I don't have anything so grand in mind today. But what I would like to do is to construct a possible view of the American poetic tradition that can most accurately be termed our avant-garde as it existed during a very brief periodroughly between 1950 and 1954. I plan to plot my discussion around a specific text, "The Desert Music," the title poem of William Carlos Williams' 1954 Random House collection. The poem itself describes an event that took place in mid-November of 1950 when Williams, his wife Floss, Robert McAlmon, McAlmon's brothers and their wives took a stroll over the border from El Paso, Texas to Juárez, Mexico. In June of 1951, seven months later, Williams would read the poem publicly for the first time at Harvard where he was given an honorary membership in the Phi Beta Kappa society.
The contexts are significant. In 1950 and '51, Williams published his Collected Later Poems, his Collected Short Stories, Paterson 4 (which was then taken as the completion of that relatively short "long poem"), Autobiography and Collected Earlier Poems. He won a major award, received honorary degrees from Rutgers and Bard, had a stay at Yaddo and did a reading tour of the West Coast from which he was returning when he and Floss went to El Paso where the tubercular McAlmon had settled. With the lone but important exception of a minor stroke  that he suffered on March 28, 1951, Williams was at the pinnacle of his career as a published author and public figure during this period.
It was, in fact, during his recuperation from the stroke, staying at the summer home of a medical colleague in Schuylerville, New York, that Williams did much of his work on "The Desert Music." The poem was written on commission "sight unseen" from Harvard, which required a fifteen-minute work for its event. Paul Mariani alleges that it would be the only poem Williams would write that year. The Collected Poems, volume II, identifies seven short pieces, the first of which carries the title "June 9"together, the septet take up a little more than three pages. Mariani characterizes Williams' feelings toward the text of "The Desert Music" itself as "mixed," and from comments that Williams made both to Louis Zukofsky and Kenneth Burke, it seems evident that Williams despised the context and occasion of the Harvard Assembly.
When, on March 16 the previous year, Williams had been given the first National Book Award for Poetry, for Paterson, Book III, and his Selected Poems, the prize represented a potentially significant moment in the acceptance of modernist writing into the broader institutional culture. The echoes of controversy that enveloped Ezra Pound's 1948 Bollingen AwardWilliams had been the only other poet to receive votes in the final ballothad done nothing to make modernism safer for the masses. Since its inception in 1918 under the auspices of the Poetry Society, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry had gone to exactly one writer generally associated with the high modernistsJohn Gould Fletcher for his Selected Poems in 1939. Indeed, the poet who won the Pulitzer in 1951, Carl Sandburg, had been one of two recipients in 1919. As a new prize, however, the National Book Award had no track record in 1950 and none of the accumulated prestige of the Pulitzer.
Williams had, of course, been given some other honors previously. In 1926, he'd received The Dial Award. In 1948, Williams had received the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. And that same year, he'd been offered the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, though he'd turned it down for the time being due to his first heart attack. But if Williams was at least admitted as a poet of note by some in the literary establishment, it was not universally with open arms. Here, for example, is the core passage, a single paragraph, of a discussion of "Red Wheelbarrow" in what was manifestly the hegemonic poetry textbook of the period:
For the sheer nastiness of their dismissive tone, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks are hard to beat. While the poem in question was itself published in 1923 and the first edition of Understanding Poetry came out in 1938, the passage I've just cited was still being used in classrooms into at least the 1970s. The poem, as printed by Brooks and Warren, lacks the stanza breaks that make apparent the couplet form of a text that Williams actually entitled "The Red Wheelbarrow" (emphasis added) in his 1938 Complete Collected Poems, and later Collected Earlier Poems, the very volume cited in the acknowledgements to Understanding Poetry. Brooks and Warren bolster their argument by misediting the text. The willfulness of their ignorance is underscored by the fact that Understanding Poetry begins: "Wordsworth called the poet a man speaking to men. Poetry is a form of speech, written or spoken." (1)
I am less concerned here with whether or not Brooks and Warren really knew how to read poetry than with conveying some sense of Williams as a man significantly embattled if not actually isolated during this period. The Desert Music, both the poem and the volume, is saturated with such imagery, starting with, in the opening poem excerpted from Paterson 2, "The Descent,"
This is a highly qualified affirmation at best. Similarly, Williams coyly begins the poem entitled "To a Dog Injured in the Street,"
To be assuaged from pain is not at all to be freed from it. Williams is so careful and clear about this throughout the book that it seems thunderously the point.
