Category Archives: On Poetry

How Poetry Comes to Me

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For. Man has closed himself up, ‘til all he sees is through narrow chinks of his cavern.” –William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“I like that boy Snyder on Sourdough. He’s a calm son of bitch.” -Blackie Burns

Nearly thirty years ago I drove north from Seattle to the Skagit valley in Washington, with my friend Kevin Craft, for a walk up to the summit of Sourdough Mountain. A series of backcountry tours and climbs with my friend John, a backcountry/climbing range in the national park, had acquainted me with the surrounding peaks and valleys, though the terrain was less familiar to my companion Kevin.

The lookout on Sourdough was built by Glee Davis in 1917. (A peak to the west of Sourdough is named for the Davis family.) The lookout was rebuilt in 1933 and restored in 1998-99. But to get there requires working up a series of broad switchbacks—three-thousand feet in the first three miles—to the four-thousand foot summit.

Kevin happens to be a gifted poet, who has published many poems, books of poems, and has served as the editor of Poetry Northwest. Our late-fall hike went well. And on our walk we both had in mind a poet who had spent time in the North Cascades, Gary Snyder, whose poems are alive with the mountains and valleys of the far West. Here is one:

How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light.

Then, the day following our walk, Kevin sent me a lovely little homage:

How Poetry Comes to Me

After Gary Snyder

Or sometimes I go to meet it
In broad daylight at the lookout
It’s afternoon all morning the light
Slant and subdued running down
The dry creek bed our skin
Sweat-cool stopping to rest the red
Leaves of huckleberry flaring
Like patch fires in the scrub
Going mauve as we pass
The veined skin of their fingers
Now down on all fours
The plump berries clustered there
Not in fear but shriveling
With the season we work through
The dead-end detritus of a sentence
To reach a few ripe words
Like tart and juice at the turn of the trail.

The conversation between these two poems might lead to another poem by Snyder, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” first published in Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain   
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read   
A few friends, but they are in cities.   
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup   
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Snyder spent six weeks at the fire lookout on Sourdough in the summer of 1953—packed in by an old Park Service employee, Blackie Burns. I have been thinking about Snyder since last year when I read Snyder’s Lookout Journals during a week in the archives during a research project. Snyder’s journals are exciting and document a mind on fire—reading William Blake, among others.

Another poet, and close friend of Snyder during their years at Reed College and after, Phillip Whalen, also put in time working as a lookout, and here is his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” from The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen: 

Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Tsung Ping (375—443): “Now I am old and infirm. I fear I shall no more be able to roam among the beautiful mountains. Clarifying my mind, I meditate on the mountain trails and wander about only in dreams.” ––in The Spirit of the Brush, tr. by Shio Sakanishi

for Kenneth Rexroth

I always say I won’t go back to the mountains

I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules

And pancakes every morning of the world

Mr. Edward Wyman (63)

Steams along the trail ahead of us all

Moaning, “My poor feet ache, my back

Is tired and I’ve got a stiff prick”

Uprooting alder shoots in the rain

Then I’m alone in a glass house on a ridge

Encircled by chiming mountains

With one sun roaring through the house all day

& the others crashing through the glass all night

Conscious even while sleeping

    Morning fog in the southern gorge

    Gleaming foam restoring the old sea-level

    The lakes in two lights green soap and indigo

    The high cirque-lake black half-open eye

Ptarmigan hunt for bugs in the snow

Bear peers through the wall at noon

Deer crowd up to see the lamp

A mouse nearly drowns in the honey

I see my bootprints mingle with deer-foot

Bear-paw mule-shoe in the dusty path to the privy

Much later I write down:

    “raging. Viking sunrise

    The gorgeous death of summer in the east!”

(Influence of a Byronic landscape—

Bent pages exhibiting depravity of style.)

Outside the lookout I lay nude on the granite

Mountain hot September sun but inside my head

Calm dark night with all the other stars

HERACLITUS: “The waking have one common world

But the sleeping turn aside

Each into a world of his own.”

I keep telling myself what I really like

Are music, books, certain land and sea-scapes

The way light falls across them, diffusion of

Light through agate, light itself . . . I suppose

I’m still afraid of the dark

    “Remember smart-guy there’s something

    Bigger something smarter than you.”

