I recall being insistently ordered to tell orally “in my own words” what was already in my own words but written down and lying unread on the table, when I stood before a draft board in Houston during the war in Viet Nam.  The three members of that draft board were disturbed not only by what I had written in order to make certain ethical claims, but also by the fact that I had written it.

I am reminded by this of a scene in Patrick White’s historical novel Voss (1957), in which he portrays doomed European early explorers of the Australian interior.  (But we are not doomed when exploring our own interior, even if we sometimes cannot help, complicated creatures that we are, sometimes feeling that our old selves are doomed, either because we cannot discover how to change them and escape being ruled by them, or because we do discover how.)  At a moment when the expedition led by Voss has passed the point of return, Patrick White’s explorers write letters that they think may be their last, they entrust the letters to their sole aboriginal guide, an old man whom they call by the name Dugald, and they send him back toward the now very distant white settlements to deliver them.  Wandering without haste, half-clothed in European garb that is a metonym for western culture, Dugald encounters a group of fellow aborigines.  They notice the flash of white in the pocket of his ragged European coat, and they want to see the letters:

One young woman, of flashing teeth, had come very close, and was tasting a fragment of sealing-wax.  She shrieked, and spat it out.


With great dignity and some sadness, Dugald broke the remaining seals, and shook out the papers until the black writing was exposed.  There were some who were disappointed to see but the pictures of fern roots.  A warrior hit the paper with his spear.  People were growing impatient and annoyed, as they waited for the old man to tell.


These papers contained the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, explained the traveller, by inspiration: the sad thoughts, the bad, the thoughts that were too heavy, or in any way hurtful.  These came out through the white man’s writing-stick, down upon the paper, and were sent away.


Away, away, the crowd began to menace and call.


The old man folded the papers.  With the solemnity of one who has interpreted a mystery, he tore them into little pieces.


How they fluttered.


The women were screaming, and escaping from the white man’s bad thoughts.


Some of the men were laughing.


Only Dugald was sad and still, as the pieces of paper fluttered round him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.

In this little parable of oral culture versus writing culture, White portrays the exteriorizing of thought and feeling in the act of writing.  “Bad” thoughts come out in writing and are sent away; “good” ones do, too, we might add.  We western readers see that this is true, in a somewhat but not wholly mistaken way.

So because it is partly the unconscious content of individual psyche and shared language, personal feelings and learned attitudes that is there, “alienated” onto the page, one reads text not only with the eyes but, as White vividly illustrates, with one’s whole culture, one’s whole web of beliefs, even (and especially) with one’s tongue (in both senses).  The young woman tastes the sealing wax, which is the mark of the privacy of the written letter, the interiority of it, the authenticity of it.

As Cixous puts it, one reads with “the body.  The entrails.  Of the soul also” (Rootprints, 90).  (Neuroscientists like Anthony Damasio have established the great degree to which the body as well as the mind produces feeling and thinking, and consciousness itself; ancient writers beginning with Homer characterized all thinking and feeling as located in the body in ways that neuroscience, and post-Enlightenment thinkers like Cixous, now prove and theorize–not in order to negate reason, but in order to attend to the full capacity of reason.)  Cixous writes with the body, longhand; she cannot achieve her “interior voyage” with a machine; writing longhand, “it is as if I were writing on the inside of myself” (Rootprints, 105).   For her, one emblem of this act is Stendhal’s secret childhood writing on the inner waistband of his trousers (Rootprints, 103).

So from one’s own belly, from one’s emotional entrails, one foretells one’s own past feelings and thinking.  The written page is the waistband around one’s life.  One must work to foretell not only the distant past but also the very moment before writing the words one is now reading.  One reads with one’s entrails the entrails that, unlike those of a sheep or a cock, are one’s own and did not require one’s dying in order to be produced.  Or maybe this foretelling of one’s own past being (that is, this act of writing), did require one’s death.  Let’s remember Wordsworth’s poem!

Cixous says, “The relationship to death is fundamental.  It’s the cause.  We live, we start writing from death.”  (By “we” in this particular statement she means herself and Jacques Derrida, her close friend.)  “But: for me, death is past.  It has already taken place.  My own.  It was at the beginning” (Rootprints, 82).  In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous sends writers first of all to what she calls “The School of the Dead.”  If we want to write at all truthfully–

(I hope you will forgive me if I use the word “truth.”  The moment I say “truth” I expect people to ask: “What is truth?”  “Does truth exist?”  Let us imagine that it exists.  The word exists, therefore the feeling exists.) (Three Steps, 36)

–we must at least “try to unlie” (Three Steps, 36).  And “writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death, since we cannot tell the truth” (Three Steps, 37).  But to try to tell it, we try to see and to write as if we were not ourselves.  We stand apart.  Apart from others: “Between the writer and his or her family the question is always one of departing while remaining present, of being absent while in full presence, of escaping, of abandon” (Three Steps, 21).  (Here’s another sort of “de-famili-arization”–which is not unrelated to the linguistic kind.)  Again I think of William Goyen, who seems to me to have been one of the greatest American practitioners of “ecriture feminine”; in an interview that he gave in 1982, the year before he died, to a French literary magazine, Masques, he said:

Despite their disapproval [meaning, of his parents], I applied myself to writing in order to liberate myself. [...]  I was close enough to my family, but also very alone.  I didn’t understand anything about the pursuits and interests of children my own age.  What they did didn’t appeal to me.  I was alone and remained alone, with one wish: to leave.  I would remain sitting in a corner for hours.  This would greatly annoy my friends.  It was always like this.  Next, I set myself to using anything that allowed me some form of escape (sex, pills, alcohol, etc.).  And now, regardless of where I find myself (at a concert, a restaurant . . .), I always sit where it will be possible for me to leave, because in my head, it is possible that I’ll be inclined to do just that. (Goyen, n.p.)

Perhaps this readiness to depart is a commonplace among writers of a certain temperament.  But if it is indeed an idea, a stance, a possibility, that the writer can use, it remains not very often used.  There is a broader sense of it in the French aphorism of Samuel Beckett that Goyen liked to quote–”L’artiste qui joue son etre est de nulle part. Il n’a pas de pays. Et il n’a pas de frere.” As Goyen himself paraphrased it: “The artist who uses his life completely, throws it full into the tide, is of no place.  And he has no country, he has no kin.”  And this, from a writer who was utterly grounded in, fascinated by, a captive of, local place–both culturally and linguistically–in his portrayal of small-town East Texas in the first half of the twentieth century.  The aphorism is not only about that; it is also about the second sort of standing apart existentially–from ourselves and others.

That is, from our own experience.  We go back to what we lived as if someone else had mowed that field.  The aphorism is about a moment when one can achieve a psychological, not a mortal, dying to oneself and to those whom one both loves and hates, or at least an absence from them, if one is to write a certain kind of truth about oneself and about others, about the world.  Cixous says: “Writing is first of all a departure.”  (But–this departure does not mean that the writer as a person must exist outside any human community.  Poetry and community–a topic for another time.)