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william carlos williams

Teaching the Prose of William Carlos Williams

For many teachers, particularly those less familiar with modernist writing, Williams’ prose is, to quote a 1966 assessment by A. Kingsely Weatherhead, “to a great extent, hit or miss. There are on the one hand the brilliant perceptions” and there are on the other hand, he writes, “the kind of floundering around, the compulsive repetition with variations of a word that has a kind of numinous appeal to him, found for example in ” The Poem as a Field of Action'” (SE pp. 280-291), where he doesn’t rightly know what he’s about at all.” In 1969, however, Linda Welshimer Wagner articulated a more sympathetic approach, calling attention to Williams’ improvisational prose style. “The personal and “idiomatic quality” of Williams’ prose—including his essays, The Great American Novel, the Autobiography, and the letters—present the reader with a difficulty. “Instead of logic,” Wagner concludes, Williams gives us truly personal improvisation.” The example she gives is from Marianne Moore:

Surely there is no poetry so active as that of today, so unbound, so dangerous to the mass of mediocrity, if one should understand it, so fleet, hard to capture, so delightful to pursue. It is clarifying in its movements as a wild animal whose walk corrects that of men.

For Wagner, the numerous qualifying phrases and the esoteric simile illustrate some of Williams’ weakest stylistic practices. The control he achieves in much of his fiction is less evident when the poet himself speaks. Williams’ painful honesty, his groping, sometimes obscures rational progression, but never the effect of genuine speech—terse, emotional, stubborn, perceptive (140). I want to suggest, more specifically, that the moments where we miss rational progression are the moments when the literary qualities of Williams’ prose are most acute. “There is no confusion—only difficulties” Williams admonishes in Spring and All. To follow improvisational moments in any form of experimental art is to follow the mind recognizing itself as it intervenes in the familiar.

My claim in this essay is that there may be no more productive space for the practice of literary and cultural studies than the prose writings of William Carlos Williams. In the undergraduate classroom, in particular, Williams’ prose invites students to wrestle with practical questions about reading, thinking, and writing. His prose is alive with the theoretical questions that arise in practice as well: questions about linguistic forms, language and thought, the relations between ourselves and the world.

The pedagogical value of Williams’ prose follows from my recognition that my most productive experiences as a teacher have roots in what I have learned from Williams and what Williams has made possible for my students. In first-year writing courses, general education humanities electives, historical or thematic surveys in the major, or project-based work in upper-level courses, Williams has proven a generous, challenging, and provocative companion. For the students I teach at a public liberal arts institution—with over forty percent who are the first in their families to attend college—Williams’ generous and vital commentaries on reading, thinking, and writing have been extraordinarily useful in both English and general studies courses.

There are places to go when considering Williams’ pedagogical values and strategies. But “(A Sketch for) the Beginnings of an American Education” is perhaps the most instructive place to begin. The sketch, near the end of The Embodiment of Knowledge, is a provocation. “A good beginning,” Williams insists, “would be to abolish in American schools (at least) all English departments and to establish in [their] place the department of Language” (EK 146). The fault with education, Williams will say in the section “The Beginnings of an American Education,” is not the students at all “but with those to whom it has been asked to look: to its elders, the leaders, the professors. . .” (3). Anyone who has become weary of general comments by teachers about the poor preparation or skills of their students, or who, like me, has found a response that goes something like “the problem with student writing is not the students,” will understand what Williams is getting at here.

The department of Language that Williams might envision follow from the examples he provides of what we might today call “student-centered” learning, or pedagogical methods organized around promoting student agency. In the department of Language professors would be less concerned with disciplinary knowledge or skills and inclined toward the approach to language in Gregory Ulmer, Nancy Comley, and Robert Scholes’ Textbook: An Introduction to Literary Language—a reader that, as it happens, includes in the section on narrative Williams’ “The Use of Force.” First published in 1988, and revised and expanded in 1995 and 2001, Textbook opens with a letter to the student

As you enter this book you will find all kinds of texts: some are usually called ‘literary’ and some are not. This mixture is essential to our method. We do not want to offer you a collection of ‘master’ works that ask for your passive submission, but a set of texts that you can work and play with, increasing your own understanding of fundamental textual processes and your own ability to use the written word. We hope to help you feel more at home in the house of language, and we are confident that a better command of written language will contribute to a better life.

This emphasis on texts—poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, fragments and more completed work—and the invitation for students to play with language and become more aware of textual processes aligns well with Williams’ department of Language.

