"Blue Under-Shirts Upon a Line":Orrick Johns and the Genesis of William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow"
Using William Carlos Williams's and Orrick Johns's early working association as members of the "Others" group as a starting point, the essay examines how Johns's now largely forgotten poem, "Blue Under-Shirts," possibly influenced the composition of Williams's iconic "The Red Wheelbarrow." The similarities between these two poems are striking, and I argue that Williams may very well have had the shortcomings of Johns's poem in mind when he composed "The Red Wheelbarrow." The essay proposes that what Williams likely recognized in his friend Johns' poem was the framework for a new modern American poetic line, demonstrated by his own one-sentence poem, that moves beyond the imagist principle of austere, objective description to a new focus on the distinctive linguistic features of the American idiom, an approach that draws the reader in as an active participant in the creation of the poetic experience.
Despite his contributions to turn-of-the-20th-century proletarian poetry and his close association with many of the major figures of American modernist poetry, Orrick Johns has been largely forgotten today. For example, an exhaustive search of the MLA bibliography shows not a single entry on him or his work. But for a brief time, as a member of the "Others" group at the Grantwood colony in 1915, Johns worked on equal terms with some of the leading avant-garde poets and artists of the day, including Man Ray, Marianne Moore, Marcel Duchamp, and William Carlos Williams. During the same period, Others magazine editor and founder Alfred Kreymbourg published a substantial number of Johns's works alongside not only these artists, but also Ezra [End Page 167] Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, H.D., Amy Lowell, and Mina Loy, as well as Williams.1
Curiously, however, despite the fact that Williams and Johns spent significant time together during the early years of Williams's poetic career, Williams's working relationship with Johns has been treated only very superficially, even though the insights Williams achieved through this relationship may have been singularly important for what they contributed to his search for a new American poetic line. For his part, Williams, an ardent collaborator who worked tirelessly throughout his life with other artists and editors to promote experimental poetry, attests in his autobiography that he enjoyed ample opportunity to share ideas with Johns, as well as the many other poets and artists in the colony at Grantwood, where Johns himself resided during the summer of 1915, when "Blue Under-Shirts" was conceived and published (Johns, 1937, 224-27). Though not himself a resident at the art colony, Williams nevertheless "spent every Sunday afternoon he could get during the summer and fall of 1915 driving down to those unheated shacks on the lower Palisades … trying to get to know this splendid crowd of New York literati" (Mariani, 1981, 124).
Centered on the publication of Others magazine, the Sunday afternoons at Grantwood in the summer and fall of 1915 were filled with discussions and poetry readings involving Williams and the many residents and visitors.2 In fact, Mariani notes that in this "most inauspicious of places, Williams first met some of the leading poets, painters, and critics of the day: Orrick Johns, Alanson Hartpence, Man Ray, Malcolm Cowley, Walter Arensberg, Mina Loy, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Sanborn, young Maxwell Bodenheim, and … Wallace Stevens" (1981, 123). Williams himself later recalled that he was "hugely excited by what was taking place there," adding that," on every possible occasion, I went madly in my flivver to help with the magazine which had saved my life as a writer" (1948, 135). Confirming Johns's prominent role in shaping the work emerging from this center of avant-garde experimentation, in July 1915, from among all the poetry which might have been selected, the first issue of Others "featured the work of Orrick Johns" (Mariani, 1981, 123), including "Blue Under-Shirts," as well as thirteen additional poems by Johns (Churchill, 2006, 223). All of these circumstances confirm the fact that Williams most certainly would have been generally familiar with Johns's work and specifically with his ideologically and aesthetically provocative "Blue Under-Shirts" at, and likely even before, its publication.
That Williams might well have looked to Johns's poetry for what he could draw from it for his own restless poetic experimentation is further borne out by the fact that three years earlier, in 1912, the same year in which Ezra Pound famously proclaimed the advent of Imagism, Johns won the first [End Page 168] Lyric Year Award for his poem "Second Avenue," beating out Edna St. Vincent Millay. With the award came recognition of his potential as an important young American poet, a potential that was seemingly affirmed with the release in 1917 of his first book of poetry, Asphalt.3 One reviewer for the "Review of Reviews" at the time wrote, "Orrick Johns is a young American poet of exceedingly rich poetic promise … This … book of verse … has melodic freshness and contains much essential poesy" (1917, 661). Clearly, future reputations notwithstanding, during the mid-1910's Johns was a central figure in avant-garde American literary and cultural circles, one who contributed an early representative volume of avant-garde poetry and who was an intellectual presence among his peers.
