The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War. The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.” In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts. Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.
Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.
The great fruition of these convictions came with the New Jersey epos Paterson, which appeared in five completed books issued between 1946 and 1948 and one incomplete sketch for a sixth book issued posthumously, and in the long poem Asphodel that Greeny Flower (1955), which revives myths of the archaic underworld for the purpose of conducting a critique of the modern cultural condition – which Williams regarded as vulgar and degenerate. Both Paterson and Asphodel stand as monuments, not only of Twentieth Century American poetry, but of poetry generically speaking, but the consummation that they represent grows from the earlier work, where it is present starkly and schematically, yet beautifully. Here, by example, is the nameless poem from Spring and All:
For the sake of convenience I will refer to the poem under the title of “The Pot,” and I will begin my commentary on it by collating informal remarks about what seem to me to be its structural principles. First of all, “The Pot” is imagistic. Supposing only the Western typographic convention that any text begins at what people call the top of the page and descends from there to what they call the bottom of the page, the poem resembles the object that it describes: A clay pot from which rises a bouquet of living stalks and flowers that mix their efflorescence with no little promiscuity at their crown; but the eye (of the mind) is made to follow the phenomenon from pink-and-white “confusion” of the efflorescence downward (by gravitation, as it were) to its ocher basis in the ceramic soil-container. This movement of the theoretic eye belongs to the reader’s experience of the poem, an experience that Williams has carefully programmed. The same movement is also a movement from fire, in the form of “shaded flame,” to earth, in the form of the pot, “wholly dark,” and presumably both cool and damp. The reader, in descending through the lines, also moves from a mixture of monosyllables and polysyllables, many of the latter Latinate, to a final line consisting of three in its four words of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.
In its syntax, “The Pot” is one sentence, with numerous clauses and sub-clauses, but with only one punctuation point in the final period. The poem’s typography implies the remaining elided punctuation marks, which nevertheless remain noticeably not there. A certain amount of repetition characterizes the poem’s diction: In the “white / flowers and flowers / reversed” of the first, second, and third lines; and in the “petals” (twice”) and “petal” (also twice) of the sixth, tenth, and eighth lines. Otherwise, the poem’s diction deals in subtle paradox: The image, being an image, is static, but the spilling, darting, radiation, and contention of the verses suggest dynamism and animation, vital opposites of stasis. Again, what begins in “flame” and “radiant… transpiercing light,” ends in the sedate darkness of the mossy vessel. The light itself, however, is “darkened with mauve red,” a contest that helps to give rise, no doubt, to the first line’s confusion. In these details, “The Pot” speaks structurally of the actual complexity of any object of perception, which the visualizing mind must synthesize as a single form whose whole transcends the sum of its parts, and of the act of perception itself. Finally, standing next to the floral display is a lamp, the source of light and flame. The poem merely designates the lamp’s presence without offering any description of it.
So much, then, for the poem’s formal qualities! What might be said preliminarily of its semantic qualities?
The poem deals with two categories of things: Those that grow of their own accord, like flowers, even though the growth of flowers might be cultivated growth; and things that do not appear of their own accord but, like pots, must arise from the intentional act of a human creator. Two simpler names for the categories are nature and culture, the realm of flowering plants belonging to the first and the realm of ceramic vessels belonging to the second. In a casual reading, the poem might seem to valorize nature over culture, endowing, as it does, on the natural phenomena that it represents the attributes of dazzling colorfulness, elegant baroque curvature, and choreographic litheness. In this casual reading, the pot itself seems to have little to do in the poem’s scheme except to be that basis, already mentioned, for the blooming boisterousness that hovers above it. Indeed, the poem’s initial adjective for the pot is “dark,” implying a kind of nocturnal somnolence, in oneness with the clay that acts as its material cause; and if the pot were “gay,” it would be with “rough moss.” The pot, furthermore, comes last in the downward-fluttering phrases of the text, or so one would be forced to say were it not for the gerund that commences the fourteenth line, that little “reaching.”
