There's a poem by William Carlos Williams, called simply "Poem," which I like very much. A mere 12 lines long, it consists of on 27 words.m Its subject is familiar to many readers: a cat, climbing over the top of a jamcloset, stepping right into the empty flowerpot that stands in its path.
I've been acquainted with this poem only about three years, but I must have read or said those 27 words to myself countless times. Yet I never tire of them. The tremendous clarity of the images, the poet's keen observation, are always refreshing; they are always new.
The question of what is new, or what is "news," intrigues me. Certainly it occupied Williams. In Book I of "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," he writes, It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
Is this snobbery? When I first read these lines, I immediately responded, "Yes, but we can't just sit around reading poems and ignoring the events of the world." But Williams didn't mean that. There have been few poets more concerned with the events of the world than Williams. In an article in "New Directions 17 ," Williams is quoted as saying,
". . . I'm not the type of poet who looks only at the rare thing. I want to use the words we speak and to describe the things we see, as far as it can be done. I abandoned the rare world of H. D. and Ezra Pound. Poetry should be brought into the world where we live and not be so recondite, so removed from the people."
Williams isn't claiming that we can abandon either the news or the poetry. But in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," he is saying that a good poem offers something perpetually new. The lead paragraph of last week's story on gasoline plenty already sounds old to us. Sixteenth-century Thomas Wyatt's ideas to love in his "They Flee from Me" are still vigorous and captivating.
The difference between these two is the way that each focuses on its subject. By its nature, news must focus on extreme particulars -- the exact time and place of an event, the immediate impact of a politician's speech upon his constituents, the possible interpretations of nations' statements and counterstatements. These issues shift rapidly.
But poetry focuses on character -- human character, the character of the natural world, or the conjectural character of the unknown.
This character appears in thoroughly individual ways; whether in nature or in humankind, the traits of each being are memorably varied. Yet the profound similarities, the profound sympathies between individuals, enable certain insights to keep their freshness. Whether the front page news is devastating or delightful, Williams might say that it is always somewhat deceiving.This deception is not a matter of inaccurate facts, or slanted reporting; it is simply the result of news dealing with the day-to-day fluctuations of the world. Though Williams often seeks his themes in everyday life, he not only treats their appearances; he treats their depths, the depths that support us all.
In "The Tern," Williams takes as his subject "A rumpled sheet/ of brown paper . . . rolling with the/ wind slowly over/ and over in/ the street. . . ." In a few words, the poet captures a particular aspect of modern life -- the risk of aimlessness, of isolation. Noting that the paper is "about the length/ and apparent bulk/ of a man," Williams watches as "a car drove down/ upon it and/ crushed it to/ the ground." Not an unusual occurrence; not even a memorable one to most people. But Williams sees in this brief incident a human significance. He concludes, Unlike a man it rose again rolling with the wind over and over to be as it was before.
The contrast is startling, forcing us to remember the frailty of humankind once love and purpose are retracted from life. The poem also suggests some problems with the wish for perfect security -- for life without change. Such a life would have the one desired virtue -- utterly predictable continuity. But in the poem, this continuity is barren, devoid of human feeling. Amid all the risks of change, Williams affirms the power of love while warning of the consequences of its absence.
A piece of paper rolling over and over in the street may not seem to have much to do with the gathering and publishing of news. But Williams shows how such small events need not be ignored. In these events the observant soul can find central ideas behind human problems, hopes, and achievements. These ideas are always new, because they always provide a different direction of meaningful life. While poems may not be destined for the front pages of newspapers, the ideas of good poems cannot help providing a call to vigorous thought and action, as well as a refuge from chaos. By nature, these poems lead the reader on to further reflections about his or her own well-being, and the well-being of the world.
These reflections cannot be merely intellectual; for poems with the power to remain new embrace the whole of humankind. Body, mind, and soul are all touched with the presence of some unexpected realization.
As Williams demonstrates, good poetry should strive for no less.