A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists
edited by Bram Dijkstra
New Directions, $16
William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940
University of California Press
While T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were reading the classics, William Carlos Williams was looking at pictures. He was first a modernist, second a poet; we miss the substance of his originality if we read him with only literary models in mind. Williams himself took every opportunity to remind his audience that he worked across boundaries: “For poet read — artist, painter.” Even the most casual reader will notice the visual intensity of his work, but the connection goes further. Williams thought about the creative process in painters’ terms, and he asks us to experience the work as we might experience a modern painting: “There is no subject; it’s what you put on the canvas and how you put it on that makes the difference. Poems aren’t made of thoughts — they’re made of words, pigments put on … (The comment was addressed to a Harvard audience in 195 1; he undoubtedly thought the group needed deprogramming.) Williams disliked the secondary intensity of language used as a symbol system. Modern painting was unmediated, sensuous. His great achievement was to bring some of its qualities into poetry. In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly “I’ve attempted to fuse the poetry and painting. to make it the same thing.”
Williams was never a stranger to the visual arts. His mother used to fill her empty Rutherford days by telling her son about the grand life she had known as a student painter in Paris. And the young man showed some skill as a Sunday painter. Poetry, he said, finally won out as more fitting to a doctor’s busy schedule. But many of his closest friends were painters and/or collectors, and although Williams kept a safe distance from Greenwich Village, he made regular weekend visits, frequenting the informal salons of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, Alfred Kreymborg, Man Ray, and others. He even had a weekend mistress, the exotic sculptress Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Once he had “the whole gang up” to Rutherford. and the group photograph of them all is a memento of modernism. Williams obviously saw it as a grand occasion.
These social connections stimulated regular artistic exchanges and collaborations. Williams used a picture by Stuart Davis for the frontispiece to Kora in Hell. Spring and All was dedicated to his lifelong friend Charles Demuth, and the painter reciprocated with a canvas version of Williams’s poem, “The Great Figure.” The poet also collaborated with artist William Zotach on a special two poem/ two drawing volume.
The recent New Directions volume, A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists, is perhaps the best documentation to date of the poet’s participation in the goings-on of the art world. It contains forty-two essays and notes covering rive decades in which Williams celebrated and promoted the visual arts in journals, lectures, exhibition catalogues. Although most of the major essays have appeared in some form before, the sheer quantity and range of this collected material should have an important impact for readers of Williams, as well as for students of American modernism generally. The editor is Bram Dijkstra, whose book The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech: Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Princeton, 1969) did more than any other work to make clear the importance of reading Williams in the context of painting. Guided by some sound assumptions about Williams’s method of prose composition, he has managed to cull through many disorderly manuscripts and revisions to produce a readable, definitive collection of the poet’s views on art. Surprisingly, many of these essays, which seem to have been written for a particular occasion or particular audience, were never published. Although it is unlikely that Williams wrote art criticism as a hobby, one feels the need of some explanation, which Dijkstra does not attempt. But he has written an otherwise thoughtful introduction which, in analyzing Williams’s way of seeing, and in taking up many of the most complex and ambiguous elements of the poet’s critical theory, stands as a valuable essay in its own right, Many of the pieces in this volume, particularly those written in the thirties or thereabouts, deal with the relation between politics and art, and Dijkstra, as a Marxist critic, shrewdly points out how conservative Williams’s views are in this area. Dijkstra is also the first critic, as far as I know, to confront the poet’s sexism with any seriousness. By raising issues such as these, Dijkstra’s introduction serves as an outline for more discriminating future studies of the poet who has been, for the fast twenty years, a sentimental hero.
