Monday, February 01, 2021
Sunday, December 27, 2020
One way that Goodby and Davies counter the Welsh version of narrow Celtic Twilight nationalism is to broaden the parameters of what qualifies one as a Welsh poet in the first place, including a number of those born in England (for example) who came to Wales later in life, or some who have family connections to Wales but were raised or have long resided elsewhere. Some of these end up being among the most interesting — such as Heather Dohollau (born and raised in Wales but moved to Brittany and wrote in French). Dohollau’s “Thomas Jones” combines the philosophical or abstract with concrete, imagistic detail to make comment on the nature of art and perception. Chris Torrance (born in Edinburgh, raised in London, moved to Wales in his late 20s) combines an American Beat sensibility with gestures toward Welsh history and mythology to produce poems awash in energy. Angela Gardner, who grew up in Cardiff, now lives in Australia but seems to identify more as an international migrant; her interest in visual art and visuality, however, means she has much in common with Wales-resident poets like Tilla Brading, Peter Finch, and Zoe Skoulding. The inclusion of poets Niall Quinn, Nick Macias, Elisabeth Bletsoe, et al. testifies to the sense of new possibility that “blow-ins” sometimes offer to a local or national poetry scene, potentially becoming catalysts at key centres or moments.
There is, still, a Welsh nationalism of other sorts that inheres in the work of some of the poets included in The Edge of Necessary, but these are quite different from that of the “blood and soil” variety mentioned above, or from the less dramatic but still useless, parochial version of nationalism that the editors also decry. Wendy Mulford’s “The A.B.C. of Writing” affirms but complicates a Welsh identity, engaging with the ways in which such conceptions are constructed: “Wales. / backwards. / is a writing of the self a writing of writing?” (79). In this section of the poem, the Welsh valleys are “ours” but also peopled by “nobody at all” (79). Mulford thus critiques nationalism itself as illusory, foregrounding instead gender and class. One thing that Irish Celtic Twilight poetry has the distinction of, though, is that it provided the intellectual framework for a successful national independence movement, which Wales has not yet been able to effect. In that regard, for its time, it worked. The problem was that the Irish revolution, like the Welsh non-revolution, was coopted by a conservative counter-movement that the Twilight hangover continued to provide succor for. In Wales, this kind of poetry cannot even be said to be the intellectual backdrop for the country’s devolution. As Goodby and Davies point out, the mainstream poets whom a number of recent anthologies vaunt as the voices of devolution “had [in fact] all found their voices before devolution” (23). In contrast, the political work that the innovative poetry favored here is capable of doing is to embody the “linguistic radicalism necessary to offer [a] serious challenge to the settled language of power” (20), and this is what poets like Mulford and even Finch offer. Skoulding, originally from England, embraces the complexity of writing in “English in a bilingual country, and I know that this context makes me see English as a provisional circumstance . . . my national identity as a writer is therefore a set of negotiations rather than a fixed point within clearly defined national boundaries” (255).
Though Welsh-language poetry falls outside of the scope of The Edge of Necessary, a number of recent poets mix English and Welsh in their work, occasionally creating a kind of macaronic language that floats back and forth between the two (e.g. Rhys Trimble) or transliterates the phonemes of Welsh into some new version of sound poetry (shades of Zukofsky’s transliterations of Catullus, perhaps). In the latter mode is Steven Hitchins, whose “Gododdin Versions” go in more for sound than literal sense, while Rhea Seren Phillips utilizes Welsh prosodic forms and metres for her English-language poems, resulting in for example such evocative cyhydedd-naw-ban-style lines as, “muttering the language in shadows, / psyche swept in its vitriolic storm / of British patriotism-bird / cage of the clover, the daffodil” (317). David Annwn’s “Bela Fawr’s Cabaret” is a Joycean (Wakean) wordscape that mixes languages (including Welsh) and personae in order to (among other things) analogize native Welsh and Native American histories. “I see you in that mirror out of me / far out dancing in your druid shirt” (183), Annwn concludes.
Also radical in their own way are some of the more recent poets, like Chris Paul, whose bio points out that he is “a believer in Welsh independence for socialist reasons” and who has stood for election as a Plaid Cymru candidate (290). Paul’s work is seemingly Language Poetry-influenced and plays around with typography to produce poetic comment on commodity culture and the commodification of human relationships. Nerys Williams is something of a personal favorite (I’ve read and written about her 2017 collection Cabaret), and including her “Capel Celyn Telyneg” (among others) was a good choice. That poem takes up the deliberate destruction of the Welsh-speaking village Capel Celyn and surrounding area of Bala in 1965 to create a reservoir which supplied industry in the English city of Liverpool. “Is language here?” Williams asks, “In the water? / Under the bridge? // Does it seep through space?” (270).
