Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I take issue with William Carlos Williams

I just finished reading William Carlos Williams Selected Poems, Enlarged Edition (1912-1962) published by New Directions Paperback in 1969 with a cover price of $1.75. My wife bought it for me at a used bookstore several years ago (for $4.50, in fact). I don't remember why. Anyway, it took me a long time to read it. Almost a year, in fact, though partly due to the fact that it fell between the bed and the wall and was MIA for a few months, and partly because it was boring. Not all of it, mind you. Just most of it. In fact, as I neared the end (wow, that sounds so... terminal. But it also felt that way), I had pretty much come to the conclusion that WCW is way overrated. More than once while reading poem after poem about sparrows and springtime I thought, "So much depends on a red wheelbarrow, my ass" (a reference, of course, to WCW's most famous and widely anthologized poem "The Red Wheelbarrow," for which forest after forest of trees have been sacrificed to create the reams of white copy paper on which high school and college students have ruminated about wet chickens).

But then I read Book One of "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," which is plugged on the back of the book with a quote by W. H. Auden as "one of the most beautiful love poems in the language."

Yeah, right, I thought. And considering that "Asphodel" doesn't come until page 142 and I was reading the book sequentially, I had little hope that Auden's favorite WCW poem was going to pull my opinion back from the brink.

And it didn't. Not about "The Red Wheelbarrow," at least. But I have to say, Auden was/is right. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" is a really beautiful poem (or at least Book One and Coda, which is all that's in this anthology because it was apparently a priority for the majority of the poems in this volume to be utterly forgettable). It's an address from one lover to another after the two have been loving each other a very long time. It and expresses the kind of love that most couples at the beginning of their marriage envision their relationship will grow into, but seems to rarely happen. It's the kind of poem I can imagine reading to my wife on our 50th wedding anniversary.

Here are some of my favorite lines:
"I cannot say / that I have gone to hell / for your love / but often / found myself there / in your pursuit."

"When I speak / of flowers / it is to recall / that at one time / we were young."

On flowers pressed in a book: "They were sweet / when I pressed them / and retained / something of their sweetness / a long time. / It is a curious odor, / a moral odor / that brings me / near to you. / The color / was the first to go."

And then there are these lines, often quoted by poets: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably ever day / for lack / of what is found there."

1 comment:

Laura said...

I for one have always preferred the poetry of Wendy O. Williams...