Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

In certain cases, when O'Hara worked very closely with a particular painter, the poem absorbed the spirit of the painting thoroughly enough to become independent. This is true, I think, of "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing The Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Rivers explains what he was trying to do in this particular painting in an interview with O'Hara forHorizon (1959):

... what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché--Washington Crossing the Delaware. The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging in the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose.... What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics.

"What was the reaction when George was shown?" O'Hara asks. "About the same reaction," Rivers replies, "as when the Dadaists introduced a toilet seat as a piece of sculpture in a Dada show in Zurich. Except that the public wasn't upset--the painters were. One painter, Gandy Brodie, who was quite forceful, called me a phony. In the bar where I can usually be found, a lot of painters laughed."

O'Hara himself, however, understood the Rivers painting perfectly. His poem, written in 1955, treats Washington's Crossing of the Delaware with similar irreverence and amused contempt:

Now that our hero has come back to us in his white pants and we know his nose trembling like a flag under fire,  we see the calm cold river is supporting  our forces, the beautiful history.

The next four stanzas continue to stress the absurdity of what O'Hara, like Rivers, presumably regards as a nonevent, the "crossing by water in winter to a shore / other than that the bridge reaches for." Here the silly rhyme underscores the bathos of what is meant by our "beautiful history" (note that the crossing takes place in a "misty glare"); and the poem ends with a satiric address to George, culminating in the pun on "general":

Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

Although O'Hara's poem is especially witty if read in conjunction with Rivers's painting, it can be read quite independently as a pastiche on a Major Event in American History, an ironic vision of the "Dear father of our country," with "his nose / trembling like a flag under fire."

O'Hara's poetic response to the painting of Larry Rivers, like his lyric celebrations of Grace Hartigan, suggests that he was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction.

From Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "A Step Away from Them" (1998)

In this famous "lunch poem," public events, political or otherwise, obviously play much less of a role than in Ginsberg's "America." Indeed, the poem's oppositionality would seem to be all on the level of rhetoric. For Wilbur's highly crafted stanzas, O'Hara substitutes a nervous, short, tautly suspended free-verse line; for Wilbur's studied impersonality, O'Hara substitutes the intimate address, whether to a friend or to himself, he describes in "Personism"; and for Wilbur's elaborately contrived metaphor, his "I" substitutes persons, places, and objects that are palpable, real, and closely observed.

The poet's lunch-hour walk, presumably from his workplace, the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in the direction of Times Square, is full of enticing sights and sounds: cabs hum, laborers in hard hats (whose "dirty / glistening torsos" the gay poet subliminally desires) are eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola, the skirts of girls in high heels (the then proverbial office uniform) "flip" and "blow up over / grates," the myriad cut-rate jewelry shops on 6th Avenue try to outdo each other with "bargains in wristwatches," the huge Chesterfield ad above Times Square blows smoke at the cigarette-friendly pedestrian, a black man, hanging out in a doorway makes eyes at a blonde chorus girl walking by, and the Puerto Ricans on the Avenue are enough to make it, by the poet's dadaesque reasoning, "beautiful and warm." Pleasurable, too, are the absurd contradictions representative of New York life: the "Negro ... with a toothpick, langorously agitating," the "neon in daylight" and "lightbulbs in daylight," the lunchspots with incongruous names like "Juliet's Corner" that serve cheeseburgers and chocolate malteds, the ladies with poodles who wear fox furs even on the hottest summer day, and so on.

But, as James E. B. Breslin noted in his excellent essay on O'Hara, the poet seems to be "a step away," not only from the dead friends (Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock) he will memorialize later in the poem, but from all the persons and objects in his field of vision. "Sensations," writes Breslin, "disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Objects and people ... remain alien to a poet who can never fully possess them." For Breslin, the poet's malaise, his inability to hold on to things, to move toward any kind of transcendence beyond the fleeting, evanescent moment is largely a function of O'Hara's unique psychological make-up. But since, as Breslin himself suggests, O'Hara's fabled "openness is an admitted act of contrivance and duplicity," we might consider the role culture plays in its formation.

