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"And everyone and I stopped breathing": William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and the news of the day in verse.

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

--William Carlos Williams "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

The above line from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" expresses Williams's belief in the purpose and potential power of poetry. Living in industrialized northern New Jersey, Williams witnessed America's many problems and believed he could provide the poetic prescription--"the news"--needed to improve its condition. On the other side of the river, the younger poet Frank O'Hara was also interested in the news and sought to incorporate it into his verse, yet O'Hara does not seem to place the same high cost on its redeeming social value. "But how can you really care if anybody gets it," O'Hara writes in his mock manifesto "Personism" (1959), "or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?" (498). Although the Rutherford physician greatly influenced him, O'Hara conceives of the news and its function in poetry differently than does Williams. For Williams, the news is not composed of the popular stories of the day but rather the "beautiful"--often overlooked--things in his locale. In contrast, the younger O'Hara embraces the Pop element and culture of celebrity in his poetry. He seeks to supplement celebrity news--the collapse of Lana Turner, the beating of Miles Davis, the death of Billie Holiday--with his own unique representation of its relevance and connection to daily life.

In his Autobiography, Williams poses the following question: "What is the use of reading the common news of the day, the tragic deaths and abuses of daily living, when for over half a lifetime we have known that they must have occurred just as they occurred given the conditions that cause them?" (360). He laments that this news is nothing more than "trivial fill gap." In contrast, he discusses how his work as a physician enables him to discover something much deeper: "the hunted news I get from some obscure patients' eyes is not trivial. It is profound" (360). According to Williams, such news reveals "a new, a more profound language," a language that he calls "poetry" (361). For Williams, the roles of doctor and poet complement one another--"they are two parts of a whole" (359).

Throughout Williams's poetry you see such "hunted news" take precedence over the popular news of the day. His "Complaint" offers such a newsworthy moment. The poem begins matter-of-factly: "They call me and I go" (Collected Poems 1). (1) Immediately the speaker leaves his home "past midnight" and drives across a "frozen road" to tend to a patient. The tone indicates no sense of emergency, no sense of anger or excitement. Rather the speaker responds reflexively--he is needed, so he goes. Despite his presence as an outsider, he holds a privileged place in this home because of his role as physician. Trying to "shake off the cold" (8), which covers his whole being, he sees a "great woman" in discomfort (9), "sick" (11) and, as he remarks, "perhaps laboring / to give birth to / a tenth child" (13-15). Both the woman and the doctor have gone through the process numerous times. Yet this "great figure" needs more than a mechanical response from him. Night turns into dawn and "through the jalousies the sun / has sent one gold needle!" (18-19). The appearance of light parallels the doctor's emergence beyond the rote: "I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery / with compassion" (20-22). The poem thus concludes with an extraordinary moment when the outsider casts aside his coldness and performs an act of intimate human contact. For Williams, the news of his day misses such a story. After all, it lacks the sensationalism necessary to capture readers' interest. For Williams, the poet must discover this type of news and represent it in all its profundity.

In "Portrait of a Woman in Bed," Williams represents another incident that appears unremarkable, but upon closer examination reveals the extraordinary. He does so by recreating the voice of Robitza, a poor Polish woman in need of medical attention. With her clothes "drying in the corner" (2), Robitza presents herself in a provocative manner to a landlord looking to evict her:
   Lift the covers if you want me and you'll see the rest of my
   clothes--(6-9)


From the start, Robitza dominates the poem. She refuses to bend to this man and the traditional American notions of hard work and "penny" saving:
   I won't work and I've got no cash. What are you going to do about
   it? (12-15)


Not only does she refuse to work and make money, she issues a challenge to the landlord. She claims possession of the house simply because, as she states, "I need it" (40). Her street-wise attitude baffles the landlord and leaves him speechless.

Robitza sees limited possibilities for herself in America. When the doctor asked about the welfare of her boys, she refuses to provide for them. Instead, she places the boys' welfare amid the same societal forces--good and bad--that determine her fate:
   Let the rich lady care for them--they'll beat the school or let them
   go to the gutter--that ends the trouble. (31-36)


Meanwhile, Robitza calls the county physician, presumably a man like Williams, a "damned fool" (49), and she tells the landlord to "go to hell!" (51). This virulent reaction makes known her belief that this man has treated her poorly.
   You could have closed the door when you came in; do it when you go
   out. I'm tired. (52-55)


Robitza's curt dismissal and command to close the door ultimately displays her power. In fact, since her voice is the only one heard, she has, in a way, dominated him. "Williams presents," according to Barry Ahearn, "a woman of the social class without resort to cliche or stereotyped form" (25). Although this point is debatable, such a poem marks Williams's capacity to discover the newsworthy quality in his subject. He moves beyond the surface to represent a poor woman who in her own voice--that "profound language"--reveals the unspoken limitations of the American Dream.