Many of the essays in this collection exclaim rather than argue. As manifestos, they are unique in that they speak for both arts. Urgent and fragmented rather than considered and logical, their value lies in their bold challenge not only to artistic traditions by also to the rules of composition. Other essays display the anecdotal charm characteristic of poems. “Effie Deans” praises the homely pictures that decorate the living rooms of average citizens. In keeping with its subject, the piece is written as story. “Who the Dickens is Effie Dean?’ said Floss to me when I came in for lunch?” These essays reminisce, not only of paintings but also of the men who painted them, for Williams thinks of artwork in terms of character. In the essay on Tchelitchew, the surrealist painter, for instance, Williams organizes his observations as the recollection of an afternoon visit to the artist’s studio. The poet is often overindulgent in his use of analogy, but even when his images wander from the subject they can be savored for themselves:
I imagine the angels will have forgotten, by that time, whether they had been niggers, archbishops, — or even the sex or their parents. Memory will not be their occupation, they will have escaped it or escaped all its less significant details. When they look at the new pictures of those who remain artists among them they will seek qualities mote mineral than protoplasmic, to be graded as they repel, absorb. or transmit light.
But we — are full of memories and the best we can do is to seek in them for the luminous.
If we had only these exclamatory and whimsical essays, we would not think of Williams as an art critic. But the volume also includes several critically articulated, detailed analyses of painting which demonstrate his discipline and perspicuity as well as his imaginative eye. In the essay on a Brancusi retrospective Williams melds warmth and inventiveness with careful critical insight. He describes the artist’s major qualities, notes his development toward an absolute purity, compares his achievement to that of other sculptors. For a layman, Williams’s alertness to the special problems and solutions of a visual medium is remarkable. The two essays on Sheeler that Dijkstra includes demonstrate this range of critical style. The first, a 1939 introduction to a MOMA catalogue, is a polemic against dead art and a eulogy for “contact” artists. The second, which appeared in Art in America in 1954, retains all the raw insight of the earlier essay, but includes some of the best and most detailed critical description of Sheeler’s work to appear in print.
Often what Williams says about the visual arts can stand as well in defense of his own work. Indeed, the same themes recur in his essays and introductions on poetry. In thinking about “modern work” (the phrase he preferred), Williams continually returned to a few key concepts contradictory within themselves and in relation to each other, but nevertheless fundamental for his poetry. He called the magazine he started (with Marsden Hartley in 1920) “Contact,” declaring the value of “essential contact with the local conditions which confront us.” The magazine would offer an alternative to both regionalist and expatriate art. The word contact appeared as early as 1915 in the essay “Vortex,” which Dijkstra has published for the first time. In that essay we see the essential duality of the term, which remained as a tension in the poetry throughout Williams’s career: “I will express my emotions in the appearances: surfaces, sounds, smells, touch of the place in which I happen to be”; “By taking whatever character my environment has presented and turning it to my purpose, I have expressed my independence of it.” Later in the volume this paradox becomes, “the local is the only universal, ” or “the local is the freeing agent of all thought.” The imagination discovers its autonomy by cleaving to things. Williams insists on particularity, but the particular is lifted from its empirical context, “cleaned” or “cut” into sharp edges. and rediscovered in the field of art, where it has an abstract purity and independent wholeness.
Strangely married to the contact idea, then, is the idea of “design” as the liberating action of the imagination. As Williams said to Walter Sutton, “the meaning of the poem can be grasped by attention to the design. Design makes things speak. In Spring and All, these two concepts are in creative friction. The book rejects “verisimilitude, that great copying” as plagiarism of nature, insisting instead on a “separation.” “The word must be put down for itself, not as a symbol of nature but as a part, cognizant of the whole.” Art is in apposition, not opposition to nature.
Things with which he is familiar, simple things – at the same time to detach them from ordinary experience to the imagination. Thus they are still “real” they are the same things they would be it photographed or painted by Monet, they are recognizable as the things touched by the hands during the day, but in this painting they are seen to be in some peculiar way – detached….
The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation.
