William Carlos Williams

6 posts

“All Genuine Poetry in My View Is Antipoetry.”

Like Tony Hoagland, Charles Simic is no one-trick pony. In addition to his prowess in poetry, he knows his way around an essay, too. While reading “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” I noted much of interest, both from Simic and from the poets and philosophers he quotes.

For instance, Wallace Stevens once said that the twentieth-century poet is “a metaphysician in the dark.” Simic, not so sure, compares this idea to chasing a black cat in a dark room. Not only is poetry on the loose in there, but theology and Western and Eastern Philosophies as well. So if you’re bumping heads a lot, don’t be surprised. And if there’s no cat to begin with, don’t be surprised by that, either. It may be the trickster Devil and not the cat that’s truly on the loose in the dark.

Surprisingly, Simic does not believe that poets know what they are going to write about in advance, simply sitting down to execute those ideas. He says, “My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc.,… where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear.”

He then shares the pleasing (to poets familiar with rejections) anecdote of the time he wrote a series of poems about ordinary objects such as knives, spoons, and forks. The poems were summarily rejected by a poetry editor who wrote back asking why the young Simic wasted his time on such topics.

Simic was struck by how an “insider” like this editor might consider certain topics worthy and serious enough to write about and certain others not. In his own defense, he quoted Husserl: “Back to things themselves” (reminding me of William Carlos Williams’ famous words: “No ideas but in things”).

Added Simic: “An object is the irreducible itself, a convenient place to begin, it seemed to me. What appealed to me, too, was the discipline, the attention required, and the dialectics that went with it. You look and you don’t see. It’s so familiar that it is invisible, etc. I mean, anybody can tell when you’re faking it. Everybody is an expert when it comes to forks. Plus, all genuine poetry in my view is antipoetry.”

The gist of Simic’s philosophy on poetry comes after he quotes Jack Spicer: “Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.”

Simic riffs on this idea: “Everything would be very simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot.

“This is true of poems, too. We may start believing that we are recreating an experience, that we are making an attempt at mimesis, but then the language takes over,. Suddenly the words have a mind of their own.

“It’s like saying, ‘I wanted to go to church but the poem took me to the dog races.’

“When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants to go.”

The basis of all this talk? Simic’s love of philosophy—Heidegger in particular. Old Heidegger said that poetry could not be understood until thinking itself was understood. “Then he says, most interestingly, that the nature of thinking is something other than thinking, something other than willing.

“It’s this ‘other’ that poetry sets traps for.”

That’s philosophy for you. Something is what it is not. In short, according to Simic, “The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words….

“Being cannot be represented and uttered—as poor realists foolishly believe—but only hinted at. Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words.”

I don’t know about you, but I have to open my poetry file now so my poems can write me.

Should be nice for a change, don’t you think? Like having your car tugged slowly through an automatic car wash, only with words and sentences instead of suds and brushes….

Hot Cha!

When you think William Carlos Williams, you think memorable name. You think Paterson, New Jersey. You think poetry slash doctor who wrote the compelling short story, “The Use of Force.”

And assuredly you think of the little-poem-that-could, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” where white chickens are forever pecking around a red wheelbarrow glinting with rain. Or maybe the sweetness of the simple but satisfying “This Is Just to Say,” where plums remain “so sweet / and so cold” in the timeless ice box of memory.

But such notoriety is no reason to skip reading deeper into a famous poet’s work. There are surprises. There are lesser-known and lesser-regarded works that may resonate with you, a poetry reader with your own discerning tastes.

“No ideas but in things,” WCW famously reminded us when he was in teacher mode. If you keep it simple and if you keep a sharp focus on “things” that have names, you can imply ideas that hide behind them.

By way of example, “Late for Summer Weather” is a thing de force (French for “great example”) with its objects (mostly clothes) and its colors (but no wheelbarrows in the rain).

It also features a most unusual, for the often dour-looking Williams, ending line. Shall we, then?


Late for Summer Weather
by William Carlos Williams

He has on
an old light grey Fedora
She a black beret

He a dirty sweater
She an old blue coat
that fits her tight

Grey flapping pants
Red skirt and
broken down black pumps

Fat Lost Ambling
nowhere through
the upper town they kick

their way through
heaps of
fallen maple leaves

still green-and
crisp as dollar bills
Nothing to do. Hot cha!


