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The Great (Recon)Figur(ation): Dialogism and the Postmodern Turn in Williams's "The Great Figure."

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 177-188 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0016

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In recent years, Henry M. Sayre, Christopher J. MacGowan, Barbara M. Fisher, Dickran Tashjian, William Marling, and Peter Halter, among others, have written about the influence of visual artists, especially Marsden Hartley, on Williams's poetry, and, conversely, the influence of Williams' poetry on painting. These critics have variously examined the personal, cultural, aesthetic, and ontological dimensions of the visual arts background of Williams's poetry, including "The Great Figure," first published as the final poem in Sour Grapes in 1921, and well-known as the source for Charles Demuth's 1928 painting, The Figure Five in Gold. Especially relevant to my focus, in The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams and "Dialogue of the Sister Arts: Number-Poems and Number-Paintings in America, 1920-1970," Halter unpacks the figure 5 as a compact embodiment of the technological dynamic of modernism, and notes the cinematic effect of Williams's poem as well as its indebtedness to Futurism, Cubism, and Dadaism (Halter Revolution 97-101), including its influence, via Demuth, on later artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana (Halter "Dialogue" 212-216), arguing, in the latter article, that the intertextual dialogue among the postmodern artists and Demuth consciously influenced form and aesthetic decisions in the latter artists' works; referring to Johns's encaustic-and-oil-on-canvas The Black Figure Five (1960), for example, commissioned by a collector, Halter notes that "both of them [artist and collector] had the same idea: the two epochs, the twenties and the sixties, and the styles of the two painters [Demuth and Johns] should be confronted with, and related to, one another, in and through, a common motif" (Halter, "Dialogue" 212).

Having a broader, more contextualist/historicist agenda in mind for his article (parts of which later appeared, somewhat amended and expanded, in chapter 4, "Soothing the Savage Beast," of his 1994 book The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams), Halter understandably does not substantially investigate the complexities and tensions of these relationships, which I attempt to somewhat unravel below. Taking the lead from these critics, the current critical (re)formulation will further explore the dialogic dimensions of Williams's imagist poem, "The Great Figure," to see how the linguistic construction, Williams's poem, is transported—or translated—through a series of cultural and formal positionalities, via Demuth's re-creation and two postmodern re-visions of Demuth— Robert Indiana's serigraph The Figure Five (1971), and Jasper Johns's portfolio of lithographs 0-9 (1960-1963). Analysis of the dialogic exchange among these works touches on a broad and complex range of socio-cultural, formal, as well as psychological issues, beginning with a shift in registers in the title descriptors of Demuth's painting from symbolic resonance to figural surface—the paint/language is what, to use that famous imagist articulation of Williams's oeuvre, "so much [of it] depends / upon." We may read Demuth's painting, evolving from the same cultural episteme as the poem, as a visual analogue to it, though taking it a step further toward abstraction (as noted in the title, above); but perhaps more crucially the question arises, how is subjectivity—not only of the speaker of the poem but the self-presence of the artists (Demuth, Johns, Indiana) as (re)constructed through the materiality and "style" of the particular works—challenged by the apprehension of the larger work that is this dia-logos?

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

(CP1 174)

Demuth's The Figure Five in Gold (1928, oil on cardboard) plays on thematic and formal tensions in the host poem, recasting the imagistic/linguistic movement of Williams's poem as Cubo-Futurist dynamo. Of the three "5"s depicted in the painting, each larger than the one preceding it, seeming to rush toward the viewer and overwhelm the painting itself, it is the middle 5—signed engine "No. 5,"—that's gold (almost gold leaf), signaling the irony Williams notes in his poem's title: in a...

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