Monday, May 06, 2013

The I and the we

Everyone who has heard of the poet William Carlos Williams will know his poem "The Red Wheelbarrow". It is so well known that I don't think I will violate copyright to quote it here in its brief entirety:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
It is as succinct as a haiku. For those who know Williams only through this poem, one might lump him in with E. E. Cummings -- sentimental, lower case, nonstandard English. But Williams' work is more complex than that, as Williams himself was a complex and conflicted man -- a conventional family man, a physician, living all his life in his birthplace, Rutherford, New Jersey, in conflict with an unconventional poet, a potentially promiscuous rebel, friend of fast-living bohemian artists in Manhattan. He seems never to have resolved the conflict.

Williams' medical training, I would assume, developed his talent for direct, prescriptive observation. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is as cool and collected as, say, the examination of a child with swollen tonsils. It was, by the way, one of Williams' own favorite poems, based on his observation of just such a juxtaposition of objects in the yard of a neighbor's house.

His scientific training might also have served to anchor him to a conventional lifestyle. We expect and forgive artists their dissolution, and think of scientists as stogy and square. Williams apparently had his Manhattan flings, but not without guilt and remorse.

I'm not a particular fan of Williams' poetry, but I identify, in a lurking way, with his conflict, and enjoy his poetry for that. As when he writes:
You know there's not much
that I desire, a few chrysanthemums
half lying on the grass, yellow
and brown and white, the
talk of a few people, the trees,
an expanse of dry leaves perhaps
with ditches among them.

But there comes…
Ah, yes, the "but there comes…" You can guess the rest.

The great French physician Claude Bernard said, "Art is I, science is we." Willliams struggled between the I and we. The struggle is documented in his poetry. And that, for me, is his interest.