The same book can present the “Redwheelbarrow,” the famous illustration of “no ideas but in things,” and a poem called “Composition,” which begins with “a red paper box” but declares its freedom in turning that box into everything else but itself:
it is the sun
on it for
these are the same —
Williams was attracted to imagism, he says, because “poetry and the image were linked in my mind.” But Kora in Hell was his first really bold attempt to think about what the new painting could do for poetry. The 1918 prologue to this book is largely random chat, but certain preoccupations are clear. The values of the painters’ world (at this point dadaism specifically) are held against the criticism of poets (specifically H.D. and Wallace Stevens). In Sour Gropes Williams is thinking of his works as canvases, though lie hasn’t discovered the full bearing of the analogy, “To a Solitary Disciple” contrasts two visual representations of a scene, one dominated by color comparisons which take us away from the immediate image, the other preoccupied with defining the relation of planes, spaces, textures, in the scene itself. We can easily read this poem as the comparison of an impressionist’s canvas with a precisionist’s canvas. Titles show the poet’s interest in painting most conspicuously: “Portrait in Greys,” ” Birth of Venus.” But although Williams has painting in mind in this book, conventions of language still dominate the poems. It is in Spring and All that Williams achieves the painted poem — and perhaps to signal his readers, he not only imitates and invokes Cezanne, Juan Gris , John Marin and others but also dedicates the book to Charles Demuth.
Surprisingly, Williams never wrote a critical essay on Demuth, perhaps because he was so creatively involved with the painter. He seems to have learned most from Demuth about the art of still life, adopting the drama and detail of the painter’s representations. Demuth’s flowers, so vivid in themselves are separate from nature, hovering in the center of an otherwise empty paper. Similarly Williams’s poem “Pot of Flowers,” after Demuth’s watercolor Tuberoses, presents the internal dynamism of an image “detached” from a natural or a symbolic context. Still life is often described as a minor genre of art because it lacks human content. But Williams, following Demuth, charges these apparently impersonal subjects with emotional and visual activity.
Pink confused with white flowers and flowers reversed take and spill the shaded flame darting it back into the lamp’s horn.
Colors, shapes, and textures play against each other throughout the poem, creating the energy and pathos, if not the magnitude, of a heroic scene. Coruscating light is set against a solemn, mysterious darkness:
petals radiant with transpiercing light
reaching up their modest green
from the pot’s rim
and there, wholly dark, the pot
gay with rough moss.
The tensions here have the same structure as tension of a higher order, though Williams carefully keeps within the limits of the image. Dijkstra begins the volume of essays with a poem that clearly shows Williams’s awareness of the expressive power of still life.
All poems can be represented by
still lifes not to say
water-colors, the violence of the Illiad lends itself to an arrangement
of narcissi in a jar.
The slaughter of Hector by Achilles can well be shown by them
casually assembled yellow upon white
radiantly making a circle
sword strokes violently given
in more or less haphazard disarray.
Also from Spring and All, “The Rose” imitates a collage by Juan Gris. In contrast to “Pot of Flowers” (and in keeping with the differences between Demuth and Gris), “The Rose” superimposes many planes of representation. Rather than fixing the image in one dramatic focus, the poem multiplies frames of reference, declaring the freedom of the imagination to reconstitute the object. Williams diversifies texture, making hard and fragile materials define the same object, just as Gris cut a photograph of a rose out of a magazine and pasted it on a photograph of a rose painted on a plate. Of all the poems in Williams’s corpus, “The Rose” most clearly reflects his attention to cubist techniques. Like the image in a cubist painting the representation is fragmented: sharply different kinds of words and statements are juxtaposed without connectives. The poem attempts a “geometry” of seeing, shaped by beginnings and abrupt counter-beginnings rather than by one series.
Although the effect of “The Rose” is to dismantle the image from conventional associations, Williams uses the inherent unity of the object in the memory of the reader, “the forms common to experience so as not to frighten the onlooker away but to invite him.” In those poems without a central object it is sometimes very difficult to maintain even an embattled coherence, We don’t know what is being fragmented and reassembled. In such cases we may get a sense of violent contrast but have no context in which to experience the force of the oppositions. But Spring and All was an experimental book, and it would be the task of future books to discipline and refine its discoveries.
In writing Spring and All Williams learned that the new art does not evade artistic ordering to preserve naturalness, but on the contrary elevates design as a primary end of art.
