William Carlos Williams gave us one of Modernism’s competing ideologies: No ideas but in things. Williams, though, is a poet with plenty of ideas; reading him we come to understand the distance between an ideal and anyone’s attempts to fulfill it. What did Williams mean by his compound injunction, Compose. . . . Invent!, and, given the number of filters between most of us and everything we encounter, can a consideration of Williams now yield any useful thoughts about directness, about the way we engage the world in poems today?
A SORT OF A SONG
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
William Carlos Williams (The Wedge, 1944)
No ideas but in things. Williams’s dictum has come down to us as if it were the progenitor of that staple of creative writing instruction: “Show, don’t tell.” Is the image (what we see) necessarily a receptacle of ideas (what we’d tell)? If this is how we take him, aren’t we claiming—unsettlingly—that Williams’s injunction is not so different from Eliot’s objective correlative, in which the external is the only sufficient means for expressing what is being felt (or thought) inside the self? Williams’s reiteration of his ideal, in Paterson, helps us make a key distinction:
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
Whatever we see is “forked by preconception and accident”: all that trouble—“split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained”—arises because of our preconceived notions and because of mistakes (which presumably themselves derive from both error and chance). The image then is never pure, never just itself, but altered by known (or knowable) and unknown variables, even as it’s forked—diverted? pushed?—into the light of perception. All that mottling stuff happens and therefore the thing’s secret essence is its own (and not, it seems to me, mere projection).
Metaphor, so often premised on an image, reconciles; it allows disparate elements (self and other; the object and whatever we compare it to; the perceiver and the perceived) to stand in harmony: the snake as a remote figure for the line of poetry shows us that our sentences need snake-like patience, speed, precision. But look back: the snake metaphor seems a bit composed. Willful. If this is an important poem, it’s not because of the snake (banished from the poem to sit under his weed, replaced by language with serpentine qualities . . . as metaphors go, this one is kind of lame. . .). What makes this poem matter is the saxifrage: the flower, “jewel-like” (per the Saxifrage Society) and tenacious, that has the fortitude to split rocks. Here is where invention seems to enter the poem: Surprise!—this lucky presence in the landscape, with an “x” in its center to mark the spot where everything splits open. Funny to note this paradox: that the snake seems more imagined (i.e., less literal) than the saxifrage, as if it were conjured up to represent poetic language, and then the saxifrage appears (Williams, taking a walk, thinking things through) and by force of its own saxifrage-ness, the poem comes alive with invention, with some news.
So imagination, then, where the snake comes from, is not synonymous with invention. And something literal, it seems, can in fact draw us out of the literal: kaboom, we’re discomposed, alive with insight. Words, their phonemes and the images they call to mind (images both of what they refer to, the particular pink flower, and even of their alphabetic hatch-marks, sa[x]ifrage’s “x” of a cracked stone)—words in all their literal and associative parts are the things we use to build our poems.
No ideas but in things, and words are things. I was standing in one of those cattle herd lines recently, waiting to order some takeout freshmex for my family, and everyone in that snaking aluminum holding tank was in this position: smartphone-wrist, staring into the little blue screen. No ideas but in things, I’ll say, is what I thought. Our personified portable communication devices, the things in which ideas now reside, or through which we increasingly have our most regular access to ideas. . . if I keep this under my hat, I thought, I might get a Dickman-like ad contract (more on that in a minute) with Apple! Picture it: grainy black and white photo of the doctor and
No iDeas but in
So there I was, thinking of Williams, of preconception and accident, and the ideas radiating at the fingertips of every single person with whom I was not chatting about politics or the weather or the Superbowl or Clint Eastwood (more, as I said, in a minute). Williams said also that when we love—the long-haul love of marriage over decades—we do so past all accident, which may help us understand the filters of preconception and accident here. If there is this other territory, love that holds beyond accident, love that isn’t just the product of our will but also, somehow, beyond us, greater—then perceiving it is something we do despite our preconceptions and the other interfering accidents that deter intimacy. We must beware the ease with which we might elect to write into our poems a storm cloud because our hearts are full of hailstones? Or with which we might look into those cellular devices in the hands of our spouses, our neighbors, and see a “crackberry” or a figure for our just desserts? Okay, 20th Century: you wanted no ideas but in things, I’ll give you things and things and things and things and you tell me whether or not we still have any ideas. My pocket holds a billion words.
