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Post-War Williams and Pre-War Aragon: A Note

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 189-195 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

                                       Anywhere is everywhere!
You can learn from poems
                   that an empty head tapped on
                                       sounds hollow
in any language!

(P 231)

I was reading around in Louis Aragon's sort-of-a-novel Le paysan de Paris (1926) for a completely unrelated reason—looking into early literary influences on Simone de Beauvoir—when I was suddenly hit in the eye by a fragment I recognized:

La ré la ré la réalité

and was kicked abruptly from 1920s surrealist France to Eisenhower's 1950s and Paterson Book V:

               The Cloisters
                                       on its rock
casting its shadow —
                   "la réalité! la réalité!
                                       la réa, la réa, la réa, la réalité!"

(P 207)

Then fast forward, or maybe rewind, into the late 1970s, when a quixotic undergraduate teacher of mine, right before he failed to get tenure and disappeared into the night, had insisted our seminar read, closely, all of Paterson (and no Eliot), and had led us at the end of the second week through an impassioned discussion of this very passage, of the meaning of Reality, Art, the Imagination: had Williams, at the end of his productive life, changed his mind, weakened, "sold out" to the European tradition after all, or simply tailed off, no more able than his old friend Pound to "make it cohere"? It had stayed with me. Turning to the annotated Paterson I found that the indefatigably conscientious Chris MacGowan, master tracker of allusions and variants, had somehow missed this tiny tunnel into Williams's European past. I figured I should tell someone.

How important is this, really? It's a small point in a very long and complicated text; probably an e-mail to Chris would have done. But I've also had on my mind a remark Marjorie Perloff made at some conference or other, that "people don't seem to be writing much about Williams anymore." A quick inventory of the MLA Bibliography suggests she's right. Maybe it's because people whose teachers didn't make them read Paterson, or who didn't find it on their own, might have a view of Williams as having little or nothing to say about the crucial (or at least the fashionable) critical questions in modernist studies at the moment. One still comes across views of WCW as someone who stumbled around in intellectual realms and did not really know what he was doing, as someone who was uncomfortable with ideas, or with metaphor, as a poet of "things in themselves" and thus ancestor to everything anti-intellectual and limited in US mainstream poetry at the moment; and if people teach a sort of handbook version of the different modernist poets, Williams can come off (in contrast to Pound and H.D.) as "the one who stayed home," a sort of defiantly unsophisticated holdout who might best be honored by a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike. I'm hoping the intertext with Le paysan de Paris (which I'll argue is broader than the single line I quote above) can at least make the point that Paterson's transatlantic context, and Williams himself, are worth another look. After all, Le paysan de Paris is best known to us today as the emotional (and perhaps the formal) inspiration behind Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, which is certainly something people are still interested in talking about. I have yet to see a discussion of Paterson in terms of Benjamin's, and Aragon's, flâneur, although such comparison, especially with reference to Book II,


— (P 63)

would seem obvious, and surely someone has done or is doing it.

The explicit project of Le paysan de Paris was to create a modern mythology, including new myths of modernity, based on the valuing of the everyday and the ephemeral (what critics have called "le merveilleux du quotidien") and including non-rational and contra-logical elements. Aragon's is an attempted solution to the post World War I problem of loss of faith, not a religious solution as such—Aragon is very clear that people who believe in God are just being lazy—but an attempt to substitute a different absolute, an...

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