“Fragment” — William Carlos Williams

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Blog about William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

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William Carlos Williams’ final and posthumous book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) opens with a cycle of ten ekphrastic poems that describe (and subtly interpret) ten paintings by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

These poems are, in my estimation, some of Williams’ finest. Possibly the most famous of these poems is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” a devastating observation of how inclined we are to look away from miracles.

Another of Williams’ Brueghel poems, “The Dance,” which takes The Peasant Dance as its subject, is also widely-anthologized; however Williams’ poem “The Dance” was published in The Wedge (1944). Williams’ “The Dance,” which begins “In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess, / the dancers go round,” is frequently and incorrectly cited to have been published in Pictures from Brueghel (a cursory internet search shows this misinformation appears in Harper’s, as well as the last resort of lazy high school students, Shmoop). Williams did publish a poem called “The Dance” in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, but this “Dance” is very much one of those other poems (this “Dance” begins “When the snow falls the flakes / spin upon the long axis,” for the record). That The Peasant Wedding is another subject of Pictures of Brueghel may also account for the spread of this misinformation (which can be resolved simply by opening the second volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, which includes both The Wedge and Brueghel). But I find myself going on a bit too much about this simple mistake.

Let’s get to the poem:

“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air”

by

William Carlos Williams

 

Disciplined by the artist
to go round
& round

in holiday gear
a riotously gay rabble of
peasants and their

ample-bottomed doxies
fills
the market square

featured by the women in
their starched
white headgear

they prance or go openly
toward the wood’s
edges

round and around in
rough shoes and
farm breeches

mouths agape
Oya !
kicking up their heels

“The Wedding Dance in the Open Air” echoes the sensual depth of Williams’ earlier poem “The Dance” (1944), which emphasized the hips and bellies and shanks of those dancers who are “swinging their butts” (!) to “the squeal and the blare and the / tweedle of bagpipes” as they prance about.

The word “prance” is repeated too in “Wedding Dance” — and not only do our partygoers prance, they even “go openly / toward the wood’s / edges,” the edge of civilization where civilization gets made.

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At the other edge of the painting, the foreground, are some of the boldest of Williams’ “riotously gay rabble.” But should I call them “Williams’ ‘riotously gay rabble'” or Brueghel’s? I think that it is Williams’ interpretation that matters here, but Brueghel gives him the material with which to grapple.

Look at those colors, look at those codpieces! Look at the hands, twisting, gripping, artfully fingering!

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Williams captures the painting’s sexual energy not just in lines that highlight the “ample-bottomed doxies” who fill this market square, but also in the vivacious images of “mouths agape” and heels a’ kicking. The poem pulses with an energy proximal to the painting, an energy simultaneously alien and native, highlighting not only the difference in the two art forms—poetry and painting—but also the space between the viewer and the thing being viewed.

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Enhancing the poem’s ekphrastic powers of imagery and feeling are the subtle rhymes of Williams’ “The Wedding Dance.” While one can find the odd (very odd) rhyme or three in WCW’s poetry, “The Wedding Dance” makes for one of the poet’s more direct concessions to poetry’s most common formal feature. The second stanza gives us “gear” slipping into “their,” picked up again in the fourth stanza’s “headgear,” and more subtly touched on in the final lines of stanzas six and seven, “breeches” and “heels.” Hell, “edges” in the fifth stanza basically rhymes with “breeches.” This thread of slant rhymes approximates the off-kilter, elliptical dance Brueghel depicts. Williams kneads guttural g sounds and harsh rs into his poem, roughening his poetry to match his rustic subject. And yet there’s just the right measure of sensuality that slips through the poem, just enough to get the rough words wet.

Like any successful ekphrasis, Williams’ poem transcends a mere physical description of art. He does describe The Wedding Dance in Open Air, yes, but the description does more than relay the physical contours of Brueghel’s art, or Williams’ analysis of Brueghel’s art—William gives us something of the painting’s spirit, captured in language, sound—another way of feeling something beautiful. Oya!

“Troubling are masks . . the faces of friends, my face” — John Berryman

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“In a poem made by Cummings, long since, his” — John Berryman

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“Living in a Simulation” — Tom Clark

