Lisa M Steinman

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There are many fruitful ways to approach Spring and All. I want here to start with its historical and textual beginnings. The book was published in Paris by Robert McAlmon's Contact Publishing Company after William Carlos Williams failed to find an American publisher. It was a landmark year for modernist writing by Americans: T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land appeared late in 1922; 1923 saw the publication of Wallace Stevens's Harmonium and Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, along with two books by Williams: Spring and All and The Great American Novel. Marianne Moore's Observations would appear by 1924. Although much of Spring and All was written before Williams could have read Eliot's much-touted poem, their poems appeared only seven months apart in The Dial, and Williams can be seen to be responding to Eliot when he writes in Spring and All: 'If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot' (Weaver, 1971, p. 44; Williams, Collected Poems, 1986 [hereafter, CP], p. 179). Injunctions to 'imagine the New World' and announcements that 'we the people of the United States are going to Europe armed to kill' (CP, p. 178) make clear Spring and All's engagement and identification with American national culture and resistance to the kind of erudition of which Williams disapproved in Eliot's work.

As Williams would write in his Autobiography, 'Eliot returned us to the classroom' (Williams, 1951, p. 174). Spring and All is unequivocal about 'the academic tapeworm [that] hoard[s] its excrementa in books' (CP, p. 215), parodied in Williams's proclamation that the re-creation of the world 'begins to near a new day. (More of this in Chapter XIX)' (CP, p. 181), or his image of his book as 'notes jotted down in the midst of the action, under distracting circumstance — to remind [him]self (see p. 177, paragraph 6) of the truth' (CP, p. 186). The scholarly notes clearly defer and interrupt the very renewal of which the book speaks, making truth always memory or pro-lepsis, but never present. Williams's spring is thus deliberately set against Eliot's April. By implication, Spring and All will not look to the past, but will be a New World presence, albeit one Williams suggests will not be warmly received.

The first sentences of the book read: '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' (CP, p. 177). Throughout, Williams returns to the concept of the 'immediate', the 'moment' and 'the present', making clear that there is a pun in that first sentence, which introduces a quest for something 'of moment' in the sense of being a fleeting, living practice - 'notes jotted down in the midst of the action' - rather than in the sense of being important or consequential. Yet a defensiveness about how the public generally dismissed poetry ('no one will want to see it') also runs throughout, a somewhat different response to Eliot - and to the modernists among whom Williams placed himself. Williams's challenge to Eliot is edgy in part because his American spring is not finally (or perhaps not historically) so different from other wastelands: just two years earlier, in an editorial comment for the journal Contact, on which he worked with McAlmon, Williams had written of 'the ignorance which has made America an artistic desert' (Williams, 1954, p. 29).

There is a further, if an anticipated, irony in Williams's association of the United States with the site of his new poetics, when the book had little company and less circulation in the land where he lived. In fact, it had little circulation anywhere, with only three hundred copies printed, most of which were not distributed. There was only one review of any length, in Poetry, and that reviewer (Marjorie Allen Seiffert) found the poetry, as opposed to the prose, difficult. The voice that in Poem XXV proclaims 'To hell with you and your poetry' is identifiably American, even without Williams's late (1950s) comment to John C. Thirlwall explaining that he was interested in 'a presentation of the language as it actually is used' (CP, pp. 231, 505). Obviously, Williams's use of an American language does not entail accepting the typical American's evaluation of art. The popular dismissal of modernist poetry and art in America is further underlined by the later publishing history of the volume, from which the poems were extracted (by Williams himself), and not restored to their context in the full volume until 1970. As Burton Hatlen has nicely pointed out, when Williams reprinted the poems from the volume for circulation in the United States, he not only extracted what his audience could read as poems (rather than the more avant-garde mixture of prose and poetry that forms the 1923 text), he also added final punctuation to the poems, with the effect of offering closed, more traditional, poetic structures to his local readers, suggesting that openness is not, in terms of any historical readership, a characteristic American aesthetic, images of the New World notwithstanding (Hatlen, 1994).