    Ireland’s fear of unknown holies drives

    My father’s voice (a country neither he

    Nor his great-grandfather ever saw)

    A sparkly tomb a plated grave

    A holy thumb beneath a wave

Everything else they hauled across Atlantic

Scattered and lost in the buffalo plains

Among these trees and mountains

From Duns Scotus to this page

A thousand years

    (“. . . a dog walking on this hind legs—

    not that he does it well but that he   

    does it at all.”)

Virtually a blank except for the hypothesis

That there is more to a man

Than the contents of his jock-strap

EMPEDOCLES: “At one time all the limbs

Which are the body’s portion are brought together

By Love in blooming life’s high season; at another

Severed by cruel Strife, they wander each alone

By the breakers of life’s sea.”

Fire and pressure from the sun bear down

Bear down centipede shadow of palm-frond

A limestone lithograph—oysters and clams of stone

Half a black rock bomb displaying brilliant crystals

Fire and pressure Love and Strife bear down

Brontosaurus, look away

My sweat runs down the rock

HERACLITUS: “The transformations of fire

are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea

is earth, half whirlwind. . . .

It scatters and it gathers; it advances

and retires.”

I move out of a sweaty pool

       (The sea!)

And sit up higher on the rock

Is anything burning?

The sun itself! Dying

Pooping out, exhausted

Having produced brontosaurus, Heraclitus

This rock, me,

To no purpose

I tell you anyway (as a kind of loving) . . .

Flies & other insects come from miles around

To listen

I also address the rock, the heather,

The alpine fir

BUDDHA: “All the constituents of being are

Transitory: Work out your salvation with diligence.”

(And everything, as one eminent disciple of that master

Pointed out, had been tediously complex ever since.)

There was a bird

Lived in an egg

And by ingenious chemistry

Wrought molecules of albumen

To beak and eye

Gizzard and craw

Feather and claw

My grandmother said:

“Look at them poor bed-

raggled pigeons!”

And the sign in McAlister Street:

            “IF YOU CAN’T COME IN

            SMILE AS YOU GO BY


               THE BUTCHER”

I destroy myself, the universe (an egg)

And time—to get an answer:

There are a smiler, a sleeper and a dancer

We repeat the conversation in the glittering dark

Floating beside the sleeper.

The child remarks, “You knew it all the time.”

I: “I keep forgetting that the smiler is

Sleeping; the sleeper, dancing.”

From Sauk Lookout two years before

Some of the view was down the Skagit

To Puget Sound: From above the lower ranges,

Deep in the forest—lighthouses on clear nights.

This year’s rock is a spur from the main range

Cuts the valley in two and is broken

By the river; Ross Dam repairs the break,

Makes trolley buses run

Through the streets of dim Seattle far away.

I’m surrounded by mountains here

A circle of 108 beads, originally seeds

    of ficus religiosa


A circle, continuous, one odd bead

Larger than the rest and bearing

A tassel (hair-tuft) (the man who sat

             under the tree)

In the center of the circle,

a void, an empty figure containing

All that’s multiplied;

Each bead a repetition, a world

Of ignorance and sleep.

Today is the day the goose gets cooked

Day of liberation for the crumbling flower

Knobcone pinecone in the flames

Brandy in the sun

Which, as I said, will disappear

Anyway it’ll be invisible soon

Exchanging places with stars now in my head

To be growing rice in China through the night.

Magnetic storms across the solar plains

Make Aurora Borealis shimmy bright

Beyond the mountains to the north.

Closing the lookout in the morning

Thick ice on the shutters

Coyote almost whistling on a nearby ridge

The mountain is THERE (between two lakes)

I brought back a piece of its rock

Heavy dark-honey color

With a seam of crystal, some of the quartz

Stained by its matrix

Practically indestructible

A shift from opacity to brilliance

(The Zenbos say, “Lightening-flash & flint-spark”)

Like the mountains where it was made

What we see of the world is the mind’s

Invention and the mind

Though stained by it, becoming

Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies—

Can shift instantly

A dirty bird in a square time




Into the cool


Like they say, “Four times up,

Three times down.” I’m still on the mountain.

(note: The quotes of Empedocles and Heraclitus are from John Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy, Meridian Books, New York.)

