Williams And Visualism

In the years following the Imagist anthologies, and particularly in the 1920s and 30s, modernism and the free verse revolution became fraught with functional and formal divisions. The principal distinction was between those who perpetuated the drive towards innovation and experiment and those who sought to reconcile these instincts with the precedents of tradition and regularity. In the former category the more familiar names are William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound and, in the latter, T.S.Eliot and W.H. Auden. Pound extended the method of 'In a Station of the Metro' into the multi-dimensional juxtapositions of linguistic and cultural referents of the Cantos, but a more intriguing development of modernist poetic writing occurs in the poems of Williams.

Consider the title poem of Williams's 1923 collection, Spring and All.

By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish, dazed spring approaches—

The consistent formal element of this poem is the tension between the poet's deployment of the poetic line and the progressive forward movement of the syntagm. Williams creates this tension as a means of realising the modernist ideal of poetic language as at once an art form and a register of pre-linguistic events and impressions; and the contre-rejet, the splitting of the deep structure by line division, is a persistent feature of the text. The two opening lines could stand as a complete syntactic-poetic unit, but 'blue' is transformed from its static, substantive sense into an adjectival dependence upon the 'mottled clouds' of the next line. The effect recalls Eve's similar perception of the 'clear/Smooth lake' (see the Exercise section Chapter 3). The difference is that the regular iambic-decasyllabic undertow of her speech pattern is now missing. Williams's lines are structured not according to an impersonal, abstract regulation; the governing principle of the linesyntax relation is the poet's desire to record the very uneasy interplay between perceptual experience and its linguistic register. Syntactic patterns are begun, readjusted, reengaged, transformed, and the line provides the metasyntactic instrument for this uncertain impressionistic sequence. Lines 3 and 4, ending with the definite article 'the', attempt to recreate in language the timing of experiencer's receptive faculties: the ungrammatical break at each line is the equivalent of the gap that allows the experiencer to register the northeast as the direction from which the wind is driven (lines 3-4) and the predeterminer 'Beyond' prepares us for gradual shift of focus—again marked by a pause—from the sky to the land (lines 4-5). When the experiencer contemplates

[the] small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines—

the moment is a perfect synthesis of Poundian technique and unreflecting slang. In a continuous syntactic sequence, 'with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines', 'them leafless vines' echoes the colloquial and ambiguous title of 'Spring and All' (all what?). But the line division preserves this improvisational informality and complements it with a stark visual juxtaposition, recalling 'In a Station of the Metro'.

with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines—

The break isolates 'leafless vines' as a stark metaphoric counterpoint (recalling perhaps Milton's 'darkness visible') to the more discursive pattern of the previous line.

The point to be made about the structure of this poem is that it is unlike the above categories 1 and 2. There is no sense that the poet has simply reshaped a prose discourse, but nor can each line be fully isolated from the broader progressive pattern. We, the readers, are not arbiters of the relation between form and signification, but we are thrown into a constant state of uncertainty by the shifts between the poetic function (the line) and its referential counterpart (syntax). Williams acknowledges conventional precedent (there are resonances of Milton's blank verse technique) but he reintegrates these echoes with an unprecedented method of deploying the unmetrical line as a register of the tension between experience and linguistic mediation. The degree of his achievement can be judged by comparing this poem with Blake's 'London' and Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey' and The Idiot Boy' (see Chapter 4). Bear in mind the extent to which the two Romantics depend upon the signifying function and the cultural status of the regular double pattern to achieve their impressions of immediacy while Williams creates an entirely new model for the cognitive and conventional registers of poetry.

Having identified the structural operations of this model in a single text, how should we go about constructing an abstract definition? First, we should reexamine conventional perceptions of what constitutes the poetic. The conventional dimension of the double pattern—rhyme, metre, sound pattern, etc.—depends upon a regular and persistent deployment of the acoustic tension between the purely material and the signifying functions of poetic language only because the former is patterned and repetitive—all spoken language consists of sounds but its deliberate and purposive foregrounding becomes evident only with regularity and repetition (in Jakobson's terms parallelism). If we accept that a tension between the material and signifying functions is essential to our differentiation between poetic and non-poetic discourses, the only material element available to replace acoustic regularity is the graphic, visual dimension—a phenomenon which has been marginalised by linguistics and confined as a sub-genre (concrete and pattern forms) by literary criticism. To understand how visual form can operate as a productive element of the text we should consider the relation between the cultural status of the graphic sign and its ability to create meaning.