However, in his consideration of poetry's place in modern America, Williams's eye is not only on Eliot, but also on modernist experiments in the visual arts: the book is dedicated to the American artist Charles Demuth; it mentions the work of Paul Cézanne and Juan Gris; it refers readers to the painter Marsden Hartley's chapter on Dada in the 1921 Adventures in the Arts (the one cross-reference that is not obviously ironic) in the penultimate prose paragraph; and it is indebted to Dadaism with its opening destruction of the world, its typographical experimentation, and its arrangement of the prose sections of the book in chapters that are not numbered sequentially

(the first subheading we meet is, for instance, 'chapter 19'). Williams may attempt to resist European culture, but he also invokes and emulates it. The opening destruction of the world, read in this context, is no declaration of independence at all, but a clear echo of Dadaist (and Futurist) iconoclasm; its repetition of European avant-garde gestures, a 'perfect plagiarism' (CP, p. 181). The references to plagiarism and the repetitious manner in which the prose keeps announcing the destruction of the world and the intimations of spring approaching (over and over) indicate Williams's self-consciousness about not only the ways in which iconoclastic gestures themselves can become icons - domesticated or codified, imaged as 'the handcuffs of "art" ' (CP, p. 185, see pp. 181, 235) - but also about his debts to European modernist movements. When it dismisses ideas of art as 'the beautiful illusion' (CP, p. 178, see pp. 194, 199), or renounces art that seeks 'refuge in fantasy' (CP, p. 177) - or when it more positively appeals to art as 'design' (CP, pp. 186, 188, 209), or 'vitality' (CP, p. 188), defining poetry as not '"like" life' (CP, p. 215), but 'its own reality' (CP, p. 235) -Williams's book becomes as much an uneasy tribute to a transnational avant-garde as an American artistic revolution. At least, Williams posits a less geographically or temporally rooted search for, as he puts it, ' "something" [found] in the [best] writing' (CP, p. 230).

The status of Spring and All's central 'something' (the spring, truth or presence to which Williams lays claim) and the definition of what, precisely, poetry makes present, is not easily described, as J. Hillis Miller, Marjorie Perloff and Terence Diggory, among others (including Williams himself) have pointed out. The nature of Williams's claims - even whether they are at heart ethical or epistemological or onto-logical claims for art - is a subject of continued debate. Yet most critics agree that Williams's poetics are related to his knowledge of modern painters, especially in those passages where he insists that what Spring and All has to offer is linguistic, a reference neither to the world of nature nor to some realm beyond the page. As the book puts it, 'writing deals with words and words only' (CP, p. 231), a point underlined when we are told: 'Meanwhile, SPRING, which has been approaching for several pages, is at last here' (CP, p. 186, emphasis added). We are also told: 'In imagination, we are henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader' (CP, p. 178). 'So long as you read' similarly emphasizes the reader's engagement with words on a page; the motion or activity in question is that of our eyes, reading 'the word . . . not as a symbol of nature but a part" (CP, p. 189).

Such critiques of representation draw on Williams's understanding of Cubist practices in particular. Specifically, he cites Juan Gris on the need for art to 'be real, not "realism" but reality itself - ... It is not a matter of "representation" - . . . but of separate existence' (CP, p. 204). However, precisely how to read Spring and All's poems as linguistic artefacts, comparable to Cubist collage, is puzzling. The first poem a reader encounters does attempt a new poetic language for an old topic, spring. But in what way is Willams's 'spring' language as such, rather than being symbolic or representational? One could answer this question, as John Lowney does, by noticing that the enjambments and lack of punctuation in Poem I involve constant shifts in subject position, one way of enacting empirical examination and clarity of vision in a renamed 'new world naked', using language largely stripped of its conventional associations (Lowney, 1997, pp. 62—4). Or one could look at how Henry Sayre more specifically links Williams's spring with Dadaism, noting both the rhetoric of renewal and rebirth used by the visual artists and the actual season — spring — in which the Armory Show, the American Independents Exhibition in which Williams participated (and to which Marcel Duchamp submitted his famous urinal), and the inaugural issues of a number of avant-garde magazines appeared (Sayre, 1984, pp. 16—17). Yet both readings depend in part on reading spring as representational; indeed, as Lowney concludes, the contagious hospital of Poem I is a New World (and thus metaphoric) equivalent of Eliot's wasteland. This is not to dismiss such readings, but to point out that the poems present themselves as both the new linguistic world of Spring and All and as images of the historical world of 1923.

