17/6/2004

Raindrops on a Briar

I, a writer at one time hipped on
painting, did not consider
the effects, painting,
for that reason, static, on

the contrary the stillness of
the objects--the flowers, the gloves--
freed them precisely by that
from a necessity merely to move

in space as if they had been--
not children! but the thinking male
or the charged and deliver-
ing female frantic with ecstasies;

served rather to present, for me,
a more pregnant notion: a
series of varying leaves
clinging still, let us say, to

the cat-briar after last night's
storm, its waterdrops
ranged upon the arching stem
irregularly as an accompaniment.

There is much to be learned from a less well-known poem by a famous poet, in this case William Carlos Williams. This one is buried in the Collected Later Poems.

It might be one of the earliest uses in American poetry of the word "hipped" in this slang sense, at least in a White poet. The poem is almost Creeleyesque in its semi-articulate groping after an idea. The first idea, "the stillness... freed them from a necessity to move" is quite striking, but seems needlessly complicated by the next few lines. I don't get the sexual metaphor here. And the visual example given at the end,--why is it seen as a contrast to this first idea, "served rather to present..." and not an example of this idea? The argumentative structure of the poem is confused, phrases like "for that reason," "on the contrary," "let us say," are used awkwardly. Stanze 3-4 are difficult to get through. All this is fairly obvious. Yet there is something salvageable, perhaps, in the halting movement of the lines and in the final visual image. Certainly any attempt at revision, at making the poem ostensibly better, would destroy whatever value there is in this text, which is not among Williams' 100 best short poems.

What I'm trying to say, in a way only slightly more articulate than the poem itself, is that being able to see why this poem "kicks ass," despite its flaws, is more crucial for me today than pointing out these flaws. Any good reader could come up with reasons to dismiss this poem. But it still offers more than most poems published by American poets in 1948. (I hope that doesn't sound too Sillimanesque).

There are poems devoid of obvious flaws that are also devoid of interest. I'm constantly reading a book of poetry that seems "pretty good" as I read it, but has no staying power, no resonance in the memory.