Pissing Your Life Away: An Early Martyr and Poems of Otherness

J.T. Welsch (York St John University)

  • Delivered as part of the William Carlos Williams Society panel at the Modern Languages Association annual convention, Los Angeles, January 2011.

Complex and changing positions in William Carlos Williams’ writing have nurtured several sides of a fairly long debate with regards to the poet’s Leftist aims or credentials. In the late 1970s, Bram Dijkstra, in his introductory essay for A Recognizable Image, put great emphasis on Williams’ “rejection of the political dimension of art” (18) and “the fundamental incompatibility of Williams’ beliefs and Marxism.” (26) Cary Nelson, on the other hand, in his Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (2001), gestured towards recovering Williams’ place among that American Left, and went as far as suggesting that “the delayed scholarly recognition [of Williams] was partly a response to his politics,” since, according to Nelson, “[m]any literary scholars during the McCarthy period … avoided Williams out of fear of his politics and revulsion at his conversational idiom and working-class commitments.” (152-53) Returning some support to Dijkstra’s side of the debate, Milton Cohen, in his very recent study of Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics (2010), arguing that Williams “did not believe in communism theoretically, or in the practical likelihood of a communist revolution in America, or in proletarian literature that promoted the revolution to the exclusion of aesthetic considerations.” (145)

Like Dijkstra, Cohen also suggests a crucial tension between Williams’ poetic and political beliefs. According to Cohen, Williams “continued to support the concept of “pure poetry” and the supreme importance of “the word” long after these ideas had faded in popularity and signaled to leftist writers and critics a hide-bound and bourgeois twenties modernism.” (145) Although I am less concerned with weighing in on the question of Williams’ political views, my approach to An Early Martyr is similarly absorbed with the fraught dialectic of what Cohen refers to as Williams’ “aesthetic and social values”. In order to explore the difficult relationship between these, and to re-frame An Early Martyr as a distinctive, but imperfect attempt by Williams to combine the allegedly “hide-bound and bourgeois” aesthetic tenets of twenties modernism with his 1930s social and political interests, I begin with the premise of a disjunction identified by Cohen, as well as the wider “fundamental incompatibility” Dijkstra identifies between Williams’ poetics and his politics. More specifically though, I want to focus on how tensions in An Early Martyr might correspond to a discontinuity which Dijkstra laments between Williams’ “insistence on the primacy of the individual” (26) or his liberal notion of the artist as “the most important individual in the world,” (“American Spirit in Art”) and the socialist or at least communal gestures in the various “proletarian portraits” of the book.

By considering these deeper fissures between the self and others or self and world in Williams’ early poetics, An Early Martyr can be viewed, I believe, with an understanding of that early poetics in which a fundamental incompatibility between the object or objectivity of the poem and the authorial subject becomes a fruitful central drama. This generative rift between subject and object is a dialectic more clearly defined but also dramatized much more explicitly in Williams’ experimental manifestos from the previous decade, Spring and All (1923) and The Descent of Winter (1928), but I believe it also figures crucially into the play of self and other in the ambitious experiments in elegy and portraiture, and a deep sense of otherness throughout An Early Martyr. In the book’s general attempt to diffuse the strong subjectivity of his 1920s poetry into the voices and sights of An Early Martyr’s others, I argue, it is the poet’s self which functions as the ultimate “martyr” – and not because it wholly succeeds in its self-diffusion, or in the “pissing” of itself (as Pound suggests and Williams struggles with in the volume’s final poem), but precisely because the poetry documents and is constituted by this endless striving towards an impossible self-surrender.

Broadly speaking, the Cartesian split between the subject and object underpinning Williams’ early philosophy and poetic practice seems related to tensions between the equally complex influences of formalistic movements in the visual arts from the 1910s, and a more romantic or Romanticist ego traceable to Williams as much through Keats and Whitman as through Pound, or as much through Coleridge via Emerson. However these lineages are defined, there remains in Williams poetry of the 1920s and 30s a vital tension between the treatment of objects (including language and the poem itself as a particular type of concrete object) and the persistence of an authorial or lyrical subject. In some sense, therefore, the objective aesthetics of “pure poetry” and primacy of “the word” by which Cohen labels Williams’ hide-bound twenties modernism already lies in opposition to the “primacy of the individual” artist which Dijkstra criticizes. And indeed, this split seems broadly manifest in two strains of criticism dealing with, on one hand, Williams’ Cubist-inflected or Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore-inflected constructivist poetics and a quite separate strain of commentary which has concerned itself with the situation of authorial subjectivity. Progressive interpretations over the last fifteen years or so by critics such as Zsófia Bán and Charles Altieri have worked to complicate such distinctions between Williams’ objectivism and subjectivism. However, in terms of critical genealogies, much of this recent criticism continues to pit itself against or work otherwise in the shadow of the seminal discussion of Williams’ subject-object relations by J. Hillis Miller.

