There’s a lot to be said for reading a poet’s work through entire and in chronological order. Despite my semi-successful career in convincing university administrators and eager undergraduates that I know something about poetry, I’ve probably only done it for a dozen poets or so (there’s probably another dozen whose stuff I’ve worked through in a more random order). Right now I’m reading through the big two-volume New Directions edition of William Carlos Williams’s Collected Poems, and am about 3/5 through the first volume. I won’t say it’s been a shocking revelation: I’ve known the various selected editions of Williams well for many years, as well as a number of the separate volumes that I’ve returned to again and again – Kora in Hell, Spring and All, Paterson, Pictures from Brueghel. But there’s a wonderful cumulative effect to reading the poems in chronological sequence (right now I’m in the midst of the lovely group of uncollected poems that falls between Spring and All and The Descent of Winter), seeing the poet trying on various personae, idioms, and formal shapes, and only slowly evolving towards the Williams one knows from the anthologies or (on the other hand) from Paterson.
That former Williams, the keen-eyed doctor from Rutherford who used his moments between appointments to type out little free-verse vignettes embodying his observations of the natural world and the people around him – the Williams who is probably the single most important precursor to American 1980s-era slack-assed MFA free verse – is, a sequential reading of Williams shows, only a small part of the story. When people hold up the good doctor as a model for a plainspoken naturalism, they’ve overlooking the Williams who was passionately interested in all manner of artistic movements, from Cubism to Russian Futurist Zaum poetry to jazz. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem most often used to make make undergraduates and high school students feel stupid and hate poetry, reads entirely differently in the context of the radical prose/verse collage of Spring and All (which, along with Kora in Hell, its prose “improvisation” precursor, is one of the greatest of the modernist poetico-polemic works).
So what am I getting out of a cumulative reading of Williams?
•There’s a lot more Whitman in his background than I’d realized.
•Ditto Shakespeare, especially the songs from the plays.
•Williams really isn’t – though it’s really old news – a poet of ideas. When he writes, “Say it, no ideas but in things,” he’s being at least semi-serious. Of course, an idea can be a thing as well, but Williams’s imagination is never set afire by abstract ideas the ways Stevens’s is, or Eliot's. Of all the poets of the “high” modernist generation, in this Williams is closest to Moore.
•Which doesn’t really capture the rampant, constant energy of the poems, which literally exhaust you after reading a dozen pages or so.
•The “Objectivist” Williams: yeah, it’s true that Zukofsky didn’t invent the “Objectivist” label until 1930, and I haven’t quite gotten that far in the Collected Poems, but all of the basic components of the Objectivist toolbox – the “sincerity” in attention to the outside world and to the words of the poem, the thing-like “objectification” of the finished poem – are already there, sometimes explicitly, in Williams’s work of the Twenties. (I’ll admit to being influenced by a couple of readings of the recently published Williams/Zukofsky correspondence.)
Next up for the sequential treatment: Charles Olson. (I believe I may be the only Olson reader in the southern half of Florida. Please prove me wrong, somebody.)