Richards and Williams:Spring and All and the Invention of Modernist Form
"The chief characteristic of poets," writes I. A. Richards in his well-known essay, "Science and Poetry," "is their amazing command of words" (italics in original).1 By this Richards does not mean that poetry can be written "by cunning and study, by craft and contrivance," that is, by "the technique of poetry added to a desire to write some"; his point is rather that "the ordering of the words" must spring from "an actual supreme ordering of experience." The true vocation of "genuine poetry" consists in its attempt to give the reader "a response which is as passionate, noble and serene as the experience of the poet." It is, in other words, only by being "the master of experience" that a poet can be "the master of speech" ("SP," p. 535).
In this respect, Richards's assertion that poetry "cannot be imitated" could be understood as insisting on the importance of poetry's "command of life" (fully as much as of its "command of words"): the real work of poetry is not so much to "mention" "men's current opinions" as to "show" "their attitudes," that is, "how they feel about this or that as part of the world" ("SP," p. 536). The task of the poet, therefore, is truly "to give order and coherence, and so freedom, to a body of experience . . . through words which act as its skeleton, as a structure by which the [End Page 217] impulses which make up the experience are adjusted to one another and act together" (p. 540).
For this reason Richards conceives of what he calls "pseudo-statement" as a primary and ultimate function of words in poetry: "the poet's business," he says, is not "to make scientific statements" but to make statements "regarded as 'poetically true'" ("SP," p. 543). The point here is not just that the pseudostatements (or words) of a poem need to be radically distinguished from the scientific (or "logical") ones; it is rather that although they are no longer scientific, they must somehow remain and still serve as pseudoscientific statements. Because Richards's idea of pseudostatement is meant to suggest the possibility of a "[re]conciliation" or reunion of "words" and "life," "mind" and "world" (or, more generally, imagination and reality), it is wrong to think of his sense of the primacy of pseudostatement as a romantic fantasy of a "[re]conquest" or total control of life by words, world by mind (p. 528). When, for example, he argues that a pseudostatement is a form of words that can only be justified by "its effect in releasing or organizing our impulses and attitudes"—in contrast to a scientific one justified by "its correspondence, in a highly technical sense, with the fact to which it points" (p. 542)—he means to vitalize and energize poetry not by ignoring the pressure of reality (or, in Richards's terms, "the neutrality of nature" [p. 548]), not by trusting the power of imagination (or, in his terms, "a world of pure phantasy" or "phantasmagoria" [pp. 549–50]) but by attempting to resist the pressure of reality with the power of imagination—or, more precisely, by seeking to transform the external ("the world") into the internal ("the mind") through the work of poetic thought.
Thus Richards's description of poetry (or its pseudostatements) as a main instrument by which "we order our attitudes . . . to the world" ("SP," p. 543) must be understood as above all an effort to achieve an emotional identification, where our mind (that is, our command of words) and our world (that is, our command of life) fuse together and become two-in-one. This is the situation in which our experience of the world is entirely (and paradoxically) dependent upon the work of the poetic imagination. Another way to put this might be to say that in poetry, as Richards puts it, "pseudo-statements" and "statements proper" "cannot conflict" (p. 544): indeed, no longer possible to make a rigorous distinction between "the Magical View" and "the scientific" (or neutralized) view of the world. "The imaginative life," in short, "is its own justification"; in other words, the justification of any attitudes lies "not in the object, but in itself, in its serviceableness to the whole [End Page 218] personality" (p. 546). It is in this context that Richards quotes T. S. Eliot and chooses him as "the best poet of [his] generation"; Eliot is considered as a guardian-poet who has fulfilled and completed modern poetry's function of making "the supra-scientific myths" (p. 556). Whereas Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare are treated as those who have not been able to recognize an affinity or harmony between mind and world; Hardy only wrote about the neutrality of nature and de la Mare only about the world of pure fantasy. Yet it is important to point out that Richards owes very much to Romanticism when he insists that the world ("the life") might be transmuted into the mind ("the words") through a great work of poetry; but, of course, he also knows very well that all (modern) poetry written in the wake of Romanticism is destined to reach this goal without any guarantee of mythical or religious belief.