Mairéad Byrne has a cell phone poem, which appeared in a 2007 issue of the American Poetry Review (and you can tell it’s a few years ago, some of the cell phone observations are already dated. . .). Still: she describes the cell phone as “a stun gun of the in-between”; “you use it to check that you exist.” It’s the thing that locks us into a weird isolation of partial connection, a thing we can use to avoid real connection, too.
Poets are not alone in our desire to break through the numbing muck and make connections. And our own strategies are being put to work by people who make a lot more money than we do. A case in point: “Famous Names” by John Colapinto in the October 3, 2011, New Yorker. It’s an article about a company called Lexicon, a firm whose whole raison d’être is naming products (they named the Blackberry), where they employ two in-house linguists who help companies avoid the Chevy No-Va problem, the Creap Coffee Creamer problem, etc. The linguists also “offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds.”
Here we learn further that
in the past fifteen years or so, naming has entered a kind of postmodern phase, venturing from descriptive, functional labels—Mop & Glo, Mr. Coffee, Cocoa Krispies, toward esoterica like Viagra and Dasani, in which the meaning yields only to ‘deep textual analysis.’ (Dasani, which Lexicon devised for Coca-Cola’s brand of bottled water, is supposed to convey health and purity through the root ‘sani.’)
Marc Hershon, a senior staffer at Lexicon, says,
Early in our process, it’s a messy thing. You can’t just go, ‘I’m going to give you twenty-five great names, and I’m going to write them out right now.’ There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and playing around. Then you start shaving away all the stuff. And it’s almost like creating a sculpture. The name is in here—let’s get to it. (my italics)
No ideas but in things.
In May of 2011, Target began sending out “haiku-pons” “poetic savings on all your cravings.” Really.
sandwich needs loving
slice of swiss should do the trick
give thanks to the cows
And for Superbowl 2012, the poet Michael Dickman helped to write the text for Chrysler’s Clint Eastwood ad: I confess I cannot find the part that seems like a poet wrote it, though the ideas are there in the things all right: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.”
The name is in here—let’s get to it. How do these advertisers (dabblers in our bailiwick, some will say, but of course way more powerful than poets, too—) how do they illuminate these questions about ideas and things, preconception and accident? How does an increasingly materialistic culture reckon with Williams’s dictum about ideas and things? What is the trail from the poetry that defined the 20th century to the poetry (and not the ads) that will define the 21st? Williams urged us to compose, to invent. Composition, which requires will, the fostering of skills, editorial acumen—, and invention, which requires discovery, surprise, the new: he means we need both our refining impulses and our wild ones.
Let’s look at Joy Katz’s very lovable poem, “We Are Walking into the Sunset.”
Listen for the things the speaker hopes will hold her ideas, for the way she shuffles a deck of things in order to try to jostle her companion’s attention:
WE ARE WALKING INTO THE SUNSET
Look, I say, pointing to the odd gold haze as if we were audience to a
rare show getting rave reviews. You keep talking.
The sky is getting louder, how can you not hear it—?
Look, I say, as if I held a shovelful of earth in which all things turn
and all things shift. Amazement like a taste of metal. You
keep talking. Look, I say, as if by not looking you are assigned an
eternity of only talk, as if by not looking you were dooming all of us,
but especially me, to scumping along like a spider on a—
Look, the sky has become stained glass made of meat!
You keep talking, as if in utter faith that life will go on forever.
Yet that in itself is lovely. Keep talking. What is more of a pleasure to see,
a moon as big as a bison head or the face of a friend, talking?
The visceral world, the thingy, live-before-our-very-eyes world does not register with the talker. She just keeps talking—“in utter faith that life will go on forever”—that’s an idea line, revealing the comparative blandness of the talker’s articulations beneath the ravishing sky. But what ideas do we find in Katz’s things? The off-Broadway theater, the shovel and metal and spider and meat? Do these things reveal Katz’s will, or some deeper helplessness? Katz’s things trump the friend’s ideas, and yet the speaker here gets mad at herself, reorders her priorities. Still, to do so, she has to turn the friend from a voice into a face, from something she can paraphrase into something she can see.