Below is The Red Wheelbarrow', another poem from Williams's Spring and All.

so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens

Here the initial signal is visual: this looks like a poem. Moving from recognition to naturalisation we would note that in the absence of any normal form of punctuation its division into four units resembling stanzas will probably tell us something about how the poetic function organises meaning. The next stage of interpretation is problematic: lines and stanzas signal a concession to regularity, and at least two of this poem's many commentators (see Hartman, 1980 and Ramsey, 1968) have gone on to 'scan' the text with the objective of establishing an albeit irregular metrical double pattern as the foundation for further interpretive strategies. But should shape and visual texture always be regarded as merely a signal to acoustic substance (remember Johnson on Milton)? Perhaps shape can in itself produce meaning. Forget scansion and the acoustic double pattern and consider how each stanza operates both as a grammatical-syntactic demand and a delayed payment. John Hollander observes that the lines 'cut.into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun [or colour] is part of a compound with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well...in the freshness of the light after the rain.things seem to lose their compounded qualities' (p. 111). Look more closely at the difference between the opening and subsequent stanzas. The primary distinction is in their relative ideational effects (the ability of words to generate specific mental pictures), 'depends/ upon' is a syntactic connective: we know what it means but without nouns we cannot be certain if the dependency is spatial, physical, intellectual, moral or emotional. As such the opening stanza becomes the functional deep structure of the text to be transformed and specified in each subsequent stanza: 'wheel' depends upon 'barrow', 'rain' upon 'water', 'white' upon 'chickens'. Williams has succeeded in creating a visual counterpart to the acoustic double pattern of regular poetry. The poetic function of the text (its line divisions) creates a complex interface between the arbitrary relational structure of the medium and the relations between phenomena in the pre-linguistic world.

It is possible to claim that in the two poems above, Williams generates a multi-dimensional reading experience that would be limited by the dominance of acoustic patterns. In both he obliges the reader to be continually aware that the successive, linear dimension of linguistic structure is in a state of tension with its static, visual juxtapositions; and it could be argued that this disorientating effect is as close as poetic form can come to recreating the dynamics of perceptual and emotive experience— the reason for Pound's enthusiasm for the ideogram. Consider the following poems by Williams and Charles Tomlinson.

Williams: section II of 'Perpetuam Mobile' from

Pictures from Brueghel (1949)

To all the girls of all ages who walk up and down on the streets of this town silent or gabbing putting their feet down one before the other one two one two they pause sometimes before a store window and reform the line from here to China everywhere back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

Charles Tomlinson: 'Lines' from Seeing is Believing (1960)

You have seen a plough the way it goes breeds furrows line on line until they fill a field? What I admire in this is less the page complete and all the insatiable activity towards it than when, one furrow more lies done with and the tractor hesitates: another line to be begun and then it turns and drags the blade in tow and that turns too along the new and growing groove and each reversal thus in mitigating mere aggression prepares for the concerted on-rush of the operation and then the dark the cool the dew corroding the intent abandoned mechanism that contemplates accomplishment

It should be clear to any competent reader that each poet is selfconsciously aware of a tension between the ideational function of language (a.k.a. its referential function) and language as a material entity consisting of concrete graphemes, phonemes and the rules that bind these units together. In Williams's poem the subject is 'the girls', but their mediated, non-linguistic activities are interfused with the similarly physical process of linguistic mediation. The movement of 'their feet' encodes an echo of the unit which in regular verse governs the process of poetic writing (the foot). Note how 'one before the other' and 'one two' govern the structural identity of separate lines, and how 'they' (the girls or the language?) 'pause' both before a 'store window' and before the poet shifts from one line to the next. 'They' (governing verb phrase for linguistic units and for the girls) 'reform the line' (Whose line? The poet's or the girls'?). The poem concludes with the triple image of the poet's hand and mind, the reader's eye, and the girls moving 'back and/ forth and back and forth/and back and forth'.

With Tomlinson there is a similarly interactive relation between what language does and what language is. The subject is the tractor pulling the plough, but the lines on the field become inseparable from the poet's negotiation of the lines on the page. The tractor, like the poet, 'hesitates: /another line to be begun'. We should here recall Jakobson's model of the poetic. If we accept that the complexities of the double pattern succeed in foregrounding and intensifying the metonymic-metaphoric capacities of language, is it not the case that this unmetrical, visual foregrounding of linguistic materiality adds an extra level of density to this formula? The verbal constituents of the text—'complete', 'activity', 'hesitates', 'turns', 'drags', 'along', 'on rush', 'intent', 'contemplates'—are divided between their literal, referential function (the movement of the plough) and their figurative function (the activities of the poet in mediating the movement of the plough). Does the 'abandoned mechanism' and the contemplation of 'accomplishment' refer to the perceived image of the plough and ploughman or to the sense of satisfaction felt by the poet in his successful negotiation of the complexities of the text?

It could be claimed that these texts are self-referential, about the process of writing, but could we not make a similar claim for practically all regular poems? When a poet deploys rhyme and metre he/ she is engaging both with pre-linguistic experience and with the reprocessing of such experiences as texts. Williams's and Tomlinson's double-edged used of terms such as 'feet', 'line', 'hesitation' are examples of what Jakobson calls the metalingual— a self-evident announcement of the text's status as poetic. The fact that both poets, writing almost half a century after the birth of free verse, feel confident enough to proclaim their use of visual form is the equivalent of such traditional metalingual signals as Shakespeare's reference to 'this memorable rhyme' (sonnet 55). Visual poetics has arrived.