While no direct primary evidence exists to confirm unequivocally the hypothesis, I would like to use the existing circumstantial evidence to frame an argument that Johns's brief 1915 poem, "Blue Under-Shirts," may have played a role in the developmental process leading to the composition of one of the iconic texts of American poetry, Williams's "XXII," or "The Red Wheelbarrow." In fact, placing the two poems side-by-side, where their appearance as well as their technique can be observed, one immediately notes their similarities:
so much dependsupon
a red wheelbarrow
glazed with rainwater
beside the whitechickens
Blue undershirtsUpon a line,It is not necessary to say to youAnything about it—What they do,What they might do … blue undershirts
The obvious parallels in the use of central primary colors and working class objects, together with the prominent use of "upon" in the two poems, imply a possible influence of the former on the latter, a point which is credibly supported by the biographical facts just cited. Moreover, my claim of the significance of "Blue Under-Shirts" to the development of Williams's own poetry is attested by the fact that more than thirty years later, in his autobiography, this is the only poem by any of his much better known Grantwood colleagues Williams refers to by name, when he recounts that Johns "was famed [End Page 169] anew at that time for his 'blue undershirts on a line'" (Williams 1948, 135). Of course, a poet's work must ultimately stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of his or her milieu or associations, (and most of Johns's work is, in the final analysis, mediocre), but the nearly total absence of critical engagement with any of Johns's poetry seems unwarranted. I thus propose that pairing "The Red Wheelbarrow" with "Blue Under-Shirts" will accomplish two objectives. First, doing so will allow for a fuller understanding of the process that led to the breakthrough Williams achieved with his own poetry in "The Red Wheelbarrow," a poem widely acknowledged as singularly influential in the development of American poetry and a watershed in Williams's own artistic development. Secondly, and of equal significance, examining Williams's poem from this new perspective will provide instructors with a well-focused pedagogical strategy to engage students as they discuss his crucial role in the development of modern poetry more generally.
When we follow the plausible hypothesis that Williams learned a critically important lesson through his interaction with Johns and his poetry, the next step is to consider how this particular Johns poem actually might have functioned in suggesting to Williams a new direction to pursue in his experimentation with the American language. On this point, I posit that Johns's possible influence immediately centers on two basic elements that both figure prominently throughout his poetry and with which Williams would have been familiar. The first was Johns's fervent effort to defend the poetic relevance of the commonplace objects and situations of early 20th-century modern American life as lived by ordinary, working people, a product of his proletarian politics; and the second was his innate sense of the particular, a talent for differentiating objects from their contextual background. Like Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost, Orrick Johns locates his poems in specifically American locales, focusing on topics familiar to average Americans and selecting in the process objects that speak an American idiom. In his 1918 review of Johns's Asphalt, J. B. Rittenhouse emphasizes this point when he observes that, "Mr. Johns is at his best when he takes the thing nearest at hand and most familiar to all of us. Nothing is so strange and rare as the commonplace when envisioned by a poet.… Mr. Johns knows this; he knows that novelty is in the thing we overlook because it is constantly under our eyes" (1918, 579).
Additionally, however, a third, more theoretical element can be identified that made Johns an important presence in the early modernist avant-garde and that allowed him finally to act as a catalyst for genuine poetic innovation. This third element is a presence of mind to apprehend innovative poetic ideals, even when self-admittedly falling short of attaining these ideals himself.4 In effect, Johns was apparently able, ironically most often by negative [End Page 170] example, to reveal to his more talented peers the ideal to which they should aspire by demonstrating a working model of both what a modernist, avant-garde poem should do and what it should not do, and thus in the process to provide other artists such as Williams with the conceptual framework needed to actually realize this ideal.
