“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!

“I wished, all the mild days of middle March” — John Berryman

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

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“They may, because I would not cloy your ear– ” — John Berryman

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“Keep your eyes open when you kiss: do: when” — John Berryman

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“The Scarlet Woman” — Fenton Johnson

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“To America” — James Weldon Johnson

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You lingering sparse leaves of me | Walt Whitman

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“Living in a Simulation” — Tom Clark

The scene is grey (Stephen Crane)

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Read “P’s Correspondence,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“P’s Correspondence”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


MY UNFORTUNATE FRIEND P. has lost the thread of his life, by the interposition of long intervals of partially disordered reason. The past and present are jumbled together in his mind, in a manner often productive of curious results; and which will be better understood after a perusal of the following letter, than from any description that I could give. The poor fellow, without once stirring from the little white-washed, iron-grated room, to which he alludes in his first paragraph, is nevertheless a great traveller, and meets, in his wanderings, a variety of personages who have long ceased to be visible to any eye save his own. In my opinion, all this is not so much a delusion, as a partly wilful and partly involuntary sport of the imagination, to which his disease has imparted such morbid energy that he beholds these spectral scenes and characters with no less distinctness than a play upon the stage, and with somewhat more of illusive credence. Many of his letters are in my possession, some based upon the same vagary as the present one, and others upon hypotheses not a whit short of it in absurdity. The whole form a series of correspondence, which, should fate seasonably remove my poor friend from what is to him a world of moonshine, I promise myself a pious pleasure in editing for the public eye. P. had always a hankering after literary reputation, and has made more than one unsuccessful effort to achieve it. It would not be a little odd, if, after missing his object while seeking it by the light of reason, he should prove to have stumbled upon it in his misty excursions beyond the limits of sanity.

LONDON, February 29, 1845.

MY DEAR FRIEND:

Old associations cling to the mind with astonishing tenacity. Daily custom grows up about us like a stone-wall, and consolidates itself into almost as material an entity as mankind’s strongest architecture. It is sometimes a serious question with me, whether ideas be not really visible and tangible, and endowed with all the other qualities of matter. Sitting as I do, at this moment, in my hired apartment, writing beside the hearth, over which hangs a print of Queen Victoria–listening to the muffled roar of the world’s metropolis, and with a window at but five paces distant, through which, whenever I please, I can gaze out on actual London–with all this positive certainty, as to my whereabouts, what kind of notion, do you think, is just now perplexing my brain? Why–would you believe it?–that, all this time, I am still an inhabitant of that wearisome little chamber,–that whitewashed little chamber–that little chamber with its one small window, across which, from some inscrutable reason of taste or convenience, my landlord had placed a row of iron bars–that same little chamber, in short, whither your kindness has so often brought you to visit me! Will no length of time, or breadth of space, enfranchise me from that unlovely abode? I travel, but it seems to be like the snail, with my house upon my head. Ah, well! I am verging, I suppose, on that period of life when present scenes and events make but feeble impressions, in comparison with those of yore; so that I must reconcile myself to be more and more the prisoner of Memory, who merely lets me hop about a little, with her chain around my leg.

My letters of introduction have been of the utmost service, enabling me to make the acquaintance of several distinguished characters, who, until now, have seemed as remote from the sphere of my personal intercourse as the wits of Queen Anne’s time, or Ben Jonson’s compotators at the Mermaid. One of the first of which I availed myself, was the letter to Lord Byron. I found his lordship looking much older than I had anticipated; although–considering his former irregularities of life, and the various wear and tear of his constitution–not older than a man on the verge of sixty reasonably may look. But I had invested his earthly frame, in my imagination, with the poet’s spiritual immortality. He wears a brown wig, very luxuriantly curled, and extending down over his forehead. The expression of his eyes is concealed by spectacles. His early tendency to obesity having increased, Lord Byron is now enormously fat; so fat as to give the impression of a person quite overladen with his own flesh, and without sufficient vigor to diffuse his personal life through the great mass of corporeal substance, which weighs upon him so cruelly. You gaze at the mortal heap; and, while it fills your eye with what purports to be Byron, you murmur within yourself–“For Heaven’s sake, where is he?” Were I disposed to be caustic, I might consider this mass of earthly matter as the symbol, in a material shape, of those evil habits and carnal vices which unspiritualize man’s nature, and clog up his avenues of communication with the better life. But this would be too harsh; and besides, Lord Byron’s morals have been improving, while his outward man has swollen to such unconscionable circumference. Would that he were leaner; for, though he did me the honor to present his hand, yet it was so puffed out with alien substance, that I could not feel as if I had touched the hand that wrote Childe Harold.

On my entrance, his lordship apologized for not rising to receive me, on the sufficient plea that the gout, for several years past, had taken up its constant residence in his right foot; which, accordingly, was swathed in many rolls of flannel, and deposited upon a cushion. The other foot was hidden in the drapery of his chair. Do you recollect whether Byron’s right or left foot was the deformed one? Continue reading “Read “P’s Correspondence,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

“Ebb” — Edna St. Vincent Millay

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“River Rhyme” — William Carlos Williams

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“Christmas Eve” — Anne Sexton

“Christmas Eve” by Anne Sexton

Oh sharp diamond, my mother!
I could not count the cost
of all your faces, your moods-
that present that I lost.
Sweet girl, my deathbed,
my jewel-fingered lady,
your portrait flickered all night
by the bulbs of the tree.

Your face as calm as the moon
over a mannered sea,
presided at the family reunion,
the twelve grandchildren
you used to wear on your wrist,
a three-months-old baby,
a fat check you never wrote,
the red-haired toddler who danced the twist,
your aging daughters, each one a wife,
each one talking to the family cook,
each one avoiding your portrait,
each one aping your life.

Later, after the party,
after the house went to bed,
I sat up drinking the Christmas brandy,
watching your picture,
letting the tree move in and out of focus.
The bulbs vibrated.
They were a halo over your forehead.
Then they were a beehive,
blue, yellow, green, red;
each with its own juice, each hot and alive
stinging your face. But you did not move.
I continued to watch, forcing myself,
waiting, inexhaustible, thirty-five.

I wanted your eyes, like the shadows
of two small birds, to change.
But they did not age.
The smile that gathered me in, all wit,
all charm, was invincible.
Hour after hour I looked at your face
but I could not pull the roots out of it.
Then I watched how the sun hit your red sweater, your withered neck,
your badly painted flesh-pink skin.
You who led me by the nose, I saw you as you were.
Then I thought of your body
as one thinks of murder-

Then I said Mary-
Mary, Mary, forgive me
and then I touched a present for the child,
the last I bred before your death;
and then I touched my breast
and then I touched the floor
and then my breast again as if,
somehow, it were one of yours

“Tea” — Wallace Stevens

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“Patriarchy Dream” — Tom Clark

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