As a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Frank O'Hara obviously did not access the news in the same way as did Williams. He failed to walk the back streets of northern New Jersey or enter the "secret gardens" of working class patients. He lived in the city and wrote about its hurried streets and people. Instead of foregoing the popular news items of the day, O'Hara parodies Williams and incorporates these headlines into his verse. Yet through this approach, he still manages to express the profundity Williams demanded.

Despite his different approach to the news, O'Hara enjoyed Williams's poetry. In "Personism," he declares Williams to be the only living American poet better than the movies. All phases of Williams's work appealed to O'Hara. In a July 1959 letter to his friend Jasper Johns, he writes, "You said you liked PATERSON; all the books of WCW have great great great things in them. I don't believe he ever wrote an uninteresting poem; the prose poems KORA IN HELL have recently been reprinted and are very good, interesting because very early and ambitious" (qtd. in Perloff 45). O'Hara's comment to Johns is very telling--in particular, mentioning the improvisational prose poem Kora in Hell shows his attraction to Williams's experiments with form and language. As Marjorie Perloff points out, this work, along with Williams's early short poems, influenced O'Hara, specifically in regard to his use of short lines, line breaks, and colloquial language (45).

Although Williams certainly influenced the younger poet, O'Hara refused to mimic or imitate, to become merely another one of what he calls the "WC Williams-ites" (Perloff 45). In his poem "To a Poet," with its echo of "The Wanderer" and Williams's "rococo self," O'Hara reverses Williams's well-known phrase from Paterson--"No ideas but in things": "and when the doctor comes to / me he says 'No things but in ideas'" (20-21). O'Hara certainly focuses on the "things" of his locale, but he does so from a different perspective. His poems, particularly those of the "I do this, I do that" variety, offer a panoramic view of the objects he encounters. James Breslin identifies this central distinction between O'Hara and Williams:

Williams slows us down and concentrates our attention on both the object and the words representing it; his poems present isolated images arrested in an empty space. The object has been lifted out of the temporal flux and preserved in 'eternal moment.' But O'Hara's observations are not grasped and eternalized in this way.... What is preserved in O'Hara is precisely this fleeting, ever-changing experience of temporal process itself. (218)

In contrast to the observer in Williams's poems, who at times appears to be apart from the scene he describes, O'Hara's speaker remains both apart from and a part of the streets he writes about. Instead of privileging one object or thing over another, as Williams tends to do in his short poems, O'Hara seems intent on being as inclusive as possible in recounting the differing objects that make up his world.

Part of what appealed to O'Hara was Williams's repeated exploration of the shifting boundaries between prose and verse. Williams's most expansive exploration of this relationship appears in his long poem Paterson, which uses a collage technique juxtaposing various forms of writing. Williams even uses excerpts from old newspapers. In Book III, "The Library," the central figure of Paterson comments upon these newspapers:
      Old newspaper files, to find--a child burned in a field no
   language. Tried, aflame, to crawl under a fence to go home. So be it.
   Two others, boy and girl, clasped in each other's arms (clasped also
   by the water) So be it. Drowned wordless in the canal. So be it. The
   Paterson Cricket Club, 1896. A woman lobbyist. So be it. Two local
   millionaires--moved away.

      The mind reels, starts back amazed from the reading. So be it.
   (page 98)


According to Mike Weaver, Williams excerpts articles from the 1936 edition of The Prospector (209). The lines reference the disturbing and mundane and expose the inadequacy of language. Williams punctuates the stories and the failures with the authoritative repetition of the line "So be it." These lines dramatically affect the central figure of Paterson and literally leave him reeling from Garrett Mountain into the Library.

Although Paterson would no doubt offer a rewarding point of exploration, Williams's short poems provide a sharper connection to O'Hara and the news. These poems offered O'Hara and others a modern example of making poetry out of the sounds and images of the streets. While some of Williams's poems, like "Impromptu: The Suckers" and "The Wanderer," do relate to the major news headlines of his day--the former references the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the latter the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike--Williams appears much more interested in revealing the news rather than responding to it. "The objective in writing is," as Williams writes in his later essay "Revelation," "to reveal. It is not to teach, not to advertise, not to sell, not even to communicate (for that needs two) but to reveal, which needs no other than the man himself" (Selected Essays 268).

