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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

William Carlos Williams: The Halfworld


Desperate young man
with haggard face
and flapping pants --

as best they can

under the streetlights
the shadows are

wrapping you about --

in your fatigue
and isolation, in all

the beauty of your

commonplace against
the incestuous

and leaning stars --

The Halfworld: William Carlos Williams, 1939 (from Poems 1936-1939)

Homeless man sleeping in parking lot, San Francisco
: photo by Dorothea Lange, 1934 (Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California)
May Day listener at rally, San Francisco: photo by Dorothea Lange, c. 1934 (Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California)


Curtis Roberts said...

I’m trying to work out in my mind the geographic relationship between these poem/picture “reunions” (which are the saddest, most elemental expressions of and about economic depression, the pain of unemployment and the unresolved relationship between hope and confusion) and the bloodless indifference and chirrupy rhythms of millionaire tv pundits and newsreaders on display all day every day (and available on podcast delay if you’re so inclined).

TC said...


It's no surprise to me you're having trouble working out that relationship. I seems to me that at this time the geography of the soul, in this country, is riddled with knots and rifts and distances, making the achievement of these kinds of understandings a real challenge to the wearied mind.

I think there is a warp or disconnection between those displaying and broadcasting sources you mention, and the truth of what is now occurring, both on the literal commonplace surfaces of this society and beneath those surfaces.

I think there is a strong impulse to look away from, to deny, to disdain the economic and social realities, on the part of those people who are still privileged to be able to stand off and/or stand above.

I see, every time I go into the streets, people like the young man in Williams' poem, who appear to dwell as if outside themselves, as if lost in a "halfworld" -- more and more of them every night.

The reassuring view that in an earlier Depression there came a bottoming-out and then a return to something like "normalcy" seems to me laced with too much wishful thinking at the present moment.

I see something more like free fall.

My sense is that in the 1930s there were certain basic social contexts of family and community that remained in place and lent some stability amid an unstable situation.

I don't really see those bonding agents at work right now.

I don't see the Dorothea Langes taking the photos of life at the brink of this abyss that stands gaping before us. I don't see the Williamses writing the poems that might in some way account for it.

Maybe that's just me. Maybe it's just California. I don't know.

Curtis Roberts said...

Thank you. I agree with pretty much everything you said and, of course, I just don’t know either. I hope “free fall” isn’t the case. Personally, I tend to think it’s a very steep and scary rollercoaster drop ahead of another rising tide (which, please forgive me, will lift most, but not all, boats), but I wouldn’t hazard a guess about the “fundamentals” undergirding any future stable or improving periods. The bonding agents you mention don’t obtain any longer. I know that. It’s worse than that and even “fake polite” is down the drain. There are so many lenses through which you can view this, but tonight I’m thinking about how “Personnel” evolved into “Human Resources” and then finally into “Human Capital” a couple of years before the system found itself tapped out in that regard.