John Lowney

John Lowney: On "Today"

O'Hara's poem "Today" answers . . . Williams' demand for "No ideas / but in things," with a motley assortment of objects, such as "kangaroos, sequins," and "chocolate sodas," "stuff" that "still makes a poem a surprise." This collection of objects seems to be related only randomly; what initially makes this poem a surprise is the fact that this "stuff" is hardly the "things" to which Williams refers, and certainly not things that make a poem a "small machine made of words." Yet what ultimately makes this short poem a surprise is its concluding shift in tone, as O'Hara's objects are located on "beachheads" and "biers." The association of this "stuff" with war and death compels us to reconsider their significance, as the poem's title, "Today," refers to the immediate postwar years. Rather than defamiliarizing the everyday, "Today" foregrounds the ephemerality of everyday "stuff," including everyday language; the objects seem to be linked as much by the sonorous sequence of names as by appeal to any readily apparent semantic codes. The poem affirms the meaning of things , but refuses to imose a recognizable order on them. The use of "stuff" to summarize these objects seems to flant the lack of specificity involved in using colloquial language. It raises the question of whether these objects are the "stuff" of which this poem is made or the "stuff" from which a poem may yet be made, engaging readers to question their role in producing the poem's meaning. The semantic range of "stuff" itself recalls the war, but its connotations of drugs, other forms of contraband, and even of literary or journalistic copy call into question the rhetorical function of the poetic image. As if in direct response to [Williams'] "A Sort of Song"--through metaphor to reconcile / the people and the stones"--"Today" exerts no demonstrative control over readers' interpretations of the sequence of objects. In relinquishing the will to power--Williams's metaphor of "saxifrage," which "splits / the rocks" (idid.)--"Today affirms not things in themselves, but the dialogue inherent in interpreting the codes that inform this surprising network of names and our conceptions of poetry's relation to the world of "today."

John Lowney: On "A Step Away from Them"

Another poem that conveys its preoccupation with time and death through the transience of the lunch break is "A Step Away From Them." Whereas "Personal Poem" is more concerned with the interplay of the political with the personal in the contemporary "avant-garde," "A Step Away From Them" affiliates 1950s "vanguard" art with the historical avant-garde. The preoccupation with time opens the poem, with the announcement, "It's my lunch hour." It reappears soon after, when the poet looks at "bargains in wristwatches," is ironically suggested in the reference to Times Square, and explicitly signals the transition from present impressions to reflection on darkness and death, which takes place exactly at "12:40" (CP, 257). The images and actions described in the opening two verse paragraphs—shirtless laborers eating sandwiches, skirts "flipping / above heels," cats "playing in sawdust," a "Negro" smiling at a "chorus girl" (ibid.)—counteract the concern with time with their sensual vitality; they occur in rapid succession, in short enjambed sentences. The details of the urban scene draw the poet away from self-consciousness; "I" appears only in the references to time in the opening verse paragraphs.

The shift from the Lunch Poems' "strolling" poet who pauses at a "sample Olivetti" to the poet who "ponders" over the "eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth" occurs immediately after the announcement of the exact time in "A Step Away From Them." The artificial light of "neon" in daylight accentuates a darkness present even at noontime, as awareness of the transience of the lunch break initiates the reflection on mortality. This shift from natural light to neon is repeated with the association of "JULIET'S CORNER" with "Giulietta Masina," the Italian actress married to Federico Fellini (CP, 258). The movies provide the nighttime light with their "heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms" ("To the Film Industry in Crisis," in CP, 232) to escape from the darkness of self-consciousness, especially from the consciousness of mortality. This preoccupation with death embedded in the structure of the lunch break becomes most apparent in the subsequent transition from present impressions to memory. Reflecting on the deaths of friends who were also public figures—Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock—O'Hara fuses private memory with commemoration of artists, especially Pollock, who were commonly portrayed as tragic "victims" of the cold-war demands placed on artists. O'Hara momentarily takes a "step away" from his own autobiographical stance, replacing "I" with an impersonal, typical "one":

And one has eaten and one walks,  past the magazines with nudes  and the posters for BULLFIGHT and  the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,  which they'll soon tear down. I  used to think they had the Armory  Show there.

