Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Journey To Love After Four Decades

Journey to Love by William Carlos Williams. Random House, 1959. 


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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     Following hard upon the publication of two of William Carlos Williams’s last and most expressive contributions to modern American verse, Pictures from Brueghel (1953) and The Desert Music (1954), and completing a triptych of collections that carried forward beyond all earlier clumsiness his experimentation with the triadic stanza and a new measure he called the "variable foot" (first trotted out in the never quite completed second book of his verse epic Paterson) was the poet’s valedictory offering, Journey to Love (1955). Encapsulating its meaning for him in the "feeling scrapbook "I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958), Williams wrote:

My theory of the variable foot is explicit in the whole thing. I’m convinced it’s a valid concept. It may not be for everyone, but it is a way of escaping the formlessness of free verse. The one poem "Asphodel, that greeny flower" has been noticed and enjoyed by many people. The reviews of the book made me very happy.

     Leading off with one of his most frequently anthologized pieces, "The Negro Woman," the volume concludes with what many believe to be Williams’s single best work in poetry—and 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:

                      Asphodel

                                         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 enduring

                                                                 as the verses

                      of that blind old man

                                         destined

                                                                 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 II—most notably in the sequence that turns up in anthologies as "Sunday in the Park"—that measure diamond-cuts the line, it doesn’t insure against faulty alignment of syllables against its pulse.
     The shape of such verse may not be new—Byron Vazakas, working along similar lines with a four-line stanza in the ‘40s and ‘50s, was taking a comparable, if somewhat flabbier, measure of American speech—but its audible form, or way of finding the ear by way of the eye’s dispositive field, is. Williams’s premonitory insight about how to coordinate the visual and the aural on the page so that the one can be made to feed the other’s natural hunger for cadence begins to inform his verse in the third part of Paterson II. After a brief proem on the need to locate "that nul / that’s past all / seeing" and "the death of all / that’s past / all being," the poet launches into a crude version of the triadic stanza over the space of some 40-odd lines in which he plays "variable footsie," as it were, with a tripodic line that occasionally extends itself into a grouping of four phrasal units:

                      The descent beckons

                                         as the ascent beckoned

                                                                 memory is a kind

                      of accomplishment

                                         a sort of renewal

                                                                 even

                      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 invalid’s 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 woman’s world,

                                                                 of crossed sticks, stopping

                      thought. . . .

It’s almost as if, in the rush to get something said, something more pressing—the urgency driving this or any poem to say—were 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, it’s doubtful that most female readers today would accept the desirability of directing one’s mind to build something more than "a woman’s world, / of crossed sticks, / stopping thought." But that’s neither here nor there. Of greater importance than their fungibility as any male chauvinist’s 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.
     But "Asphodel" remains a lodestar in 20th Century American verse for reasons other than its mere technical triumphs. Its emphases are both forward-looking and valedictory, as much an act of summarizing as of summing up the variabilities of a long career in poetry, beyond those of metrical podiatry. In three Books and a Coda, the poem meanders through the alluvial field of a now thinning reminiscence—of moments enriched by love, of love nourished by the momentousness of feelings connubially shared for more years than either he or his wife Flossie could, by 1955, conjointly reconstitute. The poem is about what remains, about what "Death / is not the end of . . ." "There is a hierarchy," he insists,

                                         which can be attained,

                                                                 I think,

                      in its service.

                                         Its guerdon

                                                                      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."
     To speak of such infrangibilities as are evoked by the sacramentalisms of marriage is to deny the personal its sustaining conscriptions of privacy. It strains the membrane of a joke conjugally probed to be reminded—in confessional retrospect—how infernal can be the realizations of love. After many decades and aftermaths, the privatizing ironies of ice-box memos of the "This is just to say" or "gotcha!" variety find their unanticipated resolutions in other, much different "gather[ings . . . of] the wild plum," thus confirming, with much deeper irony, a disclaimer which can admit freely, if painfully,

                                         I cannot say

                                                        that I have gone to hell

                                                                              for your love

                                         but often

                                                        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"—"it’s 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 man’s 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 poet’s advanced age, with crippling strokes in his present and (with a physician’s eye, sensing) future as well, there is no point in doubletiming the clock that ticks inexorably life’s 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

                                                                                  in that

                                         frail as it is

                                                     after winter’s harshness

                                                                          it comes again.