It won’t be necessary or possible for me to rehash the legacy of Miller’s argument or consider its precise application to An Early Martyr, but it may be helpful to acknowledge Miller’s grand notion of an absolute union between subject and object achieved by Williams, even if only to mark how my own argument diverges from but is also deeply indebted to it. And there is one particular point of contact I do wish to flag up between Miller’s more than forty-year-old reading and my approach to the struggle for self-surrender in An Early Martyr. For much of his chapter on Williams in 1966’s Poets of Reality, Miller draws on the prose of Spring and All – prose which Miller himself had re-published for the first time in a collection of essays on Williams that same year. But for his dramatic conception of Williams’ Keatsian “self-surrender,” the supposed “resignation” of ego which has proven so influential or contentious, Miller focuses heavily on what he calls “an important letter” which Williams wrote to Marianne Moore only a year prior to the publication of An Early Martyr, as proof of Williams’ compulsion to self-resign. In this letter, dated May 2, 1934, Williams does indeed refer to “a sort of nameless religious experience,” which he claims “occurred once when I was about twenty, a sudden resignation to existence, a despair—if you wish to call it that, but a despair which made everything a unit and at the same time a part of myself.” (Selected Letters, 147)

Taking this excerpt in isolation, Miller concludes that “after [this] resignation there is always and everywhere only one realm. Consciousness permeates the world, and the world has entered the mind.” (1966: 287) What seems less straightforward is Miller’s further suggestion that “a strange lack of tension” runs throughout Williams’ work due to the “disappearance of a distinction between subject and object.” (291) In fact, further in the same letter, Williams makes the continuing struggle and the impossibility of a lasting resignation fairly clear. Moreover, he asserts his indissoluble ego in terms pertaining explicitly to the struggle for self-surrender in An Early Martyr: “I resigned, I gave up,” Williams confesses. “I decided there was nothing else in life for me but to work. I won’t follow causes. I can’t,” he continues, in what seems a clear reference to struggles with American Communists in which Cohen has shown Williams increasingly embroiled at the time. And the “reason” he cannot follow these causes, Williams explains, “is that it seems so much more important to me that I am.” (SL 147) Thus Williams acknowledges not only a paradoxical and rather Coleridgean perseverance of the allegedly resigned cogito, but also openly acknowledges the disjunction between that authorial ego and communism later remarked by Dijkstra. The centrality of Williams’ subjectivity is the reason he gives for not being able to follow such causes.

From this then, it remains to consider how this divided nature manifests itself in An Early Martyr’s poems. Although such a division is not as clearly delineated here as in the hybrid prose and verse texts of Spring and All and Descent of Winter, one of the more conspicuous ways An Early Martyr divides its attention towards subjects and objects is in the juxtaposition of landscape scenes or still lifes with the book’s more obviously socially-conscious and dynamic portraits.  While I won’t have time here to look at some of the more subtle ways in which authorial perspectives and interjections complicate the ostensible objectivity of those still life images, I do want to use the rest of this paper to mention briefly some of the ways in which even the portraits of An Early Martyr, and the moments that might appear most successful in the communion with others, are cut through by these subject-object tensions.