The term “innovative,” in this anthology anyway, includes a tremendous amount of variety of different poetries, not all of which easily connect to the questions about Welsh poetic (and political) nationalism that the editors centralize; but one does not have to do so in order to realize their own brilliant poetic work. In closing, I will say that John James’s poetry was a happy revelation to me, verging between the conversational and the surreal, always making the unexpected move, as in “The Conversation,” which not only also references the flooding of Bala but, despite such discouraging blows, focuses in on a “strange radiance” that flows “through my floating head the sky & motion of the cloud / no light above the level of the mist & biting hail. . . . / I see the millions I catch the language / which is this world of all of us” (77). Numerous other such finds are included in this book, and I’m sorry that I have not the wherewithal to discuss all of them in a review such as this.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Saturday, October 10, 2020
Info: Tropospheric Clouds gives fragmented images that seem to be dispatched from a larger and elaborate narrative world. The poet is a multiplied character separated from the world. Rather than being presented in the Romantic cringe mysticism, here the separation of the poet is seen as a cloistering or perhaps a sense of imprisonment by vocation. The poet-as-seer image is cut again when the legitimacy-creating obscurity is saved only by publication. Tropospheric Clouds uses the unseen narrative to show the idea of the poet vocation within the reality of profession.
This book is hand-bound with a pamphlet stitch using a light-rose waxed Irish linen thread. The text pages are laser printed on 24-lb. recycled paper. The cover is printed by robot arm using a pink Gelly Roll pen on a 90-lb. smooth spruce card stock. This book was made in Milwaukee in an edition of 50.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Wednesday, September 02, 2020
WCW ended Book Five with this passage:
We know nothing and can know nothing .
the dance, to dance to a measure
Satyrically, the tragic foot.
(p. 239 of the 1963 New Directions paperback edition)
Contrapuntally means, obviously, using the counterpoint, or specifically in music using numerous voices that are independent of each other but related through the harmony, which is also a good metaphor for at least some of his technique in Paterson, where disparate types of materials are juxtaposed within the bigger poem. That is a technical explanation, but it is the fact of the dance that is elevated to the highest importance; it is finally all we can know, moving our bodies in rhythm (or contrapuntally to the rhythm, or to each other?) until we can no longer. And it is a wild satyr’s dance at that, out of Greek tragedy. Or tragic like the Native Americans dancing the Kinte Kaye in the face of imminent death (Book Three), or like Vercingetorix taking on the Roman Legions (also Book Three).
Or tragic like Williams himself in old age beginning Book Six, typing out fragments and notes even though he was half-paralyzed by stroke — still taking upon himself the task of wrangling with language: “Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words” (243). Thinking of the actual effects of his prescribed medication, he writes in Book Six, “Dance, dance! loosen your limbs from that art which holds you faster than the drugs which hold you faster — dandelion on my bedroom wall” (244). And there suddenly is as imagist an image as you could ever find. It’s no accident, no random detail, that Li Po also appears — Li Po, the original imagist (for all intents and purposes), “a Chinese poet who / drowned embracing the reflection of the moon in the river” (244). Another poet of the tragic foot.
There is more historical material, the concern with American history, a lost America that obviously never existed in its “wondrous” form (Hamilton . . . “founding the country which was to / increase to be the wonder of the world / in its day”  — but not in ours, not in ours, sadly, if even then). The very last lines (and these in WCW’s triadic line form) make up a troubling and harsh portrait of two women, Irish immigrants, one who has been abused and sold by her father into the sex trade, and her friend Mrs. Carmody “who could tell a story / when she’d a bit taken” (246). The old Irish stereotype perhaps of drinking and talk, but what is the gift of the gab if not poetry? WCW was fascinated with these people, the desperate immigrants, despite his own sexism, racism, you name it. Somehow they were still America for him. And they are tragic too.
So Williams dies and only then is there an end to Paterson. But even this statement is provisional in a way. The unfinished character of the Book Six notes creates the appearance that the poem is moving ever on, as if it is still being worked on in the very moment. It is stopped, or suspended, in an instant of continuation (like a line enjambed, but with nothing following) — in the midst of the dance and then someone presses pause, and
Sunday, August 23, 2020
|Blackbird 14 cover art by Cheryl Penn|
I have three poems in the latest issue of Blackbird (number 14), edited by David Stone of the Blackbird Institute. The move to the perfect-bound book format opens up opportunities for additional color art pieces — mail-art and collage has always been a big part of Blackbird, along with poetry, and it has always been internationalist in ethos. Includes some standout work from Cheryl Penn, Wolfgang Gunther (in Esperanto), Harry Burrus, Stone himself, and posthumous poems from Eric Basso — and others. Order a copy here.
Sunday, August 16, 2020
The pieces from the previous short chapbook are interspersed throughout the longer volume, though at least one or two have not made the cut. Interestingly, one other piece (“Pattern”) has also been removed from its place in the collection and is relegated to an appendix, where it nonetheless appears in full. We get the sense almost of a work still in progress, with moving parts, though on the other hand each printed text of course becomes fixed in its current form, well, until the next printing. For example, the upcoming complete version of Scully’s Things That Happen (Shearsman Books) is advertised as including the author’s recent revisions.
