by Gary Lenhart

Volume 30 Issue 1, page 8
Genre: poetry
Grade: college
Explores the writing of W.C. Williams, and the human experience on its own terms.

Stretching Exercises: Range of Motion and Emotion in Four Poems by William Carlos Williams

I WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT FOUR POEMS by William Carlos Williams that I have used to teach creative writing to college students, with sometimes exhilarating, sometimes discouraging results. By describing my checkered experience, I hope to broaden what is becoming the received portrait of Williams as an imagist poet, to emphasize the heterogeneous and lively qualities of his poems, to explore some limits of classroom or work¬shop exercises, and to consider why our enthusiasms don’t always fire up our students.

At age forty Williams wrote to his friend Marianne Moore, “You know I began with portraits of old women in bed and the rest of it, and it all seemed very important. Now there has been a quieter, more deliberate composition.” (Note: William Carlos Williams, The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, John C. Thirlwall, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1984), p.57) I often begin undergraduate workshops by giving students an opportunity to start where Williams did, moving on to “more deliberate composition” later. The two “old women in bed” poems that I use are “Portrait of a Woman in Bed” and “The Last Words of My English Grandmother.”

For the purposes of teaching writing, the great virtue of these poems is that they contain speakers who are clearly not the poet. Too often, students view poems as statements created by people who are more sensitive than others. Williams differs from most of the major modernist poets in his fervent, almost spiritual commitment to democracy, i.e., the worth of human experience on its own terms. He does not look down on his audience or his immigrant patients, but directly at them; he listens attentively to other voices and uses those voices in his poems.

Portrait of a Woman in Bed

There’s my things
drying in the corner:
that blue skirt
joined to the grey shirt—

I’m sick of trouble!
Lift the covers
if you want me and you’ll see
the rest of my clothes—
¬though it would be cold
lying with nothing on!

I won’t work
and I’ve got no cash.
What are you going to do
about it?
—and no jewelry
(the crazy fools)

But I’ve got my two eyes
and a smooth face
and here’s this! look!
it’s high!

There’s brains
and blood
in there—
my name’s Robitza!
Corsets
can go to the devil—
and drawers along with them—
What do I care!

My two boys?—
they’re keen!
Let the rich lady
care for them—
they’ll beat the school
or
let them go to the gutter—
that ends trouble.

This house is empty
isn’t it?
Then it’s mine
because I need it.
Oh, I won’t starve
while there’s the Bible
to make them feed me.

Try to help me
if you want trouble
or leave me alone—
that ends trouble.

The country physician
is a damned fool
and you
can go to hell!

You could have closed the door
when you came in;
do it when you go out.
I’m tired.

This poem presents an occasion to discuss unreliable narrators, especially important to students raised on movies and television, media heavily dominated by third-person omniscient narratives. I remind students that the narrator in a poem or story isn’t always the author, and that we may find the narrator to be disagree¬able or deluded. Mrs. Robitza in “Portrait of a Woman in Bed” is an exemplary case. Her shamelessness, ingratitude, class and religious biases, and irresponsible maternity make her an unattractive character, particularly to younger students, who are less apt to admire her per¬verse vitality than mature readers. Of course, the speakers in many student poems can be unattractive too, and the teacher should be careful about criticizing them. I have found myself more than once gently deriding the persona of a student poem for being harsh or unsympathetic, only to have the innocent student defend the speaker with a vehement “But that’s me!” I knew that, but assumed the student would understand I was trying to be tactful. So it’s important to establish early the possibility of discussing the speaker from the distance of literary narrator or protagonist, and this poem provides a perfect occasion.

We discuss the details Williams uses to portray the woman in bed. I ask students what they can know of the speaker from her few utterances. It’s clear to most that she is poor and sick, but they don’t understand why she “won’t work.” Often they are confused by the lines

But I’ve got my two eyes
and a smooth face
and here’s this! look!
it’s high!

There’s brains and blood
in there—

And the threat of nudity makes some suspect her character. But the lines that disturb students most are

My two boys?
they’re keen!
Let the rich lady
care for them—
they’ll beat the school
or
let them go to the gutter—
that ends trouble.

and

Oh, I won’t starve
while there’s the Bible
to make them feed me.