Drawing upon a 1934 essay by Walter Benjamin to describe this indispensable process of creative influence by which an avant-garde artist can create the conditions for the development of other artists around him, John Lowney, in his The American Avant-Garde Tradition, observes that a crucial function of a modernist, avant-garde poet, and one perhaps equal to the creative act itself, is the ability to inspire other artists in just this way, to provide for them a new way of envisioning art. On this point, Benjamin argues, "An author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an approved apparatus at their disposal" (1978, 233, Benjamin's emphasis). Based upon Williams's enthusiastic description of his participation in the artistic ferment at the Grantwood art colony, one can readily conclude that Orrick Johns, Alfred Kreymbourg, and the other modernist pioneers with whom Williams associated during the formative years of his poetic career provided Williams with both the exemplary character of production and the apparatus necessary for the emergence of a new form of artistic expression, as Benjamin describes. Furthermore, Benjamin suggests, "this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers, readers into collaborators" (233), a point which argues for at least some critical recognition of Johns's place in American poetry. For if Williams did gain some insight from "Blue Under-Shirts," then we must also accord Johns some small role in terms of Williams's continuing influence over nearly a century of American poetry.5 Specifically Johns's literal representation of undershirts hanging upon a line becomes, through Williams's much more creative vision, a metaphor for the poetic line itself, where words are hung, juxtaposed one to the next, in unexpected ways, to achieve the elusive objective of making a poem that would induce a full collaboration from the reader. Employing this new poetic, Williams shows that the formerly passive reader can now be made to work together actively with the poet to help the poem's meaning unfold, word by word, line by line, in effect to participate in a creative process that resembles, but properly amends, Johns's earlier attempt in "Blue Under-Shirts." In other words, unlike Johns, Williams successfully "foregrounds technique as the means for turning consumers into producers, readers into collaborators" (233), a technique that works by de-contextualizing familiar words and objects and which in turn requires readers to imagine a new context for them. One could, in fact, argue that the reason [End Page 171] "The Red Wheelbarrow" represents the radical breakthrough that it does in American poetry is that the poem definitively demonstrates the principle at least in part conceived by Orrick Johns that when "the word, the phrase, the sentence, or even the generic form is situated in a radically new, even obscure context, its connection to the outside world is not obliterated, but accentuated" (Lowney, 1997, 17).
Williams himself, in an essay on Marianne Moore, emphasizes modern poetry's emergence from very particular social conditions, and he notes that Moore's poetry reveals that the creation of modern art requires a complex interplay between the world of the imagination and the specific social conditions from which it arises (1970, 311).6 "Good modern work," Williams writes, "far from being the fragmentary, neurotic thing its disunderstanders think it, is nothing more than work compelled by those conditions. It is a multiplicity of impulses that by their several flights, crossing at all eccentric angles, might enlighten" (312). However, in the creation of a modern poem such as the one Williams was working towards, recognizing the importance of this interplay between the world of imagination and feelings and the world of objects themselves is only the first step. Just as important is the particular relationship between the work of art and the conditions from which it emerges. As my analysis of "Blue Under-Shirts" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" will show, the poet must convey the precise balance between the work of art and its cultural context to allow the object to emerge organically from the language selected to represent it, as the poet creates potential contexts for meaning which must finally be determined by the reader in the act of using language. Lowney writes:
This cognitive process—from the printed page, to the imagination "at play," to the re-cognition that such play elucidates the writer's contact with his locality—inverts the critical principles of aestheticism. Rather than the ascent from the local to the transcendent category of the aesthetic, Williams stresses the descent from the realm of the aesthetic to the reformulation of the local conditions that give rise to such imaginative work.
Williams cogently argues in "Note: The American Language and the New Poetry," an unpublished 1934 essay, that in this formulation, the mediating force in the ongoing exchange between the poem and its cultural context is language itself, especially in modern poetry. According to Williams,
[t]he impetus for modern poetry … had been essentially linguistic. It had been a matter of pacing and of discovering what, after all, poetry itself was. This was the deepest and most far-reaching revolution of all.… the act of composition forced the poet to analyze 'why one word has to follow another' [End Page 172] without distorting the delicate contours of rhythm and sense.(qtd. in Mariani, 1981, 364)
Of course, "this was no easy process," because, as in fact a number of Johns's poems demonstrate, "the new arrangements of words on the page could too frequently degenerate into parody, a kind of folksy dialect" (Mariani, 1981, 364).7 For example, "Mobilisation," and "Bread," both appearing in Asphalt, employ a hyper-stylized working-class dialect to express the struggles of the urban laboring classes to survive in the face of industrial exploitation and military conscription, with a resulting tone that is, predictably, and certainly inappropriately, almost comical. The first six lines of "Bread" read:
Bread, is it bread?Den go an' git yer headBeaten inta jelly by de bulls!Dey'll preach ta yer a spell,An ya'll never go ta hell,So long as yer ain't tired o' bein' gulls!