The news Williams reveals emerges from his contact with the locale. For example, in his early poem "Pastoral," Williams walks the "back streets" of the very poor and discovers the poetry available to him in the things that surround him. In the slums of the lower class, he admires the
   roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken
   wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of
   barrel-staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a
   bluish green.... (8-16)


Williams's perception of the things that constitute these "back streets" results in a unique aesthetic pleasure. He uses short unrhymed lines and colloquial phrases like "furniture gone wrong" to portray the distinct voice of this locale. "Unconsciously," Williams admits in Collected Poems, "I was playing with the form of the line, and getting into the American idiom" (481). Williams's closing comment--"No one / will believe this / of vast import to the nation" (20-22)--is a bit heavy-handed. His poem does reveal the news of the day, yet he constructs its cultural relevance for the reader. In this way, Williams does not merely present the news of the day in his verse but editorializes for his readers about the importance of America's "back streets."

In Spring and All, Williams explains the type of reality he is looking for in modern poetry. He claims art "must be real, not 'realism' but reality itself--." (2) What he is looking for in art is a sense of "actuality." Soon after this prose commentary, Williams presents two poems, including poem XI ("In passing with my mind"). As the poem begins, the speaker seems apart from his concrete world: "In passing with my mind / on nothing in the world" (1-2). He also enjoys a privileged place on the road--"the right of way." In this privileged position he observes three figures: an "elderly man," "a woman in blue," and "a boy of eight" (7, 10, 15). The three awkwardly encounter each other on the street: the man "smiled and looked away / to the north past a house" (8-9); the woman "was laughing and / leaning forward" (11-12); and the boy was "looking at the middle of / the man's belly" focused on a "watchchain" (16-18) The speaker mysteriously comments upon "The supreme importance / of this nameless spectacle," which leaves him speechless (19-20). He refuses to elucidate the supreme importance of this scene. "[I]n the condition of imaginative suspense," Williams writes in Spring and All, "only will the writing have reality.... Not to attempt ... to set values on the word being used, according to presupposed measures, but to write down that which happens at that time"(Collected Poems 206). The meaning is not constructed, but rather recreated. Following his contact with this scene, the speaker questions his purpose--"Why bother where I went?" (23). He continues over the wet road, "spinning" like the "four wheels" of his automobile until he is arrested by the next image on the streets--a "girl with one leg / over the rail of a balcony" (27-28). All of these things come together to form the unique moment that attracts the poet's imagination and enlarges what Williams describes as "the sympathies and the unity of understanding" (Collected Poems 206). Such an approach advances beyond earlier works like "Pastoral" that attempt to construct a cultural meaning of the news. He moves beyond an account of "humdrum" facts and re-creates the moment for the reader's imagination. For Williams, such "creative energy" is "the beginning of art" (Imaginations 200-201).

Whereas Williams reveals the news of his day, O'Hara uses actual news headlines in his verse to transcend the temporal and to forge a deeper, universal connection. Like Williams, O'Hara seeks to reveal "things" in his poetry. In contrast to Williams's view of revelation as a sharply focused act, however, O'Hara uses his verse as a personal connection to his reader. He describes his approach this way:

It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. (499)

Despite his humor here, O'Hara emphasizes language's importance in conveying a momentary experience. "O'Hara believed," according to Neal Bowers, "that language could render the moment incandescent.... [F]or O'Hara, the city was profoundly important in and of itself at the very moment he was experiencing it" (327). O'Hara's "I" is very much a part of the poem. Not only is this true in terms of his observation, but also in terms of his interaction with his surroundings.