Here’s a woman who callously abandons her own sons. Some students find it even worse that she cynically uses the Bible to force people to support her. Students are also offended by the crudity of her talk, which is not just impolite, but disrespectful to the person to whom she is speaking. Many students don’t understand why anyone would want to write about a character such as this. A good question at this point is, “Doesn’t anyone see virtue in speaking honestly? Won’t you at least give her credit for being direct?” If you are dealing with adult students, a few will agree. But if your students are stuck in the difficult transitions of adolescence, where they may be struggling to come to terms with their own feelings, they may resist fiercely the notion that these are anyone’s true feelings. “She’s just ill and tired,” perhaps “a victim of the classism in our society.” I remind students that any¬thing we know about the character is gained directly from her lips.

Then we read “The Last Words of My English Grandmother.”

The Last Words of My English Grandmother

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat¬
They’re starving me—
I’m all right—I won’t go
to the hospital. No, no, no

Give me something to eat!
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
¬Oh you think you’re smart
you young people,

she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.

Although “The Last Words of My English Grandmother” contains description and a narrator who may be the author, it also contains an exemplary passage in somebody else’s voice. First, we try to distinguish who speaks which lines (not always clear to students confused by the absence of quotation marks). Then we discuss the relationship between the speakers—a grandchild and his or her dying English grandmother. I have been asked, “How do you know that?” I begin with the title, emphasizing its important function in this poem, then read carefully through the first exchanges.

In their book Poetry Everywhere, Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe describe how they use this poem as the basis of a “last words” assignment. I mention that to students as one way to handle my assignment: to write in someone else’s voice. I suggest that this task is easiest with someone whose speech patterns are distinctive. It may be someone they met fleetingly, or someone whose voice they know so well that they can hear it at the very mention of the person’s name. But there should be some difference in speech or personality to distinguish the poem’s persona from the author.

It’s remarkable how often, early in the course, this brings out the students with the most agile imaginations. As compared with the repugnant stranger of “Portrait of a Woman in Bed,” students find it much easier to write about a parent or grandparent who died, though seldom do they write about it with as much distance as Williams. They tend to sentimentalize the relationship and the attitude of the dying toward life and death. But a few are always emboldened to write honestly and unflinchingly. In one class, I received two terrific poems from this assignment. The first, from a woman whose companion’s father was dying of cancer, captured sympathetically the ornery, salty, logging-camp speech of the dying man. The other was by a student who had joined the first for a cigarette break the week before, and had listened to her complaints. The second poem captured the commingled sorrow, boredom, and fatigue of the family member whose life has been disrupted by daily visits to the hospital.

“The Last Words of My English Grandmother” also lends itself to a lesson about revision. Williams published three accounts of this event, a prose version in The Great American Novel (and reprinted in I Wanted to Write a Poem), and two poems now included in The Collected Poems. With advanced students I distribute copies of all three, withholding dates to prevent any assumptions about progression. We then compare them, with particular attention to line breaks, stanzas, use of detail, deletions, the unreliability of memory, and the artifice of anecdote.

Two Williams poems that I have introduced to workshops with mixed success are “Impromptu: The Suckers” and “Choral: The Pink Church.” I do not use these poems with beginning classes, but introduce them toward the end of poetry workshops with advanced students. Most students know Williams only as the author of straightforward descriptive imagist poems like “The Red Wheel¬barrow.” I would like them to understand that such is only part of the picture, that he also wrote poems that inspire comparison to the long, shaggy compositions of Philip Whalen, the grand romantic epics of Frank O’Hara, and the obsessive meanderings of Bernadette Mayer, and that poems may be capacious vessels that will hold whatever the imagination touches.

The first problem with “Impromptu: The Suckers” and “Choral: The Pink Church” is that they now require historical introductions. That wasn’t true thirty years ago, when Sacco and Vanzetti (in “Impromptu”) were still household words. In “The Pink Church,” few students recognize William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, or martyred Spanish physician (and Williams’s patron saint) Michael Servitus. More recognize Poe, Whitman, and Baudelaire. Most know of John Milton, but are flabbergasted to find him “singing like a Communist.” It may also be necessary to provide some background about Cold War politics in the U.S. immediately following World War II. Fortunately, Christopher MacGowan’s notes in the current edition of The Collected Poems provide sufficient background for both poems.