Poems VI to VIII present similar difficulties when read in light of the claims Spring and All makes about poems as objects made of words. Poem VIII ('At the Faucet of June'), for instance, finds spring — most obviously a figure for renewal and creativity — in the stuff of American modernity (tires, faucets or steel). The poem also translates the rape of classical figures for spring, Persephone or Kora, into the rape of art by American business and industry, in the figure of J. Pierpont Morgan, who solve[s] the core of whirling flywheels by cutting the Gordian knot with a Veronese or perhaps a Rubens —

Williams offers J. Pierpont Morgan's art collecting as an example of Gilded Age wealth used to collect 'art' as trophy; in the poem, Morgan neither supports living art (and artists) nor solves the difficulties of how to value modernity (flywheels, with 'core' containing perhaps a slight punning reference to the Corliss engine as well as to the Latin 'Kora'). Morgan instead turns to a European art of the past, art already commodified and codified. Against this kind of art collecting and perhaps against the poem's own reliance on classical myth, Williams then calls attention to language freed from 'demoded words and shapes' (CP, p. 188), recasting 'son' (Morgan's industrialist son) as 'song' 'leaving off the g' (CP, p. 197), much the way Poem VI (after a note on how difficult it is to resist 'the old mode') proclaims 'I have done / nothing' and then recasts its proclamation as the diphthong ae together with the first person singular indicative of the auxiliary verb so that one must understand the phrase 'I have done nothing' as syntax, mood (indicative), tense and sound, not reference. Critics like Marjorie Perloff and Henry Sayre have read the thirteenth and seventh poems similarly (Perloff, 1981, pp. 125—9; Sayre, 1984, pp. 19-20). The latter begins:

The rose is obsolete but each petal ends in an edge, the double facet cementing the grooved columns of air — The edge cuts without cutting

Williams takes Cubism — and presumably Gertrude Stein — to 'engage roses', not through 'obsolete' literary or iconographic associations, not even as an ekphrastic replaying of Gris's or Demuth's Cubist or Precisionist flowers, but as a model for his production of a Cubist poem. On this view, 'The Rose' is not about botanical roses; its structure (dashes and line breaks, sentence fragments, oxymoron) is the object of our attention. The poem's meaning is its spatial and material arrangements. Or so Williams's invitations to us to take the language of poems as words, lifted out of context, equivalent to Cubist collage, would lead us to say.

In the prose just before and just after 'The Rose' Williams alludes specifically to Gris's painting 'Open Window', which he would have seen reproduced in the January 1922 issue of Broom (Sayre, 1979). His uses of the painters, moreover, are as often through their theories and rhetoric as through their art. Thus, he also refers his readers to Marsden Hartley's comment on a poem by Francis Picabia, where Hartley writes that Picabia's Dadaist litany 'is too edifying for proper expression. It is like a window opened upon a wide cool place where all parts of one's exhausted being may receive the kind of air that is imperative to it' (Hartley, 1921, p. 250). Drawing on Gris's and Hartley's open windows, Spring and All implies that the place to which poems lead us is not the historical world, although it is worth noting that Hartley's figure has art represent an opening to something off the canvas or page.