Similar in tone is "Mobilisation," a poem protesting World War I recruiting efforts among the urban poor:
Dere goin' out fer glory—Say, ya gotta stop an' look!It's a sight dat grips a fellerTill he wants ta take de hook!Dere goin' out fer gloryAn dey'll find it in de mud—Cause some un started sump'n,An' de bosses, dey want blood!
Clearly, as these brief excerpts show, while Johns's sympathies certainly lie with the exploited under-classes whose voices he attempts to capture, his heavy-handed use of dialect causes both the rhythm and the sense of the language to sink to the level of caricature and melodrama, and consequently the poems lose the emotional impact they might otherwise have had.
In 1917, two years after "Blue Under-Shirts" appeared in Others, and the same year in which Asphalt was published, Williams published his own collection, Al Que Quiere, which includes the poem, "Pastoral (When I was younger)."This poem is especially useful for the present comparison because it reflects an initial movement towards what Williams was only able finally to capture six years later, in "The Red Wheelbarrow," while at the same time showing Williams working his way through the same sort of mistaken direction [End Page 173] that was apparent in both "Bread" and Mobilisation," as well as in "Blue Under-Shirts." "Pastoral" comprises three sentences, and if one were simply to excise a passage from the middle part of the second sentence, one would instantly recognize the correspondences with "The Red Wheelbarrow." But as in "Blue Under-Shirts," the more general tendency in "Pastoral," outside these few lines, is to focus on the poet's authority as a mediator of the experience rather than to allow the reader to experience the immediacy of the objects for him/herself, a more appropriate foregrounding of the mind's movement towards the conscious articulation in language of the object at hand.
The poet's interpretive authority is created in the first sentence and part of the second, as he reflects upon his own growth process:
When I was youngerit was plain to meI must make something of myself.Older nowI walk back streetsadmiring the housesof the very poor:
From the outset, the reader is relegated to the position of passive viewer, encountering the objects presented in the remainder of the poem not as immediate objects of his/her own perception, but as an already completed experience fully interpreted through the narrator's eyes.
Intriguingly, the next part of the second sentence represents the conditions of the modern world compelling the creation of the poem, and because of this it is strikingly similar to "The Red Wheelbarrow" in some respects. However, unlike in "The Red Wheelbarrow," the poet again intrudes to moralize in the verb "cluttered" and the phrase "furniture gone wrong":
roof out of line with sidesthe yards clutteredwith old chicken wire, ashes,furniture gone wrong;the fences and outhousesbuilt of barrel-stavesand parts of boxes …
And at the poem's end, the moment of perception is marred yet again by the intrusion of the narrator, who interrupts to claim the experience as his own: [End Page 174]
… all,if I am fortunate,smeared a bluish greenthat properly weatheredpleases me bestof all colors.
As will be shown in Johns's "Blue Under-Shirts," here in "Pastoral" the subjective experience belongs to the poet, not the reader, a feeling which is highlighted by the repetition of "I," "me" and "myself" seven times in the three sentences, although not at all in the passage cataloguing the actual objects being viewed.
The final sentence, however, is especially revealing for its self-conscious recognition of the ultimate failure engendered by the marginalization of the reader's experience in favor of the presumed authority of the poet's:
No onewill believe thisof vast import to the nation.
In this brief observation, Williams implicitly acknowledges that more work remains to be done to achieve a poetic line which allows for the unmediated linguistic experience he has sought to present. His growing experience as a poet and his search for an adequate local subject are still not enough because these elements remain dependent upon the poet's ability to interpret experience rather than upon the creative capacity of language itself as the determining element of poetry.
Following these experiments, Williams was prepared for his breakthrough, for he had now come to understand that "what finally determined the line a poet had to use was usage, the language as actually spoken in a given place. The line of a similar language—in this case British English—was no longer sufficiently accurate to catch the speech rhythms of someone living in New Jersey or California" (Mariani, 1981, 364). But the poetic emphasis must be placed on choosing the right words in the right order rather than in transcribing specific dialects as Johns had attempted, or in self-conscious narration. Williams had come to recognize that the poet was above all else a wordsmith, forging poems out of sound and cadence, the starts and stops of everyday language as spoken in a locale, to capture a given object—or, as his famous edict proclaims: "no ideas but in things."8 Williams maintains, in fact, that, "When a man makes a poem, makes it mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them, without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his [End Page 175] perceptions and ardors …" (1982, 54). Thereby, as Mariani notes, "the insistent commonness of the image—like Orrick Johns's 'blue undershirts on a line'—and the use of conversational words in poetry [were] stabs in the right direction, since language was, at bottom, word of mouth between two people" (1981, 365). But while blue undershirts hanging out to dry certainly present a concretely familiar image to the average reader, Johns does not succeed in pulling the reader away from symbolic abstractions to an immediate perception of the object. Nevertheless, his impetus to do so would help push Williams in that direction.