Consider, to begin with, the repeated metonymic displacements of specific metaphors. New York's yellow cabs are compared to bees ("hum-colored"), but their color relates them to the laborers' "yellow helmets," worn to "protect them from failing / bricks, I guess." Yellow helmets, yellow jackets: the poem's brilliance is to connect these disparate items and yet to leave the import of the connection hanging. Is the tentative explanation ("I guess") about "falling bricks" tongue-in-cheek or serious? In the same vein, "skirts" are no sooner seen "flipping / above heels" in the hot air than they are described as "blow[ing] up over / grates," (perhaps an allusion to Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), even as the sign high up in Times Square "blows smoke over my head." "Blow," for O'Hara, always has sexual connotations, but "blow up," soon to be the title of Antonioni's great film, also points to the vocabulary of nuclear crisis omnipresent in the public discourse of these years. The muted and intermittent sounds of skirts flipping, smoke blowing, cabs stirring up the air, and cats playing in the sawdust give way to the moment when "Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday." Here sound is illogically related to time: gridlock in the streets, an absolutely ordinary event in midtown Manhattan, somehow makes the poet look up at the big clock above Times Square and have the surreal sense that time is coming to a stop. The connection is momentary (rather like an air-raid siren going off), but it changes the pedestrian's mood. At 12:40, at any rate, lunch hour has passed the halfway point, and now thoughts of the dead come to the fore--or were they already there in the reference to the "sawdust" in which the cats play? The pronoun "I" shifts to the impersonal "one"; "neon in daylight" is no longer such a pleasure, revealing as it does the "magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT," and the mortuary-like "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down," the reference to the armory in the next line linking death with war.

By this time, the "great pleasure" of the poet's lunch hour has been occluded by anxiety. Not the fear of anything in particular: O'Hara's New York is still a long way from the crime and drug-ridden Manhattan of the nineties. On the contrary, the poet's anxiety seems to stem from the sheer glut of sensation: so many new and colorful things to see--new movies starring Giulietta Masina, new Balanchine ballets for Edwin Denby to write about, new editions of Reverdy poems, new buildings going up all over town. Colorful, moreover, is now. associated with persons of color: the poet, exoticizing the Other, takes pleasure in the "click" between the "langurously agitating Negro" and "blonde chorus girl" (a sly parody of the scare question being asked with regularity in the wake of the Desegregation Act of 1954, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?"), and he observes playfully that "There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." Yet--and here the contrast replicates the juxtapositions found in Look or Colliers--for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet's Corner suggests, tombs. In this context, ironically, the actual death references in the poem ("First / Bunny died") function almost as overkill.

The "glass of papaya juice" of the penultimate lines sums it up nicely. Papaya, now sold in every large city supermarket, was a new commodity in the fifties; the recent Puerto Rican émigrés (who, for O'Hara, make it "beautiful and warm") were opening juice bars all over Manhattan. Papaya juice was considered not only exotic but healthful, the idea of drinking fruit and vegetable drinks that are good for you being itself a novelty in this period. The juice bar O'Hara frequents on the way "back to work" makes a wonderful contrast to the hamburger joint where he had lunch. Cheeseburger & malted: this all-American meal, soon to be marketed around the globe by McDonald's, gives way to the glass of papaya juice--a new "foreign" import. But the juice the poet ingests is also contrasted to the heart which is in "my pocket" and which is "Poems by Pierre Reverdy." The heart is not in the body where it belongs but in a book, placed externally, in the poet's pocket. And again it is a foreign vintage.

In the postwar economy of the late fifties, such new foreign imports created an enticing world of jouissance. But what is behind all those pleasurable "neon in daylight" surfaces and desirable "dirty/ glistening torsos" that attract the poet? For O'Hara, there is no anchor, even as the heart is no longer the anchor of the self. If, as a slightly later poem begins, "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!", "right" refers absurdly, not to any possible political rationale, but, with wonderfully absurd logic, to the fact that the September weather is so invigorating, with its "cool graced light" and gusty winds, and the poet so ecstatic in his new love affair with Vincent Warren, that surely it must be a good day for Khrushchev's visit! The public sphere thus becomes a cartoon backdrop against which the poet's "real" life unfolds. And yet that life, as we see in "Khrushchev" as in "A Step Away from Them," is everywhere imbricated with race and gender politics, with thoughts of dispersal ("New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it would blow off ") and death. Apolitical? Intentionally, yes, but very much itself a construction of the postwar moment.

From Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions. Copyright © 1998 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "A Step Away from Them"

The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."