Finally, I want to look at Chris Nealon’s poem, or a part of his poem, about the Occupy movement. It’s called “The Dial” (reminiscent of the modernist magazine, first American publisher of “The Waste Land,” that postwar poem of discontent and disaffection). This is the end of Nealon’s long poem, which was published as a chapbook in 2012 by The Song Cave.
A breeze – a cough –
and I was in a landscape like a landscape painting – we all were – an
extensive one – and we could move around —
someone turned the dial and time passed back and forth through seasons,
winter summer summer winter spring fall winter fall – it settled on fall —
like little tercets everybody staggered into place
there were groves – a forest – cities on a plain
A corner of the plaza had been labeled T H E Y E A R I N I D E A S
Lisa scrawled continuous language is the commons
Someone else had left a note that said “Don’t tase me bro!”
—I’ll just leap in here, to note the ideas: one of which is abstract, “continuous language is the commons,” and one of which is in a thing, “Don’t tase me, bro—”
And indeed police were circling the area
But on every branch of every tree were candy wrappers – fortune cookies –
—ideas in things!—
Collis’s read, “Vancouver’s got your back” – Nathan’s was a poem from Milan –
—Again, I’ll leap in to say, hmm . . . thinking of Eliot, because here we have the seasons, the role of time, the Italian interruption: Nealon’s Modernist heritage is clear—
And this is not to mention the passenger pigeons –
—no ideas but in things?!?!? birds with letters tucked up on their little ankles—
But after the fashion of the courteous medieval poets I will spare you
“Here I omit three thousand others who attended the bout”
I’ll pass over Andrew Kenower saying raise yr hand if this is the most alive you’ve ever
I’ll skip the part where little Sasha’s holding up a sign for plutocrats that reads
Y O U A R E M E A N | “and I will have to cut you in half”
And finally I’ll leave it to you to puzzle over the masked figures in the alleys leading to
They’d been stenciling T H E D I A L E C T I C all in caps but ran off halfway through
—hence our title, the D I A L not just by which to change the channel, change the song, but as a partial gesture toward inquiry, toward the ‘truth’—
Reader you know the story of the bloody battles that unfolded after
You know it better than I do, since they haven’t happened yet
You know the stories of internal struggle – botched analysis and tactical defeat –
You’ll have seen the faces of the women thinking, really? I still have to remind
you not to grope me in the commune?
You’ll have noticed that the names are generally the names of white people
But none of this will make me wish I were with you any less –
As I fade into time – as I enter my era –
I’ve accepted that my mind works best when imitating vantages of paradise
With you in the square that day I saw the thimble where the mind is
Like the briefest waterfall behind my eyes I saw the ocean where the thimble was
—my mind, in which of course we find my ideas, so what’s the thimble doing there? protection? just an indicator of how small a space the mind is able to fill, compared to that vast sea? a thimbleful?—
And on the final page of the bright red book that dropped into the plaza I read the words
“true freedom will always lie in the ability to make friends”
I felt the scratch of wool my dream was ending
Lisa – Geoffrey – dialing time around an axis –
names of months – the names of years –
I felt the warmth of Rob beside me –
And reaching down into the world as it took shape again I felt – what were they?
Right. The dollars in my pocket.
So the poem’s last ideas, about true freedom and friendship (Katzy, to hold up friendship as the best thing, the truest gift in our time!) and about the shape that dollars give the world, occur as abstraction and then as thing. Those dollars: an indictment of capitalism? An acknowledgment of entanglement, of the degree to which all the ideas about change will be beholden to the hard chink of change, of money changing hands?
I think this poem provides a really fruitful insight into the relation between ideas and things, (in fact, that turns out to be its subject matter, the ideas in the commons and the people there to give them voice and life, and the friendships and the cash) and also into questions of composition and invention, because the dial (that THING that lets Nealon move with ease—change channels—between ideas) gives the poem a means to alternate the formal control of composition and the experimental wildness and letting-go of invention. I wish all our associative poets were this much alive to the value of both. The [ D I A L ] E C T I C in Nealon’s poem reminds us again of the thing-ness of words: it represents, yes, the intended lettering on the wall, displaying the whole in order that we understand what not to see. This changes what we see and what we glean from it; that implied action, the stenciling, tells us something about the protesters, while Nealon’s mind upon it tells us something about the witness. The thing, the graffiti, yields both their ideas and his.