Similarly, in Spring and All the poems and especially the prose consistently refer us elsewhere: to what generates or is unleashed by the poems — 'imagination [as] an actual force comparable to electricity or steam' (CP, p. 207) — to the historical world of both politics and artistic manifestos, to Williams's position as a modernist in a culture of Morgans and hostile readers. We might, then, attempt to answer the question of how poems can be only words and also be representations of the world by reading the larger structure of Spring and All - its mixture of prose and poetry - as an enactment of just this relationship between poems and world. After Poem I the volume no longer numbers the prose 'chapters', but lets the poetry run into the following prose (only the second poem has a final punctuation mark), while the poems are consecutively numbered. The prose, then, at first seems to figure that from which the clarity or crystallization of the poetry arises; the consecutively numbered poems seem illustrations of the prose statement that 'every flake of truth [is] . . . numbered' (CP, p. 199). The figure of 'isolate flecks [where] / something / is given off' (CP, p. 219) is repeated with variations throughout the book, as when Williams speaks of life as 'a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration, when a poem . . . appear[s]' (CP, p. 203). Again, the image is of spring, Persephone, released from the underworld of the everyday or the habitual, while Williams's Autobiography repeats the image of the poetic 'release' of some 'thing' in a vocabulary that invites a more Freudian narrative: 'The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets', we are told, and at times a 'thing . . . may for a moment be freed to fly for a moment guiltily about the room' (Williams, 1951, pp. 343, 289). Although sometimes described as a formal design or structure, sometimes as a psychological release, Williams's '(some)thing' or 'moment' is regularly aligned with poetry, not prose. Even the typography of Spring and All offers the poems as analogues of such moments. That is, the prose is full of ellipses or parodies of the derivative (and proleptic) gestures of scholarship, and the connections between prose passages are mocked, or conspicuously absent, while the poems stand out because of their lineation, as if connected in a different matrix. They seem, then, to figure as the epiphanic moments or glimpses for which the book calls, themselves figured alternately as the separate reality of the imagination or as defamiliarized visions of reality or as moments of more personal confession.

I suspect it is obvious that to read the entire structure of Spring and All as I have just proposed begs the question with which I began, namely what poems are said to be or offer. Indeed, the one certainty is that we are consistently invited to reread the poem in different registers, an invitation accepted in the structure of my own essay. To take a final example, returning briefly to Williams's references to 'release', the text opens by discussing how the imagination is 'intoxicated by prohibitions' (CP, p. 179), and thus aligns a psychological figure of repression and release not only with avantgarde practices and poetry's access to some truth or presence or force, but also with the fact of American Prohibition, a more socio-political repression that bred outlaw practices more literal than the verbal or psychological intoxication, the disregard for logic or set forms, the violence and appropriations of production imaginatively figured throughout the book. And to align Prohibition with the individual psyche's sources of creativity, the prose (as genre or language), and the conventions from which art breaks free, at best invites precisely the connection between 'things of the imagination' and 'life' (CP, p. 194) that the book dismisses. One may, borrowing Williams's vocabulary, propose that these registers are 'not opposed . . . but apposed' (CP, p. 208), but this only defers the question of how to discuss the significance of apposition, or to understand what Williams thinks is at stake in such a practice.

Moreover, Spring and All strongly suggests that Williams believes something is at stake. One cannot, that is, simply short-circuit the various registers in which the book invites readings to conclude that it is (although it is) a 'montage of genres' (Lowney, 1997, p. 61) or a 'metonymic network' (Perloff, 1981, p. 137). To reinforce this point I would like to point out, briefly, two further registers in which Spring and All may be read, turning first to a 1921 article by Lewis Mumford, 'Machinery and the Modern Style', on architecture and city planning. Mumford's basic argument is straightforward. To be living, architecture must not simply look to traditionally sanctioned 'art' (to repeat the quotation marks Williams and Hartley, from whom Williams takes the idea, use). Greek columns or Roman facades, Mumford argues, cannot be misappropriated from a long-dead cultural system and transplanted to modern America. Yet Mumford also has qualms about functional architecture. The problem, he suggests, is not with any inherent lack in functional or machine design. But his analysis of what is required, framed in organicist language, remains vague: modern design is wrong because not 'living', not infused by 'vivifying human imagination'. His description of the interior of a Child's restaurant is telling: 'Lured into the void of a modern lunchroom by the vision of thick disks of golden batter basking on the griddle, one is struck immediately upon entrance by a cacophonous chorus of china and metal' (Mumford, 1921, p. 264). Mumford's language aestheticizes the geometry and the sounds of industrial materials (disks, chorus, china, cacophonous) but he adds 'golden batter basking'. As an image of industry feeding people, this makes sense, but one wonders why 'golden' is not an adjective drawn from a different, more classical, age in just the way Mumford finds objectionable. I introduce Mumford's cultural criticism because its problems are repeated in Williams's attempt to locate the central claims of art in modern culture. That neither Williams nor Mumford could yet see how Morrisite views of the arts would be used in America to provide a rationale for therapeutic weekends, renewing people for the work week, is not surprising. Even so, how art, even architecture, might integrally serve culture proved difficult to describe. Moreover, unlike Mumford in 1921, Williams saw that his American readers were not looking to modernism to solve either their practical or their aesthetic needs. They were reading Keats or Edgar Guest, not Eliot, let alone Stein or Williams. New Yorkers may have been eating in Child's restaurants, but they were not looking to industrial design to place 'value upon experience' (CP, p. 215).