And we thought to escape rime
by imitation of the senseless
unarrangement of wild things —
the stupidest rime of all —
let me examine
of orange, clear as an electric
bulb on fire
or powdery with sediment —
matt, the shades and textures
of a Cubist picture
of fish by Hartley, orange of a
ale and lilies
One of Williams’s most beautiful works of this middle period, a poem rarely commented upon, is “The Crimson Cyclamen” to the memory of Charles Demuth, who had recently died of diabetes. Like “Pot of Flowers,” the poem attempts to create the feeling of a Demuth still life through words. But it goes much further than the earlier poem. Like “Young Sycarriore,” this poem fuses a temporal awareness of the object’s growth with the immediate drama of it spatial presence. And like “The Rose,” the poem extends its subject without violating the image. Built into the depiction of a natural process are the creative processes of painter and poet (anticipating a technique fully realized in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”). At this point Williams is freer with nonvisual materials, weaving them gracefully into the texture of the picture he is describing:
It is miraculous
that flower should rise
alike in loveliness —
as though mirrors
of some perfection
could never be too often shown —
silence holds them —
in that space. And
color has been construed
to waken there —
This poem continually calls to mind Demuth’s life and achievement, not through figuration but through the grace and fluidity of its style. Williams has managed to transfer all the emotions he must feel remembering his friend into the careful act of tracing an object. The emotional range and intensity of a conventional elegy and tribute is accomplished without an explicit human subject. And in the image of the flower, traced from its first opening and reproduction of petals to the petals’ gentle collapse, the process of life and death is unified.
The poems of the late thirties and early forties find the harmony of freedom and coherence, of multiplicity and unity, for which the earlier poems were struggling. The violent destruction and fusion of cubist art is developed into a graceful pattern of loss and renewal. Williams leaves the austerity of objectivism and yields to association and subjective feeling without ever abandoning his focus on objects.
Although Williams never stopped celebrating modernism in his late work, he turned increasingly to the old masters of painting. Not only Brueghel but da Vinci, Durer, Botticelli, Bosch, Daurnier, El Greco, Gaugin, and others, are named, imitated, and invoked in these poems. Book V of Paterson is based on the Unicorn tapestries. But these artists did not offer Williams formal challenges (as did Demuth and Gris); instead, they provided models of the artist’s life, the sincerity of his vision, the rigor of his design. No longer threatened by the achievement of the past, Williams saw these artists solving. in their own ways, the same problems that concerned him. And as if to testify to his respectful autonomy, he often borrowed their subject matter, or even made their work his subject.
It isn’t difficult to see why Williams was attracted to Brueghel. Not only the painter’s choice of low -life subjects but also his detached, comprehensive view of them, recalls the poet’s work. On a more formal level, the emphasis on activity, the rich variety of color and shape, and the distinctness of design in these canvases would certainly have appealed to Williams.
In some of the poems in Pictures from Brueghel Williams is clearly trying to achieve in words the effects Brueghel achieved in paint. But much more strongly than before, the poet is aware of the differences between the two mediums and is developing the particular advantages of poetry. Not satisfied with unheard melodies, lie makes the subjects step out of their frame and speak directly in outbursts (as do the dancers at the wedding feast who cry “o Ya!”) or indirectly through the rhythms of the poem (as in another dance poem which has the indefinite beat of a drunken waltz). In “Children’s Games” the rapid lists of actions without subjects evokes the same response from our ear that Brueghel’s busy yard of little figures evokes from our eyes. Unlike painting, poetry can speak of what is not there. Williams reinforces the bleakness of Brueghel’s Parable of he Blind by telling us that there is “no seeing man” and “not a red in the composition.” Poetry can present ideas without things, and though Williams is still niggardly with abstract words and phrases, he is including more than he did early on. The pictures are not simply recreated; we get the subjective sense of what it is like to look at them. Still cautiously cleaving to facts, he is also beginning to make conjectures about what he sees. This is particularly true in the poem “Self-Portrait,” in which the poet encounters the face, shoulders, hands of a fellow artist.
but the eyes red-rimmed
from over-use he must have
but the delicate wrists
show him to have been a
man unused to
manual labor unshaved his
blond beard half trimmed
no time for any-
thing but his painting
All of the poems in the collection consider the maker of the work of art, his sensibility, his imagination, and his skill. This is a surprising step for a former “objectivist,” but Williams is thinking hard at this point of what it means to be an artist. He will soon write “Desert Music.”
