Friday, October 09, 2009

Reader's Diary #531- William Carlos Williams: Pictures From Brueghel and other poems

Considering myself a fan of William Carlos Williams (though it took me nearly 15 years to love "The Red Wheelbarrow"), I thought his Pulitzer Prize winning collection Pictures From Brueghel and other poems would knock me off my feet. Maybe in 15 years it will, but for now I have difficulty with it.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted on this one, by the time "The Red Wheelbarrow" was published Williams had moved away from imagist poetry to modernist poetry. Pictures From Brueghel came in this later stage of his life and career.

I've often complained about long poems. I understand, of course, that this issue is probably mine and the rest of us who grew up with Sesame Street (incidentally, Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter is my age). But in the case of imagist poems, I think there's a case to be made for brevity. If the images are to be clear and sharp, it seems only natural that the poems would be shorter.

There are many obvious remnants of Williams' imagist past throughout Pictures From Brueghel; there is still a great attention to colour, for instance. But many of these poems are quite long and I think something is lost in the elaboration.

Fans of Williams' later period would no doubt point out that something was also gained, especially in his new approach to meter, which he dubbed a "variable foot." I'm sure I don't yet appreciate or fully grasp what the variable foot is all about, but from my understanding, Williams sought to capture the pauses in American speech patterns. Reading the poems, I appreciated the line breaks, which seemed very natural to the way I'd have said the lines aloud. I once heard someone say that amateurs read poetry, especially older poetry, incorrectly, pausing after each line break instead of reading on as they would have said the lines in real life. I like how the poems in Pictures From Brueghel seek to avoid any such discussion on the proper way to read them; line breaks and speech pauses match up. That said, respecting the technicalities wasn't enough to draw me in yet. In fact, one of the poems-- and a well-respected one at that-- "Asphodel, The Greeny Flower" seemed to ramble endlessly about flowers and the oceans, a bizarre combination of images that he just didn't seem to connect. Who knows? With enough convincing, time, and exposure, maybe I'll come to love this poem as I did his earlier work.

In the meantime, one of the few that I did enjoy on this first read through was "A Negro Woman":

carrying a bunch of marigolds
in an old newspaper:
She carries them upright,
the bulk
of her thighs
causing her to waddle
as she walks

(Read the rest here.)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I simply cannot read long poems. I start to drift off somewhere after the third stanza and never return.

Author Amok said...

John, I read all of "Paterson" in graduate school and loved it. The long poems are a commitment, but worth it. Love the imagery in this one.