Monday, May 23, 2005

Williams: "Item"

Eric comments on that poem that I just posted, “Picture showing,” that part of its interest lies quite specifically in its inconsequentiality – that the poet’s refrained from any commentary, any drawing of conclusions: leaving that, I suppose, to the reader, tho even then the two voices’ bitter humor in the last two stanzas of the poem shift our attention away from whatever geopolitical implications we might want to draw, defusing the “big” questions from the standpoint of good old fashioned self-preservation. In this other newspaper photo poem, from An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935), WCW does something rather different:


This, with a face
like a mashed blood orange
that suddenly

would get eyes
and look up and scream
War! War!

clutching her
thick, ragged coat
A piece of hat

broken shoes
War! War!
stumbling for dread

at the young men
who with their gun-butts
shove her

sprawling –
a note
at the foot of the page

WCW would later comment on this one, “The importance of the individual – a pitiful, beaten creature as dear to me as anyone could be. Done with economy of line to give the telling impression – a defiance of conventional beauty. Proof you can make a poem out of anything.” Not that Williams needed to pile up proof – by the mid-Thirties, he’d shown any number of times that the notion of conventionally “poetic” subject matter was defunct.

“Item” gets anthologized a lot more than “Picture showing” does, largely I suspect because a) it has the kind of immediate “human interest” that most readers expect from Williams and b) because it locates itself precisely within the purview of those big themes we still expect the poem to treat. (Anyone who’s inflicted “The Red Wheelbarrow” on unsuspecting undergraduates has stories to tell about how the “So much depends” refers to how important agriculture is to our lives…) After all, WAR is a big deal, no? And anti-war (or, in this case, pro-war?) protests are one of the classic moments when the individual comes into conflict with the otherwise faceless powers of the state.

Leaving aside whatever ideological ore one can mine from these sixteen lines, I’m interested in the fact that here WCW, in contrast to in “Picture showing,” is fiercely interested not merely in the images conveyed by the media, but in precisely how the newspaper mediates them. (Cf. Su's comment.) The woman beaten down by the gun-butts is not merely knocked sprawling, but knocked to “a note / on the foot of the page.” The best of the media-inspired poems, or at least the ones that grab my attention most often, are those that remain aware precisely of the relationship between their own form – in this case, a three-line stanza of two to six syllables – and the form of what they’re regarding or responding to. It’s a new sort of ekphrastic poetry, in a way, but one which is constantly aware of the non-monumental, non-aesthetic medium upon which it feeds, one in which the shocking photograph shares the page with texts, related and unrelated, other photographs, and perhaps even advertisements. (One could adumbrate a theory of much of Bruce Andrews’s work starting here, I think.)

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