Objectivism, Williams, and counterpoint

This from a while back, when I was doing some reading in prosody inspired by Charles Hartman’s Free Verse.

Dipping into an earlier chapter of Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (while reading Jeffers’s Cawdor, which Gross analyzes, which led me to think of Paterson, which got me trying to remember what Gross had said about Williams). Gross takes issue with Williams’s objectivism. (By the way: I say Gross, although my edition is Gross & McDowell, because I’m assuming the substance of the argument is to be found in the earlier edition, which he wrote alone.) He begins by quoting the following from Williams’s autobiography:

[The objectivist theory] argued the poem, like every other form of art, is an object, an object that in itself formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes. Therefore, being an object, it should be so treated and controlled—but not as in the past (117; the passage appears on 264 of Williams’s Autobiography).

Now, this seems like pretty straightforward formalism to me, and as we know I have been growing ever more sympathetic to that position over the past decade or so, ever since that intensive re-reading of Gass’s “Concept of Character in Fiction.” But Gross objects, if you’ll pardon the pun, that this “does not make clear whether the poem-object existed in space or time; he implies the poem exists in time and space” (117, emphasis in original). He discusses Williams’s interest in Stein, and his emphasis on the word as “a discrete perceptual entity” (117), after which he says that, according to Williams, the poet and reader must adopt the view that the word in some way really embodies the quality or thing it names—i.e., must abandon the notion of arbitrariness in language. Now, Gross does not discuss the relationship between these ideas (word as “discrete perceptual entity” vs. belief in the word as having a non-arbitrary relation to its referent—I forget the technical term for this idea), and while there is one way of looking at it that does see a direct relationship (if the word really is the thing itself, or bears some non-arbitrary relationship to it, then it follows that its importance as a “discrete perceptual entity” is enhanced), this is certainly not the only way of thinking about the relationship, and Gross does not elaborate on Williams’s views in this respect. Also, he quotes another statement that suggests a more complicated, if not downright contradictory, view: Williams, he says, valued in Stein the “feeling of words themselves, a curious immediate quality, quite apart from their meaning” (Williams 264, quoted in Gross, 117, my emphasis). The implication is that he sought to carry this attitude toward words into his own work, raising the question of how important that notion of words as non-arbitrary is. It seems to have much more to do with the sound of words as such. I say sound because that is the most salient feature; one might also speak of shape, for instance. One might also—here we circle round closer to Gross’s reading—think of the words’ meanings as discrete objects themselves. Not as non-arbitrary signs having some ontological validity in themselves, but in a different sort of naïve theory of language, one that thinks of words as having meanings in and of themselves, not—as Saussure and pretty much everyone after him have maintained—as nodes in a self-supporting network, dependent for their meaning on their relations to, and differences from, other words. Thus, “hospital” has a kind of lapidary quality, a “hospital-ness” that derives, not from its mystical communion with its referent, but from its seeming isolation from other words, its privileged status as a marker … there’s a Latin phrase I’m looking for here. A marker in itself, independent of other markers, the way one might imagine a dictionary posits meanings, despite itself being composed of words. While this may hint at the non-arbitrary theory as well, I think the real source of its belief in the power of words as spells, capable of calling up the referent by virtue of their mere presence, lies in its naïve conviction that words mean what they mean irrespective of context. This seems to be one implication of isolating single words as entire lines: “cinders,” “bottle.” That conviction, I am tempted immediately to add, is illusory, neither naïve nor a conviction, but rather a kind of tactical naivete in the service of a very sophisticated aesthetic strategy, one that in fact depends as much for its success on the very deep awareness of the interconnectedness of words as it does on the appearance of the belief in words as talismans. And it seems to me that this approach to semantics is congruent or parallel with or analogous to Williams’s approach to syntax: a surface naivete that belies a deep sophistication. I thought I had more to say about that parallel but I’ve lost it now. Finally, it seems to me that this tactical naivete about words also relates importantly to the imagist strategy I discuss below: just as images shimmer with suggested meanings, so individual words shimmer with suggestions of other words, always kept deliberately at bay while we are confronted with the individual word as such.

