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Writing out of Hell: The Practice of William Carlos Williams and the Opening of the Field

In the summer of 1957 William Carlos Williams wrote a piece for theAmerican Scholar called “Faiths for a Complex World.” In it he wrote “My life is a constant watching of the field.” It had been his daily business, according to Paul Mariani. He scanned “every newspaper, every journal, every letter for hints as to what was going on in the world of events” (Mariani 732).By 1957, his medical practice was curtailed by health reasons, but the spontaneous writing style he developed out of necessity, was firmly entrenched. He articulated this as early as 1923 in “Spring and All” when he said: “Most of my life has been lived in hell, a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration when a poem such as this or that would appear” (Williams CP 203).

The 1950 publication of Charles Olson’s seminal essay “Projective Verse” gave Williams (and Ezra Pound) credit for being the only American poets writing from an open stance. Olson also called this stance toward poem-making “Composition by Field” and Robert Duncan was to follow shortly with “The Opening of the Field” by 1960.

Williams was there first. The field as applied to poetry was Williams’ life-long concern, though what he said he was looking for was a new measure, which, as Mariani suggestedtook on the dimensions of myth with him” (Mariani 438). That obsession with the line is best summarized in Paterson:

Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate:  unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness:  without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel
bush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channels of the old swale,
the small foot-prints
of mice under the overhanging
tufts of the bunch-grass will not
appear:  without invention the line
will never again take on its ancient
divisions when the word, a supple word,
lived in it, crumbled now to chalk             (Williams P 65).

Williams in 1938, by age 55, was intent on innovating and knew that Einstein’s advances in science had implications for the new measure as well as for society and consciousness in general, evident by the just-cited passage. The “Variable Foot” was Williams’ awkward attempt to name this method for breaking away from the inherited line and meter of European poetic forms and craft a way of structuring the poetic line based on the realities of life on the North American continent. But the notion of referring to his efforts as a field came not too much later. As early as October 26, 1943, at a talk given at the New York Public Library, Williams stated that the war was the first and only thing in the world today” and that poetry was not an escape from that reality but a “different sector of the field” (Mariani 483).

So what we see as we look back at Williams, besides the well-documented localism and the insistence on the American vernacular, are two other crucial aspects of his work rarely noticed: the notion of a spontaneous composing process and attention to structure utilizing the notion of the field.

Spontaneous Composition

Williams, perhaps out of necessity, developed a spontaneous writing style. He was a very busy doctor, delivering thousands of babies. You can imagine someone in the waiting room, and Williams gets a hit of inspiration and jots down this quick poem on the back of a prescription pad. After a couple of decades of doing this, the process is – if not perfected – at least polished to a certain degree. He taught himself how to recognize that poem welling up, perhaps with a starting phrase or image. He learned to trust that hit and go with it. The key is in the process with which he was creating – in the moment – the form and content. He was not as dedicated to that original take to the extent Olson would be, but a harvesting of that quick burst is what Williams’ process was about. His escape from hell was undoubtedly that heightened state of consciousness the act of composing spontaneously gave him, which is why I have likened this to a hit. Certainly it was a respite from poor, sick patients, but it was more than that. It was reality heightened into a different, deeper state of consciousness that becomes addictive in the most positive sense of that word.

The Field

In the 1830’s British scientist Michael Faraday began a series of experiments that would lead to 20th century field theory. Faraday first realized the importance of a field as a physical object, during his investigations into magnetism. He realized that electric and magnetic fields are not only fields of force which dictate the motion of particles, but also have independent physical reality because they carry energy. In physics, a field is an assignment of a quantity to every point in space. Other work in field theory has Rupert Sheldrake proposing morphogenetic (or morphic) field theory, a hypothetical biological (and potentially social) equivalent to an electromagnetic field that operates to shape the exact form of a living thing, and may also shape its behavior and coordination with other beings. Sheldrake takes his notions from his background in biology and points out this refers to “the coming into being of form (from the Greek morphe = form + genesis = coming into being”) (Sheldrake 275). In fact Sheldrake suggests “Matter is no longer the fundamental reality, as it was for old-style materialism. Fields and energy are now more fundamental than matter. The ultimate particles of matter have become vibrations of energy within fields” (Sheldrake 4). David Hawkins has also contributed some interesting theories regarding fields of dominance. Hawkins calls them “attractor fields” (Hawkins 9) and gives us more validation for the power of composition by field. He says “Genius … seems to proceed from sudden revelation rather than conceptualization, but there is an unseen process involved. Although the genius’s mind may appear stalled, frustrated with the problem, what it is really doing is preparing the field.” (My emphasis). “There is a struggle with reason which leads, like a Zen Koan, to a rational impasse from which the only way forward is by a leap from a lower to a higher attractor energy pattern” (Hawkins 164). This may be described as a deepening of consciousness. Developing the courage to trust what looks non-linear puts the practitioner at the level of integrity, in Hawkins’ Map of Consciousness (Hawkins 52). In the introduction to The Wedge, published in 1944, Williams put it this way “Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.”  (Williams CLP 4).

