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#207: "I COME, MY SWEET, TO SING TO YOU."

#207: “I COME, MY SWEET, TO SING TO YOU. Beware of culminations! For decades one of my very favorite books has been Pictures from Brueghel, the last collection of poems by William Carlos Williams, published in 1962 by New Directions and which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a few months after Williams’s death. It has been a bedside book for me, read to tatters, and I’ve rather allowed it to deflect my interest from the rest of Williams’s verse. Having just run across the 2004 Selected Poems, edited by Robert Pinsky in the American Poets Project for the Library of America, has reinstated Williams for me as one of our very great poets, and extended my sense of the qualities of his work. I was reminded how, like Yeats, he wrote wonderful poems throughout his career, so many of which have their wonderful say without any gaudy show or pretense. I was reminded how passionately he took on both the idiom and the subject of America. In this vein it’s worth remembering that he spoke Spanish in the home until adolescence and was Caribbean in acculturation; he was educated in Geneva and Paris and later in Leipzig, and translated from Spanish and French; Williams had no problem with the mongrel quality of being American, and no sense that it had to limit your voice. His Americanism had no taint of the jingo: to this day no more chilling lines about our country have been written than those from Spring and All, which begin “The pure products of America / go crazy,” and end, “No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.” I was reminded how tough Williams was and how compassionate, both no doubt from his years of doctoring, of the poems that do not turn away from the dead baby, the raper, (“It’s the foulness of it / can’t be cured.”), the old lady saying “I can’t die / I can’t die,” none of these diminished or wrapped nicely in Victorian moralisms. But what I was most strongly reminded of was that Williams was one of our great visionaries, seeing the numinous in cats and fire trucks and the motley and immigrant people of Rutherford, the man in a soiled undershirt, the moon tilted above the point of the steeple, the sea-elephant (“Blouaugh!”), his grandson’s turtle, who turns into a rampaging giant, “destroying all / with his sharp beak,” and, in Pictures from Brueghel, a sparrow, evoked in all its practicality and “general truculence” and with a pathos finally worthy of the Greeks. All with the vividness he learned from the Imagists and transcended, all done without the convolutions and mythology that keep Blake sealed away from all but the most determined. As with Whitman and Dickinson, I want to say here, America, is what we can do, which Williams knew we would resist: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And yet, wonderfully: “Of asphodel, that greeny flower…./ I come, my sweet, / to sing to you.”


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