William Carlos Williams did not achieve wide recognition until the late 1940s with the publication of the first volumes of his long poem Paterson. By then he was in his sixties and close to retiring from his medical practice. He continued to publish for another dozen years, his final volume, Pictures from Brueghel, winning him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1963. In the 1950s, and for some years following, Williams's later work was seen as his finest achievement, the culmination of a career that had begun in 1909. An alternate view that gradually gained supporters was that Paterson, especially the first four books, published between 1946 and 1951, showed Williams's work at its best. Both the late poetry and Paterson have certainly influenced subsequent poets, but in the past 25 years Spring and All, little noticed when it first appeared in the fall of 1923, and not available complete with the 27 poems and accompanying prose of the original volume for almost another 50 years, has received more and more attention and is, for many poets and critics, Williams's major achievement.
Although Williams's work appeared regularly in the leading avant-garde poetry magazines in New York, Chicago, London, and Paris after 1913, he had to publish his early poetry volumes wherever he could, and usually had to subsidize the cost. Before Spring and All he had published a small locally printed volume in 1909, The Tempers in 1913 in London through the help of Ezra Pound, and two volumes of poems and a book of prose improvisations with Edmund Brown's Four Seas Company in Boston. The books had barely sold at all, but in the early 1920s Williams had opportunities to publish in France thanks to the thriving expatriate community. Williams had very mixed feelings about the expatriates' migration, bitter that such artists had reneged, as he saw it, on the opportunity to develop the American art of international standard that New York in the years of the First World War seemed to promise. But, on the other hand, he was tempted in darker moments to escape the frustration and neglect that Ezra Pound warned him would continue to be his lot if he remained in New Jersey, and to join the exodus.
This tension between a nativist aesthetic and the opportunities provided by Europe, along with the challenge offered by European modernist achievement, is built in to the argument and the circumstances of publication of Spring and All. A volume arguing for a new beginning in American poetry, it was published in Paris in a limited edition of 300 copies. The publisher was Robert McAlmon, just a couple of years earlier Williams's collaborator on a poetry journal that they had co-founded to promote American writing before McAlmon joined the exodus to Paris. The journal's title, Contact, signified their commitment to the cause of US writing in the US, and gave the name to McAlmon's Paris publishing company.
Williams begins the book acknowledging that he is likely to have few readers: "If anything of moment results - so much the better. And so much the more likely will it be that no one will want to see it." Few did see it. When Ezra Pound, always an enthusiastic supporter of Williams's work, wanted to write an essay on his poetry a few years later, he had to ask his friend for a copy of the book: he had not seen it. Years later McAlmon lamented in his autobiography that many Contact books were impounded at US Customs and received very little circulation in the US or Europe.
Williams's opening sentence also indicates the book's interest in the visual and the visual arts ("no one will want to see it"), and in the immediacy ("anything of moment") that, for Williams, captured the nature of the poet's encounter with the object world before abstractions and intellectual constructs falsify the experience and compromise the moment. The book is dedicated to the American modernist painter Charles Demuth, whom Williams had met when in college, and the second poem in the book is based upon a Demuth painting that Williams owned. The book discusses a number of painters, most importantly American modernist Marsden Hartley, and the Spanish synthetic cubist Juan Gris, while many of the poems describe the act of perception, or are organized visually, moving, for example, from the sky downward to a fertile earth.
Part of Williams's strategy to make his readers see anew - for Williams this meant actually seeing the New World as new and not seeing it through a European, especially English, frame - involved the disruption of habit and expectation. He had experimented with techniques of disruption in the prose of Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), where sentences are unfinished, syntax takes off in unexpected directions, and the relationships between the improvisations and the supposed commentaries upon them are more open-ended than definitive. Williams's poetry operates in a similar way after about 1920. He rejected formal verse forms, and experimented with enjambment, rhythm, syntax, and stanza form to make the poem capture the immediacy and freshness of the landscape experienced without what Williams argued were the lazy preconceptions of history or adherence to the oppressive authority of Europe.
In Spring and All Williams brought these prose and poetry strategies together. In one of the prose sections of the volume he writes:
The virtue of the improvisations is their placement in a world of new values -their fault is their dislocation of sense, often complete. But it is the best I could do under the circumstances. It was the best I could do and retain any value to experience at all.