But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:

                                            . . .A  Negro stands in a doorway with a  toothpick, languorously agitating.  A blonde chorus girl clicks: he  smiles and rubs his chin....

At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.

Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.

But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.

Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....

From Contemporary Literature (1973).

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Waste Land"

It is against this background that we must reconsider the Eliot-Pound collaboration on The Waste Land. For despite all the stylistic changes that Pound brought about in Eliot's long poem, changes that have recently been submitted to careful study--the thematic strains of the original Waste Land are not significantly altered in the final version. Indeed, one might argue that Pound's excisions and revisions made Eliot's central themes and symbols more prominent than they would otherwise have been, buried as they were under the weight of such satirical intrusions as "He Do the Police in Different Voices" (Part 1) or the Popean couplets about Fresca at her toilet at the beginning of Part II 1.37

Consider what happens to "Death by Water," which Pound reduced from ninety-two lines to ten. The first section, written in quatrains rhyming abab, introduces a parodic version of Ulysses in the person of a foolish sailor on shore leave, regaling his cronies in the public bars, who are "Staggering, or limping with a comic gonorrhea," with stories of the "much seen and much endured." In the margin of the manuscript, Pound wrote, "Bad--but cant attack until I get typescript." The second section, written in rather slack Tennysonian blank verse, is the dramatic monologue of the sailor, telling of a fishing expedition from the Dry Salvages north to the Outer Banks of Nova Scotia. Even as the sailor meditates on the significance of a mysterious Sirens' song heard one night on watch (lines 65-72), a song that makes him question the relationship of reality to dream, the ship hits an iceberg and is destroyed. After this ending ("And if Another knows, I know I know not, / Who only knows that there is no more noise now"--) comes the "Phlebas the Phoenician" lyric, which is the only part of the original that remains in the finished poem.

Pound seems to have decided that the long account of the sailor's voyage was an unnecessary digression. But when Eliot wrote from London, "Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???" Pound replied, "I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more'n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOLOOTLY where he is. Must stay in." Pound understood, in other words, that "Death by Water" is the essential link between the Madame Sosostris passage and the following lines near the end of Part V:

Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands

 

                                    I sat upon the shore 

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me 

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

 

Phlebas' "death by water" is the necessary prelude to the hints of rebirth contained in these lines, whereas the actual sea voyage, as described in the cancelled narrative portion, is irrelevant to the poem's life-in-death theme. Curiously, then, Pound seems to have understood Eliot's purpose better than did Eliot himself.

In discussing Pound's "operation upon The Waste Land," Eliot notes:

I have sometimes tried to perform the same sort of maieutic task; and I know that one of the temptations against which I have to be on guard, is trying to re-write somebody's poem in the way I should have written it myself if I had wanted to write that poem. Pound never did that: he tried first to understand what one was attempting to do, and then tried to help one do it in one's own way.

This is an important distinction. Pound did not try to transform The Waste Land into the sort of city poem he himself might have written. Rather, he helped Eliot to write it in his own way. "What the Thunder Said," for example, is left virtually untouched by Pound, for here Eliot discovered his quest theme and brought it to a swift and dramatic conclusion.

In assessing Pound's response to The Waste Land, critics invariably cite the famous letter to Eliot (24 December 1921) in which Pound says: "Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies, and cogitating an excuse for always exuding my deformative secretions in my own stuff, and never getting an outline. I go into nacre and objets d'art." But the fact is that, despite these self-depreciating words, Pound knew well enough that The Waste Land, like "Gerontion," was not his sort of poem. As Eliot himself observes, after thanking Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way," "There did come a point, of course, at which difference of outlook and belief became too wide."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

In one of the last poetry readings he was able to give, at Wellesley in 1956, Williams read "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower." Lowell movingly recalls the hush that fell over the enormous audience when the now-famous poet, "one whole side partly paralysed, his voice just audible," read this "triumph of simple confession". . . .

Like "Paterson, Five," "Asphodel" marks a return to tradition, in this case the pastoral love poem in which the penitent husband makes amends to his long-suffering wife. No more snatches of documentary prose, no Cubist or Surrealist superpositions or dislocations. The poem is stately and consistent, an autobiographical lyric in the Romantic tradition.

"Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" can be regarded as a garland for the fifties. But the Williams who speaks to the poets of our own generation is, I think, less the loving, apologetic husband of "Asphodel" or the aspiring American bard of Paterson than he is a Voyager to Pagany, to the Paris of the twenties; he is the poet as passionate defender of the faith that "to engage roses / becomes a geometry."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Copyright © 1981 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "This is Just to Say"

Stanzas to see - it is interesting that Williams himself never quite understood the workings of his own prosody. Thus when, in an interview of 1950, John W. Gerber asked the poet what it is that makes "This Is Just To Say" a poem, Williams replied, "In the first place, it metrically absolutely regular. . . .So, dogmatically speaking, it has to be a poem because it goes that way, don't you see!" But the. . .stanzas exhibit no regularity of stress or of syllable count; indeed, except for lines 2 and 5 (each an iamb) and lines 8 and 9 (each an amphibrach), no two lines have the same metrical form. What then can Williams mean when he says, "It's metrically absolutely regular"? Again, he mistakes sight for sound: on the page, the three little quatrains look alike; they have roughly the same physical shape. It is typography rather than any kind of phonemic recurrence that provides directions for the speaking voice (or for the eye that reads the lines silently) and that teases out the poem's meanings.

From The Dance of the intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Descent of Winter"

The Descent of Winter, begun on board the SS Pennland in the fall of 1927 when Williams was returning to America, having left behind his wife and sons who were to spend the entire year in Europe, was originally projected as a book of love poems to be called Sacred and Profane. But in its final form, The Descent turned out to be a more hybrid work, a collage of love poems, prose diatribes about American capitalism, anecdotes about the delivery of babies, and so on. Williams never did publish it as a separate book; it appeared in Ezra Pound's Exile in the Autumn of 1928.

Like Spring and All, The Descent is characterized by a discontinuous structure in which meaning is created by the resonance of contiguous images. But the condensation of the later work is much more radical and most critics have found it excessively obscure. No doubt The Descent Of Winter is an uneven book; certain prose sections like "A Morning Imagination of Russia" are not so much incoherent as they are boring in their naive didacticism. On the other hand, the sequence contains some of Williams' most brilliant writing. Here is the opening:

9/27

"What are these elations I have

at my own underwear?

I touch it and it is strange

upon a strange thigh."

* * *

9/29

My bed is narrow

in a small room

at sea

 

The numbers are on

the wall

Arabic I

 

Berth No. 2

was empty above me

the steward

 

took it apart

and removed

it

 

only the number

remains

.2.

 

on an oval disc

of celluloid

tacked

 

to the whiteenameled

woodwork

with

 

two bright nails

like stars

beside

 

the moon

The italicized section introduces a note of auto-eroticism that modulates into the bleaker solipsism of the second lyric. "9/29" is like a hard-edged painting, but its general affinities are less with Cubism in its classical phase than with early Surrealism: the collages of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, or René Magritte. Here it is not primarily a matter of breaking up objects and viewing them simultaneously as an organization of flat planes. Rather, the objects themselves undergo surprising transformations. The poem's structure is one of contraction-expansion. First everything contracts: "the narrow bed / in a small room / at sea" gives way to the empty upper berth and then to the arabic number 2 above it, "on an oval disc / of celluloid." The image is minimal and stark, reflecting the emptiness of the observer's consciousness, his total isolation. But as he contemplates this unimportant object silhouetted against "the whiteenameled / woodwork," he suddenly sees it freshly; the oval disc, tacked up by "two bright nails," becomes a "moon" supported by stars. In this case, less is more. Having stripped his world of all its trappings, he can once again bring it to life.

In the poems and prose passages that follow, these opposing images--empty berth and moonlight--reappear in a number of altered contexts. We can trace one chain of contiguities from "waves like words all broken" and the "coral island" of "9/30" to the "large rusty can wedged in the crotch" of the locust tree in "10/28," to the woman alone on the "railroad bridge support" of "11/10." At the same time, the countermovement sets in: the "stars / beside / the moon" look ahead to the "orange flames," the "yellow and red grass," and the "leafless beechtree" that "shines like a cloud." And then a few pages further on, we meet:

Dahlias--

    What a red

        and yellow and white

mirror to the sun, round

            and petaled

    is this she holds?

In the end, it is this "vividness alone" that overcomes the poet's initial despair and solipsism. The sequence ends with the jaunty song of his Creole uncle: "si j’étais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-e par ma foi!"