A comparison of "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "Blue-Undershirts," then, effectively reveals Williams's successful effort to move beyond dialect and narration and to underscore the essentially linguistic quality of poetry. As shown earlier, the reader is at once struck with the similarities between the two poems, for example in the use of the word "upon" in the opening and the use of bright primary colors: red and blue. However, unlike Williams, Johns does not, at the outset, renew the meaning of the word "upon," but simply employs it in its most literal sense, to describe where the shirts are hanging—upon a clothesline. In other words, while Williams begins with an abstraction, "so much depends upon," that becomes increasingly more concrete and localized as the poem unfolds, Johns begins with the concrete image and then fades into abstraction, before returning anticlimactically to the same image, no further developed, at the poem's end.
At the same time, rather than using line breaks and pauses to transform the image in unanticipated ways, and thus allowing the poem to build inexorably to its own conclusion, Johns interrupts the presentation of the image with a narrative aside, telling us paradoxically that he is not going to comment while in the very act of commenting: "It is not necessary to say to you / Anything about it. "And what he refuses to comment on—the blue undershirts—have been chosen for their specifically working-class overtones, expressed in an ironically deferential tone that distances the poet from the reader, rather than welcoming him/her into a creative collaboration. The poem effectively ends here, despite the four remaining lines, for in these four lines Johns builds not on the image itself, but on his own ironic distance, and the poet's self-conscious refusal to comment ultimately becomes the salient event in the poem.
Thus, one could argue that perhaps the single most important lesson Williams learned from studying "Blue Under-Shirts" for use in developing his own poetic line was the absolute necessity of attending to language, and not only to the words themselves, but the spaces or pauses between the words, to involve the reader in a continual reassessment of the line as it unfolds its meaning. This breakthrough entailed the realization that while a [End Page 176] renewed focus on language, on words, was necessary to create the new, much sought after American poetic line, poems were made not just from words, but from the pauses between them. Mariani recognized this when he noted, "Williams—as technician—saw the problems of making new verse in terms of 'pause (robbato) as characteristic of the speech,' variations in the alignment of emphasis, and the choice of words" (1981, 365). Comparing the line pauses allows one to understand both the unrealized impetus toward the creation of such organic pauses in "Blue Under-shirts" and Williams's own genius in "Red Wheelbarrow" in correcting Johns's failed attempt to create such organic pauses.
On this point, Kenner has famously observed of "The Red Wheelbarrow," "Attention first encounters the word 'upon,' sitting all alone as though to remind us that 'depends upon,' come to think of it, is rather a queer phrase.… after 'upon,' there's what looks like a stanza break" (1975, 58), and he further notes that Williams continues deftly to employ these same types of line and stanza breaks throughout the poem to create natural pauses after each separate word, which in turn allows each corresponding idea or object first to appear and then to transform in unexpected ways. Pursuing this reading, the phrase, "so much depends," might lead the reader to expect an abstract idea presented in its entirety to follow, but Williams instead places the single word, "upon," in a line by itself. Taken together, "so much depends upon" might lead the reader in turn to expect an even greater abstraction, an expectation that is again abruptly interrupted by a common object, "a red wheel."
As each subsequent line unfolds, the nouns are divided in two, signifying one thing to the phrase in which the first half is placed, but another one entirely as the thought is completed after the break. In describing this process, Barry Ahearn notes the historical contextualization Williams provides as well, as he posits, for example, that the reader must acknowledge during the reading process that in human history so much has depended upon simple machines like the wheel (1994, 4-5). This would lead the reader fairly to expect for the succeeding line to make this point, but as the line develops after the pause, it turns out not to be a wheel at all, but a wheel barrow—an entirely different image, one identified with a more complex machine employing two simple machines, accompanied by agricultural overtones so fundamental to human civilization—and thus the new and still unfolding meaning is much stronger for the collapsed expectation.
