For several years now I’ve been observing a personal tradition that began as a random book purchase at the UW book store when I was in college. I had just declared my major (English) and was dabbling in poetry for the very first time when I popped in to pick up my textbooks for Spring Quarter. Taking a meandering route through the aisles (a book store habit) I spied a humble green paperback by William Carlos Williams, a poet I knew only by name, for $12.95. I put it in my basket on a whim, on the pretense of its seasonal appropriateness alone. That is how I first came to own Spring and All.
On the March equinox every year since, I blow the dust off my copy of Spring and All and take the journey once more. It is always a delightful and brief meditation to get me in the mood for the coming seasons. This year, however, I experienced it differently.
It’s a funny little book. Webster Schott in the introduction to the New Directions edition calls it “a beautiful and misshapen box” containing a number of Williams’ best-known poems as well as manifestos on poetry and indictments of civilization. This is not so far off. Williams alternates passages of prose with poetry, spontaneously switching sometimes as if breaking into song. Sentences end abruptly, unfinished. Sometimes an idea will begin, just to trail off. The chapters are out of order, some expressed as Roman numerals and others as Arabic. Chapter XIII is upside-down.
The year was 1923 and a new kind of poetry was beginning to flourish in Europe, led by the terse imagistic poetry of Ezra Pound (whom Williams had the good fortune to meet early on, in medical school.) Williams moved in suit with the imagists, resisting the stale poetry of the moment that consisted largely of poorly imitated Victorian era poetry, copycats of Tennyson and the Brownings. He wrote Spring and All partly, according to poet and critic C.D. Wright, to “push and pull American poetry into the present tense.”
In depicting the kind of newness and revitalization of poetry, of culture, of society that Williams was asking for, he turns to the oldest trope in the book and finds a way to deliver even that in a fresh and new way: Spring.
So he begins the book in the disease of winter: a bleak moment for both art and history. World War I five years in the backdrop, Spring and All was published in the same month as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first failed coup attempt in Germany. He confronts a world still drunk with warfare while confronting the dull critics of his imaginative free-verse (non-rhyming) poetry. The first poem begins famously:
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds…
The dismal depiction of the moment offered by Williams resonated with me more this spring than ever before. Strictly speaking, we are at the present moment situated by the road to the contagious hospital: a presidential and congressional administration that touts its ability to cure the ails of the American common man while spreading the contagion from which they suffer. And if that is the contagious hospital, democracy is the death from the upside-down Chapter XIII:
“The new cathedral overlooking the park, looked down from its towers today, with great eyes, and saw by the decorative lake a group of people staring curiously at the corpse of a suicide : Peaceful, dead young man, the money they have put into the stones has been spent to teach men of life’s austerity. You died and teach us the same lesson.”
Williams does not use the language of disease and death lightly. He practiced medicine by trade for his entire career, even serving as the chief of pediatrics at a general hospital in New Jersey from 1924 until his death. But though a doctor by day, he was a poet by night. If the contagious hospital and the bleakness of winter depicted by Dr. Williams is a memento mori, Williams the Poet reminds us of something else. He delivers to us the promise and arrival of spring, memento vivere.
Spring comes, even if it doesn’t come for the first third of the book. Though you are reminded repeatedly that spring is coming you still find yourself wondering “will spring ever come?” Still spring comes. And on the other side of spring is new life: the poetry of Spring and All sings of flowers and farmers’ daughters, of jazz music and ball games, of the decay of cathedrals “through the phenomenal growth of movie houses whose catholicity is progress.”
The poetry itself is different on the other side of spring. It is vivid, imagistic, in motion. Williams offers poems that depict in language paintings by Juan Gris (a poetic tradition called ekphrasis.) C.D. Wright calls the lyric of Spring and All as “quick and unencumbered as a nude tripping down the stairs.” It is in this funny little book that Williams’ most famous poem appears,
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams was allowing something new to emerge in the sprightly rejuvenation of his spring. As Webster Schott observes, Williams found his contemporaries among painters like Juan Gris because his poetry “was becoming a way of seeing as well as writing.”
It is here that I find hope for the coming months, and years. The time we spend in winter now will be miserable, but one can already see how it is bringing us, some of us anyway, solidarity and teaching us new ways of seeing issues, of seeing politics, of seeing one another. It takes courage to look on the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds and see spring on the horizon, but when that day comes you look down and are surprised to see that you have burst into bloom.
I know this sounds overly simplistic. I know that the way I’m portraying this glazes over the actual enduring of winter and how it is to be done. It’s still winter. But that’s also not what hope is. We often warn one another not to miss the forest for the trees, but it is still important to look up and see the forest. Spring and All reminds us that imagination is the creative energy of rebirth, the interpolation of life onto the bleakness of the world. And if you want to see how that happens then perhaps you, too, should pick up this funny little book this spring.
“That is, imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam, it is not a play thing but a power that has been used from the first… The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words. Its unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence.”
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
Pictured: Hi-res photo by @redfox on Unsplash.com, protected under a Creative Commons Zero license.
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