A several points in the manifesto prose fragments of Spring and All, Williams emphasizes the importance to what amounts to the mutual independence of the self and “A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him [the authorial subject] (as he most certainly is) with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independent.” (Imaginations, 121) Although, as I said, I do think this mutual independence of subject and object pertains to the still life and landscape poems in An Early Martyr, an equally radical and incommensurable alterity seems to undercut the human portraits of that book, so that – perhaps most incongruously with Williams’ professed social ambitions – a lasting communion with these human figures remains just as unattainable as with those objects. In some cases, the unbridgeable distance between the lyrical subject and these figures of otherness seems underlined quite candidly in terms of address, so that, for instance, the dedication of “To A Mexican Pig-Bank” appears equivalent to the objectified subject of the following poem, “To A Poor Old Woman”. In the poem “Item”, such objectification is even more forthright, where another nameless poor old woman “with a face / like a mashed blood orange” is finally rendered a mere footnote by her brutal treatment. Furthermore, however politicized on one level, the reduction of this figure-item to “her / thick, ragged coat / A piece of hat” and “broken shoes” is no less alienating of the person within these clothes as with the couple in “Late for Summer Weather”, who are first identified as wearing their respective hats and sweaters, but whose pronouns and verbs soon dissolve completely into “Grey flapping pants / Red skirt and / broken down black pumps”. Likewise, the “big young bareheaded woman” of the “Proletarian Portrait” which follows that poem is only known by the poet-viewer from the same distance which reduces her to a description of hair and clothing.

Rather than overcoming this distance in the desperate connection at the close of that portrait, where the speaker watches the woman remove a nail from her shoe, the inability to speculate beyond the inference that the nail “has been hurting her” and the blank description of her “Looking / intently” seems to underscore that otherness. In fact, it is the same generic identification the author resorts to for the three children with their eyes “Intently fixed” on the water in the disembodied “View of a Lake”; and in both cases, rather than referring to a real and specific intent of these subjects, the word seems to mark the impossibility of such knowledge for the poet.

Finally, one of the most distinctive markers of this unknowable, irreconcilable otherness is in the use of other people’s voices. Although in some sense, the monologues and dialogues transcribed in An Early Martyr represent perhaps the boldest gesture towards Miller’s sense of union of the narrator’s subjectivity with the world of other people, these bits of speech again seem to delineate an incomplete consummation. In “The Raper from Passenack”, the first and most sustained use of another’s voice, a narrator, presumably a doctor like Williams, handles the “he said” and “she said” of the rape victim’s account in a clinical manner in the first few stanzas of that poem, before leaving off with a vaguely patronizing jibe about “the way she spoke”. These gestures, however understated, establish a crucial distance for the trajectory of the second half of the interrupted monologue, and the victim’s final disavowal of the “foulness”, “hatred” and “disgust” “of all men” – a condemnation which thus seems more poignant for the suggested inclusion of the doctor-narrator-poet. The following poem, “Invocation and Conclusion”, repeats much of this game in the voice of another slightly patronized victim of patriarchy.

The poem “Sunday” shows a different way that the voices of others serve to establish the gap between the narrative ego and those others. “Sunday” was an earlier poem revised for inclusion in An Early Martyr, about which Williams told John Thirlwall, “why not write a symphony using the noises in the house[?]… I put this feeling into this poem,” he adds, describing the result as “Just finger exercises.” Indeed, in “Sunday”, like the bodies reduced to their clothing, the unnamed and disembodied voices are reduced from any coherent, subjective content to their semblance to inhuman “barking sounds”, and the juxtaposition of other inanimate household object sounds. In those same comments to Thirlwall, Williams also related this need for “finger exercises” to advice from his old friend – “As Ezra Pound says: The poet must always be writing, even when he has nothing to write about – just for discipline” – which brings me to the very brief closing remarks I want to make about the strange little poem at the end of An Early Martyr – a poem which, as I’m sure many of you know, was written in angry response to Pound’s criticism of Williams’ poems at the time, and the suggestion that he was pissing his life and talent away on various other interests – conceivably political – when he should be disciplining and dedicating himself to nothing but the writing.

In response, the poem itself also offers a difficult and rather backhanded concession of having been “an ineffectual fool / butting his head blindly / against obstacles,” although, the poem insists, this was done in order to “become brilliant” by “focusing [and] performing accurately to / a given [but unspecified] end”. Furthermore, before and after this attempt to make himself the third-person aesthetic object of the poem, Williams also splits the subjective difference by repeating Pound’s words – “You have pissed your life” – three times, thereby pinning himself in second-person address. In this self-conscious way, having re-affirmed – despite his reaching – a lonely and romantic distance from the world, Williams also affirms a final Rimbaudian and quintessentially High Modernist distance from the martyr-like authorial figure whom the rape victim from Hackensack tells “You’ll find me dead in bed…” or whom the girl “married at thirteen” commands, “Now look at me!”, as from any of the other bodies and voices who likewise compel his attention, but resist his communion.

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