Later, Williams asks himself pointedly, "am I merely playing the poet? Do I merely invent / it out of whole cloth?" (84) Others do likewise:
Williams focuses on these questions of status and doubt, underscoring the isolating aspects of poetry. Far from portraying this occasion as a poet among friends and peers, Williams takes lengths to suggest just the opposite. The world of culture, as distinct from personal experience, is reduced to a single phrase, "Thinking of Paris." (74) Williams avoids mentioning McAlmon by name even when quoting him on seeing Hemingway, also unnamed but for a single initial, "H. terribly / beaten up in one of those joints." (75)
This cautious dance leads up to the famous exclamation,
Not unashamed, but ashamedthe sentence and stanza ends without punctuation. As a whole, the "The Desert Music" celebrates the idea of poetry as such, which it characterizes as some sort of transpersonal force, called variously music or the dance, not all that far from Jack Spicer's Martian radio. But the poem takes a decidedly more ambivalent stance toward the role of poet: reaffirmed, ashamed.
I want to give Williams' ambivalence a broader context here. By 1950, the absolute number of major modernists had dwindled. Crosby, Crane, Joyce and Stein had all died. The Europe of modernism, not to mention the modernism of Europe, had been obliterated by the Second World War. The most notable Anglo survivors, Eliot and Auden, were those most antithetical to Williams' own understanding of the project of poetry. Pound had been in Saint Elizabeth's for four years. Barbara Guest uses the term "anonymity" to characterize H.D.'s reputation during the early 1950s. Of the old gang, only Marianne Moore was in a position roughly similar to Williams' own, except that her editorship of The Dial in the 1920s had transformed her relationship in particular to the New York literary world.
As a book, The Desert Music is a particularly modernist project. In reaching back to Paterson 2 for the opening section, Williams organizes the book around his concept of triadic form, proto-stanzas organized around three lines, each of which is increasingly indented to create a step-down effect. I use the prefix protobecause Williams largely stays away from stanza breaks as such, returning instead to the left margin. The only poem to vary significantly from this format is, curiously, the title piece. The Desert Music is in this sense an argument not only for formal innovation, "the perfection of new forms as additions to nature" that Spring & All had once envisioned, but for a specific form at that. Williams, who of all the surviving modernists seems to have written the least concerning the war, and whose own despair at writing has popped up earlier, especially in Book 3 of Paterson, chooses this moment instead to institutionalize the strategy taken in a single passage of his long poemindeed, Paterson itself will hardly return to triadic form until Williams restarts the work with Book 5, published in 1958. Beyond The Desert Music, the one other book that focuses as heavily on triads is the collection that immediately followed it, Journey to Love. For the most part, the new poems in Pictures from Brueghel, Williams' final collection, focus on three-line stanzas with a hard left margin.
There was another dimension to the circumstances surrounding "The Desert Music" that needs to be mentioned. On January 21, 1950, Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for denying that he passed secret documents to the college roommate of Louis Zukofsky, Whittaker Chambers, a man whose rather dreadful poem "October 21st, 1926" had appeared in the Zukofsky-edited Objectivist issue of Poetry in February, 1931, just one poem in either direction from the work of George Oppen and Basil Bunting. In addition to "A" 7, that issue also contained Williams' "The Botticellian Trees." By mid-1950, what would come to be known as the McCarthy era was in full swing. On the same week in June that the FBI first questioned Julius Rosenberg, George and Mary Oppen fled to Mexico. June was also the month that the U.S. became involved in fighting in Korea. One week after the Oppens, Morton Sobell, later to be a co-defendant of the Rosenbergs, also went to Mexico. After taking some tentative steps to do likewise, Rosenberg was arrested in July, his wife in August.
The early 1950s was the nadir of Objectivism. Zukofsky, completing "A" 12 in 1951, would not touch the poem again until 1960. Some Time, Zukofsky's gathering of his shorter works between 1940 and 1956, contains just 33 poems for its seventeen years. In her bibliography of the composition of these works, Zukofsky's wife Celia notes that, in 1954, the only poetry he wrote were two sections of "Songs of Degrees," one a nine-line valentine, the other "William / Carlos / Williams // alive!" George Oppen hadn't written anything since 1934. Charles Reznikoff was self-publishing and the collection Inscriptions: 1944-1956 takes up only 30 pages in his Complete Poems. Lorine Niedecker had published just one book and that with a publisher in Prairie City, Illinois; she would not publish another until Ian Hamilton Finlay brought out My Friend Tree in Scotland in 1961. "The Spoils," which Basil Bunting wrote in 1951 was his first major piece of poetry since 1935 and last until 1965. He wrote just three odes, as he called his shorter poems, in the 1940s and none in the 1950s.
William Carlos Williams was 67 in 1950, the Objectivists all between 40 and 50. For Williams to find a literary community, he would have to turn to yet a younger generation. Interestingly, he had a direct hand in the formation of that generation when, responding to a request by a New Hampshire chicken farmer for some work for a little magazine in February 1950, Williams instead sent Robert Creeley the address of Charles Olson.