Ah. The beauty of working hard at doing nothing! The beauty of a straight neck looking around at nature as opposed to down at a cellphone like some bent Neanderthal training for a future Humpback Olympics. And mostly the beauty of a town called Fat Lost Ambling, New Jersey (Exit 157 on the Jersey Turnpike).

Hot cha!

Poetry Myth or Truth? You’d Be Surprised.

  • Myth or Truth? Buying a poetry collection in the Kindle version may save you money, but it’s just not the same experience as reading the poems in book form.

Truth: Based on wide-ranging experience (once), I found that trying to read poems on an electronic device was an antiseptic experience at best, one which took from the overall aesthetic pleasure of reading poetry. Worst still, some of the formatting was wonky. Imagine writing a poem that uses white space and stanzas in a unique way, only to see it eviscerated by the indignity of ether.

  • Myth or Truth? The translation of a poetry collection you choose is everything.

Truth: Some purists go so far as to say you should never read poetry in translation. For the real experience, it must be read in its native language. To me, that’s going too far. Imagine the poets we would miss if we were that inflexible. That said, the difference between translations of the same work is often immense, and researching “the best translation of such-and-such work” online is of little help because it is so subjective. It’s better to know thyself. Do you prefer translations that are loyal to the exact word, or to figures of speech? Catching the flavor, the connotations, and the syntax is no small feat, and boy does it affect your reading of a work.

  • Myth or Truth? Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice” rule can not only make you the next William, but the next Carlos Williams.

Myth: There is practice and there is practice. Do we all agree on a definition to the word? And do we all set egg timers each time we sit to write? And really, if a dogwood practices being a dog for 10,000 hours, is it going to become man’s best friend? All bark and no bite, I’m afraid. Pretty flowers in the spring, though.

  • It is possible there is an undiscovered William Carlos Williams out there who has submitted poetry for 10,000 hours and come up empty-handed, at least as far as the big-bopper markets go.

Truth: Talent will not always out. Like translations, it is subjective, and unknown names are like salmon leaping whitewater upstream. Busy editors can be drowned by the din of the river—the river of established names.

  • Myth or Truth? When someone buys a Kindle version of your book and it leaps to the Top 100 in Poetry slash American slash Contemporary, you feel like the company you keep (read: Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and a bevy of female Instagram poets-of-the-moment).

Truth: Seriously. You had to give this some thought?

  • Myth or Truth? It is more difficult to read a poetry collection cover-to-cover than it is to read a novel cover-to-cover.

Myth: After a few experiences and whether or not I did it chronologically or chrono-illogically, I’ve learned that reading entire poetry collections is not “more difficult,” it is just “different.” Sometimes parents call the unique child in their brood a “difficult” child. That is a rather selfish job of labeling, reflecting more on the parent than the child.

  • Myth or Truth? Deciding how to spend a Christmas gift certificate to either Barnes or Noble is an inexact science because sometimes you order books that you will never read.

Truth: Whims, they’re called. Or, channeling Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion. Some books look damn interesting in theory and then, once they find a home on your shelves,  “nest,” happily remaining there because you can find no reason to disturb them. “Who was that person who ordered these things way back when?” you wind up asking yourself, as if your book ordering is done by a doppelgänger. Still—pretty spines, don’t you think?

  • Myth or Truth? Myth or Truth columns are random and unable to conclusively determine whether something is a myth or a truth.

Truth. No, Myth! No… Ah, just enjoy the ride, why don’t you.


The Poetry of Moments in Time


Nothing captures the elusive moment like a poem. Novels are too ham-fisted. Short stories too neat and mindful of their Chekhovian rifles hanging on the wall (“The Big-Bang Theory”). And essays? Please.

For poetry and moments, you need go no further than William Carlos Williams, famous for his dictum, “Say it! No ideas but in things.”

And, when you think about it, it is “things” that make the moment. Usually simple, unassuming things which are imbued with agency in unexpected ways.

Example? The delicious little moment in “The Act”:

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
        They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
        where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she
and cut them and gave them to me
        in my hand.