In his Lookout Journals, Snyder copied out the words from William Blake in the epigraph to this post followed by a single word of commentary: “Ah”

Approaches to Teaching the Works of William Carlos Williams

It has been a joy and a professional privilege to work with colleagues editing books for teachers. With Fred Waage and Laird Christensen, I co-edited Teaching North American Environmental Literature (2008) and, with Sean Meehan, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2018). Both volumes appeared in the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series. I am now beginning work on a volume for the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature: “Approaches to Teaching the Works of William Carlos William­s.”

The collection will offer secondary and post-secondary teachers, graduate students, and independent scholars, a resource for teaching a poet whose work is widely regarded as among the most innovative and influential of the twentieth century. This is the perfect time for such a volume: Williams’s commitment to the poor and the working class as well as his own multicultural and multilingual background, alongside his democratic insistence on ordinary language and experience as poetic, speak to our current time, just as his poetic innovations have spoken and remained relevant to poets of various schools who have claimed Williams as their main influence.

Although Williams is among the most recognizable twentieth-century American poets, he is often the most difficult to teach. The challenge of teaching Williams is not that his poems are difficult or inaccessible. Rather most readers in secondary school English, undergraduate surveys of twentieth-century American literature, literary Modernism, or American poetry and poetics come to know Williams as the author of a few short lyrics––among them “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the “plums poem,” “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital,” and “This is Just to Say.”­­ The volume will feature materials and courses for introducing these well-known works alongside the less-known but widely-influential lyric poems, the early experimental work, including Kora in Hell and Spring and All, the book-length poem Paterson, the translations of Spanish and Latin American verse, and Williams’s wide-ranging and provocative fiction and nonfiction.

The “Materials” section will introduce Williams’s writing and related resources. Our introduction will introduce the standard editions published by New Directions Press: The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909–1939 (1986); The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume II, 1939–1962 (1988); Paterson (1992); and By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 (2011). We will survey the fiction, short stories, and experimental writing, including the works collected in The Selected Essays (1954) and Imaginations (1970), as well as the book-length study of American history and culture In the American Grain (1925). A biographical sketch will situate Williams’s creative work in relation to his multiethnic background as well as his life-long medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. We will provide a pedagogically-oriented overview of the secondary commentary as well, including the extant biographical resources, bibliographies of secondary materials, and major studies of Williams’s modern poetry and poetics.

We will also offer teachers materials that document the resurgence of Williams’s presence in the modern poetic tradition around the world––from Julio Marzan’s The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams (1994) to Jonathan Cohen’s collection of Williams’s translations in By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 (2011), as well as scholarship in both the “Materials” and “Approaches” sections, more broadly, to elaborate Williams’s Latinx heritage, his indebtedness to the traditions of Peninsular and Colonial Spanish literature, and current literary criticism and theory on the relations of culture, power, and aesthetics in the Caribbean that engage with Williams’s legacy. The “Approaches” section, moreover, will (re)situate Williams’s distinctive modernism around issues of linguistic, geographic, and cultural translation as well as creative writers. We will also compile the available and reliable web-based materials—including the recently completed open-access digital concordance to the poems in the Williams corpus.

The “Approaches” section will also introduce readers to the life and work of the small-town doctor who published more than forty books of poetry and prose and who irreversibly shaped the arc of poetry and poetics during the twentieth century. We plan to include essays on teaching Williams as an avant-garde writer in the early modernist period during and after World War 1 using Al Que Quire! (1917), Spring and All (1923), and The Wedge (1944). And we envision essays on the complex literary and cultural politics of Williams’s reception as a poet through the late 1950s and 1960s, and approaches to the work in the later period that encompasses the publication of Paterson (1946–1951), Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Early Poems (1951), Make Light of It: Collected Stories (1950), the Autobiography (1951), Selected Essays (1954), The Desert Music (1954),  Journey to Love (1955), and Pictures from Brueghel (1962).

Williams was a tireless supporter and mentor of younger poets, and teachers will find new ways to include in their courses on modernism his reviews and early essays on the writing of Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, H.D., and Marianne Moore, and his promotion of the work of numerous individual poets, including Allen Ginsberg (writing the introduction to the City Lights edition of Howl); Muriel Rukeyser, a feminist poet affiliated with the Popular Left Front; and Amiri Baraka, who described Williams as the “common denominator” of the New American Poetry and the poet who had taught him “how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written.”

