Mar 27, 2017
Published in Paris in 1923 in an edition of 300 copies, William Carlos Williams' "Spring at All" became a famous text of American literary modernism. The book was not reprinted in full until 1970, when New Directions Press published it together with four other books by Williams in a volume titled "Imaginations".Imaginations: Kora in Hell / Spring and All / The Descent of Winter / The Great American Novel / A Novelette & Other Prose (A New Directions paperbook) The editor of the "Imaginations" volume, Webster Schott, describes "Spring and All" as "a fooling-around book that became a crucial book."
Many years ago, I read "Spring and All" in the "Imaginations" volume. Then, I came upon this new (2011) New Directions issue of "Spring and All". The edition has a short introduction by C.D. Brown, a poet and Professor of English at Brown University. Beyond the introduction, the book reproduces the format of the book as originally published in Paris ninety years ago. I was hooked. Reading this facsimilie volume, even holding it in my hands, itself made me imagine the freshness of Williams (1883 -- 1963) and his text of a long time ago. And imagination is the critical theme of "Spring and All."
"Spring and All" may still be a rarity in its entirety. But readers and students exposed to 20th Century American poetry cannot avoid Williams. Here is his most famous poem from the volume.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The book is short and paradoxical. It manages to be both punishingly difficult and obscure while filled as well with exuberance and a degree of simplicity. The book is a mixture of prose and poetry sections. The prose is set off in short paragraphs and in sections whose headings are deliberately befuddling. In the context of polemic and incomplete thoughts, Williams describes his concept of poetry and the need for freshness, newness, and imagination. Broadly, poetry needed a new language and approach away from metaphors, and representations. (In the much overused word of today, saying something was "like" something else rather than being what it is.) The poem, for Williams, does not represent. It is in itself as a work of imagination which allows the poet and the reader to see things in a new way.
Williams was writing against the backdrop of the Great War and the need to find something new after calamity. He also wrote in opposition to the pessimism and despair of T.S. Elliot's bleak portrayal of America in his 1922 poem, "The Waste Land." Williams spoke in the language of hope and rejuvenation and of love for the United States and its promise in a spirit owing a great deal to Whitman.
The book begins with an extended prose introduction before breaking into poetry with the words "THE WORLD IS NEW" followed by a poem that begins with the notorious phrase "By the road to the contagious hospital" that as it proceeds captures all that has been said before. (The poems are all untitled, although Williams would add titles to some later.) Poems and prose alternate for the rest of the volume as Williams discourses on American literature, Shakespeare, his own life, the difference between prose and poetry, why his poetry is unrhymed and unmetered, and why this makes no difference. To say the least, the writing is suggestive, but heady, disorganized, and difficult to follow.
The poems in their odd way elucidate the text. They are typically short, hard, with outrageous statements and obscure words and references. But they speak of barbershops, and cars, farmers and fishermen, baseball games, gypsies, -- and the famous wheelbarrow. In one poem, William announces paradoxically that "the rose is obsolete" and proceeds to explain how it isn't. In another poem, William asserts that "The pure products of America/go crazy --" In an evocative lesser known poem, Williams describes an eventful drive in his car which ends with an erotically charged sight: "I saw a girl with one leg/over the rail of a balcony." It is difficult not to be both puzzled and entranced by these poems.
Reading the poems in the way Williams initially intended, as part of the melange of "Spring and All" adds a dimension that is missing in reading the poems separately in an anthology. The book coheres and infuriates in a madcap fashion as the poetry and the prose reinforce one another. The volume gives a strong sense of the American modernist approach to poetry in a way the poems may not fully do standing alone.
Reading this facsimile volume, including poems I have read many times, brought the headiness of Williams to life in all its newness. Williams was less interested in criticizing his predecessors than in writing something alive and new for himself to avoid cliches and formalized emotions. His strictures should not in their turn be formalized. Each generation must find its own way and voice.