Edgar Lee Masters: Not sexy, but wrote prose poetry before WC Williams
Fads are born of flux, yet to their followers they’re as real as steel, or iron. Tell a member of the hardcore poetry community that Edgar Lee Masters and Edna Vincent Millay are more significant than William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens and watch them gag. Ron Silliman would gag. Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff would gag. Harold Bloom would die. There is a hiearchy. Flux may seem to be the modernist mode; it’s not. It’s iron.
The bookish Helen Vendler has made us love Wallace Stevens, the insurance agent, in his off-white suit; Stevens, like Alexander Pope, put his philosophy in verse (and somehow ended up being called modern for it), but the hardcore poetry community’s adoration of Bill Williams is based on nothing we can ascertain as very interesting. While he lived, no one liked Williams much—WCW mourned the fact that Auden blew him away at a public reading, but celebrity has made its way through unseen byways in Bill’s favor; it perhaps had something to do with his friendship with the notorious Pound, which led to his being tagged as some kind of “American” (New Jersey?) alternative to Pound and Eliot, or that he “helped” Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg’s poet father Louis ran in the same art circles as Williams), but whatever the reason, WCW has been a bookish fad ever since the New Critics put “Red Wheel Barrow” in their poetry textbook Understanding Poetry and informed their readers his little poem was “lucid” and “fresh.”
The hardcore academic poetry community still somehow believes that sincerity and plain prose go together; perhaps they do, perhaps they are right, and perhaps I should end my essay right here on that note. Sincerity does go a long way in many people’s eyes, and the more I think on the word sincerity, the more I do feel worthy of punishment and feel I deserve to be accused of bad faith for questioning the worth of William Carlos Williams. If one squashes an ant, half the world will be indifferent and the other half will feel sorry for the ant; so why would any critic ever want to treat “Red Wheel Barrow” harshly? Better not go near it; but one keeps seeing it, and that’s the secret of Williams’ fame: one cannot squash the ant. It keeps going and going…
It is a little quixotic for Williams to complain, as he did, of T.S. Eliot’s foreign allusions: we wonder if Mr. Williams is aware that American implies foreign in its very soul? How can one poet ever claim that he, more than others, writes for Americans, in subject matter, style, or language? Isn’t such a claim suspect? We wonder why Mr. Williams and his supporters get a free pass in making it.
In William Carlos Williams’ first book (Poems, 1909), his poems are like this:
The Uses of Poetry
I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,
Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.
For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string
And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.
“Fruits all anguish mend??” This is dreck—yet it was published when Williams was 26. It was not until he was in his late 30s and joined the Kreymborg, Arensburg, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Louis Ginsberg, Marcel Duchamp “Dial” clique that the Williams of “The Red Wheel Barrow” emerged.
What most don’t realize, is that well before Williams found both himself and his coterie, Edgar Lee Masters, in his wildly popular “Spoon River Anthology,” already sounded more modern and impure than Williams:
Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win — and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill” —
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.
—Edgar Lee Masters
Humble Spoon River, with its poetry in plain prose, was published in 1916, when William Carlos Williams was still trying and failing at rhyme.
In his book, Innovators & Outsiders, American Poetry Since 1950, Eliot Weinberger, who writes in his introduction of the great divide in American poetry: “the ruling party” and the “innovator outsiders,” begins his anthology with WC Williams. It’s typical Williams: mundane description plus a bit of avant-garde, modern art philosophy. “The Desert Music” describes a trip with his wife and some friends to a poor Mexican border town while tossing in bon mots such as, “Only the poem. /Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:/to imitate, not to copy nature, not/to copy nature,” daring you to make a connection between this snatch of earnest literary criticism and a trip to a Mexican border town, just as “The Red Wheel Barrow” dares you to connect “So much depends” with that barrow glazed with rain water.
It’s a rather bland compositional technique: the matter-of-fact imagery makes it ‘modern’ and the pasted-on lecture: only the poem—makes it seem different, mystical. How innovative and original is this poetaster technique? We don’t know.
As a reader you must decide between two points of view: ‘what the hell does he mean by only the poem?‘ or: ‘only the poem—of course! only the poem,‘ nodding sagely. There’s really no in-between: you must choose for yourself: are you smart or are you dumb? It’s a sly trick the sly poets play: because you don’t want to seem dumb. You do want to be in the crowd that knows the deep mystical zen significance of “so much depends,” don’t you?
Of course we know Williams was part of the modern art scene, and understood the direction things were going: painting was becoming flat: only paint upon the canvas!
“Only the poem” is a slogan obviously in this spirit—and barking a slogan in a poem about what a poem should be is to “flatten” the poem. “Don’t copy nature.” We don’t really associate Williams with the New York School, but there it is. The modernist Paris-moving-to-New York- art clique was small—but still fit the modern poetry clique within it pretty comfortably.
The formula first emerges most forcefully with “The Red Wheel Barrow.” Poetry, unlike painting, is difficult to flatten, because how do you get away with “anybody can do that” in language? The art world makes objects and once a museum owns an object, a certain legitimacy sets in, but with poetry, the stamp of radical approval is harder to get.
Williams struck on a method, which is pretty simple: First: copy nature in the poem up to a point, presenting an imagery from real life. Second: Add to the imagery some piece of philosophical jargon which does not fit the imagery or enhance it or extend it in any way at all. Voila! You have flattened the poem. Williams is intentionally boring. It’s a style, born of modern art. Present a red wheel barrow. Then flatten it with “so much depends.” So much depends on this object which I am objectifying on the flat-surface-object of my poem. This is the intention.
Here’s a lesser known poem by Williams, but typical; one can clearly see the flattening formula at work:
To Waken An Old Lady
Old age is
a flight of small
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
is covered with broken
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.
The imagery is precise and cute: “small,” “cheeping,” “skimming,” and nothing much, but it gets flattened by the wordy additions, “Old age is,” and “But what?” It’s the same strategy of “Wheel Barrow.” 1) Paint a little scene, 2) attach a declaration of some sort. Neither one enhances the other, and thus the whole thing is intentionally de-enhanced. We yawn, and feel mystified at the same time, as when we look at one of those modern art blank canvases at MOMA. The absurdity is brought mystically to the fore—and we can hear it in the phlegmatic “Old age is…” Shall I compare “cheeping birds buffeted by a dark wind” to “old age?” Of course I shall! It’s perfect!
Now look at this poem by silly old Edna St. Vincent Millay, which no member of the hardcore academic poetry community wants to touch:
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
Edna Millay’s strategy is much different. Hers is a far more natural evocation of old age than the Williams. Old age has life in “Recuerdo;” it merely gets a metaphorical snapshot in “To Waken An Old Lady.” The realist mode fell out of favor in the hip artistic circles Williams travelled in during his middle age, but one can see how Millay’s poem succeeds on several levels—by contrast, the Williams, with its “Old age is…,” feels flat, formulaic, and artificial.