Language can either include or exclude. I prefer a language, a poetry, that does the former. Poems that preference meaningful communication – everyday speech coupled with common images – over ambiguity are, in my opinion, the most affecting. Such poems are invitations to readers rather than long arms holding us at bay. There’s something to be said for simply saying it plain. Enter William Carlos Williams, a poet who translates and transforms the material world plainly and accurately.
Williams’ work describes life itself, his life as a doctor in a small town, distilling it down to moments made more beautiful and more complex by the attention paid to the singularity of each and by their everydayness. As when artists paint still lifes, works of art that feature arrangements of inanimate objects as their immediate subject, Williams wrote still lifes – describing the mundane and contrasting the mundanity with unaffected, yet textured, language.
Once considered the lowest genre, the still life is to painting what some might argue plainspokenness is to poetry: unadorned and uncomplicated. There is, however, much beauty and much complexity in simplicity. Take, for instance, Pieter Claesz, the Dutch Golden Age artist who painted vanitas, still life paintings that suggest mortality, or Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the 18th-century French painter who introduced the living thing to the still life, or Paul Cézanne, post-impressionist painter and master of perspective. All of whom painted the ordinary in an effort to examine our shared humanity.
While inanimate objects might lack breath, Williams, like a master painter, introduces life via emotion, via sentiment. As a reader and a writer of poetry, I want to feel deeply. I, however, don’t want to be directed when or what to feel. Whereas sentimentality is curated, designed to elicit a specific response at a specific time – like say, the cued 158 music on live television shows that tells audiences when to clap or cry
– sentiment is real feeling. When artists attempt to work against sentimentality, their work often lacks sentiment altogether. Fortunately, the poems of William Carlos Williams do not have this problem.
Williams embraces sentiment and, in so doing, pursues the truth of things – whether tangible, a wheelbarrow or plums, or abstraction, degradation and loss – with such precision that suggests Williams must have been as good a doctor as he was a poet. Williams admits to this pursuit in his poem “Cezanne,” named for/after Paul Cézanne, excerpted below:
. . . nothing can
stop the truth of it art is all we
can say to reverse
the chain of events and make a pileup
of passion to match the stars.
And, make a pileup of passion to match the stars Williams did. Like vanitas, the work of William Carlos Williams speaks to life’s transience. His poems are urgent and straightforward, as if to remind us that all things, like the plums referenced in “This is Just to Say,” have a shelf life, an expiration date. Williams’ “Complete Destruction” also explores loss, albeit in a less roundabout way. The loss of, not only the cat introduced in the
It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.
According to Williams, there are “no ideas but in things,” meaning ideas must be grounded in the everyday – not only access familiar 159 products of the collective imagination (see still life paintings of flowers, fruit, et cetera) – but also mirror common speech patterns. Even when Williams himself isn’t the obvious speaker in the poems, his presence is felt throughout because of the conversational style – void of both artificiality and accoutrements. I’m thinking, specifically, of poems like “From a Window,” “A Cold Front,” “The Moral,” “An Elegy for D. H. Lawrence” and, of course, no essay about Williams would be complete without it: “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which reads:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William Carlos Williams’ poems manage to find the transcendental moments in daily life. This, I have no doubt, is one of the many reasons we’ll return again and again to his work, to his plainspoken still lifes.