Visual form is a complex and elusive phenomenon; it is neither a constituent of conventional linguistic patterns nor merely an alternative method of punctuating these patterns, but it is clearly capable of organising poetic structure and generating meaning. For a more comprehensive account of how it has come to replace sound pattern as an element of the post-free verse double pattern see Bradford's The Look of It (1993) and Cushman's William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure (1985). Consider the following from e. e. cummings's 95 Poems,

one 1


If we attempt to naturalise this poem we must effectively isolate two linguistic-syntactic units, the word loneliness' and the sentence (in brackets) 'a leaf Falls'—in this case the referential sense of falling is paralleled by the literal falling down the page of the linguistic components. We might then suggest a thematic connection between the human condition of being alone and its natural correlative of autumn (decay, the end of summer often being associated with sadness and isolation). In doing so we will have imposed a temporal metatext upon a non-temporal, spatial effect. Jakobson has commented on the difference between visual and linguistic naturalisation.

When the observer arrives at the simultaneous synthesis of a contemplated painting, the painting as a whole remains before his eyes, it is still present; but when the listener reaches a synthesis of what he has heard, the phonemes have in fact already vanished. They survive as mere afterimages, somewhat abridged reminiscences, and this creates an essential difference between the two types of perception and percepts.

cummings's poem obliges the reader to participate in both of these processes of interpretation. It disposes the graphic constituents of language in the same way that the painter arranges visual images, while their function as linguistic signs prompts us to interpose a conventional, linear reading with the simultaneous, synthetic effects of visual juxtaposition. It should not be dismissed as a bizarre aberration from the modernist mainstream since it foregrounds elements of composition and interpretation that we have already encountered in the work of Milton, Williams and Tomlinson. A useful method of distinguishing between types of visual form is to invoke Jakobson's opposition between temporal and static signs. If the text involves a persistent tension between the temporal movement of linguistic signs and their static configuration then it can be categorised as a type of visual free verse: cummings's poems are an intriguing test case since they at once invoke and continuously disrupt the expectations of reading from left to right and down the page. With concrete poems we will encounter a number of varied syntactic, semantic, thematic and iconic patterns, but there will be no constant tension between a single enunciative, temporal movement and a visual framework. Consider the following by Eugen Gomringer:

The word wind can be 'read' along separate diagonal, angular or curved planes, and we might surmise that the poem demonstrates that the signifier, like its referent, involves being literally blown around. In naturalising the text we should also acknowledge that, unlike poems within the sliding scale, it makes no concessions to the temporal nature of the syntagm: it has no particular beginning or end.

Visual form is too often regarded as eccentricity, a mildly engaging off-shoot from the broader modernist enterprise. I am convinced of its importance in our understanding of how and why the concept of the 'modern poem' encompasses so many different and often divergent technical and stylistic formulae. Consider Jakobson's description of how the two elements of the double pattern interlock: 'metrical parallelism' and 'phonic equivalence', 'prompt' questions of semantic similarity or contrast, and consequently promote selection and metaphor above contiguity and metonymy. The visual line effectively replaces the foregrounding functions of metrical regularity and rhyme by creating a tension between the static and kinetic dimensions of language. In regular poetry we encounter an interface between syntagm, paradigm and the acoustic materiality of language; in free verse that employs visual structure a similar interface occurs between syntagm, paradigm and the graphic materiality of language.

The following sequence is from section V of T.S.Eliot's Ash


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken unheard;

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

The Word without a word, the word within

The world and for the world;

And the light shone in darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the centre of the silent Word

O my people, what have I done to thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence

The referential and thematic motif of this passage is the paradoxical relation between language (the 'word') and pre-linguistic truth (the 'lost word', 'the spent word', 'the unspoken/ Word', 'the silent Word'). This paradox is foregrounded and intensified by the peculiar and continuous tension between the silent, graphic text and its spoken counterpart. We can see the distinction between the 'unstilled world' and (the) 'still whirled', but the acoustic-semantic distinction is delayed until the verb connects with its object in the following line. The 'unspoken/Word' is literally 'Still' (static, frozen in print), and the printed characters of 'word' are indeed literally 'within' the graphemes of 'world'. The spatial question of 'Where' the word might 'be found' is granted a mimetic edge by the apparently gratuitous, but conspicuously spatial, placing of the echo 'Resound' at the beginning of the next line.

The unmetrical line could, as we have seen, become merely a sub-component of the general rules of syntax and punctuation (1), or operate as a signal for reader-centred strategies of interpretation (2). Visual form allows the poet an extra dimension of signification and control. It functions as a counterpattern that is at once independent of the conventions of syntax, semantics and acoustic structure yet capable of interfering with their patterns of signification. Hence visual form satisfies the objectives of category 3. It provides a supplementary level of interplay between the referential and the material functions of the poetic.

Eliot's interposing of visual form with the more conventional patterns of sound and rhyme provides a convenient link point for the introduction of a fourth category of free verse, which includes texts that draw upon yet rework the sound patterns of pre-modernist poetry. Eliot and Auden are probably its most eminent practitioners, but, as we shall see, their work is by no means merely a return to the forms and expectations of tradition.

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