Olson is one of five poets out of the 44 gathered in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry to have been born prior to 1915, and thus closer in age to the Objectivists than to the majority of writers in that anthology. The four other elders, Madeline Gleason, Brother Antoninus / William Everson, Helen Adam and James Broughton, were all Californians associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. The only other New Americans born in the teens were also San Franciscans, Robert Duncan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Although Adam didn't publish her first book until 1958, this confluence helps to explain why, of the nine books that had appeared from the New Americans by the end of 1949, seven were from San Francisco poets.Six of the seven volumes were from what today would be known as micropublishers, three from James Broughton's Centaur Press, two from Bern Porter's eponymous press, the last from Grabhorn, a fine press printer active in San Francisco since 1919.
It was not until 1953, two years after the composition of "The Desert Music," when Black Mountain College was at its peak under Olson's rectorship and the New York School was first starting to gel, that the New American poetry would really show up in print. That year, Charles Olson published three volumesIn Cold Hell, in Thicket, the first edition of The Maximus Poems and Mayan Letters. Robert Creeley published two books: The Immoral Proposition and The Kind of Act of. Jonathon Williams, to this day one of the more underappreciated members of that cohort, brought out Four Stoppages. For Olson, these were his fifth, sixth and seventh books, for Creeley his second and third, and for Williams his second. Two other poets associated with "projectivism" brought out first books: Larry Eigner's From the Sustaining Air, and Paul Blackburn's initial translations of the troubadours, Proensa. Finally, from New York, two other first collections of poetry, Kenneth Koch's Poems and John Ashbery's Turandot and Other Poems, debuted.
Ten volumes in one year for this mid-century avant-garde was a signal event, even if half of the titles belonged to just two poets. Prior to '53, the total number of books by New Americans had been just 19, starting with Madeline Gleason's Poems 1944 from Grabhorn. Yet the ten books were issued by just four publishers: Tibor de Nagy, an art gallery in New York, published Ashbery and Koch; Robert Creeley's Divers Press, conveniently located in Mallorca, printed four books; Jonathon Williams' Jargon Press from Highlands, North Carolina, printed three; and, finally, Cid Corman, published In Cold Hell, in Thicket as Origin 8, although it was Creeley in Spain who did the actual design and production. Creeley and Williams each included one book of their own and one book by Olson among their offerings. Even Turandot, published by a press in New York, received so little distribution that it did not disqualify Ashbery from later receiving the Yale Younger Poets Award given to writers for first books. Only 300 copies of the 23-page chapbook were printed, sewn with a label front cover and its own envelopedistributing the work must have even been harder since 1953 also saw the creation of the very first bookstore remotely capable of handling small press poetry, Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in San Francisco.
This burst of publications may well have included some historically important books examples of that 500-copy first edition In Cold Hell go for anywhere between $185 to $850 according to Abebooks.com, the rare book portal that includes some 6,500 dealers worldwide; the only copy of a first edition Turandot that is currently on the market is being offered for $5,000 by Curtis Faville of Compass Rose Books in Kensington, California. But the wave of 1953 did not transform the world immediately. In 1954, the year Random House published The Desert Music, the only volume brought out by any New American was Creeley's self-published short stories, The Gold Diggers. The famous reading at The Six Gallery would not take place until October 7, 1955. Of the poets who participated on that eveningPhilip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Phil Whalenonly Lamantia (who read the work of the late John Hoffman) had published a book by 1954.
This in some sense is the true desert of Williams' poem: one generation blasted away by time and war, its original social context entirely obliterated; a second generation that, in 1950, appears to have crashed and burned, or perhaps not to have taken off at all; a third generation still so tentative it is hard to tell whether or not Williams himself could see it beginning to take shape. It is worth noting here just how far away from Paterson places like San Francisco and Berkeley were in 1951. Williams did give a reading at Reed College on his western tour (where the students in attendance included Whalen and Snyder) as well as others at the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, UCLA and a bookstore in LA. But in San Francisco, there was no established venue for readingsWilliams' one event there was a dinner in his honor at Kenneth Rexroth's house. Indeed, in a city where for many years the leading poets had been Ina Coolbrith and George Sterling, the eastern poetry wars must have seemed obscure and distant. It is one index of Robert Duncan's enormous ambition that he immediately set out to become a poet on the world stage, coming from a region where the only figures with major national reputations were Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, both notable odd ducks. Nor did the younger poets find it a whole lot easier to construct communities. One of the things that jumps out from the biographies of New Americans that are just now emerging is how little real contact they had with one another, and how many of them met for the first time at the poetry conferences in Vancouver in '63 or Berkeley in '65. These distances could prove extreme and were sometimes even claimed as strategic: Jack Spicer refused to give copies of the magazines J and Open Space as well as publications of White Rabbit press to people whom he suspected might send them off to the East Coast.