"I am not in search of 'the beautiful illusion,'" William Carlos Williams writes in Spring and All.2 "Let there be fresh meat. . . . The imagination . . . rises to drunken heights to destroy the world" (SAA, p. 5). Williams repudiates the idea—indeed, Richards's idea—that the imagination, that is, the act of the mind, can seize hold of the reality of the external world. For while it is true that a (modern) poetry should be a poetry of reality, where imagination not only touches reality but also gives life to it, it is also essential to realize that it cannot but more or less imaginatively or reflectively change and transfigure the reality: it is, in other words, to present ideas about the reality, not the reality itself. After all, the idea of the transmutation of reality into mind through the work of imagination—or Richards's idea of "the imaginative life" as "its own justification"—is a phenomenological (or metaphysical) illusion, even though it may be a "beautiful illusion." The point is that the imagination, as Williams puts it, "has destroyed and recreated everything afresh in the likeness of that which it was" (p. 9). The poet should thus no longer annihilate the reality—the world, the life, namely—in his or her imagination, beyond which the reality itself will always remain untouched and intact, and totally alien to him/herself. Williams's primary interest, therefore, is not in the activity of the poetic imagination, not in ideas about the reality, but in the reality itself—or, in the "thing-in-itself," to use Kantian terminology.
This is why Williams insists that "works of art" cannot linger in the realm of "illusion," which "rel[ies] on composition to give likeness to nature," but "they must be real, not 'realism' but reality itself" (SAA, p. 45). In fact, the whole drama of Spring and All revolves around the attempt not to "give the feeling of completion by revealing the oneness [End Page 219] of experience," particularly elicited through the act of the mind, a conscious act of poetic creation, but rather to "separate things of the imagination from life" (p. 30), that is, to represent "a sharp division" between "the energizing force of imagination," its capacity to reduce reality to itself, and the "acquisitive," "progressive force of the lump," its capacity to defy the imagination—namely, the attempt to reveal "the jump between fact and the imaginative reality" (p. 70). (In this light as well, Williams considers Edgar Allen Poe as "a man of great separation"; Poe "could not have written a word," he says, "without the violence of expulsive emotion combined with the in-driving force of a crudely repressive environment" [p. 36].) Thus, for Williams, the (literary) invention of "new forms, new names for experience" must first and foremost involve the development of—or more properly, the commitment to—the idea that "'beauty' is related not to 'loveliness' but to a state in which reality plays a part" (p. 44). Modern poetry is not "a matter of 'representation'" but rather "of separate existence" (p. 45).
The "fresh meat" itself, for example, is poetry; "nothing but the lower vertebrates, the mollusks, insects and plants" could be said to construct new forms of poetry (SAA, pp. 5–6). And this is what Williams means (in "Four Wheels of My Car") when he writes, "why bother where I went? / for I went spinning on the / four wheels of my car / along the wet road" (p. 48). His point here is that poetry must be able to record and convey the presence of the "nameless spectacle" "without a word" (p. 48). The fundamental mission of the poet, then, is to offer "an escape from crude symbolism" which is "designed to separate the work from 'reality;'" the word, as Williams puts it, "must be put down for itself"—as, say, a "part, cognizant of the whole" of nature rather than as "a symbol of nature" (p. 22). The poet, "bare handed the man," must, in other words, be able to contend with the nature, "the sky," without any "experience of existence seeking to invent and design" (p. 20).
Yet it would be a mistake to think of Williams as committed to the materiality of the word (to the primacy of the mark) itself. In this book, his concern is not so much with the physical features of the imagination (the pure materiality of the word) but with the structural limitations of the imagination. It is because his poetry's main purpose is still to imagine the nature, the world, and the life, even though, as we have seen, he wants to do this without imagination. Which is to just say, Williams's paradox is that, although made of words (or symbols), his poetry aims at creating and constituting "a wordless / world" "without personality" (SAA, p. 83). [End Page 220]
1. I. A. Richards, "Science and Poetry," I. A. Richards: Selected Works 1919–1938, vol. 9, Collected Shorter Writings, ed. John Constable (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 534; hereafter abbreviated "SP."
2. William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (New York: New Directions, 2011), p. 3; hereafter abbreviated SAA. [End Page 221]