Still refusing to editorialize on the importance of this object, however, Williams instead adds to the image in the next two stanzas by reinforcing its objective characteristics. In the same way the color red lends visual strength to the image of the simple machine, so does "glazed with rain" lend visual and tactile strength, an effect heightened by the pause and the next word, [End Page 177] "water." As the reader sees and feels the rain-glazed wheelbarrow, Williams raises the image to high relief with the addition of "white." The color white initially makes the red of the wheelbarrow brighter, but the unexpected shift to "chickens" after the pause and line break now also adds another tactile sensation, as the smoothness of the feathers, only implied, but nevertheless strongly felt in the context of the rain, is added to the image. By the poem's end, the reader is left with the now fully developed image, devoid of commentary, presented in a language and vocabulary so common, that "a farmer would know every one of these words in this little poem" (Kenner, 1975, 59).
In terms of form, while Williams's pauses and line breaks add to the organic unfolding of his poem, Johns's do not because he does not allow the developing perceptions of the reader to reinforce the natural pauses as the words and images are processed. He instead uses elaborate punctuation, the technique of an outdated poetic, to force the pauses; the dashes and ellipses tell the reader when to stop and when to resume, instead of allowing the reader's imagination in conflict with its own expectations to dictate the pace. Moreover, while Williams uses no capitals or any punctuation at all in his single sentence poem, Johns employs standard line breaks and conventional punctuation, with capitals beginning every line, as Pound would say, "with a heave" (1968, 3). Thus, despite the initially interesting premise, an imagist poem on a working class subject, in which Johns attempts to employ some of the experimental techniques favored by the poetic avant-garde of his day, he remains hampered both by his failure to transcend the outmoded poetic forms that had long since lost their capacity to challenge readers' preconceptions about language and his inability to inspire the collaborative relationship between the reader, the poet, and the poem which American avant-garde modernist poetry required.
Conscious of Johns's early insights but ultimate failure in "Blue UnderShirts," Williams determined that American poets should not rely simply upon a vague commitment to capture the American language as it is spoken; to this idea must be added the proviso that the type of language that must be captured was of the sort felt and spoken by the common American in a given physical or cultural locale, rather than by the genteel classes, who had for so long appropriated American poetry for themselves; or even the language of the proletarian classes as shown earlier in Johns's own "Bread" and "Mobilisation," where the effort to render accurately the dialect overwhelms the poem. Indeed, the failure of "Blue Under-shirts" can be attributed to the fact that the multiplicity of interpretations that should shift as the viewer's perspective unfolds—the multiplicity characteristic of a true work of modern art—is reduced in this poem to a single abstraction about proletarian working conditions. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Johns lacked the ability [End Page 178] to articulate in his own poetry what he conceived intellectually, his figure of blue undershirts suspended from a clothesline helped focus Williams's attention on the issue of determining American identity as reflected in the pacing and sound of a prototypical American voice as expressed in a line of poetry written in an American idiom.
One can say, then, that working with and improving upon Johns's insights in "Blue Under-Shirts," Williams, in "The Red Wheelbarrow," accomplishes for modern poetry what Benjamin demonstrates Brecht did in his "epic theater," as he turns readers into collaborators. Speaking in regard to "epic theater" in terms that apply equally to Williams's poetry, especially "The Red Wheelbarrow," as Lowney posits, such literary texts are "less concerned with filling the public with feelings, even seditious ones, than with alienating it in an enduring manner from the conditions in which it lives" (Benjamin, 1978, 236). Thus, they must "portray situations rather than develop plots," which they do "by interrupting the plot" (234). Like Williams's use of the pause in the line and the breaking up of compound words, Brecht's principle of interruption of plot follows the technique of the modernist montage, whose "superimposed element disrupts the context in which it is inserted" (234). In other words, this sort of interruption of expected context, which does not allow the action to proceed predictably, "counteracts an illusion in the audience," which is a hindrance to any form of avant-garde art that "proposes to make use of elements of reality in experimental rearrangements" (235). By arresting the action as it unfolds, the interruption "thereby compels the listener to adopt an attitude vis-à-vis his role" and thus to become a participant in the act of its creation (235).