Brueghel has been a favorite of other poets besides Williams, but for most of them painting is only the occasion for a meditation. If we compare Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts — (about Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”) to Williams’s poem after the same picture, we see the differences sharply. Auden enters the illusion of the painting, imagining the scene with other senses and from other perspectives. He is clearly more interested in the subject and theme than in the visual composition; appropriately, the language follows conventions of poetic expression. Williams works against these conventions to relay the images freed from the formulaic patterns. The composition is conspicuously independent of the grammar. Like Brueghel, Williams presents Icarus as one small element in the frame, thus using form to make his point. Auden privileges the image of Icarus, ignoring the contradiction between form and content because he takes form for granted. Nor does Williams judge the event as a “disaster”; rather, like Brueghel, he simply presents the simultaneity of spring and a fall: his favorite juxtaposition). Similarly, in “Hunters in the Snow,” Williams’s aim is to present the scene; he does not, as John Berryman does with the same painting, depart into a Keatsian reflection of art and life. The fact that these scenes concern human subjects inevitably adds an emotional dimension that the earlier still lifes lacked, but just as those formalist poems managed to create an emotional drama, these genre poems show all the restraint of a formalist aesthetic.
We’ve all been told, by Williams and by his critics, that the visual arts were important to his work. But only recently — at a Whitney Museum exhibition — were we actually able to see this for ourselves. And Dickran Tashjian’s book, William Carlos Williams and the American Scene (which served as an exhibition catalogue), has made this experience available to a broader public.
To walk through the exhibition or to flip through the pages of Tashjian’s book is to get an immediate impression of the range and liveliness of the American art scene in the first three decades of this century. Because the work of Americans during this period is generally overshadowed by European modernism (as it was in the Armory Show of 1913), this collection is valuable simply as a corrective. America in the tens, twenties, and thirties was not Europe manque. This is also one of the first major presentations of the period’s literary/visual art nexus. Our current contexts for presenting artwork tend to isolate disciplines, but the magazines and galleries of the early avant-garde were examples of artists working easily across boundaries.
After the first thrill of seeing all this exciting material brought together, it is hard to decide just what the exhibit and catalogue are establishing. Although some of the work included came directly from Williams’s private collection, there was also much that was irrelevant or abhorrent to the poet. This would be fine if the intent were to give a comprehensive view of the American scene, but then why use Williams as a focus at all? Or why not include other regionalist writers, like Carl Sandburg or E.A. Robinson? On the other hand, the exhibition leaves out a number of works that Williams drew from directly. Is the show primarily about Williams or about the American scene? And what is meant by “the American scene” – the art world or the world represented in the art?”
Modernism was really a chaos of isms that are often hard to distinguish, but precisely for this reason we need an exhibition with a clear structure and emphasis. Tashjian does manage to bring out and articulate some basic ambiguities in the precepts of modernism. The first two chapters of his book, for instance, deal well with the apparent contradiction between the insistent “contact with America” and the importance of European art, particularly French painting, for the New York avant-garde. Williams himself clarifies this issue in the essay “French Painting.’* which Dijkstra includes in his collection. What the poet admired in the French painters was their ability to make form (not just subject matter) reflect the conditions of place. He called for American artists not to copy French forms but to follow French example in finding a local form. In this he answered both the subject-oriented, conventional, regionalist painters and the expatriates and Francophiles.
As Tashjian shows, it was the principle of form in contact with the local that Williams admired in his contemporaries. But it is surprising that Tashjian put Marsden Hartley in the category of “contact with the West.” Presumably he wanted to stress the artist’s attraction to the primitive which was seen as more available in the West. In this way the contact artists were always conflating form and subject. But although Williams did own a painting of New Mexican mountains b v Hartley, his essays on the painter put a heavy emphasis on Hartley’s New England background. These essays tend to be heavily biographical in their approach. Even when Williams is actually looking at a Hartley painting, he tends to read it as expressive of the artist’s personality.
He loved women too but the incongruity between his fierce looks and gentle ways were on the whole too much for them. He had to look elsewhere for his comfort — yet one of his early paintings, “Two Trees,” shows a story not to be forgotten. It is in the open woods, two white birches occupy the middle ground of the picture, two young white birches that had been snapped off by a storm., doubtless an ice storm, one on the left, one on the right toward each other! Their tips touching the earth between them almost met. Can that speak of some early tragedy of the heart?
