William Carlos Williams, from 1922:
return of bodies
–Give you a nice
after you’re dead.
–Christ, I’d rather
The subject (or instigation) is a 17 September 1921 photograph from the New York Tribune, showing the caskets of sixteen American navymen killed when the dirigible ZR-2 exploded over England, said caskets on the deck of a British Royal Navy warship. Zukofsky would write such poems in the 1950s; thousands of them would be written during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the present Iraq war. (Though such photographs no longer appear in the papers.) It’s a well-established subgenre: the poem in response to the mass media, and I suppose it’s become more ubiquitous as the media has become more “mass,” more omnipresent.
What I’m struck by, reading this poem for the first time (or with no memory of a previous reading), is how contemporary it manages to sound, eighty-three years after its composition – and how contemporary much (by no means all) of Williams’s work sounds. Compare with what came 83 years before Williams, in 1839: Wordsworth still alive and milking the tail end of his once-radical poetic mode; very early Tennyson, besotted with Keats; the omnipresent, still outre influence of Shelley and Byron. I can’t help but feel that the language of poetry, however you slice it, changed much more over that 83-year period than over the 83 years since.
Much of that is a matter of form and diction. Almost every poet in 1839 wrote in some recognized, traditional metrical form, and would do so through the end of the century (despite the breakthroughs of Whitman, Hopkins, and those who imitated the French “prose poem”). When WCW and his contemporaries rejected traditional meter and form, they were changing something fundamental about what made readers recognize a piece of writing as a poem – changing, really, the definition of the poem itself. From then on, no poet could take form and meter for granted: there was no default setting, no automatic fallback (as iambic pentameter had been). It’s a huge shift, and opens up the formal possibilities of the poem enormously. (It also means that the bad poetry of 20th century is frankly worse than that of the 19th, since the unthoughtful folks writing in slack free verse lines aren’t constrained by the minimal competency required to write a metrical line.)
The diction of WCW’s poem speaks for itself. There’re no poeticisms, none of those “thee”s and “e’er”s that trip one up in every other line of Victorian verse (though WCW himself indulges in a good number of vocative “o”s in other poems). The only lines one assigns to the poet himself – an impersonal caption – are the seven words of the first stanza. Everything else is, or easily could be, quotation, everyday speech overheard around a New Jersey news-stand. Somebody once remarked that it seems every poetic revolution bills itself as a return to the common speech – certainly Burns, Crabbe, and Wordsworth thought that’s what they were up to. But no-one in English did it as radically and convincingly as Williams: and we’re still doing it like the doctor from Rutherford.