In the American Grain
Probably none of the “American classical moderns” planted their feet in the U.S. the way William Carlos Williams did. His friend Ezra Pound chided him for remaining in “that backwater New Jersey;” his college friend H.D. fled, like Pound, to Europe and fashioned a poetry deeply influenced by the ancient Greek; T.S. Eliot (whom Williams came to despise) became an Englishman, though born in Missouri and educated at Harvard; Marianne Moore created a gorgeous though difficult poetry that belied her desire to write verse “that even cats and dogs could understand;” and Williams and Wallace Stevens kept an uneasy truce, though Williams was not and could never partake of the mandarin sensibility that Stevens cultivated.
We should know a little about these poets and about the literary worlds that they inhabited: the Imagist Movement that gave way to Pound’s Vorticism, the smash-in of Dada and, on its heels, Surrealism, leftist politics in the thirties and forties, by which time Pound was broadcasting from Italy against the U.S. and Williams was still slogging up tenement steps to visit patients in Paterson. Except for a student trip to Germany and, later, a trip to France with his wife Flossie, Williams stayed planted in Rutherford at 6 Ridge Road (his house is still there), serving a population that included all races and nationality groups, schoolchildren, and anybody who walked into his office, and deriving the life’s blood of his writing from what he did all day. Beginning in 1909 with a self-published book, he brought out collections of poetry, novels, historical studies, plays, criticism, an epic poem, and all the unpublished work that now appears in his wake—letters, translations, essays, you-name-it.
In this class we’ll read through Williams’s two-volume Collected Poems and see what he did and how his poetry can help us to write our own–feet on the ground, nose in the air, ready to look at everything, even a red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens.
Born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Bill Zavatsky worked as a pianist from the age of fifteen to twenty-five and studied jazz improvisation with Hall Overton at the New School. He is the author of Where X Marks the Spot, For Steve Royal and Other Poems and Theories of Rain and Other Poems. With Zack Rogow, he co-translated Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize; with Ron Padgett he co-translated The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud. His work has appeared in The Face of Poetry, Up Late, Rabbit Ears and other anthologies, and his poems serve as liner notes for CDs by the pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland. He holds BA and MFA degrees from Columbia University. For many years he served as the director of SUN, a literary press, as well as SUN magazine, and taught in the high school at the Trinity School in Manhattan. He has also taught workshops for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the Poetry Project, Long Island University, C.W. Post College, the University of Texas at Austin, Eugene Lang College and Poets House. He currently teaches a walk-in poetry workshop at the Morningside Heights Library on the Upper West Side. He lives in New York City.
Author photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell