Thursday, July 28, 2011

“Summer Song”

Thursday is upon us again, friends, & in this little corner of the ether, that means Poem of the Week.

If memory serves, I’ve never posted a William Carlos Williams poem on Robert Frost’s Banjo.  My “relationship” with Williams is complicated—I admire his poems, & I respect that in his day he was a poetic revolutionary against the popular hegemony of formal verse & a lingering Victorian sensibility; but it’s been my observation that some of what Williams espoused in the name of revolt has now become its own form of orthodoxy over the past 50 to 60 years.  By this, I don’t mean the use of “free verse” per se—heck, I like free verse as much as the next poet!  But there's a certain type of poem that's become recognizable as the stock U.S. poem of the late 20th/early 21st century, & I suspect that some of the underlying formulae for this poem come from creative writing teachers at both the undergrad & the MFA level espousing Williams’ dicta (or at least peripherally Williams-esque dicta) as the current conventional sensibility.

But enough of the soapbox!  “Summer Song” is a beautiful poem from Williams’ 1917 collection Al Que Quiere!   Hope you enjoy it.

Summer Song

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,—
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer's smile,—
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
where would they carry me?

William Carlos Williams


  1. I do like this poem, John. My problem with Williams is the prosiness of so much of his poetry, and that's a problem I have with much of what's being published in the last few decades. I don't value formalism for its own sake, but I do sit down to a poem with expectations (density, conciseness, pictorial detail, deft phrasing, an appearance of honesty in emotion and thought) that are unlike what I look for in prose. In both, I feel disappointed or annoyed more often than I think I should. I try to remind myself that Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, and others are probably remembered, and rightly so, for no more than 20 poems apiece. Still, I get impatient.

    Is that anything like your reservation about W.C.W.? Sorry to ramble, but it sounded as if we might share a concern . . . .

  2. P.S. Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and the notion of "no ideas but in things" seem very right to me. So how did he so often get so talk-y and obvious?

  3. Hi Banjo52: I think our issues are probably a bit different. I actually like Williams' poetry a lot. Fact is, I have pretty major issues with all of the "big" modernists--for instance, my feelings about Eliot & Pound are quite negative, & in varying degrees I have love/hate relationships with Yeats, Stevens & even the guy for whom this blog is named!

    My issue with Williams has to do not with his own poetry--which I rank very highly--but with his dicta & theories. I think they made a lot of sense in the poetic climate of the teens thru the 30s, but I also believe they've been changed into orthodoxies now. "No ideas but in things" is actually one that really bugs me. The fact is that Williams himself was not that much a poet of "things"--read something like "The Ascent" (a great poem IMO) & you find hardly any "things" at all. Williams said other things that may have made sense at the time but are just silly taken out of context--e.g., saying that a sonnet is "fascist." I've heard a poet of some renown parrot this in an MFA workshop context. But, e.g., would Williams have considered John Ashberry's "Two Sonnets" fascist? I doubt it. So it's things like that. I also think that Williams' ideas of lineation were quirky, & while he was able to pull them off himself, his many imitators have had much more mixed results.

  4. My relationship with him is also complicated, but undoubtedly filled with admiration.

  5. Hi Caroline: Somehow that doesn't surprise me. Thanks!

  6. Thanks much for the thoughtful response, John. If you ever feel like dropping a few recommended Williams titles on me, I'm all ears.

    The fascist sonnet. My my. I do see how Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats can be taken as elitist or some such, although I admire them more than not. And Frost can seem aphoristic or go from prosaic (seeming) blank verse to rhyme and meter that might come off as sing-song.

    I don't know Pound well enough to have an opinion, except to say that my few attempts at a connection have failed.

    I don't want to hog the post, so thanks again for the interesting stuff.

  7. Hi Banjo52: Speaking mostly off the top of my head, I'd suggest any of the following by WCW: "To Elsie," "The Widow's Lament in Springtime," "Last Words of My English Grandmother," "The Descent," "January Morning," "To Waken An Old Lady" & "Death."


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