Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Singing Poetry: Williams, Frye and Bolano

            I received a note from a friend yesterday expressing shock that I could say that William Carlos Williams never wrote a good poem.  I have read quite a lot of Williams’ poetry, but I’d be willing to have another look at some poems if this Williams fan would direct me to the poetry he likes – and I can find it in the volume I have of Williams poetry. 
Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism writes on page 6, “The First thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field.  Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these.”  I probably got my own opinion about reading poetry from Frye.   Two of my favorite poets are Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats though I am neither a Catholic nor a believer in the occult.  But somewhere along the line I developed the strong opinion that poetry ought to be lyrical.  The words needed to sing in some way either through end or internal rhyme or through onomatopoeia or in some other way.  I want to know I am reading poetry and not prose.  And I never knew that when I read Williams.
On the other hand, and contradicting my own prejudice to some extent, I am often struck by the “poetry” in writers of prose.  Good writers cause their prose to sing from time to time,  and I admire it in the same way I admire good poetry.  How it sings is up to the writer not me, but I can hear it.  The following from Robert Bolano’s The Savage Detectives is an example.  I don’t know to what extent I should credit the translator, Natasha Wimmer, but I won’t struggle with that here.  On page 222 an old poet, Amadeo Salvatierra, has been drinking with two of the detectives who are trying to learn about individuals from an earlier literary movement.  They have contacted Salvatierra to learn about Caesarea Tinajero.  Her name came up in a number of references but they couldn't find anything she wrote.  Amadeo Salvatierra, someone told them, knew Caesarea and could help them.  Salvatierra is glad for the company.  They have been drinking and he just sent one of them off for another bottle.  He offered to pay for it but the young man wouldn’t accept the money.  He says,
“I had put my money back in my wallet, and with shaky hands (once you reach a certain age drinking isn’t what it used to be), I was going through my old, yellowing papers.  My head was bent and my vision was blurred and the Chilean boy moved silently around my library and all I heard was the sound of his index finger or his little finger, such a need that boy had to touch everything, skimming like lightning along the spines of my massive tomes, his finger a buzz of flesh and leather, or skin and pasteboard, a sound pleasing to the ear and sleep inducing, and I must really have fallen asleep because suddenly I closed my eyes (or maybe they’d been closed for a while) and I saw the Plaza de Santo Domingo with its archways, Calle Venezuela, the Palacio de la Inquisicion, the Cantina Las Dos Estrellas on Calle Loreto, the Cafeteria La Sevillana on Justo Sierra, the Cantina Mi Oficina on Misionero near Pino Suarez, where men in uniform and dogs and women weren’t allowed in, with the exception of one woman, the only woman who ever went there, and I saw that woman walking those streets again, down Loreto, down Soledad, down Correo Mayor, down Moneda, I saw her hurry across the Zocalo, ah, what a sight, a woman in her twenties in the 1920s crossing the Zocalo as fast as if she were late to meet a lover or on her way to some little job in one of the stores downtown, a woman modestly dressed in cheap but pretty clothes, her hair jet-black, her back straight, her legs not very long but unutterably graceful like all young women’s legs, whether they be skinny, fat, or shapely – sweet, determined little legs, and feet clad in shoes with no heel or the lowest possible heel, cheap but pretty and most of all comfortable, as if they were made for walking fast, for meeting someone or getting to work, although I know she isn’t meeting anyone, nor is she expected at any job.  So where is she going?  Or is she going nowhere at all, and is this the way she always walks?  By now the woman has crossed the Zocalo and she’s walking along Monte Piedad to Tacuba, where the crowds are thicker and she can’t walk as fast anymore, and she turns down Tacuba, slowing, and for an instant the throngs hide her from sight, but then she appears again, there she is, walking toward the Alameda, or maybe she’s stopping somewhere nearer by, maybe she’s headed to the post office, because now I can clearly see papers in her hands, they could be letters, but she doesn’t go into the post office, she crosses the street to the Alameda and stops, as if she’s trying to catch her breath, and then she keeps walking, at the same pace, through the gardens, under the trees, and just as there are women who see the future, I see the past, Mexico’s past, and I see the back of this woman walking out of my dream, and I say to her: where are you going, Cesarea? Where are you going, Cesarea Tinajero?”
            Bolano's words sing to me in a way that Williams' never has, but perhaps this is just that in my own inductive search for good poetry I have built up strong prejudices that may be unique to me, or at least unlike those of my friend who admires William Carlos Williams.   And it will do no good for someone to tell me how much they like a poet or to insist that Williams is a good poet.  A liking for Williams, and probably any poet, is not transferable.  I would need to build up new prejudices, new presuppositions to fit him in and like him more than my old prejudices would permit.   
            Then again, maybe I am impressed by the shock of reading such a passage as Balono's for the first time.  I recall a similar, even a greater shock, when I first read Plath's Aerial, standing outside the bookstore where I had just purchased it, oblivious to passersby and then later in my car, not caring about anything else.  Could she keep it up?  She did -- a memorable time.  I have positive memories about reading Plath's Ariel for the first time, but very different memories of trying and, but failing, to appreciate William Carlos Williams.

No comments: