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Saturday, February 09, 2013

In the American Grain by WCW

I've read this by William Carlos Williams several times, with growing assimilation of its importance. One more of his books that pushed poetry-as-genre around. I did not initially realize how important I thought history was, how much history made sense in the realm of Poetry. Olson drew me into the proposition, and of course Pound. Williams, here, divines a sort of folk expression in his reading of history.

This is an almost unexpected book for me: poet looking at history in a sort of down forest, beguiled, and workmanlike way. It is critical but also poetically rendered. Not scholarly insofar as he cites few sources , and he invests the subjects as solipsistic characters. Yet Pound spoke of epics as poems with history. Williams sees America (the continents) as epic.

Williams grasps the (mostly) familiar highlights and pulls them up to, you know, see the roots. The approach seems somewhat like D H Lawrence's Studies in American Literature. It's an amateur's approach. Enthusiastic but hors de l'ecole. Both books bear the rambunctious of people finding their own path.

Williams takes to soliloquy much of the way, which gives the work a poetic span. He keeps a firm eye on things, and stays free of Whitmanesque cant. At the same time, the soliloquizing asserts that it won't be following the cardinal rules of historical research. Williams is not trying to be definitive, in the sense of one bell tone of agreement. He is choosing angles from which to look.

With Columbus, he provides what was for the time (less so now) a rare wait a sec. I grew up long after this was writ, yet the Columbus I knew discovered America on a merry holiday in October. There arose no question about what that meant. I heard no accounting of people slaughtered in the vested interest of the usual perps. He was served up strictly as Hero.

I know in social studies or whatever the classes were called, we learned about Cortez, Pissarro, and the others who came for glory. They were offered more as discovers and explorers (which they were), rather than conquerors (which also they were).

It was almost Hall of Fame material: Cortez (Ty Cobb, the bastard) beat the Aztecs, Pissarro (Rogers Hornsby) outpointed the Incas, Balboa (Jackie Robinson) first saw the Pacific, etc. The incredible slaughter and wrenching hardly made it thru the code, as taught. Williams wants to peek under the code.

Williams puts emphasis on the Conquistadors, with Cortez, de Soto, de Leon itemized in gross urging. Raleigh appears in grandiose reaching, yet held at bay in the connivance of Elizabethan will. Williams' intent along and thru out is to avoid or outlast the hero's plea. Nothing here like Whitman’s yawp.

Recently reading Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, I noticed how they held history. Especially with Hawthorne, the settings seem both primordial and close at hand. Time had impact. This New World was busy inventing and reinventing itself. Williams, here, is reading that effort and those changes.

Seems like you can place this with Stein's grand American experiments. Each is a determined effort to make sense out of all the documents, declarations, exclamations, diatribes, darting humilities and humiliations that contrive this country, this land, this place. I mean, that's a poetic project to assert.

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