Trump-Voter Gloaters and Other Christmas Hazards


On the Eve. It’s the name of a Turgenev novel, but I’m more attuned to the calendar than Russian Literature as Christmas cards blow like white drifts into the mailbox. Today we are on the Eve of the Eve, and my mind is scattered poetic and prosaic with holiday overload. Time to hit the release valve, in other words, with some random observations:

  • The big thing this year is Christmas cards with pics on front AND back. Dogs (and, to a lesser degree, cats) have become members of the family recently. There they are, grinning in the line-up, their names listed along with Bobby’s and Suzy’s. Next we’ll be reading updates on their college careers and job promotions.
  • Will the Christmas form letter never go away? We had a few that opened with and went on and on about the election, of all things. Do we want to read about the election in the holiday season? We do not. And to the letter, every electioneering form-letter jabberer has been a Trump voter cloaked in red and green false modesty. (“Both candidates were flawed, but one was more flawed in our opinion, so we had little choice but to go the way we did! Still, despite hard feelings in the family, we managed to make it through Thanksgiving!”) Given their obvious lack of sensitivity, I doubt they’ll be as lucky at Christmas. For starters, they can throw their exclamation points onto the Yuletide fire and rejoin the human race.
  • Christmas Eve morning is the holiest of the year for me. Holy in a doughy kind of way. I rise around four a.m., turn on the infernal Christmas carols (about the only time I’ll endure them), and build my Christmas stollen alone in the kitchen with my four cups of coffee and predictable (by 7) acid stomach.
  • Speaking of, all I want for Christmas is my 21-year-old stomach. Probably in a scrap metal shop along about now. Somewhere in the cast iron section.
  • According to the new issue of Poets & Writers, these are salad days for black writers. The market is actively seeking good writers of color because, well, they are selling. About time, I say.
  • The irony of a race renaissance in publishing during a dark time of renewed racism in public life is not lost on us. Apparently Trump voters are not the ones buying books. Or much reading them.
  • Anyone submitting poetry to journals knows that these are salad days for LGBTQ writers, too. Dozens of submission guidelines now feature a pronounced desire to print more of their work.
  • Where does the expression “salad days” come from? Shakespeare, of course. Antony & Cleopatra’s Act I, Scene 5: “My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then!” (Cleo, pre-asp, speaking).
  • I’ve read a lot of William Carlos Williams in my day, but only today came across his “Prelude to Winter”:

The moth under the eaves
with wings like
the bark of a tree, lies
symmetrically still —

And love is a curious
soft-winged thing
unmoving under the eaves
when the leaves fall.

  • Old WCW must’ve known he’d hit on a good thing when he wrote “love is a curious /  soft-winged thing” and then built a little poem around it. Sometimes the line comes first, then drives the poem.
  • The term “glass ceiling,” a popular metaphor that gained greater currency in a presidential election where a woman came this close to winning, should be put out on loan for poets trying to break into major-league journals with names that like… well… names. Just as women have to try harder to just match a man who tries less, wannabe poets and writers have to try harder to match sub-standard work by bigger poet and writer names. Pass the Windex and pray for clear-seeing editors!
  • For my 10-day holiday break, I’ve piled up a few books from interlibrary loan, including Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth (cool title, French setting, and short length) and a collection of Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s work. He’s been on my list to check out for a while, and boy-howdy, is there a lot to check out. This man is a poetic Joyce Carol Oates!
  • To all my readers (all five of you), have a very Merry and a Happy, resolution-free New, too!

Eating Poetic Fruit–and Words


Simplicity. In poetry, it’s tough to embrace and get away with. You read something as simple as Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating” and say, “How easy. I can do that!”

And then you try.

It’s like those foolhardy fiction writers who make the terrible mistake of imitating Ernest Hemingway. Seems simple enough. Only the emulating stylists wind up producing something akin to Frankenstein’s monster playing violin. Badly.

As writing inspiration, simple poems can be deceiving. They sometimes scatter common writers’ “Thou shalt not’s” to the wind, too. For instance, “Thou shalt not overindulge in adjectives.” Here we have a 14-line (sonnet-like) poem that serves up not one, two, or three, but FOUR adjectives in Line 2 alone.

Explanation? Simple. Eating is a sensory experience. A reader needs adjectives to fully digest it.

For me, “Blackberry Eating” recalls the simple joys of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” wherein WCW helps himself to “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” plums in the icebox:


“This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the iceboxand which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Summer’s on the wane. Harvest time continues. Time to pick some fruit (your choice) and release yourself to juicy simplicity. To whet your appetite, here’s Kinnell’s love letter to blackberries and words:


“Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry — eating in late September.