We will include an essay on Williams’s editorial and creative contributions to both prominent and peripheral little magazines (Others, Contact, Origin, Black Mountain Review, Yugen) and a teacher-oriented approach to his poetics in relation to the aesthetics of high-Modernism and the New Criticism. For with his college friend Ezra Pound, Williams provided a foundation for the “schools” of poetry Donald Allen identified in The New American Poetry (1960): Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat, and New York; and he collaborated with Louis Zukofsky to promote “Objectivist” poetics and the poems of Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakowski, Charles Reznikoff, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov. One reason Williams remains a singular presence among modernist poets is his dedication to vernacular forms of expression in local environments and, more specifically, his poetic engagement with the working-class lives he encountered through his medical practice. The publication of Imaginations (New Directions 1970), moreover, provided creative inspiration for “Language Poetry,” (what Ron Silliman has called “third-phase objectivism”) that began in the 1930s and was reanimated by Silliman and other poets, such as Bob Perelman, Bob Grenier, and Charles Bernstein, as well as taken up by feminist experimental writers, including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian, and Rae Armantrout (a student of Levertov).

The “Approaches” section will include essays that address the ways that Williams was entangled in American history and identity, engaged with the inheritance of European literary and cultural traditions, and concerned with the transnational and multilingual dimensions of language and literature. To this end, we are committed to providing teachers access to approaches and materials for engaging with Williams’s preoccupation with cultural identity and the challenging questions associated with literary inheritance, including the patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions in his work, the cross-cultural complexities of his hemispheric interest in the literary and cultural history of the Americas, and his Puerto Rican heritage. (His mother, Helena Hoheb, was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico). An essay on Williams as a translator of Spanish and Latin American poets will provide teachers with resources for teaching Williams in relation to such poets as Cuba’s Eugenio Florit, Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra, Ecuador’s Jorge Carrera Andrade, Costa Rica’s Eunice Odio, Nicaragua’s Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, Argentina’s Silvina Ocampo, Uruguay’s Álvaro Figueredo, Mexico’s Octavio Paz and Ali Chumacero, and the Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos.

In addition to the poems, we will provide teachers with pedagogical approaches to teaching Williams as a prose writer: the short stories, novels, plays, autobiographical writing, and essays on poetry and the arts—including his contributions to the genre of the literary essay; the literary-historical method of booklength studyIn the American Grain (1925); the novels and short stories, such as A Voyage to Pagany (1928), White Mule (1937), and Life along the Passaic River (1938); and The Doctor Stories (1984).We will offer approaches to teaching the book-length poem Paterson, including in relation to urban planning and local environments; an essay on Williams and the visual arts, exploring his relationships with Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles Sheeler; an essay that provides insight into working with the biographical materials; and an essay on studying Williams’s literary and cultural relations and legacies, for instance, his reflections on education in his essays and philosophical fragments written in the late 1920s, and published posthumously in 1974, The Embodiment of Knowledge. Finally, the volume will feature approaches to teaching Williams using tools from the Digital Humanities that use mapping technologies and hypertextual online annotations to collaborate with students in shared projects that use data processes and new media to re-investigate Williams’s work.

I am fortunate to be working with an amazing editorial team for the volume, talented collaborators and inspiring colleagues, who share my passion for teaching as well as writing about Williams. What is more, each of us teach and study Williams at institutions with different missions and students served, and our institutional and scholarly locations will strengthen the development of the volume. One of my co-editors is Daniel Burke, immediate past president of the William Carlos Williams Society, recently organized the biennial conference of the Society in Chicago with support from his home institution, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, the Poetry Foundation, and the University of Chicago. The other co-editor, Elin Käck, who teaches at Sweden’s Linköping University, is currently Vice-President of the Society, who recently chaired an MLA session celebrating the centennial of Williams’s Spring and All, and who brings her perspective and scholarship on Williams and ideas of tradition and Europe in modernism and American poetry.

The MLA is currently inviting interested teachers and scholars to take a survey and to submit proposals for the new volume on teaching the works of William Carlos WilliamsSurvey responses and proposals are due 1 June.