The prose poems that alternate with the short lyrics of The Descent of Winter exhibit a discontinuity more radical than that of the earlier Kora in Hell. Here is "10/27":

And Coolidge said let there be imitation brass filigree fire fenders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces! the white porcelain trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape for the oven I don't know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces! the stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them, lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines, cherry red danger and applegreen safety. Any hat in this window $2.00 barred windows, wavy opaque glass, a block of brownstone at the edge of the sidewalk crudely stippled on top for a footstep to a carriage, lights with sharp bright spikes, stick out round them their faces! STOP in black letters surrounded by a red glow, letters with each bulb a seed in the shaft of the L of the A lights on the river streaking the restless water lights upon pools of rainwater by the roadside a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!

In this surreal cityscape, objects in shop windows, seen from what is evidently the window of the poet's moving car, take on strange configurations. The "imitation brass filigree fire fenders," for example, are related syntactically to the "yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood," but whereas the former, placed behind "insured plateglass windows," are items for sale, the latter seem to be part of a candy store or café. Again, the "white porcelain trough" made of baked clay is somehow related to the dark cloth with its orange and green strips, the conjunction suggesting a display case of household goods. But the reference to "artificial pneumothorax" allows us to perceive the white porcelain trough as part of some hospital scene or perhaps a medical supply store. The scene, in any case, dissolves and we next see a "stripe of shadow along the pavement edge, the brownstone steeple low among the office buildings dark windows with a white wooden cross upon them." Seen retrospectively, the yellow pine booths now turn into church pews, and, in this context, the white porcelain trough calls up the image of a baptismal font.

We cannot, in short, locate the items named with any certainty, nor is it possible to define their relationships to one another. The blurring of focus is intentional, for Williams' emphasis is on the mobility and mystery of the city, and the text thus becomes what Charles Olson liked to call an "energy discharge." So the colors of the cloth modulate into city lights--"lights like fuchsias, lights like bleeding hearts lights like columbines." The camera eye then moves farther away from the scene and we get a distance shot of "a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces!"

Williams' modulation of light images is especially interesting. "10/27" begins, of course, as a parody of "And God said, 'Let there be light!'"; here there is only the artificial light of the "imitation brass filigree fire fenders." But such lighting has its pleasures too; in the poet's verbal landscape, it coalesces with the bright neon lights of the city, the traffic lights ("cherry red danger and applegreen safety"), the red glow made by the bulbs around the STOP sign, the moving lights of the elevated train, the "restless water lights upon pools of rainwater," and finally the "great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms," a house whose "center" is marked by "one yellow windowbright" of faces.

This is perhaps as close as Williams ever came to the language constructions of Gertrude Stein or of her French predecessors. The poet does not give us a realistic or even an impressionist picture of the night-time scene. Rather, he wrenches words from their usual contexts and places them in new relationships. The juxtaposition of light images is one example of such stylization. Another can be found in the patterning of spatial forms. The roundness of the white porcelain trough is repeated in the circular traffic light and the STOP sign. These objects therefore seem to occupy the same space although, literally, some are indoors, some outdoors; some close to the ground, some high up, and so on. Again, the "yellow pine booths" seem to occupy the same space as the white wooden cross, and the "insured plateglass windows" of the storefront dissolve into the dark windows of office buildings, the barred windows of the hat shop, made of "wavy opaque glass," and finally the "yellow" window of the isolated cheery house. The prose poem is a field of contiguities, what John Ashbery was to call a "hymn to possibility."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife" (2)

The typography is in many ways the poem's substance. Take a poem like "The Young Housewife," a short lyric often praised for what James Breslin has called its "tough colloquial flatness," its "matter of fact" verse, but which, more precisely, uses that flatness for playful purposes:

. . .

Here the three stanzas are parody stanzas, the first, a neat-looking quatrain that has neither rhyme nor meter but slyly designates the young housewife by the same rhythmic group we find in "At ten A.M.":

At ten A. M.                      the young housewife

The second line, with its odd construction "in negligee" on the model of "in furs" or "in silks," is cut after the word "behind," a word that thus gets construed as a noun (her "in negligee behind") rather than as a preposition. The same sexual innuendo occurs in line 7:

shy, uncorseted tucking in

where the separation of the verb from its object ("stray ends of hair") makes us expect a reference to what one usually tucks into a corset. The next line produces even greater surprise:

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

To what, we wonder?

to a fallen leaf.

