Peter Baker

Peter Baker: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

In Williams' very last poems, the conflict of engendering the work of art subsides somewhat. As we have seen previously (Chapter One), the more radical poetic practice of early Williams tied to memory as the place where this imaginative conflict occurs, yields in the later poems to a vision of personal memory. Perhaps not surprisingly, this later development allows Williams to write some of his most moving love poems, among them "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (PB, 153-182). Thus we come to an examination of Williams' later style in full awareness of its permutations. The compassionate understanding present throughout his work here takes the form of a love poem written to his wife Flossie.

I want to examine the end of the poem where the poet/speaker describes the memory of his wedding:

For our wedding, too, 

                the light was wakened 

                                    and shone. The light! 

the light stood before us 

                waiting! 

                                    I thought the world 

stood still. 

                At the altar 

                                    so intent was I 

before my vows, 

                so moved by your presence 

                                    a girl so pale 

and ready to faint 

                that I pitied 

                                    and wanted to protect you. 

As I think of it now, 

                after a lifetime, 

                                    it is as if 

a sweet-scented flower 

                were poised 

                                    and for me did open. 

Asphodel 

                has no odor 

                                    save to the imagination 

but it too 

                celebrates the light. 

                                    It is late 

but an odor 

                as from our wedding 

                                    has revived for me 

and begun again to penetrate 

                into all crevices 

                                    of my world.

Although I almost feel it as an impertinence to offer a commentary to this poem, I think we might notice the quality of gentle precision in the diction here. In ''as if / a sweet-scented flower / were poised / and for me did open," the somewhat archaic verb form at the end seems to render the gentle touch of someone who is being very careful. The world of which the poet speaks at the end of the poem is a world known well by any student of Williams' work. His is a freedom born of compassion, earned in the conflict of the imagination, and exemplified in the grace of an unmatched expressive style.

From Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Peter Baker: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

If one were to leave the importance of perception unnoticed, one would inevitably be baffled by some of Williams' more famous poems. One of his most famous and most misunderstood is numbered simply XXII in Spring and All (p. 138): . . . So much does this poem center on the perceptive faculty that one critic has recently called it a poem by someone afraid of his own thoughts. Yet as Robert Pinsky has shown for "The Term" and Albert Cook for "The Poor," quite a bit of intellectual power can be brought to bear on the detail, the ideas and the structural links between the two in Williams' poetry. In this poem a great deal depends on "depends"—one way of reading it is that everything "hangs" on the image presented as everything in the structure of the poem seems to hang on this word and its related preposition. On a thematic level, Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one's experience. One reason this poem has been ridiculed as well as revered is its apparent insignificance in the face of such a claim. Yet Williams is highly serious. As he says in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (PB, pp. 161-2):

                                It is difficult 

to get the news from poems 

                yet men die miserably every day 

                                for lack 

of what is found there.

This is one of his more prose-like statements of what he feels as his calling, what drives the poet.

From "Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis". New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Peter Baker: On "The Young Housewife"

The details of this poem are so unassuming that they may easily be missed. The young woman is not in a negligee, she is "in negligee." One also must do a sort of double-take to figure out how the speaker could know this if she is behind the walls of a house. Though the standard line on Williams is that he freezes moments of perception (language used to render perceptive instants), this poem, while apparently simple, utilizes a three-part temporal framework. The first stanza describes a moment when the speaker passes "solitary." Is he on his way back in the second stanza which begins "Then again . . ." or is this possibly a fantasy on his part? In relation to the only, self-consciously stated, image: what are we to make of the implicit connection between the woman as a leaf and the leaves crushed by the car's wheels? Is the woman something crushed or discarded? All of these questions, as well as the implicit motion of the speaker who is driving by in a car, tend to place the interlocking phrases and descriptions in a kind of metaphorical suspension. Underlying this suspension of what is, after all, a small drama, has to be the speaker's unstated desire for the woman. Once again, the poet's desire structures the details, progress, and interrelation of elements in the poem.

From Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Peter Baker: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

As in some of the poems of Whitman, a predominantly natural description enlists humanizing metaphorical elements. Is a woman's body actually "present" in the scene described?

I would say that the structure of the fantasm helps to resolve this question. The body of the beloved is invoked as a term of comparison. The field of Queen Anne's lace is thus charged with this association, though it takes on imaginal qualities that are partly natural, partly human—in short, an invention, a device for the speaker's purposes. The metaphor of the flower as "a hand's span / of her whiteness" likewise introduces the association of a hand with the lover caressing the woman's body, "Wherever / his hand has lain . . ." The shimmering quality of the field of flowers is gradually transformed into a woman's body tingling with sexual pleasure: "under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one . . ." This metaphorical union is carried to its highest point: "until the whole field is a / white desire . . ." And then an emptying out occurs. Yes, the world can be imagined as the realm of the poet's desire—but what is really there has no more substance than a fleeting image. This is what I take Williams to be saying. This poem, then, is a sort of map or guide in the study of desire as a structuring force. We see here the relational qualities inherent in a poetic practice both engaged with the world and open to impulses stemming from the deepest regions of the psyche. 

From Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Peter Baker: On "At the Well"

Such a textual event is presented in Blackburn's poem "At the Well" (299-301). Whereas Edith Jarolim, in her editor's introduction, claims that the poem presents an encounter with, and rejection of, "atavistic impulses" (xxxi), I want to argue that the poem's atavism engages (as the etymology of atavism suggests) the thematics of time, without however necessitating any kind of judgment of whether or not the poet's persona is engaged in a spiritual progression or journey. I first encountered this poem in a somewhat nonstandard college class. The teacher, who was not really the teacher, passed out to the two students a xerox from the small-press printing of Blackburn's Three Dreams and an Old Poem (Buffalo, 1970). I carried this xerox of the poem around with me for several months, and I remember thinking that its material form was so ephemeral that I should memorize the poem before I lost it. I did lose the single page version and it was more than ten years before I saw the poem in print again. "At the Well" became for me part of my memory material, an entirely aural/oral text, even part of my "interiority." And yet it is not at all typical of Blackburn's oeuvre. The poem begins:

Here we are, see? in this village, maybe a camp middle of desert, the Maghreb, desert below Marrakesh standing in the street simply.

Outskirts of the camp at the edge of town, these riders on camels or horses, but riders, tribesmen, sitting there on their horses.

They are mute. They are hirsute, they are not able to speak. If they could the sound would be gutteral. They cannot speak. They want something.

The poem's opening presents an oneiric landscape, in a language both colloquial and yet strangely charged. In the no-time of the dream, the riders are an image about which the poet/dreamer knows some important things. Their desire as the Lacanian scenario would have it is the same as the desire of the dreamer. The dreamer's desire is of, or for, the other. And yet, "They have had their tongues cut out" (300). The mute horsemen appeal silently to the poet/dreamer to provide the words they are unable to produce. The violence of the tongues cut out provides an eerie presage to Blackburn's later, fatal disease, esophogeal cancer, as well as a tie-in with Freud's personally and medically-motivated concern with speech and orality.

In the middle of the poem, what is perhaps an echo of T. S. Eliot is given typically Blackburnian projective spacing:

            L e t  u s  g o  t o g e t h e r

across the desert toward the cities, let us terrify the towns, the villages, disappear among bazaars, sell our camels, pierce our ears, for- get that we are mute and drive the princes out, take all the slave-girls for ourselves? What can I offer them.

Here the speaker's pronoun merges with the riders who have appeared in the space of the dream, in the desert. In some ways this merger resembles the choice of Beats associates William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, who took up extended residence in North Africa. The wild abandon also moves into the actual excesses of the sixties generation, often more imagined than real. The speaker continues to ruminate on what the riders want from him ("Who are these wild men?") and, by logical extension, on what kind of soul work he is doing in his own wild man persona. I agree with Jarolim that the end of the poem provides a kind of spiritual rest, in a thorough move toward closure:

                            I want to see my own skin                             at the life's edge, at the                             life-giving water. I want                             to rise from the pool,                             mount my camel and be among the living, the other side of this village,

Come gentlemen, wheel your mounts about. There is nothing here.

"There is nothing here," not because there could have been something, and that something has been rejected or removed, but because the only thing "given" by the poem is time, the time in which the spiritual work of the poem takes place. And in order for this interior work to take place there must be a kind of "radical forgetting," following Derrida, a forgetting that moves beyond even such moments as forgiveness and pardon, rendering moot in some sense the speaker's spiritual journey. Though somewhat atypical of Blackburn, this poem shares a link with the two short poems examined previously in giving time for the reflection necessary for soul work (which is yet not work in the sense that it takes place outside the economic sphere of use-value and exchange-value ). Following the logic of this analysis, atavism could no more be rejected than it could be embraced, in that it is "forgotten" rather than weighed or judged. The poem's stance "out of time" allows for the "gift" to be given and instantly forgotten.

From "Blackburn's Gift." SAGETRIEB 12.1

Peter Baker: On "The Young Housewife"

The details of this poem are so unassuming that they may easily be missed. The young woman is not in a negligee, she is "in negligee." One also must do a sort of double-take to figure out how the speaker could know this if she is behind the walls of a house. Though the standard line on Williams is that he freezes moments of perception (language used to render perceptive instants), this poem, while apparently simple, utilizes a three-part temporal framework. The first stanza describes a moment when the speaker passes "solitary." Is he on his way back in the second stanza which begins "Then again . . ." or is this possibly a fantasy on his part? In relation to the only, self-consciously stated, image: what are we to make of the implicit connection between the woman as a leaf and the leaves crushed by the car's wheels? Is the woman something crushed or discarded? All of these questions, as well as the implicit motion of the speaker who is driving by in a car, tend to place the interlocking phrases and descriptions in a kind of metaphorical suspension. Underlying this suspension of what is, after all, a small drama, has to be the speaker's unstated desire for the woman. Once again, the poet's desire structures the details, progress, and interrelation of elements in the poem.

from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.