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Saturday, 19 April 2014

William Carlos Williams: By the road to the contagious hospital


Untitled (Newark): photo by Joshua Perez (StrangeGoodness), 14 April 2014

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -- a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines --

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches --

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind --

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined --
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

William Carlos Williams (b. Rutherford, New Jersey, 17 September 1883, d. Rutherford, New Jersey, 4 March 1963): By the road to the contagious hospital, from Spring & All, 1923 


Hazen said...

“. . . uncertain of all
save that they enter.”

That’s perfect. A fine poem.

Later on, maybe too soon, we learn the other half, about the exit; but the uncertainty remains a constant.

That top photo looks familiar. I’ve taken the train many times from DC to NYC, much of the journey through wasteland just like this.

Barry Taylor said...

Thank you, Tom - this is a fine seasonal gift. For a died-in-the-wool unbeliever like me, it's a great poem of resurrection:

'It quickens ... the profound change / has come upon them'

TC said...

Joshua Perez rewrites Bill Williams' view of landscape with a camera.

Williams made a few small but important changes in his editing of this poem, the opening lyric in Spring & All. Maybe most significant is his revision of the direction of the wind -- in his first draft, it comes out of the "northwest"; a northeast wind carries a hint of menace, in its restlessness.

When the wind shifts round a mood of unease is reflected, as in Hopper's East Wind over Weehawken.

WCW would remark in retrospect that in his mind the poem was associated with a break with the poet and critic Yvor Winters, previously an exponent of his poetry. In it he had achieved, he said, "one of the best images I have ever perpetrated, which even Yvor Winters liked. But just at this point he parted company with me for the classic forms."

TC said...

An excerpt from a useful examination of the poetics at work in the poem, by John Hollander:


This is a poem of discovery, of the gradual emergence of the sense of spring from what looks otherwise like a disease of winter. The "contagious hospital" is both a colloquial usage, by doctors and patients, for the longer name, and a hospital that is itself contagious, that leaks its presence out onto the road. The cold wind will be revealed as a spring wind, but not before the poem's complex act of noticing has been completed. The meter here is a typographic strip about 30 ems wide with a general tendency to break syntax at tight points (lines 3 and 4 are normal, rather than exceptional); but notice the traditional use of discovery-enjambment in lines 2 and 3—"under the surge of the blue" because of its audible dactylic melody aims the syntax at a noun version of "blue," a metonymy for sky. But the next line discovers its mere adjectival use, appositively with "mottled," and the hopefulness of upward motion, the brief bit of visual and perhaps spiritual ascendancy is undercut by the bleakness of the wintry scene, and the totality of the non-greenness, even the exclusion of available blue. For the buds of spring do indeed look, at first, like tumorous nastinesses of the branch. But the poem moves toward the avowal of the discovery: "Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf." Its real conclusion, however, is revealed in the final moralization: "One by one objects are defined-- / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf." The action of the poem is specifically discovered to be one of focusing; as one rotates a knob on the consciousness, the objects are defined, both in the world of the poem and by the poem, by poems in general. In its moralization, the poem is like "The Red Wheelbarrow," a manifesto about poetry. It is full of light, too, which it does not directly confront, the light that, as a younger poet has put it "wipes each thing to what it is,'' the light that takes us past what Stevens called "the evasions of metaphor." This is as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting, now revealing its depths and, as the conscious wind of attention blows over it, now displaying the wavy texture of its surface. Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no rhetorical sound. But its shape has become a familiar one—particularly for contemporary poetry of the eye—about its possibilities, betrayals and rewards, about rediscoveries of the visionary in the visual.

[. . . .]

Williams employs an enjambment which is directly in the line of Milton's type of revisionary disclosure:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

"Blue" in the second line might be nominal, and the surge of azure sky might be a too-easily gained sign of spring; the enjambment pulls it back into adjectival status, paired with, and half-modifying, "mottled." The fairly hard but merely systematic enjambments of "the" in the next two lines tend to soften, in retrospect, the modulation of "blue," as if to suggest, perhaps, that closure is no norm, that linearity has no marked integrity other than the rough typographical width of somewhere around thirty ems.

John Hollander: from Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, 1975

Wooden Boy said...

As description, it's utterly beautiful. Hollander's reading opens it out.

A great poem, I think. It crackles in the mind.

The photographer takes overlooked places and has them look back at us.

ACravan said...

Yesterday was too active and busy a day to take this all in, although I read the poem, was extremely impressed by the pairing with the pictures and thought about it during part of the evening. Re-reading it in a still-silent house and considering it along with the penetrating John Hollander excerpt is an extraordinary way to begin the day. And, of course, reading it "in season" helps. I'm also familiar with the sights along that train route and looking out the window, I see those colors. Happy Easter. Curtis