From here, Gross turns to the short poem “Between Walls.”


the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

This poem is adduced as an instance of what Gross calls the “spatial heresy,” the “attempts of modern poets to fight the medium” (117). Poets, on this view (i.e. the view Gross is critiquing), “must resist abstraction and struggle to make their words vivid to eye, ear, and touch. The objectivist poem achieves its vividness by stopping time; the poem sits on the page in its unmoving thingness” (117, my emphasis).

“Nothing happens,” Gross continues (118); the verbs “present little action and function nearly as copulas” (118). He dismisses prosody in a sentence focused entirely on line length and number of stresses and another pointing out that “important words stand by themselves or at the ends of lines” (118), then proposes, only to reject, a symbolic interpretation of the green of the bottle as representing fertility. This, he argues, would earn Williams’s scorn because it is not sufficiently concrete. Thus, he concludes, “as words detach themselves from their meanings, prosody becomes static. Rhythmic structure moves in time, but the objectivist poem does not move.”

It seems to me that this misses something important about this poem, and Williams’s prosody generally. First, as to interpretation, I agree with the view he ascribes to Williams, but I don’t believe it ends there: the reading of the green as fertility is one possible interpretation, but not the only one. To insist too strongly on that interpretation both precludes the possibility of others, which it is the power of the image to suggest, and removes our attention too far from the words themselves and their direct referents: the image, in short. I don’t know whether Williams would have called himself an imagist when he wrote this poem, or acknowledged a debt to imagism, but it seems to me that an imagist reading strategy is entirely appropriate, insofar as I even know what that means. For me what it means is taking in the image as such, holding to it and not attempting to interpret or explain it, precisely because of its wealth of meaning. That wealth of meaning is inherent in the image but any move away from the image toward interpretation diminishes its power; in this there is an analogy, precise enough to overcome my objection to its clichéd quality, with quantum mechanics: interpretation is like finding the “position” of the electron, at the cost of losing other information. (The analogy fails, or dissipates, when we try to map the concept of “velocity” onto the idea of a wealth of other possible meanings, but less, perhaps, if we recall the notion of the electron as a field.) This is not to argue that we should not notice that green can suggest fertility, for example, but such noticings must be tentative and temporary; we must constantly return to the image for renewal and refreshment, sensitive to the other possibilities, including contradictory ones: the broken green glass for me is as suggestive of sterility as of fertility, though I can’t rationalize that feeling quite so neatly.

But much more of a problem than this approach to interpretation (Gass: “modern criticism has lived like a shrew upon interpretation, but [Stein’s] work lies outside [this tendency] like a straight line beside a maze”—I’m sure I’ve garbled the passage somewhat, or even combined two separate passages, but this is the gist. It’s from “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language”) is Gross’s take on rhythm, prosody, and time. To argue that this poem “does not move,” on the evidence of the lack of dramatic content (which, it seems to me, is the essence of his reading), is to miss its most powerful and important aspect: the tension between syntax and lineation. The power of Williams’s technique is to let the syntax pool and eddy at the ends of lines and then rush forward like whitewater. It seems extraordinarily obtuse to me to miss this sort of movement.

The peak of intensity falls exactly midway in the poem: “will grow lie / cinders.” After this line the poem begins to relax or calm until coming to rest on the final image, in exactly the same way as “beside the white / chickens.” But all the way through he’s pushing syntax up against line breaks, releasing the subatomic strong forces joining “the” to its noun, for example, exploiting the pent-up force of our expectation of “where / nothing // …,” which demands to know what is the nothing, and what that nothing will do, what nothing will happen. There’s intense drama here, though also extremely subtle, staged in a microcosmos, “anyhow in a corner” (Auden), on a Beckettian stage empty of characters. But the main point is the counterpoint: how Williams manipulates and exploits that fundamental tension between lineation and syntax.

[from here my notes go off into an unfinished attempt to understand what Hartman has to say about Williams and “accentual isochrony,” which I’ll leave for another day.]


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