Newsmakers repeatedly surface throughout O'Hara's poetry. For example, the death of the famed actor James Dean resulted in several elegies. In one of his tributes called "Four Little Elegies," O'Hara actually uses the obituary format for "OBIT Dean, September 30, 1955." Unlike a standard newspaper obituary, however, the poem invokes Carole Lombard as a goddess figure and asks her to be "good" to the young actor (Gooch 266). He then goes on to describe the life of the young star:
   Although he acted first on Broadway in See the Jaguar, is perhaps
   best known for films in which he starred: East of Eden, Rebel without
   a Cause and Giant. In the first of these he rocketed to stardom,
   playing himself and us "a brooding, inarticulate adolescent."
   (10-17) (3)


Much like an obituary, O'Hara lists Dean's achievements and ambitions, including his desire "to be a writer." In the final stanza, O'Hara again directly addresses Lombard, hoping Dean will find someone to love him "up there." He closes in standard obituary fashion: "He's / survived by all of us, and so are you" (54-55). Obviously, Dean's death impacts him tremendously. As O'Hara notes and history attests, the memory of Dean also resonates with generations of cinematic fans--he remains the ever-popular "Rebel without a Cause." It should be noted that O'Hara's tributes to Dean resulted in a "small controversy" among those who found the actor unworthy of poetic treatment (Gooch 268). Yet this moment has artistic significance. His depiction of Dean as a "tragic lyric figure," according to his biographer Brad Gooch, introduces a "Pop element into poetry" (269). Not only does O'Hara's poetic obituary inform us about a Pop icon like Dean, it uses this icon to forge a communal connection and convey a sense of life's temporality to his readers.

In "Poem" (Lana Turner has collapsed!), O'Hara does something a little different. He takes a literal headline and makes it the occasion for a poem. According to Gooch, O'Hara wrote the poem while on his way to a reading at Wagner College in Staten Island (386). As usual, the speaker of the poem is in a hurry: "I was trotting along and suddenly / it started raining and snowing" (2-3). Along with the messy weather report, O'Hara recounts the equally messy traffic conditions (the two always seem to go hand-and-hand). In the tumult of these conditions, he gets the news about Turner--"LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!" Immediately, the speaker contrasts his present weather with Hollywood, California--"no snow ... no rain" (12-13). He admits his own "disgraceful" behavior at "lots of parties." Yet he proudly exclaims, he "never actually collapsed" (16). In a mock dramatic tone, he implores the fallen film star to get up: "oh Lana Turner we love you get up" (17). Such a poem illustrates O'Hara's parody of the news--his use of celebrity gossip as a way of camping up the older Williams. The poem's popularity also shows his ability to use an eye-catching headline about a cultural icon to connect with his audience. Unlike the star, the poet (like his listeners) keeps trotting along, despite poor conditions.

"Personal Poem" uses a more disturbing news story--the police beating of Miles Davis in 1959. "The harassment of a major jazz musician," according to David Lehman, "was one piece of front-page news that has stayed news through O'Hara's poetry" (196). In the poem, O'Hara recounts the sights, thoughts, and sensations during one of his lunchtime walks. He meets his friend, the poet LeRoi Jones, at Moriarty's, a bar and grill on Sixth Avenue. Jones enters the bar with some shocking news: "Leroi comes in / and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12 / times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop" (18-20). Davis, who reportedly received five stitches to his scalp, was first accused of attacking the patrolman. After he was acquitted, it was found that the patrolman "may well have been guilty of misguided zeal" ("Trumpeter Cleared"). O'Hara, however, recounts this news item in the same pace and rhythm of their subsequent topics of conversation: who they like--Don Allen and Herman Melville--and who they don't like--Lionel Trilling and Henry James. Yet Jones's delivery of the news about Davis is shocking. As Marjorie Perloff points out, such an incident was "terrifying news for the gay speaker, as well as for his black friend, given the raids on gay bars so frequent in these years" (xvi). O'Hara's understated handling of this news ironically stands out amid his other lunchtime conversation. So does his handshake--"I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi" . In this gesture of friendship and solidarity, the black poet and the gay white poet stand out--or should stand out, according to O'Hara--against the injustices of the era.

Like Williams before him, O'Hara creates a poetry very much in tune with the pace and rhythm of the streets. His imaginative contact with what he sees and hears expresses the language of the day. Williams describes just such a process in Kora in Hell:

That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are talking in our day's-affairs mingles with what we see in the streets and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations. By this chemistry is fabricated a language of the day which shifts and reveals its meaning as clouds shift and turn in the sky and sometimes send down rain or snow or hail. This is the language to which few ears are tuned.... Nowadays the elements of that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the listener and of the poet are left free to mingle in the dance. (Imaginations 59)

Like a great beat reporter, each of these men understands the workings of his particular streets--each knows where to go for the story and, as gifted poets they know how to express it in the language of their day. Time and again their verse enables the reader to experience the very flow of life on these streets.

