5 December, 2022

LitStack Rec: Spring and All & Wonderbook

Spring and All, 1923 ed.

 Spring and All,

William Carlos Willams

In the frenzy that was my final term of grad school, I signed up for a seminar on Spring and All, by the classic American poet, William Carlos Williams. It would have been fine had I been studying poetry, but I was on the fiction track, and so began my dizzying encounter with this seminal work. For a good portion of that seminar I was completely lost, but reader, I’m hear to say I love this book, and it’s now among my favorites.

The volume, first published in 1923, is one of the major collections published by Williams (who was born in 1883), who is perhaps the best known of contemporary literary physicians, one that defined him as a major influence of the American Modernist movement. While his peers, like Pound, lived and worked abroad, finding influence in European and Asian forms, Williams intently remained in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, aiming to forge a distinctly American language—raw, vernacular, reflective of the time and place in which he lived. And he achieved it in Spring and All, which is a hybrid form of both poetry and prose.

Even if you don’t know the collection, you likely know it’s most well-known poems, I and XXIII. The first, the title poem begins:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

Or the its most well-known poem, The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

During that grad seminar, I clung to the familiarity of those works, and yet there were other pleasures, less understood by me in my reading, but which all the same stunned with impressions, objects, moments.  “Civitas,” the instructor stated, was the locus from which Williams meant to make his art—a language arising from, and for, the social body. The patient in the ward, the overworked hospital staff, each poem was Williams’ attempt at a new American form, revivifying a desolation of consciousness. Williams rejected the European-influenced, elevated images and tone, and like American realist painters of that post WW1 period, found meaning and relevance in the realistic, in unembellished subject and form that reflected a contemporary consciousness.

Williams famously described his creative method as “No ideas but in things,” and though I struggled with the form his ideas took, his work taught me how life is contained in things, and in voice on the page.

Watch Allen Ginsburg read from Spring and All, here.

—Lauren  Alwan