 

                                         to delect us.

                                                   Asphodel, the ancients believed,

                                                                        in hell’s despite

                                         was such a flower. . . .

     Knowing winter’s 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 Williams’s desolation—or 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 his prose he could still keep a firm hold, he still held the "arrangement" fast and stood above it, but in the poetry he was at the edge—there was nothing—

Here in poetry, where it is said "we approach the gods," Poe was caught, instead, in his time.

Now, defenseless, the place itself attacked him. Now the thinness of his coat, the terror of isolation took hold.

Had he lied in a world where love throve, his poems might have grown differently. But living where he did, surrounded as he was by that world of unreality, a formless population—drifting and feeding—a huge terror possessed him.

In the American Grain famously begins with a dramatic monologue, tempered by Robert Browning’s Renaissance portraits and furnaced to white heat by his friend Ezra Pound’s "The Seafarer," that purports to discover bedrock American refractoriness—which is to say, the land’s resistance to any easeful accommodation against the grain the earliest Puritans were in mortal fear of—in 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, Williams’s revisionist history assures us, American heroes like Daniel Boone and Père Sebastian Rasles learned to love the wall—that defining American extremity—their back was to, as against such Puritans as Cotton Mather, whose energies mocked the creative, preempted the convivial, and laid waste to the human.
     In a way—a determinative way—Williams’s mothering of necessity in compensating creatively for the strokes that crippled him in later life by setting the tabulator key on his typewriter to automatically nudge him away from free verse and toward a "variable foot" represents just such an adaptation to local conditions as may be found celebrated nearly everywhere in his In the American Grain. His whole career as a poet had strained to articulate what he blares openly in the first lines of the present volume’s "The Ivy Crown":

                                         The whole process is a lie,

                                                       unless

                                                                     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 Williams’s 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,

                                                               we have,

                     no matter how,

                                                       by our wills survived

                                                                 to keep

                     the jeweled prize

                                                       always

                                                                 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 other’s 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.
     To sum up: What in and about Williams’s Journey to Love deserves commemoration after nearly half a century? Well, certainly more than any of the, albeit creditable, attempts it reflects by this poet to revive a tripodic version of rope-a-dope that would, on its best outings, shame wildcatting free-versifiers whose products were neither free (in any meaningful sense) nor verse (with either sense or meaning) into at least playing tennis with a few strung-together holes if not an actual net. It’s been distressing to watch Williams’s reputation as a major American modernist tank over the last few decades while those of his less talented clones have gone stratospheric with the run-up of the postmodernist sector on the literary stock exchange. Perhaps the younger set of Gen-X-ers finds his early, middle or late rap either insufficiently cool or too self-sufficiently confrontationist. Or, maybe no one these days takes love seriously anymore, hence rendering any journeys undertaken in its name superfluous and even possibly suspect.
     Whatever the cause of this neglect, there is no minimizing the booster shot of chlorophyll given Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by Williams’s long career spent conserving and replenishing that uniquely open-collared brand of Americanism. What clone could possibly replicate (let alone surpass) such a recombinant wealth of speech? Always bracingly less than merely couth, Williams’s verse measures (no pun intended) somewhere near the mean of America’s basal poetic metabolism. The reader, tired of all those "HMO-affiliated" poets, might think about rebooting the maverick practitioner from Rutherford. Rereading Journey to Love in these websiting times might well inspire even the crustiest of post-Postmodernists to echo Williams’s encomium "To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven"—

                         . . . 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.


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