(CP, 258)

In replacing "I" with a reified self as past other, O 'Hara situates his own act of commemorating avant-gardist figures in an irretrievable past. This act of momentary self-destruction replicates the response to imminent apocalypse that O'Hara saw animating Pollock's painting, but it also evokes Pollock's violent death. The violence of Pollock's painting reflects a repressed subtext of postwar American culture, and the poem questions how the act of internalizing this violence can be an effective mode for counteracting it. The poem then proceeds to implicate this sense of imminent destruction as an ongoing condition of American modernization; the "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down" is associated with images linking the reified body with ritual violence, "the magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT" (CP, 258). Finally, the release from morbid self-consciousness, from the reflection on mortality, occurs through the poet's oblique affiliation with the historical avant-garde. This act of affiliation stresses the role of memory for reading the present, as the isolated "I" misconstrues the location of the event that marked the arrival of the European avant-garde in New York: the Armory Show. As in "Memorial Day 1950," "A Step Away From Them" appropriates historical narratives to structure personal memory, but personal memory in turn capriciously subverts the authority of historical narratives. And as in "The Day Lady Died" and "Personal Poem," the "post-anti-esthetic" surface of "A Step Away From Them" steps away from morbid self-consciousness not only through immersion in the overdetermined present but through reflection and reconstruction of the cultural and historical patterns that inform the moment.

from The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.

John Lowney: On "To Elsie"

The most famous poem in Spring and All that presents the automobile as a figure of modern American mobility is "To Elsie." In this case, the automobile has no driver, and mobility is portrayed as mindless, aimless nomadism. "To Elsie" dramatically thematizes the trope of articulation to fuse Williams's revisionary poetics of descent with his avant-garde poetics of dissent. More than any Williams poem other than Paterson, "To Elsie" has drawn praise as a formally complex act of social criticism. Louis Zukofsky singled out "To Elsie" in his overview of 1920s American poetry, asserting that it brilliantly demonstrates the "social determinism of American suburbs in the first thirty years of the twentieth century." "To Elsie" exemplifies for Zukofsky that "history is in these pages and in the poems—history defined as the facts about us, their chronological enlivening for the present set down as art as so good for the next age and the next." More recently, the cultural anthropologist James Clifford has read "To Elsie" as an exemplary text of" ethnographic modernity." Williams's standpoint of participant observation in "To Elsie" is ethnographic in that he "finds himself off center among scattered traditions," while modernity is encountered through the poem's complex evocation of lost authenticity. Unlike the patients who are presented with medical-aesthetic distance in other Williams poems, the emblematic figure of "Elsie" is a "troubling-insider" within the doctor-poet's bourgeois domestic space. As Clifford argues, "Elsie" embodies not just a figure of modernity but a "plurality of emergent subjects" whose representation resists any facile symbolic interpretation. Elsie embodies the interpretive problem of the poem: unable to articulate any notion of "contact" with her locale, the poem "strains" to articulate the signs of her inarticulateness. David Frail argues that "To Elsie" successfully diagnoses the failure of modern American culture by demonstrating the gap between social reality and the terms by which the "poet of contact" criticizes it. In other words, the poem succeeds through its recognition of Williams's failure as a poet to restore the promise of American culture. I agree that "To Elsie" acknowledges this problematic gap between the pathology of modernity and the poet's prescription of contact, but the act of articulating this gap itself contradicts the poem's bleak conclusion.

