In Between Ideas and Things

“Listen to the rhythm of your own voice,” William Carlos Williams once said. “Proceed intuitively by ear.” Of course that is only something he said, but I marvel at Williams because it was something he did and did quite well. Here is one of his poems:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” takes its title from the Pieter Brueghel painting it references directly in the first verse and alludes to in its entire narrative. It’s a classic Williams poem. First I think it’s best to give attention to its form, then to its content, and then to the two together to figure out if and inevitably why Williams and his work lives up to the hype.

If it were in verse, you could confuse a hastily written text message as a rough draft for a Williams poem. This poem is a little different. It isn’t as casual as the refrigerator note apologizing for eaten plums. It isn’t as scant as a farmer’s testament to his red wheelbarrow either. Its subject matter, a Bruegel painting of Icarus drowning, weighs heavier on the aesthetic experience. Since this is suppose to be about form, what makes this poem different shouldn’t necessarily be the topic of discussion. William deliberately makes it impossible to tear form and matter apart. If instead we focus on what makes this poem the same as all Williams’ other poems, we could learn more about the rhythm of his voice. Our ear intuitively follows Williams’ variable foot, a method he tried to capture in his idiosyncratic line breaks. Actually what may seem idiosyncratic was Williams’ attempt to methodize form into the dynamic and idiosyncratic tendencies of common language. Williams wanted to write poetry like we spoke everyday. That is not, however, just one formal way. This technique tames the beast of prosody that forces it into form more for show than tell. Williams poetry is communicating something to the reader plainly, and with each line breaks wants us to move along according to what is the matter and not the form. The digression most pertinent to this particular poem would be Williams’ deep association with the artists of his heyday. Because of that, we can assume Williams knew how to both look at and see a painting. Taking “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” as an example of variable foot, we can imagine the poem being written with the painting sitting in front of Williams.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

He already knows its from Brueghel because it just looks like a Brueghel. He knows its about the fall of Icarus because its in the name. The first thing he really notices is that it’s spring. Then there’s a farmer ploughing. Ploughing what? His field.

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

This is a Brueghel so we must emphasize the performative quality of life in the days of peasant and lords and landed gentry. This is the whole pageantry. Each line break delivers new information to the reader and perhaps captures the moments Williams perspective shifted in viewing the painting or thinking about its story. The narrative pushes a new stanza, an outgrowth of the imagination about importance of this patch of land.

of the year was
awake tingling
near

The aesthetic moment has nothing to do with this show, it is the whole pageantry for the whole year. Day in and day out this is what life is like for this peasant. He is reaping what he’s sown for the entire year and his lifestyle doesn’t change with the seasons. Yet somehow this overgrown and monotonous pageantry is still awake, tingling and since perhaps Williams’ eyes break to the edge of the sea, the poem goes near, recognizes it too, and develops a stanza devoted to his peculiar observation that although it is near the edge of the sea, it is only concerned with itself.

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

After that, a new stanza brings us back around to Icarus:

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

This is also a rumination on the farmer’s labor and a reason for why him and his field are only selfish in their concern. Even though it’s spring and the air is alive and tingling and their is bliss near the edge of the sea, it’s hot outside. There’s also work to do. That’s why despite the fall of Icarus, the field is still concerned with itself. A new stanza notes Williams’ realization of that fact.

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

This is a masterful poem because this is a masterful painting. Williams tells the story Brueghel paints nearly word for word. In the bottom right corner of the canvas there is very little attention drawn to Icarus’s legs sticking up and out of the water. There’s a small splash and faint wisps of white that are is either saltwater foam or feathers floating in the air.  

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

And that is the end of the poem. That is the story of the painting.

Variable foot is a flexible metrical device. T.S. Eliot was right in claiming that free verse does not exists and Williams’ invention is an attempt to make freedom conventional. Without any real explanation or instruction manual, Williams puts the burden entirely on the reader to find the paradigm in which the poem sits. Breaking a line according to variable foot hopes to invoke the natural inclinations of human speech to guide the reader along without forcing a way. Within a line, a quick scansion of most of Williams’ poems would prove his metrical liberality. Often there are few beats, in this particular poem two beats guide its rhythm with plenty variations (mainly to either one beat or three beats at high moments of impact or information), and overall the objective quality in which Williams writes give his poems a quality of matter of factness that is refreshing without being harsh or underdeveloped. Joining freedom and form also inherently has the mission to locate the essence of a thought into words. Prose exists for boundless explanation, qualification, and quantification. Poetry exists because our ear intuitively follows the rhythm of our voice and the words we write words in stride. It’s just like Williams said.

There’s really no way to separate form from content when it comes to Williams. Any attempt will try and fail as I just did. These are mistakes we can learn from to figure out exactly why form and content are so interdependent in Williams’ work. People often error in believing form and content can exist separately from each other. That’s a mistake. A sonnet can be described by its formal elements. We can define its rhyme scheme and stanzas but there can never be a sonnet without the content of a sonnet. It could be a sonnet about a sonnet, a villanelle about a villanelle, and still its metacontent would give it form. In the same way there is no logos without language, there is no form without content. When Williams made the statement that there are “no ideas but in things” he is making the same point with poetic flourish. Form and content cannot be separated because form is in content. Abstract artist work in ideas and therefore because ideas are abstract, their work is abstract as well. When they try to emphatically express the abstract form of an idea into the content of a painting, no one really understands what the hell is going on. Romantic poetry suffers from the same fate. Instead, Williams and other practitioners of imagism sought to present something with intention and clarity. Of course Williams is talking about love and work and the human experience, but he is writing about sweet, cold plums or a red wheelbarrow. In this particular instance he isn’t even going so far as to write about the myth of Icarus. He is writing about a painting and in doing so his poem is about a thing, not an idea. This piece of art serves as the occasion for an aesthetic observation in an ordinary life and approaches it with common language. From the matter of things and the content of a painting, Williams forms a poem. The duration of this poem does not comment on the myth of Icarus outside of what is provided in the painting. As said before and worth saying again, Bruegel’s painting is brilliantly captured in words by Williams’ poem. The painting is preoccupied with the peasant and the landscape and gives little attention to Icarus’ death. In fact, Icarus’ death is so diminished in the painting it comes across as clear commentary from Bruegel. Williams’ poem is the best articulation of that commentary one could imagine. Icarus is drowning and in the poem and the painting it is an afterthought. So where is the focus instead? Not myth but reality. The peasant and his field are sitting at the edge of the sea and they are unconcerned by the romantic beauty of the sea or the mythology of a drowning Icarus. They have work to do and they are getting it done. Our attention is given to the man and not the myth.    

There is an ease to the profundity of Williams’ poems. He’s got a home-court advantage in tuning his poems to fit the simultaneous simplicity and idiosyncratic patterns of common speech with deliberate attention paid to materially accessible meaning. In a world that is made of matter and formed by content, it is not surprising that so few words can tell many more stories. Any method of prosody that binds our natural rhythmic inclinations with nominal form is guaranteed success. Only coupled with Williams’ distinct focus on what is there instead of what isn’t, does language so ordinary become so remarkable extraordinary. I imagine the observation skills of a physician gave Williams the tendency to view the world in this way. Like a doctor has to figure out what is hurting before figuring out why, a prescription to write about the world in such a matter of fact way opens the floodgates to everything the world has to offer. Indeed that is everything. It could also be nothing. Williams reminds us that atleast starting with something can get us somewhere.