Contact in Hartley’s painting, at least for Williams, meant a raw personal grappling with experience, an expression of the self encountering the world.
Contact was also what Williams admired in Charles Sheeler’s work, though the painter couldn’t seem more distinct from Hartley. His cool, reticent, precise images clash with the primitive fury of Hartley’s vision. Sheeler was a photographer as well and carried the precision and impersonality of that medium over to his painting. The two artists together define the subjective/objective poles of the contact idea.
Williams is quick to point out that although there is an objective purity in Sheeler’s work, it is not a slavish imitation of photography, nor a “plagiarism of nature. ” Design controls these representations, which appropriately are often machines. But the design is never metamorphic; it preserves the clear contours of its subject. Not surprisingly, Williams is beginning at this time to think about the design of poetry in terms of machines.
All this emphasis on “contact with America” inevitably led Williams to American primitive painting. Tashjian confuses the issue, I think, by combining it with the issue of immigrant identity raised in the paintings of Gorky, Shahn (neither artist a particular favorite of Williams’s), and others. The poet’s sense of ethnicity in his attachment to his Puerto Rican mother had little to do with the primitive or with the issue of basic rights. And when Williams writes (in the Dijkstra collection) of the Garbisch collection of American primitives, it is not to search out origins, to call for the rights of the poor, or to express nostalgia for the American past. His response is an aesthetic one; the American primitives achieve the idea of underivative local contact, images raised out of the flux of life and possessed by the imagination.
For all its aesthetic perspicuity, Williams’s writing on the American primitives smacks of the pastoral. “Who shall say the plenty of the New World so evident about them was not the true model that has been recorded – so innocently recorded the beholder in whom no rancor has as yet intruded?” The poor, the uneducated, are unselfconscious and closer to nature; their vision is unmediated. Such idealization of the rural primitive and proletarian runs throughout Williams’s writing; it is fundamental not only to his choice of subject but also to his claim to be using “plain American” as the model for poetic speech. He thought of himself as an artist of the people and for the people, and this is how he is often discussed by critics. Certainly in the essay “Effie Deans” he elevates popular taste. But as attractive as this essay is as an antidote to effete modernism, it heaps condescension on its subject, drawing our attention more to the “democratic” sensibility of the poet than to the value of popular art. Williams was continually confusing the self-conscious aesthetic of the naive that he and his fellow artists adopted with actual naivete. Spring and All and Paterson use the aesthetic of the primitive, but both works would surely bewilder his average Rutherford patient.
The most confused chapter of Tashjian’s book (and perhaps the most confused area of William’s aesthetic) concerns the “proletarian portrait.” As Tashjian points out (though he goes on to ignore this insight), Williams never could reconcile art and politics. His closest attempt was the thirties volume, An Early Martyr, but most of the poems in this book work toward the goal of objectivism rather than for social or political change. Their subjects are, as one critic has remarked, human equivalents of the anti-poetic, lifted out of their historical/sociological context and presented clean. It is highly unlikely that Williams would have liked the “proletarian portraits” of Soyer, Schmidt, or Bishon that Tashjian reproduces. And he despised the work of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Stuart Curry, to whom Tashjian persists in comparing him. Williams may, as Tashjian points out, have been attracted more to surrealist forms of protest than to representational ones because form, not only subjects, identified their attitudes. But Williams never mentions the work of Evergood, Gughichni, Billingi, or Blume, whom Tashjian presents as inventors of “a proletarian surrealism.” And while Williams did admire Tchelictchew, the painter’s work is not really political comment so much as apocalyptic vision. Dijkstra, with his strong Marxist bias, provides a helpful corrective to the equivocations in this aspect of the exhibition/catalog.
The Whitney exhibition, Tashjian’s text, and Dijkstra’s collection of William’s essays provide an invaluable starting point for students of modern American poetry. Although we have paid lip service to the importance of cooperation and influence between art forms in this period, we have tended to go on examining artists in the old way, isolating mediums. These materials raise as many questions as they answer; nevertheless they do show us how much can be learned about Williams and the American scene by actually looking at the evidence.