- William Carlos Williams, Description, and the Avant-Garde
For anyone interested in descriptive poetry or the role of the object in twentieth-century poetics, William Carlos Williams seems an obvious starting point. As quondam Imagist, ally of Objectivism, originator of the famous dictum "No ideas but in things" (Paterson 6), and most importantly, as a poet whose oeuvre includes a considerable number of unusually pure descriptive poems, Williams seems poised at the forefront of a modernism of object-hood, the father of an entire poetic lineage devoted to the disinterested investigation of physical reality. But the more one looks at Imagism—"Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether objective or subjective"—and Objectivism—"achieving form. That's what 'objectivist' really means"—the less these movements seem to center on an interest in objects qua objects (Pound 3; Oppen 160). Similarly, the more one looks at Williams's poetics, with its emphasis on voice and the poem as an object (rather than the poem about an object), the less interested—or, at least, the less consistently interested—in real objects he appears. In truth, Williams's relationship to the physical world is much more complicated than at first it seems, and any attempt to examine his poetics of description and trace its influence on subsequent developments in poetic history will require some delicacy.
Later I will address the question of Williams's historical role. Indeed, this study's largest gesture will be a rather counterintuitive revision of recent literary history: I will argue that the descriptive mode most uniquely Williams's own is in fact anathema to the very avant-garde poets—Objectivist, Projectivist, language—we generally consider his heirs. First, however, I need to draw out the [End Page 85] precise nature of Williams's own descriptive practice in light of a relatively simple distinction between two kinds of descriptive poetry, both of which occur within Williams's oeuvre. Having done so, I will go on in the central portion of this essay to discuss "By the road to the contagious hospital" (a.k.a. "Spring and All"), suggesting that, as the purest expression of the purer of these two descriptive modes, it marks a unique and uniquely powerful moment in the history of an avant-garde that has—ever since that moment—turned consistently away from the particular method the poem applies.
The distinction on which this essay turns is both simple and far-reaching: that some descriptive poems get their energy from the things they describe while others are brought to life by a speaker's enthusiasm for those things. In other words, is the longevity of "The Red Wheelbarrow" due to the "red wheel / barrow" itself, together, of course, with those "white / chickens," or to Williams's declaration that "so much depends / upon" it (CP 1: 224)? The minimal line lengths and heavy enjambment slow the poem to a stately march; but do they do so in order to give the reader time to see the objects with unusual clarity and, therefore, feel their particular potency? Or do they rather allow the poem to impress the reader with the speaker's unusual interest in those objects? Is it really the wheelbarrow that interests us, or is it the sensibility of a speaker who would notice such a thing? At stake in this question is not only the role of a poem's described object, but the role of the lyric subject as well, for the two are at war for the reader's attention here. And wherever these two things come into conflict, fundamental questions of poetic mode and literary history are quick to follow.
This particular conflict—between lyric subject and real object—is at the heart of certain familiar definitions of modernism, such as the one J. Hillis Miller advances in Poets of Reality (1965). Miller suggests that modernism "means abandoning the independence of the ego" because only "through an abnegation of the will can objects begin to manifest themselves as they are, in the integrity of their presence" (Poets of Reality 7–8).1 For Miller, modernism is the battleground on which the described object defeats the lyric subject, where the shaping...