William Carlos Williams - (1883-1963) - photograph courtesy the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library]
Ginsberg on Williams continues
[Allen continues this August 1975 Naropa class by reading Williams’ “The Right of Way”] – “In passing with my mind/ on nothing in the world/ but the right of way/ I enjoy on the road by/ virtue of the law - / I saw/ an elderly man who/ smiled and looked away”…”Why bother where I went?/ For I went spinning on the/ four wheels of my car..”
Student: Did he crash?
AG: Pardon me?
Student: Did he crash?
AG: I don’t think so. He doesn’t even have a period (at the end of the poem).
Here’s another – to a jaundiced old woman - [Allen reads in its entirety Williams’ “To An Old Jaundiced Woman”] – “O tongue/ licking/ the sore on/ her nether lip/ O toppled belly/ O passionate cotton/ stuck with/ matted hair/ elsian slobber/ upon/ the folded handkerchief..”..I can’t die/ I can’t die” - That’s a doctor taking notes, probably on his prescription pad, from the size of the line (because he did write a lot on his prescription pad). “Elsian” – (that’s) his own personal mythological..
Student: Maybe it’s a Greek allusion?
AG: No no no. Why don’t you let me answer, because I do know the answer - his own personal mythological dumb used slattern servant-girl-broad who gets tragically fucked-up by life. And in “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” [a.ka. “To Elsie”] he has that again – “some Elsie, (sic), some doctor’s servant with cheap young jewellery addressed to rich young men’s fine eyes..” [the exact quote is “..addressed to cheap/ jewellery/ and rich young men with fine eyes”] ..”who’s screwed under a hedge of viburnum or choke-cherry and sent out to work in some doctor’s family..” [“..succumbing without/ emotion/ save numbed terror/ under some hedge of choke-cherry/ or viburnum..”..”sent out at fifteen to work in/ some hard-pressed/ house in the suburbs – some doctor’s family, some Elsie –“] - “Some Elsie”, he says. So he’s made an adjective here out of it - “elsian slobber”. His poem beginning “The pure products of America/ go crazy” has “Elsie” as a character. In fact, that’s coming up next, on (page) 270.. I read part of it in the last session, but for those who weren’t here, we can go through it again [Allen reads “To Elsie” in its entirety] – ““The pure products of America/ go crazy”..”No one/ to witnesss/ and adjust, no one to drive the car.” – That was his presentation of he karmic situation of America actually - “Imaginations which have no/ peasant traditions to give them/ character”..”we degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger until we eat filth” - Yeah?
Student: You’ve spoken before about Williams, you know, how he spent his life, and that he didn’t have that much time to write, except he would carry a pad around with him, like going to the hospital to get an I-V and stuff, you know, (scribbling) on the roadside or something, and I wonder, how much that influenced, like, the mass of his work, and these shorter poems..
AG: Yeah. The short line is probably determined either (by) the short notebook or prescription pad that he used..
Student: Yeah, right. I’m wondering how much…
AG: ..which, in a way, is what we began (discussing)..
Student: And he would write on Sunday(s)?
AG: Of course he would.
Student: ..Sunday(s) was the only (full) day..that he had to write..
AG: So there’s a whole series of Sunday poems…
Student: Oh yeah?
AG: ..that we were going through. That was logical, yeah.
Student: How much.. was there a connection.. had you read that [“To Elsie”] when you started “Howl”?
AG: Yes, I had read (it). I had that very much in mind when I wrote “Howl”. I’m glad you saw the correlation - his understanding of the imagination, that is, his freedom of imagination, his recognition of the beauteous necessity of imagination. The imagination (is where) at least we’re free. If we are stuck and hemmed in by what seem to us facts, still there is the heart’s imagination, and the mind’s imagination, of what we actually desire (here defined as “..deer/ going by fields of goldenrod in/ the stifling heat of September” - that is, a free life, in the open) - but “as if the earth under our feet/ were/ an excrement of some sky/ and we degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger until we eat filth” seemed to me like the whole karmic condition of America when I discovered this poem in the ’50s.
Another little turn of the imagination, the sexual imagination, “Horned Purple” [Allen reads Williams’ poem, “Horned Purple” in its entirety] – “This is the time of yeat/ when boys fifteen and seventeen. Wear two horned lilac blossoms/ in their caps – or over one ear”..”Out of their sweet heads/ dark kisses – rough faces” – That’s really sweet. That last line - Out of their sweet heads/ dark kisses – rough faces” (is a) funny thing for him to come to. He finally got the essence of the adolescent desirousness there, and actually the old satyric meaning (of) “Horned Purple”. I always liked that.
Then right soon after that comes that one moment when his attention is totally fixed on “The Red Wheelbarrow” [Allen reads "The Red Wheelbarrow"]. So I always figured “so much depends” meaning his whole mind depends on being able to see it, or the entire universe, or a clear apprehension of the entire universe, or just being there in the universe depends on – I heard a fly buzz when I died" - Like the Emily Dickinson line - “I heard a fly buzz when I died”