Using this principle of interruption characteristic of revolutionary modern art—the decontextualization of the familiar—the truly avant-garde artist, such as Williams, works "to expose what is present" within the ordinary objects of everyday life (Benjamin, 1978, 235). In effect, what we witness in "The Red Wheelbarrow" is the seismic shift in Williams's poetic method, a shift from a poetics of objects to a poetics of speech, where the focal point is no longer the object itself but the process of consciousness as it encounters a sensory object and transforms it into language. Johns, on the other hand, continues to rely on an archaic narrative process, speaking directly to the listener in order to develop a plot, what Benjamin would call an ineffective "illusion," that merely reproduces the difficult struggle of the working class embodied in its blue undershirts hanging out to dry without causing its readers to "discover" the undershirts' reality. Nevertheless, while "Blue Under-Shirts" may have failed as a poem, in a small way it succeeded as a crucial influence on Williams and, thereby, on the development of modern American poetry. [End Page 179]
Mark Hama is associate professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He has published on Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Malcolm Lowry.
1. See Churchill, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of American Poetry for a thorough discussion of the editorial policy of the magazine, as well as a list of contributors, etc. Appendix A provides a complete list of the magazine's contents from July 1915-July 1919. Some examples include Williams's "Tract," "Metric Figure," and "The Young Housewife"; Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle"; T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady"; and Marianne Moore's "Critics and Connoisseurs" and "Poetry."
2. In describing the importance of this little magazine, Suzanne Churchill explains that "Kreymbourg effectively used the magazine as a frame to define the limits of modern poetry. A text became a poem by virtue of its placement in Others, even if it lacked rhyme, meter, capital letters, lyrical language, or lofty subject matter" (1998, 43).
3. The collection contained his prize-winning poem, "Second Avenue."
4. Despite his early success and his participation in some of the groundbreaking efforts of American modern poetry, Johns was self-consciously aware of his own limitations as a poet, to the extent of remarking, "It is curious how one can become labeled for life as a poet when, in reality, the periods of creative production are very few.… I have practiced ordinary, responsible labors always, yet I am primarily known as a poet." In his own view, his principal poetic failing had been his inability to master free verse, a prominent interest of the Others group: "I had proved myself somewhat of an apostate to the free-verse movement," he remarks. "I found that when I seriously attempted free verse, I became either oratorical or intellectual and sophisticated.… I did not have the firm control of a subtle new music and a natural utterance that men such as Sandburg, Wallace Stevens and Kreymbourg had. It was rhyme or nothing for me" (1937, 232-33).
5. The creative cross germination of William Carlos Williams with Transatlantic Modernism's most renowned poets—Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, among others—has been well established and thoroughly analyzed, as has Williams's influence on later American poets such as Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. See, for example, Barry Miles's Ginsberg: A Biography. London: Virgin Publishing Ltd., 2001. In fact, the professional relationships between these many poets form a chain that eventually reached from the Grantwood colony and the New York Avant-Garde in the mid-1910s, to the West Coast and the Beats of the 1940s and 1950s, to the poetry of Denise Levertov, all connected by the restless poetic experimentation and mentorship of William Carlos Williams. See The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher McGowan. New York, New Directions, 1998. As these critical studies show, Williams was a mentor to both Ginsburg and Levertov and later introduced them to Kenneth Rexroth, who was the leading figure behind the San Francisco Renaissance and who inspired the Beats to seek out San Francisco. Rexroth in turn organized the October 7, 1955 reading at the New Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where Ginsberg first presented Howl, which, when published in 1956, featured an introduction by Williams. Rexroth later emphasized [End Page 180] Williams's far-reaching influence in a 1957 essay entitled "Disengagement, The Art of the Beat Generation," referring to Williams and Pound as "established old masters," but expressing a strong preference for Williams's work, noting about Williams that "more and more people … have come to think of him as our greatest living poet" (1987, 52-53). Interestingly, Rexroth also mentions Johns by name in his poem, "Thou Shalt Not Kill, "when he writes, "Orrick Johns, /Hopping into the surf on his/One leg" (1984, 96).
6. "Marianne Moore," Imaginations, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970), 311.
7. The Williams material in this section is taken from Mariani's biography of Williams. Mencken was compiling material for the 4th edition of his The American Language and wrote Williams in mid-December 1934, asking him to prepare something to include in the volume, which turned out to be "Note: The American Language and the New Poetry." As Mariani reports, however: "Despite their inherent value, Mencken chose neither to use these notes nor even to acknowledge the help he'd received from Williams when the Fourth Edition was published in mid-1936" (1981, 364-65). Consequently, because the essay remains unpublished, I have had to rely on Mariani's text for its contents.
8. Williams,"Paterson," ll.5, 22, 25 (1986, I.263-66).