William Carlos Williams’s Cuts

Besides seeking the universal in the parochial, William Carlos Williams’s collection of poems Spring and All is also an attempt to capture what appears to be immediately available to experience. As he writes: “…the thing [the reader] never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is. And this moment is the only thing in which I am at all interested.”[1] The method used by Williams to capture this moment and share it with his readers is not to mediate things, but to pin things down immediately as he observes them. This method, which should obviously not be seen as a descriptive form of automatic writing, is an attempt to create a new type of poetry that is no longer mimetic, symbolic, or metaphoric, but generates reality. One illustration of this is the well-known fact that Williams wrote his poem in a few minutes with the aim of producing “new forms as additions to nature”[2] so that his words express those objects in nature, almost speak for them. Spring and All makes this abundantly clear: the leitmotif recurs repeatedly; words refine, clarify, and intensify “that eternal moment in which we alone live…”[3]

Hugh Kenner proposes to understand Williams’s poetry as “characterized by a radical immanence.”[4]  He takes the famous example of the wheelbarrow by the white chickens: they are not, according to him, “part of a surface whose predominant function is to point to a depth,” but part of the world, therefore part of yourself, all of which “moves the energy of a cellular dance.”[5] Kenner is not alone in interpreting the poem in this way. For example, Stephen Tapscott also shows that Williams “uses… local details to register, in a new world of the imagination… the individual’s perceptions and imaginative encounters with the physical world, through a kind of immanence.”[6] The problem with these characterizations is the use of the word “immanence.” How could “this energy of a cellular dance” be immanent? How could this dance be present throughout the universe and yet exist in us? To propose to read Williams’s poetry as “characterized by immanence” is to want to retain from ordinary objects something which is supposedly present “within,” a (spiritual) force or energy that keeps these white chickens and the wheelbarrow together alive. This inner “energy” or “cellular dance” is furthermore shared across time by you, me, here and there and this forever.

This problematic reading calls for the following question: If we accept the premise that it is impossible to take hold or even understand what could be “immanent,” what does Williams really understand by this “moment” in which we alone live? The idea for this Log entry is to simply raise the issue of this “moment” in Williams’s early poetry and to show that Williams’s moment does not hide a secret immanent world or a spiritual inner cellular dance, but through poetic edges and cuts, reveals instead the tremor of what comes, the opening of the future itself. This does not mean I’m against reading Williams’ poetry as “characterised by immanence,” only that immanence might not be the exact characterisation for his poetry. How to begin thinking in those terms?

First and foremost, Williams’s poetic aim is very much that of tracing and sharing the unstable character of the present. In other words, the aim is not to “pin down” a supposedly universal parochial time, but to point to those moments when we become aware of time passing. This is evident in Williams’s ability to expose not rural moments strictly speaking, but through what he calls “leaks” in language. Williams writes in the posthumously published book, The Embodiment of Knowledge: “Language is not stable. Leaks occur and—though they are clearly aware of it or not—the lives of people are modified by accidents of language. And men instinctively feel it. There is a self-preservational dread of changes in language.”[7] The use of the word “leak” is curious and arresting. Sharon Dolin, in an analysis of the use of enjambment in Williams’s poetry, remarks that these “leaks” are an attempt “to brush with the unconscious,” they reveal “the place where the unconscious threatens to become conscious.”[8] Dolin’s observation allows to understand Williams’s strategy as an attempt to reach a stage that cannot be pinned down by semantic formulas, a stage before language, a pre-linguistic occurrence, one which establishes language itself. What are the constituents of this strategy? I suggest there are five in total: line cuts, unfinished sentences, edges, the use of delay and of course, enjambments. These are worth investigating quickly for they provide the best exemplification of this strategy to expose this pre-linguistic “moment,” this tremor of what comes, the opening of the future itself.

First, line cuts: In an essay on Marianne Moore, written not long after Spring and All, Williams illustrates the importance of isolating elements through the help of line cuts. He writes: “To Miss Moore, an apple remains an apple whether it be in Eden or the fruit bowl where it curls. But that would be hard to prove—
‘dazzled by the apple’.
The apple is left there suspended. One is left there, suspended. One is not made to feel that, as an apple, it has anything particularly to do with poetry or that as such it needs special treatment; one goes on.”[9] Williams’s line cuts or suspensions concern both the semantic object—the dazzling apple—and the reading subject: you, me, here, now. Such an emphasis on line cuts and suspensions has here really one aim, that of encouraging the move to the next object, poem, moment in life. Line cuts and suspensions open up onto the unknown.

Second, unfinished sentences: In Spring and All, the poet often brings his sentences up to a climax that cannot be completed. For example: “ The imagination is a—”[10] or again: “The practical point would be to discover—”[11] In each case, the thought is interrupted as if to mark the importance of the event of writing, the moment of creation. Williams himself acknowledges this process: “If the power to go on falters in the middle of a sentence—that is the end of a sentence—Or if a new phrase enters at that point it is only stupidity to go on.”[12] Again, the aim here is not to emphasize the impossibility of writing, but that another sentence is futile. Hence the importance of the long dash, the perfect symbol of an edge from which one (the poet / the reader) can only depart.

Third, edges: Williams wants to create a type of poetry that focuses on objects cut out from reality and placed as if on a precipice. As he says, “There must be edges.”[13] “The Red Wheelbarrow” is here a perfect example of edges: on the one hand, you have the wheelbarrow and on the other, “besides” it, therefore independently from it, run the white chickens. You can read or see them separately. These words on edge, never quite forming a sentence, always awaiting a grammatical and syntactical resolution, reveal that it is not a universal or local time per se that Williams is seeking, but something that hovers at the edge of representation, between utterances.