Perhaps the most obvious places where Spring and All focuses on such questions about how social history and aesthetics are related are Poems XVII ('Shoot it Jimmy!') and XVIII ('To Elsie'). The first, a dramatic monologue, which draws on jazz and on the vernacular speech of urban African-America, concludes: 'Nobody else / but me -/ They can't copy it'. In another context, the poem would be a celebration of the artist's originality. But it is not clear how the inimitable can be reconciled with the appeal to community speech in the first line ('Our orchestra / is the cat's nuts') (CP, p. 216, emphasis added), despite the echo of the volume's initial appeal to an intersubjective 'embrace' between reader and writer. In particular, it is unclear what it means for Williams to appropriate speech from Harlem: is this Williams in black face? As reporter or tourist? The last line of the poem brings home, as well, Spring and All's self-consciousness about its appropriation of speech. The writer by definition 'can't copy' certain forms of speech, namely spoken language, African-American vernacular, and jazz rhythms in poetry. The inclusive first-person plural that opens the poem ultimately emphasizes how speech communities operate sociologically and suggests the status of the poetic transcription as approximation. That is, speech lifted out of social context is not simply imaginatively charged, but changed in a way that is difficult to reconcile with Spring and All's more celebratory Cubist gestures towards separating 'things of the imagination from life' (CP, p. 194).

This is not to deny there is some connection between linguistic and social codes, but it is to say the connection is uneasy. The same sort of tension is rehearsed in the following poem, 'To Elsie' (CP, pp. 217—19), a poem critics like David Frail or cultural anthropologists like James Clifford characterize as a self-conscious diagnosis of the failure, not only of social welfare agencies, but of Williams's poetry of 'contact' to find the common meeting place between stark social reality and poetry. The poem's language, on one level, lifts for inspection the language of advertising — commercial goods ('gauds') are seen as a poor substitute foisted on those like the 'Elsie' whose needs and circumstances are hardly answered by mass cultural goods. The poem itself, if ironically, reads Elsie herself as one of America's 'pure products'. That is, she is not so much home grown as manufactured (a product), and offered in the language of the advertisement for Ivory soap (99.9 per cent pure). To separate language, even advertising language or public rhetoric, from the world-as-usual, 'to detach [words] from ordinary existence' (CP, p. 197) and lift them into a separate formal or imaginative sphere, is one thing in a collage by Gris, another when it is a person — 'some Elsie' — taken by a welfare agency and deposited in 'some doctor's family'.

My point is that whenever we attempt to take the poem as not enmeshed in history, as a kind of Cubist detachment from context, we find it is always also engaged in the contemporary history of its day, and this simultaneity is discomforting, most specifically in the images of violence and of grimmer social realities, which work quite differently on the page as avant-garde practice and in the world, Williams's or our own. The discomfort is comparable to that set in motion by the opening pages of Spring and All when we read an attack on Europe as an aesthetic equivalent of a Wilsonian crusade. That is, we may take 'Kill kill kill' playfully, as a Dadaist figure of imaginative decreation; more literally, the invading Americans figure the flood of artists and writers — including the dedicatee and the publisher of Spring and All (Demuth and McAlmon) — who left the country for Europe in 1921, an exodus about which Williams's prose indicates he had mixed feelings. At the same time, the American attack also seems more serious and less inviting as a political commentary on the United States's role in the First World War and political events in postwar Europe.

