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I need a bigger word for "ouch"

I am reading William Carlos Williams. It makes my head hurt.

Williams wrote “the most consequential one-man body of modern literature in American history,” says the introduction to the book. And it’s certainly not my intent, or my place, to criticize a genius.

But he still makes my head hurt.

Right now I am reading “Kora in Hell: Improvisations.” Here is Williams from the introduction:

It is easy to fall under the spell of a certain mode, especially if it be remote of origin, leaving thus certain of its members essential to a reconstruction of its significance permanently lost in an impenetrable mist of time. But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one:”

At the colon I emerge from an impenetrable mist and snap to attention, because I pretend I am a writer. Williams continues:

“ … always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn.”

By now I am clinging to his words in despair, not knowing which way to turn for them to make sense in my world of short, right-branching sentences made up of one- and two-syllable words, a world I have immersed myself in for the past 30 years. Williams continues:

“ … to turn. Thus the so-called natural or scientific array becomes fixed, the walking devil of modern life. He who even nicks the solidarity of this apparition does a piece of work superior to that of Hercules when he cleaned the Augean stables.”

I take a deep breath and try not to cry. It’s only the introduction, I tell myself. “Kora” is prose poetry. I like poetry. The poetry is probably easier to understand.

You be the judge:

Throw that flower in the waste basket, it’s faded. And keep an eye to your shoes and fingernails. The fool you once laughed at has made a fortune! There’s small help in a clutter of leaves either, no matter how they gleam. Punctilio’s the thing. A nobby vest. Spats. Lamps carry far, believe me, in lieu of sunshine!

Fortunately, Williams provides a summary of what some of the verses mean. Here are his comments on that one:

Despite vastness of frontiers, which are as it were the fringes of a flower full of honey, it is the little things that count! Neglect them and bitterness drowns the imagination.

I am perplexed, befuddled. This is like trying to read Kafka. No: It’s like trying to read Dali. Williams is a genius, but I only catch glimpses of it. It is like trying to watch lightning. Most of the bolts are glanced sidelong and have vanished by the time you’ve turned your head. (I should mention that in his introduction, Williams makes it clear he abhors similes.)

I am reading Williams for a graduate course in English literature. There are about 10 other students in the course. Most of them are teaching fellows in the English Department. I am a cur from the journalism side of the tracks; I am out of my element, and as soon as I sit down before the first class begins, that reminder smacks me upside the head like a Louisville Slugger. I sit on the side of class farthest from the door, trying to put some distance between myself and the other students. But two more arrive. Each of them has taken a course from me; one of them has taken two. They sit down in the adjoining row. We talk.

Now they are the ones with expertise in the field.

The instructor enters. Energetic, smart, a rapid-fire delivery and a sense of humor. Absolutely no problems on that front.

Almost immediately, though, he is referring to works I have not read, authors I am not familiar with, although it’s clear my classmates are. I slouch a little lower in my chair.

So this is what a freshman feels like.

I’ll try to remember that when I’m standing in front of a classroom this semester.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Wow. . . now my head hurts too. And I remember why I'm a journalist and not an english major. I love language because it enlightens, clarifies, and communicates. If these samples are any indication, Williams does none of the above. I also love poetry, mostly for its melodic properties. But this is a bit beyond me, at least at this point in time.

But your Dali reference reminds me: I believe you have a book in which I am interested, and I promised tales of my travels in return. We should set up a time to trade.
Aug. 31st, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
It's been tough going with Williams. I am now into the second work in the book, "Spring and All," which is more accessible and at times enjoyable, but still, I have to stop and think and re-read most of it, which is precisely the kind of writing I try to avoid.

As for our Dali/Italy conversation, what does your Wednesday afternoon look like? We have a JMC faculty meeting that probably will run no later than 2 (I hope), so I'm open after that. I'm thinking LaVerna is the place.
Aug. 31st, 2008 09:04 pm (UTC)
Wednesday afternoons are wide open for me. Shall we say 2:30pm at LaVerna on Wed. then?
Aug. 31st, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)
Sounds good. See you then, Lizz.
Aug. 31st, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)
Who's the Prof?
Aug. 31st, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)
Kaplan Harris.
Aug. 31st, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)
WOO good thing I was sitting down I almost swooned there for a moment. Captain Kaplan likes to make people read a lot of stuff they probobly won't be able to figure out on thier own, and because he loves poetry more than life itself he is able to walk you through it line by line. Especially since Williams is one of his favorite. Hang in there you'll get it in a class or two.
Aug. 31st, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the encouragement. Despite the tone of my post, I think this is going to be a fun course.
Sep. 1st, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
I am unsure of who you are, but it's great to be reminded of other members in the Kaplan cult.
Aug. 31st, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
For a virtuoso writer, he's pretty crappy at communicating.

Why write, if not to be read?
Aug. 31st, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
"Why write, if not to be read?"

It's a fair question, and I think it's at the heart of the motivation for those of us who are/want to be journalists/mass communicators.

I'm getting the impression Williams realized he wasn't for everyone — not even close. I don't think he cared. I'm also getting the impression that his writing is intended to jar apart things we automatically associate with one another: our way of making "sense" of life. But jarring things loose is exactly the opposite of what I have tried to do during my career, so I'm having a tough time navigating Williams' river.

I am interested in finding out if he was manic-depressive (to use the description from his times), because I think a bipolar state of mind flavors his work. I'm thinking this might be my end-of-the-semester paper topic.

Sep. 1st, 2008 12:44 am (UTC)
I had many colleagues in the MFA program who didn't care about being read, per se. At least that's what they claimed. They hated guys like Grisham and King, who they considered hacks--but I honestly think it was envy. I don't know a one of them that would turn down those sorts of sales.

But the company line was "Write for the writing. The audience will find it." In other words, don't worry about your readers; if you're true to the writing, the readers will take care of themselves. There's something to be said for that, but some people take it to the extreme. I think you always have to keep your audience in mind (but that's probably my JMC bias).
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
Some writers turn down King Size sales (or Grisham size sales), like when Jonathan Franzen turned Oprah down (imagine!) when she wanted "The Corrections" for her Book Club.

Sep. 1st, 2008 12:41 am (UTC)
Bigger word for "ouch"
Sep. 1st, 2008 12:44 am (UTC)
By the way, Williams's "Red Wheel Barrow" is my favorite poem ever.
Sep. 1st, 2008 01:04 am (UTC)
Just finished it.
Sep. 1st, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
"Almost immediately, though, he is referring to works I have not read, authors I am not familiar with, although it’s clear my classmates are."

Don't overestimate us. We like to talk about what we know, even if we have only vague recollections of hearing 'Susan Howe' in a professor's office. It's kind of how English majors measure up on each other, like meatheads comparing muscle size.

And I haven't read a single thing on that list. So, thanks for the heads-up on WCW. I'm heading there now.
Sep. 1st, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
I've just about finished "Spring and All," the second work in the book. It's much more accessible. I'll be curious about your reaction to "Kora" and its introduction, though.
Sep. 2nd, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
Sweetjeezus, I had to leave this one and come back to it... and it didn't get much easier the second time through. I'll take my brain pain in the form of ice cream freeze, thank you very much.
Sep. 2nd, 2008 10:42 am (UTC)
Thanks. I'm glad it's not just me.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Wasn't WCW (and just who names their child William Williams?) a medical doctor? Yes, poets.org, he was.

Read "This Is Just To Say" and imagine a 90 minute lecture on just that poem.
Sep. 4th, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC)
"This Is Just To Say"? I'll check it out. Thanks for the tout.
Sep. 4th, 2008 01:30 pm (UTC)
This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Sep. 4th, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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