Fourth, the use of delay: In this poetry, Williams is often eager to delay the advent of meaning. This is done sometimes to the point where the delay becomes the only topic. Charles Altieri and others have analyzed part of this issue, again, in relation to “The Red Wheelbarrow.”[14] The opening line, “so much depends upon” is effectively a strategy of delay, the poem is never quite finished. “The effect is to have the completion of meaning constantly delayed, and to make the delay a means of slowing us down or defamiliarizing the process of conferring meanings, so that we are led to recognize the miraculous quality of words and cares eventually taking hold.”[15] In “The Red Wheelbarrow” the true meaning of the poem is delayed beyond the white chickens and this, forever. This delay calls not for us to close or complete the poem, but for us to consider this endless furthering of meaning that knows no end. The topic of the poem is indeed not a rural moment, but the impossibility of ends.

Fifth, enjambment: As is well known, Williams uses the term “the dynamization of emotion” to describe the peculiar effect he wants language to achieve in his poetry. “Prose has to do with the fact of an emotion; poetry has to do with the dynamization of emotion into a separate form.”[16] Most analyses of this process are made in relation to cinematic montage or the process of enjambment, both of which allow the continuation of meaning from one frame to another, from one line to the next. Whether cinematic or poetic, this dynamization is therefore that of provoking the reader’s interests, encouraging him or her to “go on” to the next line, but not in a particular order. The white chickens besides a red wheelbarrow, the red wheelbarrow besides the white chickens, a barrow glazed by rain, water besides the white chickens, etc. The aim of these enjambments is to expose poetry as a place of possibility. Between the edges of these enjambments, between these interrupted lines of writing, trembles the future of writing, my writing, your reading, my rewriting, your rereading to come.

The five highlighted elements of Williams’s strategy are all, I think, intended to reach a stage that cannot be pinned down by semantic formulas. They embody the poet’s struggle to expose that moment “in which we alone live.” What this manifold strategy reveals is that Williams’s moment is not an anxious existentialist moment, but a time when a promise is renewed. The unfinished sentences, the edges, the use of delay, the line cuts, the enjambments, all indicate not that there was future in 1923, but that, “there is” future, always already. This does not mean that his poetry has a predicative quality; this only means that these edges, cuts, etc. know no end. Williams does not promise us some future or other, he highlights the fact that poetry—and our engagement with it—is necessarily structured in potentiality. This is not utopian or idealistic, this is what takes place here and now, in a here and now that has nothing to do with “immediacy,” the present or with a particular form of presence, but with a nagging promise always renewed.

The fact that “there is always future” is evidenced when one looks at the way Williams addresses the reader. Although Williams announces that the addressee of Spring and All is the imagination, the texts are all written as invitations to the reader. The collection of texts starts by addressing a critic and then moves on to the reader in general. “The reader knows…”[17] “The attempt is being made to… invite the onlooker.”[18] Williams’s invitation is fraternal. “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say, ‘I’ I mean also, ‘you.’ And so together, as one, we shall begin.”[19] This is not the call of a man who knows that his call will never be answered, but who knows that there is always the promise of an answer, of a new embrace. Not unlike Derrida’s play of addresses in Mes Chances, Williams’s poems of 1923 are dispatches without a decidable destination.[20]

In this way, Williams’s poetic imagination does not “avoid reality”; it “rides [it].”[21] Imagination is the opening onto the future, what “moves [reality]”.[22] “As birds’ wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight.”[23] The imagination is a yes to the future, it says “yes, come.” There is no poetry; poetry is impossible and yet there is a call. This call confirms that man is free “to act in whatever direction his disposition leads.”[24] Williams’s “imagination” is effectively the tracing of a destiny in an indeterminate destination. This is what poetry is all about. It touches the place, the electricity or the medium to which it is going. Indeterminate, undecidable, the destination occupies a place that is most strictly impossible to occupy, for it is always delivering more future, a future that cannot be configured, predicted or destined. “Suddenly it is at an end.


[1] William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, New Directions Books, New York, 1971, p. 89.
[2] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 120.
[3] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 89.
[4] Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1975, p. 87.
[5] Kenner, 1975, p. 87.
[6] Stephen Tapscott, American Beauty: William Carlos Williams and the Modernist Whitman, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p. 91.
[7] William Carlos Williams, The Embodiment of Knowledge, New Directions Books, New York, 1974, p. 71.
[8] Sharon Dolin, “Enjambment and the Erotics of the Gaze in Williams’s Poetry”, in American Imago, Vol. 50, No. 1, The John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 36
[9] Williams, “Marianne Moore”, in Imaginations, p. 311.
[10] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 123.
[11] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 145.
[12] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 140.
[13] Quoted in Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1980, p. 120.
[14] See, for example, Winifred Nowottny, The Language Poets Use, The Athlone Press, University of London, London, 1962 and James Paul Gee, “The Structure of Perception in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams”, Poetics Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1985.
[15] Altieri, Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry, p. 233.
[16] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 133.
[17] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 89.
[18] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 107, my emphasis.
[19] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 89.
[20] Jacques Derrida, “My Chances / Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies”, in Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. by Joseph Smith and William Kerrigan, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984.
[21] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 139.
[22] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 149, my emphasis.
[23] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 150.
[24] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 150.
[25] Williams, “Spring and All”, in Imaginations, p. 95.

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