It would be possible at this point to construct a reading of "The Desert Music" as an analogy for the literary world, noting the deliberate suppression of specific references to modernism beyond "Thinking of Paris," noting the deep ambiguity of the cloaked figure asleep or dead on the bridgebetween nations, between cultures, Williams not even certain of its gender, though it is clearly an image of himselfor the sharp juxtaposition of the desert portrayed as nature with civilization in the guise of a series of strip joints and cheap restaurants, the incessant music that drives both Williams the writer and Williams the narrator, never once identified, called variously music, the dance and even the verb, set repeatedly against the beaded tawdriness of particulars, not to mention the less-than-subtle transgression of penning a poem about a nude bar and begging children just over the border from the most remote city in the United States to read to the Harvard Assembly, rubbing it in with an extended description of a dancer that Williamsno Susie Bright hecharacterizes merely as "an old whore." All of this is no doubt true on some level, although one that strikes me ultimately as trivial when contrasted against the overwhelming sense of isolation and even despair that the poem projects:
Ashamed: what does it mean to write poetry in a world in which verse has no apparent value? In the poem, Williams responds to the question
The poem shifts abruptly at that moment, without further explanation, back into the frame tale of the walk, complete with a parody of the "Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou" sequence of the second section of "The Waste Land."
As this passage demonstrates, "The Desert Music" maps almost exactly to the same image of poetry as compulsive, involuntary behavior we will find ten years later in the writing of Jack Spicer: "If this is dictation, it is driving / Me wild." Spicer himself understood the connection, writing a sequence around 1959 entitled "A Red Wheelbarrow," whose title poem reads
Spicer is the Williams from hell. And knows it. If the despair of "The Desert Music" represents a specific moment in the career of William Carlos Williams, it is the sun and sky and soil to Spicer, who seems quite determined to convince us that no other universe could ever be the case. As Williams' parody of Eliot acknowledges, both poets echo the theme of "The Waste Land," tho not as a narrative of decline. Where both differ from Eliot, whom each used repeatedly as a straw man for all that is wrong with poetry, is that there is no suggestion in Williams' or Spicer's texts that the past was ever better. For them, the problem of meaning is absolute. Where they differ is in their attitude toward this situation. Williams may not find it comforting exactly, but he at least seeks an optimistic position. But it may well be Williams that Spicer is addressing when he writes, "You, who aren't very bright / Are a signal for them." As Creeley, in a similar vein, writes in "The Pattern":
Objectification is not to be escaped.
When, as a 16-year-old, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the dull yellow cover of the Random House edition of The Desert Music in the Albany Public Library nine years after publication, reading the last poem first and then checking out the book, it became instantly evident to me that I was going to beindeed, probably already was, without knowing ita poet. The title poem spoke very directly to that sense of adolescent isolation that is so central a part of the writing mind. It was, as I look back on it at a distance further from "The Desert Music" than that work is from The Tempers, Williams' first collection of neo-romantic lyrics of 1913, a most fortunate accident. It is not merely that in "The Desert" one can see forever or very nearly so, but rather that this poem stands as a remarkable testament to an important, if troubling, moment in literary historythat interregnum when modernism as such had ceased to exist and nothing else had as yet arrived. I should like to hope that if and when such a moment as that occurs again, I shall be paying attention.
1. The stroke was Williams' first.
9. A note on the arbitrariness of categories. Madeline Gleason, for example, is grouped among the New Americans because of her inclusion in the Allen anthology. Gleason's first book appeared before any appeared by Lorine Niedecker, an Objectivist by association. The two women were born the same year.
10. In a separate endeavor altogether, major league baseball
was so far removed from the West Coast that the Pacific Coast League
became something akin to a regional major league and it was not until
the success of Lefty O'Doul and the DiMaggio brothers that large numbers
of Pacific Leaguers were actually brought to the majors. The West Coast
did not get major league ball until 1958.
Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry: Third Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.
Creeley, Robert, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982.
Ellingham, Lewis and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Mariani, Paul, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Oppen, Mary, Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1978.
Reznikoff, Charles, The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1989.
Spicer, Jack, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975.
Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Earlier Poem. New York: New Directions, 1951.
_________, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1986.
_________, The Desert Music. New York: Random House, 1954.
_________, Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.
_________, Spring & All. Buffalo: Frontier Press, 1970.
Zukofsky, Louis, editor, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, vol. XXXVII, no. V, Chicago, February, 1931.
Also by Ron Silliman in EPR #4: A FOREST FOR...