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  • “Allow Intelligence to Survive”: Life’s Language in Williams and Tzara
  • Paul Jaussen

In Mexico, since we are talking about Mexico, there is no art: things are made for use. And the world is in perpetual exaltation.


There is a famous passage in William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography in which he recollects his visit to the Armory Show of 1913. Encountering Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” Williams says, “I laughed out loud when I first saw it, happily, with relief” (A 134). Writing several decades after the fact, he claims that the piece “is too hackneyed for [him] to remember anything clearly about it now,” a slight on Duchamp, perhaps (who himself had sufficiently slighted Williams at a party for the latter to bear a grudge), but the statement is also a revelation that the need for an effectively lasting or “timeless” piece of art was absent during the period of Williams’s early work (A 134). The time was now, a now of experiment, of change, of warfare and industrialization, a time accelerating into the future yet unable to completely negotiate the past. And yet a time of laughter and forgetting, when breaking into the world involved breaking from its orders and languages. Williams’s laughter can be read as not simply pleasure, but, as he says, “relief,” what Henry Sayre describes as “release,” the sense of unleashed opportunity that America inherited from the fractured and alienated Europe, the chance to make a new aesthetic practice all its own (16). New York in the years following the Armory Show was the place for that art of release and mirth, and Williams, despite the constraints of a medical practice and a young family, could not keep himself away. This was an era of the small magazines and the French immigrants (most famously Francis Picabia and Duchamp), of salons and parties, all fueled by the compelling need to create something new, not for the museums, but for the world in which they lived, the conflicted everyday [End Page 17] places and spaces that were dominated by the technology of the modern and the logic of warfare.1 Williams, in the thick of it, attended the gatherings and met the artists, aided Alfred Kreymborg in the publication of the journal Others, founded the magazine Contact in 1920, and, through it all, never stopped writing (Dijkstra 22, 109).

As Sayre argues, this context of avant-garde energy is crucial for our understanding of the books Williams produced at this time, particularly Spring and All and Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Sayre 17). These works are far from formally autonomous high modernism, nor are they the expansive historical and philosophical vision of what would become Paterson; instead, they are texts that reveal American avant-garde at its conflicted nascent stages, coming from an author who resisted “both Europe and America” in an effort to create newness in his time and place (Tashijan 91). It is the radical commitment to the value of that new, its work as a source of energy in the world, that comes to the forefront of Spring and All and Kora in Hell. This energy went by many names in Williams’s texts, but consistently he refers to it as “life”—an eruptive force which outlasts the constraints of language and culture that always attempt to channel or block it. Life is the energy put into play by its correlative faculty, the imagination, without which, Williams is very clear, thinking disappears. In other words, the newness of life is a fundamental and essential ingredient for all human activities, such as language and science, even as those edifices tend to cover over it and deny its significance. Williams’s poetic goal at the time of these early writings is to make life happen, to restore it to sensibility and allow the imagination to move.

Life’s importance is not unique to Williams, however; it springs forth as well in the manifestos of Tristan Tzara. A number of critics have read Dada as the avantgarde movement closest to the early Williams, and, as Peter Schmidt writes, although it is unknown whether or not Williams ever read Tzara’s...


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