I have already mentioned how Spring and All draws from Hartley and Gris the figure of open windows — suggesting the text's openness to European and American avant-garde practices from Cubism to Dada; to history; and to contradictions. The book is self-conscious about the way it mixes diction and positions, poetry and painting, spontaneity and craft, history and interiority, urban or suburban and rural, bourgeois and avant-garde, speech acts and representations. The penultimate page claims the right to mix figures, acknowledging the book's images of imagination 'as a force, . . . a medium, a place' (CP, p. 235). Spring and All offers and as quickly replaces similar figures for itself throughout: it is an open window; it is the release of repressed energy or forces; it is a rapid transit — glimpses from a speeding car — or a Cubist collage, or a Dadaist jeu. Like the 'girl with one leg / over the rail of a balcony' in Poem XI, the multiple, and multivalenced, often unreconcilable figures it offers of itself remain suspended (Lowney, 1997, p. 69). What results is neither a tidy dialectic, nor a set of evenly balanced tensions.

I have rehearsed here a variety of figures that might provide a reader with footing from which to approach Spring and All. On the one hand, it should be clear that not all of these readings — cultural criticism, avant-gardism, a claim to an American poetics, an investigation of issues of representation and appropriation — can serve as the text's centre; on the other hand, all are certainly avenues of investigation toward which Williams's language points. To privilege for a moment the figure of openness, it seems Spring and All leaves open the questions it raises, and its initial invitation to the reader to re-enter the book's processes or performance of openness becomes the one gesture it does not seriously undercut. The final question may be not how to choose between thematic concerns and discursive registers, but to ask why or in what sense we are asked to adopt openness itself: is this the openness of art to experience, Williams's 'contact' versus Eliot's retrenchment? Or is this an answer to the felt challenge of the European avant-garde? Nine years earlier, Williams's 'The Wanderer' had asked how he could 'be a mirror to this modernity' (CP, p. 28) and — from advertising to Elsie, from Cubism to Harlem — Spring and All does mirror the various facets of modernity and the fractured nature — the fact of various facets — of modernity. Although the one figure it disclaims is that of mirrors (CP, p. 208), it also plays with the alliances and differences between mirrors (representations) and open windows (framed but unmediated sight). In short, the book itself 'opens' questions about the significance of its own openness.

We do know that Williams had been closely following the exchanges in the pages of The New Republic and The Dial between McAlmon and John Dewey on education. Dewey's emphasis on 'creative thought' (Dewey, 1918, p. 334) and his insistence that thinking always involves doubt, suspension and process so that 'acquiring is always secondary' (Dewey, 1916, p. 173), informs not only Spring and All's rejection of 'the acquisitive' (CP, p. 220) but also the open-endedness of the book's structure. And Williams does make a pitch for Deweyan education, claiming that knowledge is 'not . . . dead dissections', and that the 'whole field of education is affected' (CP, p. 224) by the imagination. Still, finally, it seems too tidy to say that it is Dewey who authorizes the structure of Spring and All. After all, Dewey is arguing about public education, hardly an arena in which Williams thought a limited edition of experimental literature published in Paris would have significant impact. Of course, one of Spring and All's central concerns is the difficulty of relating the realities of America in 1923 to the modern and the real in the realm of art. Both art and history clearly inform the book. The question is which is figure; which, ground. If I have voiced scepticism over taking the book's open-endedness as a purely Cubist or Dadaist gesture, it is at least as difficult to suggest that the significance of Spring and All's openness is singular, simply a demonstration, if a rich one, of Dewey's creative intelligence.

Critically, Spring and All has attracted ever-increasing interest, in part because it invites and yields to multiple technologies of reading. I would suggest that no single procedure will gather all the threads of the book; no one figure, however interpreted, serves as the central emblem - not 'calculated indeterminacy' (Perloff, 1981, p. 129) nor the 'desire to connect art to social reality' (Sayre, 1984, p. 18), nor a 'dance' of the intellect (Whitaker, 1984), nor my own appeals to Mumford and Dewey as critics of American culture. Yet perhaps it is not too much to suggest that Spring and All does provides a window on the pressing issues of the 1920s, from the redefinitions of modern art by way of Eliot, the French and the Americans, to the social, political and philosophical questions under debate not only in publications from small arts publishers, but equally in the pages of newspapers, in the American Congress, on the streets of Chicago and New York, and in the backwoods of New Jersey. The volume also forces any reader to frame and reframe sets of questions about the place of poetry in the world, and to take seriously the multiple answers tested within Williams's pages. Spring and All, at least in these ways, results in something of moment.


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