The department of Language Williams might envision can be further imagined through a comment on the practice of modern writing in “The Modern Primer,” in which Williams asks “What is meaning of Gertrude Stein’s work?” His answer—“Language is made up of words, the spaces between words and their configuration” (17)—offers a useful reminder when a classroom of students engaged in a close reading of a text laments that if only they could read “between the lines” or “more deeply.” It is useful because these metaphors imprison students in a misconception. For when one actually reads between lines one finds white space. Similarly, when one reads “deeply” one lands on the next page. Williams’ prose writings offer touchstone sentences that demystify the ways people trained in the humanities engage with texts. Furthermore, in “The Embodiment of Knowledge etc.,” Williams observes that “The basis of all bad reasoning is in the beginning” (41) and of the necessity “to conceive clearly the materials of our thought” (42). The focus on language must also address the challenge of students who appear to have learned in their English classes that meaning is something that can be found in words—students who have essentially ceded the active process of making meaning to the authority or the commonplace understandings that replace the experience of reading with the conclusions of other readers.

The essays in The Embodiment of Knowledge are rooted in a tradition of thinking about education and institutions that runs from Emerson through Dewey to the robust scholarship of teaching and learning that circulates mostly in the pedagogical domains of rhetoric and composition. Ron Loewinsohn’s introductory essay to The Embodiment of Knowledge provides a summary of these roots. “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads,” Loewinsohn writes, “is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are on-going activities in which we create ourselves from day to day” (xii). Across the early and late prose writings—and of course in the poetry and poetics—one finds this broadly humanistic understanding of attention to engaged inquiry, an active imagination, and self determination. Williams’ prose is useful as we learn to empower students—encouraging them to become more aware of their place in the developmental arc of late adolescence and supporting them as they struggle with authority, perspective, and autonomy.

At the same time, Williams’ concern with language, history, and culture, as Brian Bremen has demonstrated, comprise a “cultural diagnostics” that, in Bremen’s description, is surprisingly congruent with the literary and cultural work we routinely ask of our students. Williams prose writings, in particular, offers students clear insight into the purpose of humanistic study. Bremen notes that Williams’ poetics embrace ideas about literature, history, medicine, gender relations, and politics. And Bryce Conrad, especially in his 1990 book Refiguring America: A Study of In the American Grain, offers teachers an incisive description of William’s historiographical method—what Conrad calls Williams’ “open” history focused on the active process of making historical knowledge.

What does this active process of making historical knowledge look like in an undergraduate classroom? Reading and reflecting on literary and cultural history with Williams, in a course I taught in American Studies and Women’s Studies, a student decided to write about the book, In the American Grain, and two essays, Williams’ 1934 “The American Background: America and Alfred Stieglitz” and Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision” that was published in a 1972 issue of College English dedicated to Women, Writing and Teaching.

The student quoted Rich’s description of awakening that opens the essay—”It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful”— and found in Williams’ description and critique of history a method not unlike Rich’s material and feminist critique. The student argued that both Williams and Rich insist that we examine, in Rich’s words, “how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live-afresh.” The modernist William and the feminist Rich share an imperative for what Rich describes as “re-vision”: “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.

This example, and there are innumerable others, have shown me some of the ways Williams’ prose writing enter the minds of and inspire our students. Most recently, I have taught Williams in the tradition of the essay from Montaigne—discovering that Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, in fact, include Williams’ “An Essay on Virginia” in their sourcebook Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. (It is one of four selections from the 1920s, Williams appears between Virginia Woolf and Hilaire Belloc.) In an essay on the text, Stuckey- French reminds his reader that “the genteel essay was under siege by 1925, but it was not clear what would replace it” (105), For Williams, Stuckey- French argues, “the debate over the future of America and the future of the essay were linked by the question of form, for he believed that the transformation of American culture rested on the transformation of the forms of that culture” (98). Stuckey-French points out that Williams “was unique among American modernists in his decision to write an essay on the essay” (100), arguing that “Williams develops and demonstrates his theory of the essay, arguing that the formless form of the essay mirrors the form of American democracy, which rests on an unresolvable tension between individualism and conformity” (97).

Williams is exquisitely aware of the need to imagine ways of writing beyond cultural and discursive commonplaces. And his prose writings unsettle distinctions between the personal and the academic, between lived experience and the thinking of others. As Loewinsohn writes in his introduction to The Embodiment of Knowledge, “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are ongoing activities in which we create ourselves from day-to-day” (xii). Williams notion is that when students learn the pleasures of experiencing higher standards than what they are used to, they become aware of these standards and enlarge their own sense of what can be done.

Works Cited

Conrad, Bryce. Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Cardozo, Karen M. “Essaying Democracy: The Post/Modern Intertexts of Kingston, Rodriguez, and Williams.” William Carlos Williams Review 27.1 (Spring 2007): 1–23

Kinnahan, Linda. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Moore, Daniel. “Trauma and “The Use of Force”.” William Carlos Williams Review. 29.2 (2009): 161–175. Project Muse

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision.” College English 34.1. Women, Writing and Teaching (October 1972): 18–30

Stuckey-French, Ned. “‘An Essay on Virginia’: William Carlos Williams and the Modern(ist) Essay.” American Literature 70.1 (1998): 97–130.

 Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “The Unity of His Art.” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 2.1. Poetic Theory/Poetic Practice (1969): 136–144.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. “William Carlos Williams: Prose, Form, and Measure.” ELH 33.1 (1966): 118–131