As Reviewed By:
Love After Four
Journey to Love by William Carlos Williams. Random House, 1959.
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Leading off with one of his most frequently anthologized pieces, "The Negro Woman," the volume concludes with what many believe to be Williamss single best work in poetryand if the opinion of W.H. Auden is to be credited, "one of the most beautiful love poems in the language"the earlier alluded to, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Between these two very unlike exhilarations lie poems like "The Ivy Crown," whose sculpted attempts to reorient the Williams take on life-as-idiom"The pure products of America / go crazy" to more commodious, if less sprawling, line arrangements than free verse affords:
has no odor
save to the imagination
but it too
celebrates the light . . .
Less sprawling, but not always free of the dropsical effect of nearly tripodic verse
There is no power
so great as love
which is a sea,
which is a garden
as the verses
of that blind old man
to live for ever.
Nor yet, always free of it, but never quite wholly in its thrall, either. Williams had
learned in the days of Paterson IImost notably in the sequence that
turns up in anthologies as "Sunday in the Park"that measure diamond-cuts
the line, it doesnt insure against faulty alignment of syllables against its pulse.
The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned
memory is a kind
a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the space it opens are new
places . . .
It took Williams a long time to get the enforced syncopation out of his new stanza form, to be able to handle a line with two caesuras rather than the one that imposes itself even in free verse, despite its tendency to engulf rhythmic consistency wiith a tidal thrust of forward motion. As late as "The Artist" from The Desert Music, Williams was still hamhanding a predictable nodule of rhythm on to the next step-level with at best a footling variability:
. . . My mother
taken by surprise
where she sat
in her invalids chair
was left speechless. . . .
Line and cadence almost gel in "To Daphne and Virginia," a poem which also appears in The Desert Music and is a sort of dress rehearsal for the lengthier and infinitely more subtle "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." But there, too, syllabic clogs gum up the works with confabulatory niceties in sonorities less sculpted than whittled:
The mind is the cause of our distresses
but of it we can build anew.
Oh something more than
it flies off to:
a womans world,
of crossed sticks, stopping
thought. . . .
Its almost as if, in the rush to get something said, something more
pressingthe urgency driving this or any poem to saywere not properly
being allowed to surface. Williams may have found his proper medium, but he was not yet
able to contain its energies without dispersing them into ruts of discourse more
appropriate to certain of his earlier poems in free verse. Also, its doubtful that
most female readers today would accept the desirability of directing ones mind to
build something more than "a womans world, / of crossed sticks, / stopping
thought." But thats neither here nor there. Of greater importance than their
fungibility as any male chauvinists stock-in-trade is that Williams had begun again,
after a hiatus of some years, to desert-muse about how women use the mummycloth of sex to
wind the lives of their husbands and/or lovers about them in order to bind them to them in
ways that nothing short of sustained domestic abuse could rend asunder.
which can be attained,
in its service.
Is a fairy flower;
a cat of twenty lives. . . ,
and that hierarchy is what love elicits when two "have stood / from year to year /
before the spectacle of our lives / with joined hands."
I cannot say
that I have gone to hell
for your love
found myself there
in your pursuit.
Hence the invocation of asphodel, the greeny flower that would be "like a buttercup / upon its branching stem," were it not"save that""its green and wooden," making it botanical kin to the mix of frailness and resilience that recalls the love amulets of myth, which in turn speak to the need of lovers never to foreclose on the possibility of forgiveness, given or received. "What power has love but forgiveness?", begins Book III, since only "by its intervention" can "what has been done / [. . .] be undone. / What good is it otherwise?" Invocation is the poor mans apotheosis, even when what flowers in the attempt to conjure is little more than the aroma of a past too dim to either flimflam or recapture. Given the poets advanced age, with crippling strokes in his present and (with a physicians eye, sensing) future as well, there is no point in doubletiming the clock that ticks inexorably lifes molestations along. What else, then, but to yoke reason why to pronomial what as Williams, with clear-eyed conjugalism, does so memorably here:
Because of this
I have invoked the flower
frail as it is
after winters harshness
it comes again.
to delect us.
Asphodel, the ancients believed,
in hells despite
was such a flower. . . .
Knowing winters harshness well at this time of his life Williams opts for a "coming again" rather differently epitomized than that which the summery years of concupiscence and robust sexuality give rise to. Recurrence may now mostly engender furrows of privation, but there is still plowing and tilling to be done, though a poet caught in such musings as twilight deepens can hardly fail to mourn the loss of what the muse had once granted, no strings attached. To grow old in America without love is the true horror, the windtunnel that is all backdraft and no airshaft. Like the Poe who prefigures Williamss desolationor what would have, had love not intervened to keep the stem of the end-of-life poem from collapsing on its own enervating weight. In 1925, at the end of In the American Grain, Williams wrote of the decomposing philosopher of composition,
In the American Grain famously begins with a dramatic monologue, tempered by Robert
Brownings Renaissance portraits and furnaced to white heat by his friend Ezra
Pounds "The Seafarer," that purports to discover bedrock American
refractorinesswhich is to say, the lands resistance to any easeful
accommodation against the grain the earliest Puritans were in mortal fear ofin the
Greenland depredations of Red Eric. This Viking was among the last of the few who yielded
pride of place to the refusal to yield to forces which prove death to that pride which
prevails without conquering and so is driven to lash out with neither confidence nor aim.
In certain, perhaps more encompassing, instances, Williamss revisionist history
assures us, American heroes like Daniel Boone and Père Sebastian Rasles learned to love
the wallthat defining American extremitytheir back was to, as against such
Puritans as Cotton Mather, whose energies mocked the creative, preempted the convivial,
and laid waste to the human.
The whole process is a lie,
crowned by excess
it break forcefully,
one way or another,
from its confinement
or find a deeper well. . . .
Williams, whether because he himself was being mothered by the spirit of necessity that led to the invention of the variable foot, or because he somehow managed to luck into the discovery of how to access the artesian depths from which poetry springs, clearly found such a "deeper well" in Journey to Love. Part of the sense of liberation from disorder that Williamss triadic stanza frees up emanates from the "innerness of out-take" that hitting upon just the right syntactical algorithm rescues from randomness. To cite just one sprightly example of this process, from the concluding lines of "The Ivy Crown"
But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
the jeweled prize
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.
Submerged beneath this lacustrine shimmer is no Creeleyesque Excalibur, rising
pseudo-explicatively from a tidepool of resignation and attenuated speech. Think rather of
a pricksong to an erotic descant out of a book of uncommon prayer, one sacramentalized by
two lovers locked within a trinity of conjunctions which makes of each the holy
ghostwriter of the others siren-like speaking in tongues. There is the joining of
life to life, heart to heart and genitalia to genitalia, although the last of these has by
now dwindled to a frisson lost to all but memory, and that fading fast.
. . . A heavenly man you seem to me now, never
having been for me a saintly one.
It lived about you, a certain grossness that
was not like the world.