In "The Day Lady Died," for instance, O'Hara offers readers an imaginative poetic record of life on the streets of Manhattan. The poem's unforgettable opening fixes us in a specific time and place: "It is 12:20 in New York a Friday / three days after Bastille day, yes / it is 1959 " (1-3). With the time and place set, we then enter into the rapid pace of the speaker's lunchtime world. He is a busy man--off to get a shoeshine and later to catch a train out of the city. He recounts what seem like fairly mundane activities: the hamburger and malted he purchases, the visit to the bank, and the "stroll into the PARK LANE / Liquor Store" (20-21). "The rapidity of reporting," as John Lowney asserts, "emphasized through paratactic syntax, constant enjambment, and minimal punctuation, precludes attention to detail" (258). Yet, through these details we understand the speaker's tastes and the world he inhabits. Offhandedly he remarks that he buys an "ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days" (9-10). He also goes to the GOLDEN GRIFFIN to "get a little Verlaine / for Patsy" (14-15). While shopping in the liquor store, his taste comes through again with his purchase of "a carton of Gauloises and a carton / of Picayunes" (24-25). "The names in O'Hara's poetry are not only autobiographical markers," David Lehman reminds us, "chronicling his taste and sensibility, but also a form of news and cultural commentary" (183).

In the liquor store--just one of several stops on this Friday lunchtime excursion--he first gets the news from a "NEW YORK POST with her face on it." The city newspaper thus plays the pivotal role of informing the poet about Billie Holiday's death. He then supplements this news by juxtaposing his immediate response with a memory:
   and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of leaning on the john
   door in the 5 SPOT while she whispered a song along the keyboard to
   Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (26-29)


Once again, O'Hara draws us into his particular moment. He brings his past memory into the present shared experience. The earlier rapid pace of the poem slows down significantly, and O'Hara connects us all through breath to the moment when "everyone and I stopped breathing." In this way O'Hara transcribes the news of his day into news for all days, not solely about Billie Holiday's death, but the potential of her song / his poetry to connect us all in the moment. The poem epitomizes Williams's comment on artistic creation in Spring and All. "[T]he artist does exactly what every eye must do with life," Williams explains, "fix the particular with the universality of his own personality--Taught by the largeness of his imagination to feel every form which he sees moving within himself, he must prove the truth of this by expression" (Collected Poems 193). O'Hara brings this idea to life. His particular perceptions and thoughts during a lunch hour connect those beyond his immediate experience to that Friday afternoon. He offers the reader a chance to, as Williams says in Kora in Hell, "mingle in the dance" of the imagination.

Although the range of artistry by both poets extends beyond these narrow limits, this discussion reveals that there are some striking similarities between both: their technique, their exploration of the everyday sights and sounds of the modern world, and their imaginative contact with their locales to express the language of the day. As well, there are some important distinctions: their differing conceptions of the news in poetry, and their differing treatment of the "things" that appear in their verse. I opened with several famous lines about the news from Williams's poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Not surprisingly, O'Hara anxiously anticipated this very poem. He told his friend Mike Goldberg that if it were not "great" he would "take up knitting" (qtd. in Perloff 205). O'Hara never did seem to take up knitting, but he did, like Williams, manage to reveal the news of the day through verse.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Williams's poetry will refer to line numbers from Collected Poems, volume 1.

(2) Spring and All is included in Williams's Collected Poems, and all line and page numbers refer to CP.

(3) All citations of O'Hara's poetry refer to line numbers from The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara.

WORKS CITED

Ahearn, Barry. "The Poet as Social Worker." William Carlos Williams Review 19.1-2 (1993): 15-32.

Bowers, Neal. "The City Limits: Frank O'Hara's Poetry." Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 321-333.

Breslin, James. From Modern to Contemporary American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Lehman, David. The Last Avant-garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Lowney, John. "The 'Post-Anti-esthetic' Poetics of Frank O'Hara." Contemporary Literature 32.2 (1991): 244-264.

O'Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

"Trumpeter Cleared of Police Assault." New York Times 12 Jan. 1960: 8.

Weaver, Mike. William Carlos Williams: The American Background. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1967.

--. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1986. 2 vols. 1986-1988.

--. Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions, 1971.

--. Paterson. Rev. ed. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1992.

--. The Selected Essays. 1954. New York: New Directions, 1969.

PAUL R. CAPPUCCI is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgian Court College in Lakewood, New Jersey. He has recently published a book with Edwin Mellen Press entitled William Carlos Williams's Poetic Response to the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike.
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Date:Sep 22, 2003
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