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ON CERTAIN SLANTS OF LIGHT SLIPPING, "ZIPPY ZAPPY," FROM WILLIAMS / David Hamilton THIS ESSAY BEGAN from my musing upon a claim, recently made, that there is no great poetry today, and that, in large part, because our poets are ignorant of contemporary philosophy and science.* There is little to do with such a generalization except to suppose that it must be true in many cases, false in others, and in most, actually, rather hard to tell. Ideas of genuine force and importance, as they emerge in any field of study or practice, invade and control portions of others in ways that, however fascinating to trace, are never exactly calculable. Usually, of course, it is only hindsight that begins to reveal those stories. William Carlos Williams presents one case in which this process seems well worth discussing. While forging his own way in a manner we tend to admire greatly, he seems to have kept remarkably abreast of contemporary thinking, particularly in matters of language and science. And while gathering evidence in support of that proposition, I happened upon an interesting counter movement, an instance of his recreating one fragment of that grand English tradition stretching back to Chaucer. "Zippy zappy," a potentially silly line that he risks twice (in a single poem) in Pictures from Brueghel, was my clue to this second, complementary movement. It is that volume that I'll draw upon for the following essay, which I invite you to read either as a particular answer to the claim I first mentioned, or else, should you prefer, as a short discussion of a modern master, in which his relation to modern science, his amiable but enlightened expression of middleclass values, and his debt to Chaucer are severally considered. TURNING FIRST TO matters of science, let us notice in passing that William refers to space exploration twice in Picturesfrom Brueghel. He mentions the Russians having seen "the reverse side of the moon" ("The Gossips," p. 41), and in "Heel & Toe to the End," he celebrates Yuri Gagarin. Less incidentally, however, consider "The Fruit": ^Frederick Turner, " 'Mighty Poets in their Misery Dead' " A Polemic on the Contemporary Poetic Scene," The Missouri Review (Fall, 1980), 77-96. See responses in this issue, pp. 171-197. The Missouri Review ยท 257 Waking I was eating pears! she said I sat beside her on the bed thinking of Picasso a portrait of a sensitive young boy gathered into himself Waking I was eating pears! She said when separately jointly we embraced (43) Quantum theory offers an apt metaphor for the movement of this poem, of so many poems and passages in Williams that we almost take them for granted. According to quantum theory, electrons travel in fixed orbits around their nuclei, with particular orbits carrying particular values. An electron can, however, jump from one orbit to another, at which moment it loses or gains in the value of its charge according to the difference between the values of the orbit left and the orbit entered. These shifts account for the emission of light. That puts the case crudely, but serviceably enough for our purposes. One element of this poem is the repeated, radical slippage in the placement of the words as parts of the whole, as if from one orbit to another; and with that slippage comes radiation and light. Consider Picasso in the middle of the poem and the portrait of the sensitive boy. Is that portrait Picasso's or is it that of the speaker, sitting, thinking, "gathered into himself?" Both is the likeliest answer. We are given the first, the easier reference to an unnamed portrait of Picasso's, so that we can watch that slip into the second. In which case it may be that sensitive boy, who in the next line is "Waking." To mention Picasso brings Cubism to mind and with that the question, How original is this movement with Williams? Original enough, it seems to me. Something more lies in the science of these late lines than in those of Spring and All, which had followed much more closely upon the Cubist period (1910-15, roughly). The famous "Red Wheelbarrow" moves in steadier increments down the page, its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 157-170
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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