“Impromptu: The Suckers” is the easier of the two for students. In it, Williams rages at all those complicit in the execution of the Italian anarchists. His poem is a litany of accusations, described by Allen Ginsberg as “a really prophetic sort of anti-police-state radical rant.” I remember how astounded I was the first time I read the following stanza:

But after all, the thing that swung heaviest
against you was that you were scared when
they copped you. Explain that you
nature’s nobleman! For you know that every
American is innocent and at peace in his
own heart. He hasn’t a damned thing to be
afraid of. He knows the government is for
him. Why, when a cop steps up and grabs
you at night you just laugh and think it’s
a hell of a good joke—

My students wonder aloud at Dr. Williams’s bad humor. One of my most accomplished poets responded to this poem by complaining that “Williams tries too hard to shock his readers.” And there is often one student who believes that if Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists, then why be so angry about their execution? Most students, however, don’t disagree with the indictment of injustice expressed by Williams; they simply don’t seem to be out¬raged or surprised by it. Whether at the community college or in the Ivy League, three decades of constant political scandal has inured most contemporary students to this sort of thing. The general attitude is: why does Williams blame the society for the misdeeds of its politicians? They understand his anger at the hypocritical “high-minded / and unprejudiced observers,” but resist the rage that erupts into

Take it out in vile whiskey, take it out
in lifting your skirts to show your silken crotches
[…]
It’s no use, you are Americans, just the dregs.
It’s all you deserve. You’ve got the cash,
what the hell do you care?

I ask them to write their own angry litanies, and as they are generally eager to please, they do. But their anger doesn’t erupt; it is borrowed, for the sake of the exercise. I have heard students muttering about politicians with such contempt that I still suppose this might be an outlet for real emotion, but so far we have had neither the inflammatory occasion nor the social analysis to produce good, angry poems.

I like to think that students take from the assignment an appreciation of how anger sustained the rant at fever pitch, that the length of “Impromptu: The Suckers” pushes them to stretch their muscles—or at least their stanzas—and that they see expanded possibilities for subject matter. Yet maybe I have learned more than they. Later in one term, when we read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” some students were visibly excited and agreed that the poem was “on fire.” Nevertheless they quickly assured me that they could never write in that vein. One said, “That may have been okay for then, but things have changed too much.” As Williams might have reminded me, a new world demands new poetic practices.

In “Choral: The Pink Church” the problem is the brusque juxtaposition of its range of references. It’s simple to go through the poem clarifying allusions, but it’s more difficult to explain connections that are never explicit. What can we make of the allusions in this poem: dawn in Galilee, Aeschylus, three popular philosophers, a Spanish martyr who advocated religious tolerance but refused to renounce his Catholicism under pain of death, two French novelists (Proust and Gide) and three mid¬ nineteenth-century poets (two American and one French), drunks, prostitutes, the aberrant, a virgin’s nipple? For me, this grand romantic chorus has always seemed a song of artistic and sexual liberation, a paean to those who stand up against cruelty, oppression, and intolerance, all culminating in a grand chorus echoing Beethoven:

Joy! Joy!
—out of Elysium!

in which even the “unrhymer” Milton would find room to sing “among / the rest…like a Communist.”

The incoherences of the poem are inextricable from the grandness of its ambition. Williams is in the middle of his epic Paterson at this time, and, at sixty years old, heading into new territory. His doctor son has yet to be discharged from the military, and Williams is caring for both his own and his son’s patients. We know from his letters that he responded anxiously to the increased political instability that resulted from the atom bomb and the beginning of the Cold War.

Williams reacts against this press of literary, personal, and social demands by grasping in many directions. He wants to address the threatened post-war world, but has yet to finish with a complex group of abstractions that had obsessed him for years. In many ways, the poem presents ideas about things, reversing Williams’s own credo. His customary impatience with literary convention combines with his sense of urgency to produce a brisk shorthand that resembles the method of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but with more improvisation and larger leaps. He is still working out a vision of a new mongrel world being whelped. The heroes of Williams’s pantheon do not wear the mantle of received authority that Pound’s or
T. S. Eliot’s figures wear. Like everything in Williams, they remain quick and elusive, irreducible because they are as multidimensional as life.

What is the writing assignment? After we read the Williams poem with Frank O’Hara’s “Ode to Joy,” I ask students to compose a poem that might be sung in celebration, an ode to joy. It may be assembled from bits and pieces, and doesn’t have to be logical. Indeed, in the vision from Keats that Williams and O’Hara inherited, the joy that surrounds things of beauty also liberates us from the cold eye of common sense.

I don’t expect students to compose large masterpieces within the two weeks allotted for this assignment, and the poems I have received from it have been modest. But the quicksilver dartings of Williams’s imagination can be liberating to students constrained by traditional notions of narrative. I encourage them to be reckless, to open their celebratory songs to whatever attracts them. As they struggle to shape the hodgepodge that often results, they learn that writing poems is not only a craft to be mastered, but also an exciting experiment with unpredictable results.

Note

1. William Carlos Williams, The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, John C. Thirlwall, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1984), p. 57.