Although readers read from the top of the page to the bottom, the blossoming action contained by and rooted in the pot tends in the opposite direction. The poem describes the flowering plants as “reaching up their modest green / from the pot’s rim,” almost as though the impulse derived from an intention – but never mind that. The pot therefore acts as the foundation of the phototropic striving whose minimal “story” the poem tells in reverse. The pot is the cup of nourishment that encourages the stems to grow, the leaves to unfurl, and the flowers themselves to exfloriate, as they reach toward the light, to contend “above” their seedling origin, “in whorls” and “round flamegreen throats,” as the poem testifies. It is the case, however, that up and down in “The Pot” are complicated, as are beginnings and ends.
Consider this: The sub-image of “pink confused with white,” while consummating the efflorescent process, and while thereby constituting a climax or end, nevertheless begins the poem. The poem may therefore be said to begin in confusion, a fact that is important for a number of reasons. For example, the “spring” in Spring and All hints at archaic rituals which celebrate the resuscitation of earthly fecundity as winter’s dearth finally reaches its end. Such rituals tend to rehearse a crisis and to imitate panic and therefore to represent confusion. The major work that Williams published just before Spring and All, his Kora in Hell (1920), explicitly links itself to a primordial myth, that of Demeter’s daughter, who makes a bad bargain with Hades and must be his bride for six months out of twelve. Demeter mourns Kora’s departure, but rejoices in her return. The loss is redeemed. Creation, as it were, begins again, in an imaginative and symbolic ordering of experience.
There is something myth-like about “The Pot” and therefore also in Williams’ terms something real. Williams writes in a prose section of Spring and All that, “The exaltation men feel before a work of art is the feeling of reality they draw from it”; and he adds, “It sets them up, places a value upon experience.” In another prose section of the same work, he writes, “There should never be permitted any confusion.” What is the mythic meaning of confusion? In the Theogony, the archaic poet Hesiod recounts how, “Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth,” and so forth, ending in a long litany of proper deific nouns. The early Titan and Elemental divinities are violent and transgressive; they hate and assault one another. Their reign is a confusion of incest, parricide, infanticide, and cannibalism. Although they are not the issue of Chaos, they partake in its seething irresolution.
Chaos stands necessarily at the beginning because its wildness and formlessness preclude anything determinate hence nameable or perceptible. The Theogony tells the story of how the cosmos passed through those stages by which the condition of wildness and formlessness was reduced to a minimum and replaced by a condition of optimal order under the Law of Zeus, the essence of which is just apportionment, a concept at once ethical and aesthetic. Another way of describing Hesiod’s narrative is to say that it records the emergence of an intelligible world from its own pre-intelligible matrix. An emerging intelligible world is, moreover, the counterpart of the consciousness that can cognize it. It is a principle for Williams that, “Nature is the hint to composition not because it is familiar to us and therefore the terms we apply to it have a least common denominator quality which gives them currency – but because it possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves.” Nature, Williams asserts, “is not opposed to art but apposed to it.”
The reader, reading “The Pot,” begins with polychromatic confusion and remarks a steady resolution into forms. What is at first “confused” settles into “whorls,” “petals,” and “leaves.” The “transpiercing light” that causes the petals to radiate is at once the natural light of physical incandescence and the supernatural light of the perceiving consciousness which must resolve the object into something formal and intelligible. The form finds its tendency at last in the firm anchorage of the pot itself – that made thing in which the garland takes its place and learns the law, so to speak, of its apportionment. The absence of punctuation except for the concluding period belongs to this interpretation of the poem: The readerly mind automatically supplies the missing marks as it moves through the poem in the direction of that final period, supplying a kind of virtual punctuation. The very pot functions as a kind of punctuation-point, grounding image and utterance in its own solidity.
Williams’ modest but beautiful verses compress the analysis of consciousness in William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890) – as always beginning in the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of raw phenomena, only to resolve itself by an analogue of filtration into the separate familiar things of the lifeworld – through their admirable economy of just a few words; and those verses remind their readers of the parallelism between the Jamesian and Hesiodic narratives, which tell the same story from slightly different perspectives. A limiting principle is always necessary to the codification, social or cosmological, of a stable world – either the Law of Zeus, carefully meeting to each his proper own or the dimensional limit of the pot, which, restraining the roots, also restrains the growth above.
