summering with William Carlos Williams

The end of summer is a ways off, but with the start of school there is a change in summer’s energy at least. For me, I’m bracing to become some version of those balloon figures you see at car dealerships, the ones that are flung in various directions depending on the wind. That’s what teaching mode is like for me, lots of energy and enthusiasm.

car dealership balloonIt’s a mixed blessing, though, as there is a part of me this time of year that wants to stand back and reflect. Could be my birthday, could be the looming end of summer, could be knowing that what happens during the semester is a huge shift, and I don’t love change. I’m reconciled to it, and I love teaching. But yet there’s an unnameable feeling that comes.

This week’s poem – “Summer Song” by William Carlos Williams – touches a bit on what that unnameable feeling might be like. Through the personification of the moon, Williams builds a short narrative whose logic leads up to a compelling closing image and thought. I consider the closing question from a grounded place, but am lifted by it nonetheless.

Summer Song – William Carlos Williams

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,—
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer’s smile,—
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
sky-blue
where would they carry me?

clarity with Chuck Wachtel

I’ve been revising in an odd style lately, keep writing notes to myself like: more of this Objectivist vibe, or: you’re not Williams, sorry. A lot of the poems I’m working on in this way are written in short lines, with close enjambment, definitely in the style of the Objectivists, a group which includes George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker. William Carlos Williams (the Williams of my earlier note) is loosely related to the group, his no ideas but in things influencing this group via the work of the Imagists.

I share the above to do two things: 1) To share a bit of the histories/traditions with which I sit down at the page with; and 2) To introduce this week’s poem, “Old Sycamore” by Chuck Wachtel, a poem that takes after Williams’ style in an instructive and illuminating manner.

SycamoreReading Wachtel’s poem is an exercise in focus; in its own distinct fashion, the poem moves forward in its short lines with a surprising use of enjambment. While the poem’s meditation is straightforward, the enjambment draws the reader’s attention closer to the words in such a way that the meaning builds and blurs alongside the clarity of what’s being said. It’s a favorite poem of mine because the language creates exactly what the speaker fears is unattainable. Lyric glimpses like this one, of possibility and meaning, are a gift.

Old Sycamore – Chuck Wachtel

in memory of Joel Oppenheimer, 1930-88

The slender young
sycamores of Rutherford,
New Jersey, are fat

now, trunks
scarred, half-dead,
no longer

there. The poems
Williams left

behind, always new
in themselves,

are old
too. What I fear
is that our
language,

possessed
of so much

light that it
has filled
the world with

things
we must be
told of,

now
battered by
decades of
persuasion,

can no longer
make a thing
so clear I am

overwhelmed by
its clarity, can

no longer make
a thing into
a word spoken

once and within
that single
utterance

repeated over
and over, until
it reaches, then

exceeds its own
self-meaning
and we lose

sight
of it, begin
to see instead
everything around

it – a whole
world of new

things made from
an old thing
brought into

being in one
single beat

of existence
— the offering,
then, of a

thing
left behind.

*

from Visiting Doctor Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams

* reading from The Divorce Suite!

September ended up being such a busy month that I never got around to sharing more excerpts from The Divorce Suite (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Luckily, a recent outing to the Spring Grove Cemetery provided a nice background and inspiration for a reading. Below are the poems “Gift” and “The Accordion Heart” along with a clip of my reading them.

I chose these two poems because they are both what I term “makeshift sonnets.” There was a year (2006, I believe) when I wrote a sonnet a day; terribly rhymed creatures they were, all sorts of misguided phrasing. I then took a break from writing in the form for a few years, returning to the form after learning about William Carlos Williams and his idea of the sonnet as simply the shape of an argument.

With that framework to brace me, I wrote my way back into the fourteen line form, feeling out an argument or sense of argument. Both of these poems work out their own sense of argument, and strike their separate notes that compliment the overall project of The Divorce Suite.

*

Gift – José Angel Araguz

A man with a heavy German accent
handed me a book by Brigitte Reimann,
said he had bought it but had to leave
suddenly, and wanted to gift it
to the store. He walked off then.
Gift it, I kept repeating, telling
the story to anyone who’d listen.
Do you know how great that is?

The front photo was the color of smoke,
the author, young, and holding a cigarette.
It looked as if by standing there,
she colored everything around her.
When I looked it up, I found the title
translated to: Everything tastes like farewell.

*

The Accordion Heart – José Angel Araguz (*)

The accordion heart is hard to carry.
There are no hands for it. To play,
you go from face to face and wait
to see who wakes it up. You’ll feel
the air inside you pull and stretch.
You’ll feel awkward and loud, and yet
each movement could be music. You
can see where this could lead to something.

Sometimes the face won’t want to play.
Sometimes the face will play too long.
Either way, you’ll feel worn out.
You’ll want to punch and tear a hole,
and prove the accordion heart is useless.
There are no hands for it. You wait.

*

The Divorce Suite can be purchased from Red Bird Chapbooks.

Happy accordioning!

José

(*) “The Accordion Heart” was originally published in Foothill: a journal of poetry.

* new post for the CR blog!

William Carlos Williams Selected Poems ND
The true Carlito’s Way!

Just a quick post to share my latest installment of “What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?” over at the Cincinnati Review blog.

In this post I do a short survey of three Virgo poets: Charles Wright, Kay Ryan, and William Carlos Williams. Could be that working on this CR post last week is what had me with Williams on my mind for last week’s Influence.

Enjoy!