Now I have come to a different condition. I find that the values there discovered can be extended.
More than in any of Williams's earlier books, the poems in Spring and All fragment syntax, and their images and language take unexpected directions. Poem VIII begins:
The sunlight in a yellow plaque upon the varnished floor is full of a song inflated to fifty pounds pressure at the faucet of June that rings the triangle of the air
The poems deal with such central modernist material as cities, jazz, advertising, vaudeville, and sport. They can be read as a loosely defined sequence, although on the other hand some critics have argued that they are purposefully random. Expectations of continuity are disrupted early in the prose by various chapter headings out of sequence, with either roman or arabic numerals, and spurious references to other parts of the text. Meanwhile the poems are numbered consecutively (although the seventh has no number), but they do not have the titles which might give the reader a clue to their theme or content (Williams added titles when he published the poems separately from the prose).
In the prose, sentences sometimes break off in the middle of a thought, or, like the poems, midway take an unexpected direction in syntax, content, or often both. Thus the prose moves through a series of discussions and assertions about, in addition to modern painting, such topics as the relationship of poetry to prose, the relationship of nature to art, the role of what Williams called the "imagination," and the writing of Shakespeare and Marianne Moore. Sometimes the prose bears a direct relationship to a nearby poem, but usually the relationship is a more tangential one. The prose opens with an apocalyptic vision that either signifies where American culture and poetry are headed or has arrived, or clears the way for the new beginning, the new "spring" signified by the first poem's capturing of the moment when the first barely noticeable energies of the new season enter the landscape.
A number of times in the book Williams associates the disjunctions of the poems and prose with the idea of spontaneity and immediacy, and as far as the visual arts are concerned with the iconoclasm of Dada and the multiple perspectives of cubism. But his most extended discussion of a particular painting is of Juan Gris's synthetic cubist The Open Window. Williams praises Gris's ability to take "familiar, simple things," to "detach them from ordinary experience to the imagination," and yet keep them "recognizable as the things touched by the hands during the day." Thus in the first poem of the book, the landscape is that of recognizable New Jersey, the road that the poet is taking "to the contagious hospital" that is part of his routine as a doctor. The returning energies of spring that the poem celebrates are part of the region's regular change of seasons. But within this familiar scene the poem describes an entry into a "new world." The "new world" is on one level the poem itself, "rooted" like the marshland plants in its final stanza, in the neglected landscape that the poem celebrates.
This particular modernist version of the traditional opening celebrating spring offers a stark contrast to the resisted fertility that opens Eliot's Waste Land, which had appeared at the end of the previous year. This contrast, and such ironic comments in the prose as "If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot," have led some commentators to see the book as in part a response to the success of Eliot's poem and the triumph of international modernism that it represented - a success that Williams argued in subsequent years had set back the advance of American poetry by decades. A large part of Williams's late success in the 1950s, and of the subsequent attention given to this book, was that his work represented for many younger poets an alternative to the formalism that they associated with Eliot's dominance.
Many of Williams's best-known poems appear among the 27 in this book, and many focus on "recognizable" subjects. To cite the titles he added later, "The Red Wheelbarrow" concerns a neighbor's garden, "To Elsie" is about the Williams's retarded household maid, and "The Rose" seeks to remove from the familiar flower the symbolic baggage of countless love poems in order to look at it both as an actual flower and as a design. Unfortunately, these poems are usually printed as separate poems when anthologized, without any notice of their original context. The subsequent printing history of the book is in part to blame. Williams published some ofthe poems in a 1924 pamphlet, included a dozen in his mistitled 1934 Collected Poems 1921-1931, and 28 (adding a poem first included in the 1924 pamphlet) in his collected volumes of 1938 and 1951. But none of these volumes reprinted the prose. Williams regretted more than once that the full text was not in print.
The prose of Spring and All reappeared in print, in part, when J. Hillis Miller edited William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays in 1966. Hillis Miller's selection was a response to the increasing interest in the original volume, and itself furthered that interest. In 1970 Webster Schott edited Imaginations, a collection of Williams's earlier works and essays that had long been hard to find, and brought together for the first time since 1923 the poems and prose of Spring and All. In the same year James Breslin's influential study of Williams, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, made the case for the 1923 volume as Williams's work at its best, an opinion that has increasingly found supporters.
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