Like "Spring and All," "To Elsie" depicts northern New Jersey as a desolate wasteland of the "pure products of America," with its "deaf-mutes, thieves,"

old names

and promiscuity between


devil-may-care men who have taken

to railroading

out of sheer lust of adventure—


and young slatterns, bathed 

in filth

from Monday to Saturday


to be tricked out that night

with gauds

from imaginations which have no


peasant traditions to give them


(CP 1, 217)

From its oxymoronic opening of purity produced through this catalog of aimless and inbred grotesques, "To Elsie" vitriolically indicts a commercialist American culture that substitutes "gauds" for the local gods of "peasant traditions." The possibility for a poetics of "contact" to counteract such a desperate condition of rootlessness does indeed seem to be a delusion. The inarticulateness that results from the lack of any meaningful connection to place is personified in "some Elsie," whose name itself suggests both alienation from the place she inhabits and otherness from the poet's perspective. The "broken / brain" with which she expresses "the truth about us" is suggested by the poem's syntax of one long sequence of progressive subordination, each phrase stated as a present apprehension, "broken" into short lines that frequently stop, unpredictably, to interrupt clauses, creating an effect of reckless speed combined with wandering, incomplete thoughts.

However, if "To Elsie" replicates the psychological effects of the social conditions it critiques, its articulation of its subject's inarticulateness suggests that poetry's close attention to language, whether on the level of the utterance or of the word, still serves the vital social function of producing knowledge. The diction of "To Elsie" is vaguer than in Williams’s more descriptive poems. The description of the "pure products of America" is characterized by clichéd social types who appear to be "pure" because of their ideologically produced naturalness. Elsie, despite the oblique description of her as "voluptuous water / expressing with broken / brain the truth about us" (CP 1, 218), is largely an amalgam of sociological and physiological cliches. However, such vague colloquial diction is not consistent throughout the poem. Most notably, the description of plants is remarkably precise, as exemplified in the Saturday night scenario of the "young slatterns" succumbing without


save numbed terror


under some hedge of choke-cherry 

or viburnum— 

which they cannot express—.

(CP 1, 217)

The specificity of" choke-cherry / or viburnum" is accentuated by the vagueness of "some hedge." Furthermore, this inability to express, to name, is dramatized by the very selection of trees under which they "succumb." The "choke-cherry" is a North American wild cherry tree with astringent fruit, hence its name, while the "viburnum" is a member of the honeysuckle family whose Latin meaning is "wayfaring tree." The names of the trees thus figure both the "numbed terror . . . which they cannot express" and the nomadism of the "devil-may-care men." The only other plant named in "To Elsie" similarly suggests the psychological, even physiological, effects of the inability to express:

while the imagination strains 

after deer 

going by fields of goldenrod in


the stifling heat of September 


it seems to destroy us


It is only in isolate flecks that 



is given off


No one 

to witness 

and adjust, no one to drive the car.

(CP 1, 218-19)

"Goldenrod" is commonly confused with ragweed as an allergenic plant. Such common ignorance would surely discourage the "imagination" from pursuing "deer / going by fields of goldenrod." This ignorance is the result not so much of the inability to articulate a sense of "contact" with the local, but rather of the inability, or refusal, to reflect on the linguistic "grounds" for articulating such contact.

"To Elsie" foregrounds the significance of language not just in the "isolate flecks . . . given off" by its precise naming of plants but in its mixture of discourses that initiates reflection on the social roots and effects of clichéd terms and phrases. The poem certainly demonstrates and defends the poet's social function of naming. The phrase "the imagination strains" itself suggests a physical act of hunting, "strain" being derived from the Latin stringere, to "draw tight," as a bow, which "gives off" the "isolate flecks," evoking the French for "arrow," fleche. However, to "strain after" such a self-reflexive meaning is not the "point" of "To Elsie." Like its syntax, its patterns of sound accentuate the significance of close attention to everyday language, whether through alliteration or through the repetition of larger semantic units like "isolate . . . desolate . . . isolate." The "isolate flecks" of precise description not only reveal the poet’s ability to name: they highlight the reader's responsibility for interpreting and transforming the quotidian terms which evoke our inability to articulate social relations. The poem's final stanza expresses the despair of modernity in the figure of a driverless car, but "no one / to witness / and adjust" can also be read against the colloquial grain as "no one / to witness / and adjust." If the poet relinquishes the role of the "one" who drives the car, "To Elsie" acknowledges its readers' productive role "to witness / and adjust," to not only "witness the words being born" but to adjust the terms by which such words are conventionally understood.

From The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.