Williams sensed on some level that his act of writing, in opposition to the war, and the impulse toward it, was larger than the idle rambling of a left-wing poet. He was working in a different sector of the same field. His work was creating its own field(s) of resonance. One fine example of that is the poem:

In Chains

When blackguards and murderers
undercover of those offices
accuse the world of those villainies
which they themselves invent to
torture us – we have no choice
but to bend to their designs,
buck them or be trampled while
our thoughts gnaw, snap and bite
within us helplessly – unless
we learn from that to avoid
being as they are, how love
will rise out of its ashes if
we water it, tie up the slender
stem and keep the image of its
lively flower chiseled upon our minds.        (Williams CLP 19)

Is it the linear notion of cause and effect Williams was hoping for? By this time in his career, I doubt it. He was quite frustrated by the impulse of the academies, so I am sure he did not feel a poem was going to change the mind of “scholars of war” as his protégé Allen Ginsberg called them in the poem “Howl.” I am suggesting he had an understanding that his work had resonance beyond the immediate, and he was prescient if you value Hawkins view, that fields “dominate human existence and therefore define content, meaning and value, and serve as organizing energies for widespread pattern of human behavior” (Hawkins 9). Certainly the Whitheadian notion of events being influenced by past events and influencing future events reinforces this notion of the power of the poem as field, suggesting the process-orientation of this kind of composition taps into powerful energy (in one sense) outside of the poet. How appropriate is the poem In Chains considering the acts of the Bush Administration and the systematic torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo and at secret military bases around the world?

In addition to his lifelong, perhaps mythic quest for this new measure, Williams also had an obsessive contempt for the work of T.S. Eliot, especially his influential poem “The Wasteland.” Among other things, Williams felt the release of the poem “…wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it,” and that “Eliot had turned his back on reviving my world,” away from a new art form “rooted in the locality which should give it fruit” (Williams AB 174).

In discussing poetry with Tibetan Dur Bon Master Physician and Lha Khu Christopher Hansard, of Eliot he said: “Eliot wrote out of unconstrained fear. He always sought an outcome. And Walt Whitman discovered that words, although seemingly the adventure, were in fact the instruments by which he discovered himself.”[1] It was Eliot’s energetic field exuding fear to which Williams and later Olson were reacting. In fact, Olson’s “The Kingfishers” was a deliberate effort to repugn the hopelessness of “The Wasteland.”

Yet “The Wasteland” was, and in many circles continues to be, an important poem. James Breslin in his critical essay on Williams and the Whitman tradition says:

According to Williams, “mental activity in most people is conducted primarily at the level of ordinary consciousness or the ego. The distinctive feature of such life is its tendency toward a rigid conservatism, a fear of new experience, and a desire to operate safely and fixedly within established categories. Locked within a system, cut off from fresh experience by the desire for security, the ordinary man will be emotionally and sensually starved; in a real sense, he will not even exist…Ironically then, the person who seeks security uproots himself from the present moment, the only thing that IS, and so he becomes a perpetual drifter. Because he is impoverished, his activity will be incessant; but because he is dissociated from the sources of life, his restless activity will be futile…his fear of the new, thwarting the creative process of renewal, is self-destructive(Breslin 158).

If that does not peg the state of the modern, TV-fed, terrorized American consumer, I am not sure what can. After all, North America is a continent made up of people escaping something. The spin we have been given is that of religious freedom and opportunity, and there is a kernel of truth in that. The truth is, in America, diversions from introspection have been perfected. Drugs (licit and il-,) gambling, sex, materialism, the list is endless. Yet Williams’ spontaneous composing process, practiced in snatches of time between patients, and perfected in his later works such as “The Desert Music,” and “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” was one of constant renewal. Breslin suggests that was the theme of Williams work after 1913, as Williams began to internalize the work of Whitman and extend it. Add to that the notion honed in the Imagism movement – that it was the sensual, not the abstract that mattered, a process poetics grounded in the phenomenological moment and you have the main reasons Williams best work is timeless. This is what happens when you have “a poetics that are alive and conscious” (McClure xv), in Michael McClure’s words, combined with a content of renewal and appreciation of the here and now. The field which it radiates is one of a deep consciousness and invention, a quest to make things new “not by transcendence by immersion” (Breslin 620).

Later in life Williams was able to get vindication for his stance toward art from the Action Painting of the Abstract Expressionists, from Charles Olson, and from Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, and increasingly, the academy, but the best vindication comes from creating a field of work that will continue to grow in radiance and inspire future generations of poets and readers. And if he is in hell, his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” suggests it has its scenery:

I was cheered

when I came first to know

that there were flowers also

in hell.                                   (Williams PFB 153)


Works Cited:

Breslin, James.  William Carlos Williams and the Whitman Tradition.  Literary Criticism

and Historical Understanding selected papers from the English Institute,  Damon,

Philip, ed.   New York:  Columbia University Press,  1967

Breslin, James.   Whitman and the Early Development of William Carlos Williams.

PMLA 1967  Dec; 82 (7): 613-621.

Hawkins, David  Power Vs. Force  Sedona:  Veritas, 6th Ed.,   2004

Mariani, Paul.  William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked.  New York: McGraw-

Hill,  1981.

McClure, Michael.   Three Poems   New York: Penguin,   1995

Sheldrake, Rupert.  The Sense of Being Stared At.   New York:  Crown,   2003.

AB – Williams, William Carlos.   The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.  New

York:  New Directions,   1967.

CP – Willams,  William Carlos.  Collected Poems, Volume I, 1909-1939  4th Ed.   New

York:  New Directions    1986

CLP – Willams,  William Carlos.  Collected Later Poems Revised Ed.   New York:  New

Directions    1963   (“In Chains.”)

P – Williams, William Carlos.  Paterson. 3rd Ed.  New York:  New Directions,  1963.

(Without invention…)

PFB – Williams, William Carlos.  Pictures from Brueghel. 3rd Ed.  New York:  New Directions,

1962.   (Excerpt from “Asphodel: That Greeny Flower.”)


[1] From a 2003 interview conducted by the author. (See also The Tibetan View of Sound… essay.)