[William Carlos Williams, reclining on the roof of the Passaic Central Hospital, 1936 - photo c. Beinecke Library]
AG: We left William Carlos Williams in his kitchen, waiting for the water to freshen at the sink tap at one in the morning, and since then, I've been back to my kitchen, and, for the first time in my life, watched myself wait for the water to freshen at the sink tap, and was getting a great deal of kicks out of that. And in the last lecture (here at Naropa) by (Chogyam) Trungpa (Rinpoche), there was some advice to a fellow-poet here, saying "slow down", make yourself a cup of tea, and watch it while you're making it, don't analyze it, watch it, I mean, observe, watch, watch yourself, watch it slowly - which is what Williams is doing. All sorts of parallel perceptions. So I learned from that phrase of Williams this week to appreciate the water freshening, because I always do wait for the water to get a little colder (unless I'm speedy, and put the glass under the cold water tap and don't wait, (and then) I get a sort of luke-warm drink). So,watch. Mindfulness was producing immediate results, and Williams was affecting this little portion of my life, since I read that poem. Now it was 1 a.m. (or it was late at night) (and) he was alone in the kitchen, in the brilliant gaslight, turning on the kitchen spigot.
Still around his house - "Danse Russe" ( page 148 of the Collected Earlier Poems), one of his greatest poems, which sums up almost all of Walt Whitman in a modern suburban way, and points out how we're all crazy, and how we can accept our craziness as crazy wisdom. The poem is "Danse Russe" (Russian Dance) - So I guess it was such a homely subject that he was dealing with that he gave it a high-faultin' title. [Allen reads "Danse Russe" in its entirety] - "If when my wife is sleeping / and the baby and Kathleen/ are sleeping..." "Who shall say I'm not/ the happy genius of my household?" - It seems to me (that) when he came to a few crucial poems like this, he really went through a change of character, or a precipitation of understanding of himself, a precipitation of self-acceptance and understanding. That self-acceptance with the cranky ("grotesque" is his word here), seeing in himself, looking at himself through the mirror, seeing himself, in one part of his mind, as "grotesque", but with a more sane and broader part of his mind, as Him natural - Himself, nature (with a capital "H")
Student: Also "lonely, lonely" and "happy genius" are really... "I am lonely, lonely", and then the last line, "the happy genius"..
AG: Are what?
Student: Well, I just think it's real amazing..
Student: ..to have the transition of the one to the other with no transition.
AG: Well, no, there is a transition. See. "I am lonely.../I was born to be lonely,/ I am best so!". First, it sounds like it's self-pity..
AG: Then it sounds like great philosophy - "I was born to be lonely". And then it sounds like Vajrayana happiness - "I am best so!". So in those three lines he actually goes through a transition. Of course, he's kidding with the "I am lonely, lonely" self-pity part. So there may be an element of it in there, suggested, but he begins by saying "I am lonely, lonely", and it could be goofy, but it isn't. He brings it out of goofiness by total humor. Anyone can learn from this, because this is something that everyone has done at one time or other, obviously, dance(d) around in their room naked and feel (felt) "grotesque". And he's transformed the feeling of grotesquerie into a feeling of genius. It's also funny - "the happy genius of my household" - the lares and penates, the household gods - like he's his own household god, or his own household genius, or spirit - "the happy genius of my household" - Also, at the beginning, he's still outside himself in perception - "the sun is a flame-white disc/ in silken mists/above shining trees" (which is a terrific rendering of that suburban dawn. He had to get up to go to work in the hospital, I guess, or he got up because he was lonely). Whitmania there.
Back to one of those "characters" (that (T.S.) Eliot liked) - local portraits - "Portrait of A Woman in Bed" (on page 15o, for those who are following with the book - you might as well buy the book and keep it, because it's like a little poetry bible, especially if you have a tendency to write bad poetry, it's an instant cure, if you keep it all your life by your bedside). [Allen reads "Portrait of A Woman in Bed" in its entirety - "There's my things/ drying in the corner:/ that blue skirt/ joined to the grey shirt"..."You could have closed the door/ when you came in;/ do it when you go out,/ I'm tired".
Student: That would make a great blues.
AG: Yeah, it's very near (to the blues form).
So, by this time, we see that he's found his space, found his spot in eternity in Rutherford , New Jersey, accepted his own place. The word "place" in this sense is (Robert) Creeley's. Creeley uses the word "place" to mean what around here in meditation they call "space", making friends with the space around you. Robert Creeley, a student of Williams, uses the term "place" (or used it, in the '50's and '60's) to indicate the familiarity and transformation of nightmare stuck-in-life feelings to mature settled-here-at-home (feelings), alive and at home, and observant of the detail around, not stuck in a thought in your head. So Williams has found his place - Rutherford - and he's found himself (to the extent (that) there is a self). The "grotesque" physician, dancing at night, or in the morning, waving a shirt around his head. Now he begins to consider a little deeper inside. [Allen reads "Smell" in its entirety] - "Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed / nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?".."Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?/Must you have a part in everything?" - What he's doing, really, is simply observing the fact that the nose smells everything and that the mind wanders everywhere, or, as he has (it) in the poem about the rain in the trees ["The Trees"], "no part of us untouched". He's sort of registering that as a natural psychological fact, or natural physiological fact, olfactory fact. But it's also, like, a symbol, you could say, for the mind and the mind's curiosity and for human curiosity. But he doesn't have to make an editorial about it. He can leave it where it is, just having said it, because the implication is there, that's clear. I mean, it's not just about his nose, it's about his entire poesy. It's about his whole heart-mind. Of course, there's a little generalization in here, but he sticks to his nose and he sticks to the smell.
And in that he's following an insight, made about maybe ten (or) twenty years earlier, by Ezra Pound. I brought some of Pound's literary criticism along, just to underline what's going on. (I found a notebook that I kept in 1953, '54, '55, when I was writing "Howl", because I was going over with Gordon Ball, a friend, typing up old notebooks) and from an essay called "A Retrospect" (page 97 of Pound's Pavannes and Divisions, his essays on the wanderer's literature, the Provencal literature) - "The natural object is always the adequate symbol" - Quote, unquote - "The natural object is always the adequate symbol" - What made me think of putting this in was when I said. "There's the nose, and the nose is symbolic of course, but it's the adequate symbol" - "The natural object is always the adequate symbol" - You don't have to make a symbol for something, just use the natural object, and the natural process, as is (and it) will convey whatever perception you have because the only way you can have a perception is through natural objects, otherwise it's a thought, otherwise you're not watching, you're analyzing. So poetry is watching the natural object. And the reason you watch the natural object is because it's already the adequate symbol, it's already the poem. You don't have to make a poem on top of it. You don't have to make a symbol on top of it. At least, in Williams' practice you don't.
And for "natural object as the adequate symbol", I thought, at this point, of introducing... (of) taking a small flyer, and comparing what Williams is doing with... We've already been through Williams, all sorts of Williams material - brief, long - but, taking off from the last poem, about the sprig of parsley - "On the grooved drain board/ to one side is/ a glass filled with parsley.."