Williams’ pot has poetic cousins. Think of those portentous objects celebrated in Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658) – that “Discourse upon Sepulchral Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk.” Some pots are “gay,” but others are somber or funereal, having fulfilled the purpose of containing the ashes of someone deceased and interred, athelings perhaps of the bygone Anglo-Saxons, or consuls of the occupying Romans of an even earlier age. “In a field of Old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, nor far from one another,” Browne writes; and he adds, “Near the same plot of ground, for about six yards compass, were digged up coals and incinerated substances, which begat conjecture that this was the ustrina or place of burning their bodies, or some sacrificing place unto the Manes, which was properly below the surface of the ground, as the arae and altars unto the gods and heroes above it.” The clay jar is for Browne the continuation of the hearth into the earth and the same jar effuses the aurae of the ancestral ghosts and fetches into every adjacency.
Think again of that Grecian urn that John Keats celebrates in a famous Ode (1819), the Arcadian scenes of whose “cold pastoral” depict a hecatomb in the moment before its fell conclusion, a nymph still evading the clutches of a satyr, and a Bacchic frenzy, all suspended in time, none ever to consummate itself. Keats’ “Attic shape!” and “Fair attitude!” that, as he addresses it, “dost tease us out of thought,” haunts the dark ocher of its later Imagist counterpart. Or think yet again of Wallace Stevens’ glassine object in the little poetic “Anecdote” (1919) that begins, “I placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was upon a hill.” Like Williams, with whom he was acquainted, Stevens took great interest in the topic of Nature and Culture. Less modest than Williams’ pot, Stevens’ jar tries to dominate nature, but it exhausts its hubris and becomes “bare.” All these urns, pots, and jars fit together Russian-doll fashion, the latest one drawing nourishment like a flower from the soils in which the older ones once rested or still rest, wresting for itself a history of pots and pot-throwing, rites of spring and liturgies of inhumation, and discovering the totality of its sedimentations to the reader. A plain object might imply much, depending on the lore that has invested the eye that observes it.
Personal: Richard Cocks and I had a conversation not too long ago over a pint or two of India Pale Ale about the concept of meaning. I remarked that I had tackled the concept in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, pointing out to the students the paradox that meaning is a word almost impossible to define, and yet unavoidable; any sensitive, educated person experiences meaning all the time – not least when he reads a poem or story or contemplates an oil-on-canvas or a blithe pirouette, as executed by a disciplined danseuse. He knows what it is when he experiences it. Richard agreed with me. We struggled together to find – well… a meaningful – dictionary-type formula to give the word its gist. Finally, Richard said, “Meaning is about connections – connections between and among things.” A thing, whatever it might be, becomes meaningful when it spontaneously organizes around itself a multitude of other things of which one never previously thought in connection with it. This strikes me as the gist of meaning, which under the gloss appears as a type of synchronicity.
I would go even further, however. Meaning is not only a type of synchronicity; it is a type of Grace. It takes an occasion, such as the careful composition of “The Pot,” to bestow itself, although undeserved, on the percipient. A sense of this drove the humanities at their constitution, but as Western culture has gradually repudiated basic notions like the beauty that is truth lauded by Keats in his Ode, as it has expelled the supernatural, the Christianized sacred, and the pre-Christian sacred, it has impoverished itself of meaning, which it now in fact disdains, pretending to “deconstruct” it. In the 1980s, when I attended graduate school in Comparative Literature at UCLA, the old guard of the professoriate still clung vestigially to the institutions of meaning; they still urged their young acolytes to acquire as much knowledge as possible so that as many things as possible might at any moment be brought into constellation by an instance of meaning. Alas! But the old guard is dead and their once-young acolytes are old. The urns, and pots, and jars are broken, and their contents spilled.