An absurd comparison, since surely the young housewife--she is constantly doing things, moving about, calling the ice-man or fish-man, tucking in stray ends of hair--is the very opposite of a fallen leaf. Or is she? Never mind the parody period after "leaf": the tercet now brings it all out into the open:

The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

In his erotic fantasy, the poet wants to make this attractive housewife a "fallen leaf" to the "noiseless wheels of his car," to "rush with crackling sound over / her dried leaves." But it is, after all, only a daydream; normal life must continue and so "I bow and pass smiling." The tercet has lines of 7, 8, and 9 syllables (3, 4, and 5 stresses) respectively; the diagonal created by its line endings thus presents an image of one-step-at-a-time accretion, as if to say that, fantasize all we like, we must get on with it. Typography, in a case like this, is destiny.

By Marjorie Perloff. From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife"

Generically, to begin with, "The Young Housewife" is best read as a parodic courtly love poem: the "solitary" physician at the wheel of his car recalls the knight on his charger, approaching the fortified castle where his lady is kept in captivity by the tyrannical lord of the manor. Given this context, the analogy between busy young housewife, coming to the curb "to call the ice-man, fish-man," and "fallen leaf" seems patently absurd. If anything, the young housewife seems to resemble a flower in early bloom or a budding tree; there is nothing the least bit "fallen" about her. The odd construction "in negligee," for instance (the normal syntax would be "in her negligee"), implies that being "in negligee" is the young housewife's inherent state, an implication borne out by the curious line break after "behind" so that we visualize the woman's "in negligee behind." The same thing happens in lines 7-8, where the poet, passing "solitary in [his] car," first surmises that the young woman is "uncorseted" and then observes her "tucking in" what the line break anticipates will be her flesh, deliciously not yet tucked into her corset, but which turns out to be, in the next line, "stray ends of hair."

With the image of those enticing "stray ends of hair," the poet's erotic fantasy reaches its peak. Far from presenting a "prosaic" subject with "tough, colloquial flatness," the poem presents its speaker as secret voyeur, longing to penetrate those "wooden walls of her husband's house" and wishing the lady of the house would call, not the ice-man or fish-man (with the obvious double entendre those "calls" entail) but himself to her side. Only by making a mock-Whitmanian grand gesture--"and I compare her/to a fallen leaf"--can the poet play out his fantasy. For look what happens:

The noiseless wheels of my car 

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

To say that these lines embody a rape fantasy would be accurate although it would also be to ignore the delicacy and humor of their tone. The poet-doctor knows that normalcy must prevail, that it is 10 A.M. on an ordinary weekday and probably time for him to make hospital rounds. The desire to "rush with a crackling sound over/dried leaves" is fleeting and subliminal, a momentary wish to "have" what belongs to another man. But because, within the suburban context of the poem, such things are possible only in fantasy, nothing happens: the driver "bow[s] and pass[es] smiling."

What especially interests me in "The Young Housewife" is the shift in the position of the fallen or dried leaf. Whereas the lover of The Tempers walks with his sweetheart over the "leaftread" in the brown forest, now, in the lyric that follows Williams' marriage, there is a split between man and woman, the woman becoming, so to speak, the object of man's "tread." We have already seen that in "Love Song," the "stain of love" "eats into the leaves" and then "drips from leaf to leaf." No longer, then, are the lovers viewed as a pair, silhouetted against a recognizable natural world. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer. Or at least to fantasize about.

From "The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The Displacement of Desire in Williams's Early Love Poetry." In The Rhetoric of Love in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Cristina Giorcelli and Maria Anita Stefanelli. Copyright © 1993 by Edizioni Associate (Rome).

Marjorie Perloff: On "Pound and Sigismondo Malatesta"

Much has been written on the background and themes of the Malatesta Cantos, and I don't wish here to go over familiar ground. Thomas Jackson has shown, quite conclusively, I think, that Malatesta is not simply, as many commentators have assumed, Pound's hero--the Renaissance ruler as beneficent patron of art--but that the emphasis in these Cantos is on Sigismundo's very mixed motives and consequently dubious successes.

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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