José

* nosing with quevedo & williams

 

One of the more exciting moments in reading is coming across texts that show a writer’s own reading creeping into their writing. In my own work, I can think of an orange I inadvertantly stole from a Gary Soto poem as well as a prayer reformulated from an Ernest Hemingway short story. These are moments where an influence is unavoidable or inevitable in hindsight. Not outright theft but more moving forward with one’s influences like burrs caught on your clothing after walking through grass.

burrI found such a moment in reading William Carlos Williams recently. While I’ve long admired his poem “Smell” for its ingenuity and directness, learning that he had translated the work of the Spanish Gold Age writer Francisco de Quevedo added another layer of meaning. Quevedo has an infamous sonnet, an “ode” to a rival’s nose, that, when read with Williams in mind, can’t help but conjure up the latter’s own poem. Here are excerpts from Quevedo’s sonnet, “A Una Nariz” (To a Nose):

Érase un hombre a una nariz pegado, 
érase una nariz superlativa, 
érase una nariz sayón y escriba, 
érase un pez espada muy barbado.

Érase un naricísimo infinito 
frisón archinariz, caratulera, 
sabañón garrafal, morado y frito.

(Once there was a nose with a man attached,
a superlative nose,
a nose both criminal and scribe,
a swordfish with an overgrown beard.

It was an infinity of nostrilisticity,
a towering archnose, a mask,
a proud and painful protruding pimple.)

One can see the exaggeration and wordplay of Quevedo’s original influencing Williams’ poem below. While the speaker in the poem by Williams turns the satire on himself, there is no less enthusiasm and barb in his words. Considering the two poems together, I can’t help but view the question asked in the last line of the Williams poem (Must you have a part in everything?) as mirroring the way reading influences writing.

nose_study_by_yellowquiet-d5mgoca

Smell – William Carlos Williams

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?

*

Happy nosing!

José

* dedicated with william carlos williams

While “The Red Wheelbarrow” remains one of his more popular poems – and one that confounds students to this day, usually leading to the question Why is that a poem? (to which I usually respond with Why not?) – read enough William Carlos Williams and you’ll see how multifaceted his body of work is. In this week’s poem, “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” Williams is able to whirlwind through the details of a human life and have them stand with as much vividness as the more nuanced image of

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

Two weeks ago I shared a poem by Blaise Cendrars in which I discussed the use of lists in poetry and life. Williams’ use of a list in this week’s poem opens up and gives a second life to a person through his own singular way with specificity.

* este wheelbarrow *
* este wheelbarrow *

Dedication for a Plot of Ground – William Carlos Williams

This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in St. Thomas,
Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed
the oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her “baby,”
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them—they being
motherless—fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived here fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and—

If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.

***

Happy bringing!

Jose

p.s. Read an article on the recent discovery of the man behind “The Red Wheelbarrow” here.

* Fanny Howe & the friday influence

(poem from Robeson Street) – Fanny Howe

Pushing children in plaid & silver prams

us mothers were dumpy,

                                           hunched in the damp

 

and our redlipped infants

   sucked on their strange fingers

      eyes stung by the gunny-strong

           grass on the hills

 

I wanted to sit near sweet water, not salt

in the fuzz of extreme weather,

           but we’re not here to

 

Like women who love the Lord on hills

what for what for,  we cawed outside

   as in bare trees, too plain to see

 

***

I have spent the past few weeks smitten and humbled by the work of Fanny Howe.  This poem holds much of what I find fascinating in her work.

There is the touch of William Carlos Williams in the phrasing of the line “us mothers were dumpy” – some of that American language he prized so much.

Then there’s her way with the line, as in “but we’re not here to” – the way the phrasing cuts off the sentence at just the point where it has its meaning complete as well as visually plays out the concept of “we’re not here”.

In this poem about disappearance of sense of self, those last two lines swallow the people in the poem and turn them into birds – all of it done in careful phrasing.  I turn the last two lines here over and over in my head to watch the meanings gleam and hold.

***

birds, yo.

***

Happy gleaming!

J

* Charles Wright & the friday influence

The Last Word – Charles Wright

I love to watch the swallows at sundown,
                                 swarming after invisible things to eat.
Were we so lucky,
A full gullet, and never having to look at what it is,
Sunshine all over our backs.

There are no words between my fingers
Populating the lost world.
Something, it now seems, has snapped them up
Into its speechlessness,
                                                  into its thick aphasia.

It’s got to be the Unredeemable Bird, come out
From the weight of the unbearable.
It flaps like a torn raincoat,
                                                first this side, then that side.
Words are its knot of breath,
                                                   language is what it lives on.

***

This week on the Influence: Charles Wright.

To get a little astrological for a moment, every poet I enjoy that falls under the Virgo sign shares a common experience in the reading of their work, namely that you must read a lot of it, really dunk in your head, before it truly becomes accessible.

This isn’t a matter of difficulty or obscurity in the poems.

Take William Carlos Williams, whose “This is just to say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” are famously accessible and amazing.

I had enjoyed his poems for years but it wasn’t until I sat down with a copy of his selected poems and read it aloud cover to cover that I felt that I truly felt what he was doing in his poems.  About ten pages in I started to see the working of a mind, a sensibility and conviction about the world that played out in poems full of images and clear phrasing.

The true Carlito’s Way!

I have had a similar experience with the work of Charles Wright.

Every book I read of his takes me down into another level of where his poetic self lives.  It is a world of metaphysics, Li Po and other classical Chinese poets, the South, and, amongst various other things, a genuine understanding of the tenuous and precious hold we have on reality.

Also, he claims that he is the only Southerner he knows incapable of telling a story.  A true Virgo admission.

He recently did a book entitled “Sestets” where he funnels his poetic sensibilities down into six line poems that bang and spark.

In my notebook where I wrote down the above poem last December, I wrote: the shorter, more focused his work gets, the more I tune my ears to it.  Here something sensual leads to something that opens and expands in the mind.  I still feel that way.  Poetry like the sounding of a church bell, telling you the time, the sound expanding into time.

***

Happy sounding!

J