“River Rhyme” — William Carlos Williams

wcw

“October” — May Swenson

“October”
by
May Swenson

1
A smudge for the horizon
that, on a clear day, shows
the hard edge of hills and
buildings on the other coast.
Anchored boats all head one way:
north, where the wind comes from.
You can see the storm inflating
out of the west. A dark hole
in gray cloud twirls, widens,
while white rips multiply
on the water far out.
Wet tousled yellow leaves,
thick on the slate terrace.
The jay’s hoarse cry. He’s
stumbling in the air,
too soaked to fly.
       2
Knuckles of the rain
on the roof,
chuckles into the drain-
pipe, spatters on
the leaves that litter
the grass. Melancholy
morning, the tide full
in the bay, an overflowing
bowl. At least, no wind,
no roughness in the sky,
its gray face bedraggled
by its tears.
       3
Peeling a pear, I remember
my daddy’s hand. His thumb
(the one that got nipped by the saw,
lacked a nail) fit into
the cored hollow of the slippery
half his knife skinned so neatly.
Dad would pare the fruit from our
orchard in the fall, while Mother
boiled the jars, prepared for
“putting up.” Dad used to darn
our socks when we were small,
and cut our hair and toenails.
Sunday mornings, in pajamas, we’d
take turns in his lap. He’d help
bathe us sometimes. Dad could do
anything. He built our dining table,
chairs, the buffet, the bay window
seat, my little desk of cherry wood
where I wrote my first poems. That
day at the shop, splitting panel
boards on the electric saw (oh, I
can hear the screech of it now,
the whirling blade that sliced
my daddy’s thumb), he received the mar
that, long after, in his coffin,
distinguished his skilled hand.
       4
I sit with braided fingers
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,
though from an aging breast.
I do not mean to pray.
The posture for thanks or
supplication is the same
as for weariness or relief.
But I am glad for the luck
of light. Surely it is godly,
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into
the eye, warming the brain
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
       5
Dark wild honey, the lion’s
eye color, you brought home
from a country store.
Tastes of the work of shaggy
bees on strong weeds,
their midsummer bloom.
My brain’s electric circuit
glows, like the lion’s iris
that, concentrated, vibrates
while seeming not to move.
Thick transparent amber
you brought home,
the sweet that burns.
       6
“The very hairs of your head
are numbered,” said the words
in my head, as the haircutter
snipped and cut, my round head
a newel poked out of the tent
top’s slippery sheet, while my
hairs’ straight rays rained
down, making pattern on the neat
vacant cosmos of my lap. And
maybe it was those tiny flies,
phantoms of my aging eyes, seen
out of the sides floating (that,
when you turn to find them
full face, always dissolve) but
I saw, I think, minuscule,
marked in clearest ink, Hairs
#9001 and #9002 fall, the cut-off
ends streaking little comets,
till they tumbled to confuse
with all the others in their
fizzled heaps, in canyons of my
lap. And what keeps asking
in my head now that, brushed off
and finished, I’m walking
in the street, is how can those
numbers remain all the way through,
and all along the length of every
hair, and even before each one
is grown, apparently, through
my scalp? For, if the hairs of my
head are numbered, it means
no more and no less of them
have ever, or will ever be.
In my head, now cool and light,
thoughts, phantom white flies,
take a fling: This discovery
can apply to everything.
       7
Now and then, a red leaf riding
the slow flow of gray water.
From the bridge, see far into
the woods, now that limbs are bare,
ground thick-littered. See,
along the scarcely gliding stream,
the blanched, diminished, ragged
swamp and woods the sun still
spills into. Stand still, stare
hard into bramble and tangle,
past leaning broken trunks,
sprawled roots exposed. Will
something move?—some vision
come to outline? Yes, there—
deep in—a dark bird hangs
in the thicket, stretches a wing.
Reversing his perch, he says one
“Chuck.” His shoulder-patch
that should be red looks gray.
This old redwing has decided to
stay, this year, not join the
strenuous migration. Better here,
in the familiar, to fade.

 

“American Heartbreak” — Langston Hughes

american heartbreak

“White Thought” — Tom Clark

white thought

“The Unexplorer” — Edna St. Vincent Millay

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“Hey!” — William Carlos Williams

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“Of Mere Being” — Wallace Stevens

“The Ritualists” — William Carlos Williams

ritualists

“O Florida, Venereal Soil” — Wallace Stevens

“O Florida, Venereal Soil”

by

Wallace Stevens


 

A few things for themselves,
Convolvulus and coral,
Buzzards and live-moss,
Tiestas from the keys,
A few things for themselves,
Florida, venereal soil,
Disclose to the lover.

The dreadful sundry of this world,
The Cuban, Polodowsky,
The Mexican women,
The negro undertaker
Killing the time between corpses
Fishing for crayfish…
Virgin of boorish births,

Swiftly in the nights,
In the porches of Key West,
Behind the bougainvilleas,
After the guitar is asleep,
Lasciviously as the wind,
You come tormenting,
Insatiable,

When you might sit,
A scholar of darkness,
Sequestered over the sea,
Wearing a clear tiara
Of red and blue and red,
Sparkling, solitary, still,
In the high sea-shadow.

Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown
And cloudy constellations,
Conceal yourself or disclose
Fewest things to the lover —
A hand that bears a thick-leaved fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.

Or shroud of gnome / Himself, himself inform (Emily Dickinson)

eds

Daniel Borzutzky poems (Books acquired, 9 March 2017)

Big thanks to BLCKDGRD for sending me two books of poetry by Daniel Borzutzky. I’d never read Borzutzky before, but I dig it so far. These poems are abject—stuff about what it means to have a body, to have some horror at having a body, etc.

A bit from “The Blazing Cities of Your Rotten Carcass Mouth,” collected in The Performance of Becoming Human:

The older we get the more we write elegies | RIP Derek Walcott

RIP Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Hear him read his poem “For Oliver Jackman” around the 6:00 mark.

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