POETS Day! William Carlos Williams

The poet Riposte of the American poet William Carlos Williams on a wall of the building at Breestraat 81, Leiden, The Netherlands, currently hardly visible because of its bad condition. Photo by Tubantia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

I was in the shed pulling out all my POETS Day yard decorations in anticipation and I couldn’t help think but what a gosh darn special thing we got going here. I mean, golly. I know how much people hate those last few hours of work before the weekend because they make us the worst us we can be. There we are focusing on the crummy negative of being stuck in the ole grist mill when we should be pleased as punch that Henry Ford thought about us, the little guys, and invented the weekend so we can goof around with the fellas and have a few pops, go for a stroll in the park with our best girl (or guy,) or maybe take in a picture. I don’t want to be called a Holiday Harry, but that day is here again so I’ll say it: Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Staying at work doesn’t do anybody any good. Show your boss how productive you’ve been this week and promise to work even harder next week. Bosses aren’t such a bad sort. Then you can walk out a few hours before the usual time, free as a bird. Maybe send him (or her) a picture of all the fun you’re having instead of sitting around the office like a gloomy Gus. If you’re up for advice I’d spend some of my bonus time in thanks to that swell holiday acronym and read some verse. You’ll be glad for it!


Loudon Wainwright III has a great song called TSMNWA (They Spelled My Name Wrong Again) where he sings about the frustrations of having a weird name. I can’t help hearing his voice whenever I read about or meet someone who goes by something unusual even if it’s just mildly odd: “My parents should shoulder some blame/For calling their kid a strange name.” I’m sure that William Carlos Williams wanted to have a discussion with mom and dad. “You named me William Williams?” he would ask, not without cause, though I’ve read his parents brought him up in a rigid atmosphere so maybe he passed on demanding an explanation and settled in to a lifetime of long signatures. Considering some of the anachronistic tongue-stumbler family surnames that wind up some unsuspecting kids’ middle names, that “Carlos” to break things up must have seemed a godsend.

Williams grew up admiring Keat’s erudition and form and Whitman’s passion but during his first year at U Penn he met Ezra Pound and everything changed. He claimed “before meeting Pound is like B.C. and A.D.” With Pound, Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D. professionally), and others, Williams joined in adopting a poetic style whose practitioners would become known as Imagists. They sought to see a thing as it is, stripped of Victorian sentimentalism. As they believed, the job of a poet is to capture discrete moments of artistic interest. In A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste, F.S. Flynn lists three tenets of the movement:

I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome

This week’s featured poem, “To Have Done Nothing” by William Carlos Williams, is a declaration of artistic sensibilities published in his collection Spring and All. In the book it comes after “The Black Winds,” a repudiation of the poetics of the past; “Black wind, I have poured my heart out/ to you until I am sick of it – “. The poem following it is “The Rose” declaring that the old ways are done and mapping out the new. “The rose is obsolete” it begins and later “But if it ends/ the start is begun/ so that to engage roses/ becomes a geometry – / Sharper, neater, more cutting.” Between those “To Have Done Nothing” plays word games.

It plays word games very well. This isn’t a style of poetry that I’m typically drawn to but I can sit back and admire the way his ideas are expressed. I’m reminded of the Danish linguist Ernst’s line in Kingsley Amis’s One Fat Englishman when his wife says, “it’s just that you didn’t get around to appreciating it yet.” He responds, “And always the aorist tense instead of the perfect.” Ernst sees the way we use the language as a clue to how we see the world and is one of many ways Amis draws contrast between Americans and the English throughout the book. The Imagists agree with Ernst and invite you to see the world as they do. In the words of T.E. Hulme, a primary inspiration for Imagist the movement, they strive for a “hard, dry, image.”

The main game in the poem is interplay between the perfect tense “I have done nothing” meaning that over time the speaker has not acted and the aorist “I have done nothing” meaning that the speaker specifically acted to do nothing. Per ezraproject.com “Aorist is like a snapshot; present [present perfect in this case] is like a video.” The “nothing” is explained in the eight and ninth stanzas as presenting whatever the poetic subject is through Victorian sentiment: “moral/ physical/ and religious/ codes”. He writes that those sentiments can cast the subject in any light since there are infinite interpretations. Their malleability renders them meaningless, so not to engage in such musings is the best approach for a poet to take, and thus the grammatical pun at the end.

Williams eventually moved past the Imagists, or at least he stopped identifying as such, for a vaguer Modernism. I’ve no idea if it was because of bad feelings between him and other poets. He was fond of his collection Kora in Hell: Improvisations but Pound said it was “incoherent” and H.D. called it “un-serious.” Williams believed he was in company writing towards a break with poetry as we knew it in pursuit of something new and then T.S. Eliot published “The Waste Land.” The poetic world shifted from Williams. He wrote in his autobiography:

“I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.”

Eliot loomed large in William’s mind. He was so bitter of Eliot’s success that he wrote only prose for some time before returning to verse and accolades.

There are branches under the mixed metaphor umbrella of poetry that I think have strayed too far from the trunk. It’s not that the product of these movements or artists isn’t impressive, moving, or passionate. It’s that they’ve evolved so much from the incunabular poetry as to become something other in need of names of their own. Williams was flirting with such an evolution. He will be remembered as an influence on the Beat Poets, but Beat Poetry incorporated his innovations into a modern poetry that had been righted by Eliot, for which I’m glad. I stand back and marvel at the talent of Williams and I love so much of what he wrote, but I like black winds and roses too and there is nothing he could have written that was going to change that.

Hope you enjoy it.

To Have Done Nothing

William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

No that is not it
nothing that I have done
I have done

is made up of
and the diphthong


together with
the first person

of the auxiliary
to have

I have done
is the same

if to do
is capable
of an
infinity of

involving the
and religious


for everything
and nothing
are synonymous

energy in vacuo
has the power
of confusion

which only to
have done nothing
can make

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