75 at 75: Kay Ryan on William Carlos Williams
A special project for the Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Kay Ryan writes about a reading by William Carlos Williams. It was recorded at 92Y on January 27, 1954.
Posted on Oct 16, 2013
Listening to this old recording of William Carlos Williams reading at the Y made me think again about the whole question of voice and where it resides: is it on the stage or on the page? I must confess a predisposition to the page.
Certainly when you read Williams on the page it feels like you’re hearing him. As Kenneth Rexroth says, “his poetic line is organically welded to the American speech like muscle to bone.”
But what that means is, this sense of American speech—of language on the streets—is coming from things Williams is doing on the page. Much of the power, for example, comes from the loose, staggered arrangement of his lines, the kind of air and scatter it catches.
The poems feel blown around. Some of my favorites have nearly been blown away. We sense this terrific freshness and immediacy when we read Williams; we hear this arrestingly authentic, direct voice. It’s such an interesting paradox: we can see a voice; we hear through the eyes. But I think that’s the way it is, really, with poetry: I think poetry’s voice happens in the reader’s head. The voice need never pass over anybody’s actual physical vocal chords. I could imagine that some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were never said aloud. And come to think of it, what voice could be their mental equal? The best poets’ best voice is never transmissible outside of individual skulls, and that’s fine by me. The poet speaks one reader at a time, forever.
And here’s a further mystery to ponder: the language in Williams’ poems feels authentic, wicked straight up from the pool of mid-twentieth-century American life. But if that were really so, the language would be dated in the way that DeSotos are dated; it would just be interesting for collectors.
But that isn’t the case; poetry draws from its time, absorbs and uses the available language, but it does something to it, something that takes the ephemeral out of it. Since that’s its job: it has to last. It’s a spectacular trick: lasting poetry, in some more lasting way than ephemeral speech, sounds like ephemeral speech. You can test this, even in translation. Catullus is always shockingly bright and immediately alive across languages, giving us the sense of the ephemeral.
As a young reader, I was bewitched by how Williams’ poems relish the interstices and make no place more vivid. And how they do this by doing almost nothing, as in “Between Walls”:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
It seems utterly obvious that we have to read a poem like this; it is nothing spoken.
It’s the lines on the page that put the air in it and Williams’ excisions of words and punctuation that relieve it of gravity. If we were to hear Williams’ voice, it would be in the way of Williams’ voice.
Still, I wind up interested, and grateful, for the recording. We sense his years and his sweetness, his irrepressible enthusiasm, his desire to connect with people, his lack of a defensive or polished surface. And we hear the clear warmth of the 92nd St. Y’s audience in response. It would have been a pleasure to be there that night, in the physical presence of a modern master.
But—I despair of his delivery. He mangles his poems, hesitating, clustering phrases oddly, faking emphasis as though certain words had been underlined! and he had to really! say those loudly! He robs them of their lightness and the gravity. He runs over them in his car.
But fortunately they are written on paper, and there they go right back to full vitality, as he himself has presciently described in his lovely poem, “The Term”:
A rumpled sheet
of brown paper
about the length
and apparent bulk
of a man was
rolling with the
wind slowly over
and over in
the street as
a car drove down
upon it and
crushed it to
the ground. Unlike
a man it rose
with the wind over
and over to be as
it was before.
Kay Ryan’s most recent collection of poetry is The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.