But all of this is complementary to Scully’s work, which itself often reads like a graph of a mind in motion in the moment, observing the world around it/him, but getting underneath the representations of what it presents. The poem titled “Pop” begins with a series of seemingly innocent images: “an apple / on a / windowledge”; “its skin – light – // flecks of blood”; “gold-green / beer cans” — but these also become strangely complex and abstract. Around halfway through, the piece takes a turn, jumping off from the image of “the / carefully / tussled / hair of // an artist’s / head in full / career” to a critique of the publishing industry and the “street-fantasy / of realism.”
One of the major themes of the book (which I also wrote about a few years ago in relation to the shorter Plays) is Scully’s relation to or grappling with the modernist poets. Previously I mentioned his signifying on Yeats and possibly Pound, but in the new book there are more overt references to Dickinson (often seen as a proto-modernist), Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, and others. Some, like Niedecker and Stevens, would seem to accord well with Scully’s overarching approach, but sometimes he is clearly satirizing the tradition of twentieth-century poetry. The book, after all, does have “play” in its title.
There are other *big* ideas here. In “Panning,” there is the notion of debate and argument and its futility: “in the heat where you pile the arguments for / a to one side & b to another / . . . beliefs without bases solidly founded beliefs. . . .” Finally, Scully questions the efficacy of logic itself as a means of knowing the world or arriving at truth/reality: “compare the flying pieces of the jigsaw / that each claims to be The One True Picture.” But that is not actually the end of the poem. Having dispensed with the tyranny of logic, of Enlightenment values, Scully counterpoints a radically different second section, a vision of the sap system of trees, their “conducting / vessels” — but almost bizarrely imagined through “x-ray eyes / a forest without its / supporting timber. . . / a colony of glinting ghosts / each tree a spectral sheath / of rising liquid in countless / millions of slim threads.” And it goes on. It’s an amazing image that combines lyricism and biology, both art and materialism, into a whole other kind of epistemology.
More than one piece is titled “Poetry” (NB: all titles begin with ‘P’), and it is the poetry itself that strikes me here and the more I read Scully. Yes, his work is rich with philosophical questioning, and/or focused on the seemingly mundane details of life (which with Scully are never mundane) — but the more I read him the more and more I become amazed at his use of language, the ebb and flow of a long poem, its sudden turns and veers in thought, its delight. Sometimes I feel as a “reviewer” I’m obligated to get to the big ideas, often this is agreeable to me, and at the same time I sometimes want just to enjoy the process of engaging with the poetry on the page, the sounds of the words, the alliteration, and yes even the word-*play*, which is perhaps even more salient in this collection than ever before. Or, maybe it just seems that way.
Some of the “Poetry”s are satiric, but some seem truly to posit poetry as the preferred episteme: “the / core of shape, the blood of poetry – may be so for / you too; but I know it and, breathe in again! Money / honour, power – same old pancake.” Is Scully using the phrase “the blood of poetry” straight-facedly here (this is the “Poetry” that appears on page 171)? It seems likely. The following piece, “Props,” confronts the possibility of good work being ignored or even “erased” by changing literary fashions, but nonetheless poetry remains for the poet in the writing of it, “the shadow-image of a pen descending,” finally here becomes a metaphor/image of an illumined plum, “from seed to tree to / flower to this. Taste it. It’s yours. Taste it now.” “This” is the *thing itself* (the plum, oblique allusion to WCW? “no ideas but in things”?), but it is also the poem or poetry, and now it becomes clear that there is deep sincerity along with the parody.
There is so much more that could be said — Play Book is 176 pp. long (though titles get their own separate pages) — so many more startling, dazzling phrases, sounds, insights, but I will leave it here and simply suggest that the real joy of this book is in the actual reading of it. Scully is perhaps seen by some as a “difficult” poet, but I don’t think that’s true. You can just read the words on the page and follow them where they lead.
And: Soon to come (this autumn) is an edited collection, A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (ed. Ken Keating, Shearsman Books), which should do much to make Scully’s work less prone to “erasure.” (Disclosure: I have an essay in this volume.)
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
However, this is the original band with myself on drums. This is our July 1984 demo tape, recorded on a 4-track machine. I wrote or co-wrote a lot of these songs. Further info given with the video itself, and pics, etc.
Sunday, July 26, 2020
It should go without saying that I’m not criticizing Markey here per se; he documents what was going on at the time, 1991, as punk /hardcore had already moved on to become the beginnings of “indie-rock” or “alternative,” as well as some of the major bands on this tour — Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., et al. So, this is a kind of retrospective look at that time, which now seems very much of its time; thus, it is really quite strange to watch it now and see it from such a distance. Primarily, then, I am questioning/analyzing the stances taken and arguments made by the musician themselves in the film. That said, of course nothing is ever truly that random (“just” documented, or just “what really happened”), and the fact that it is put forward as a film inherently means it is making some kind of argument about all of this stuff.
It might also go without saying that I think the music in this is still great, and there are some amazing versions of the bands’ songs. Really almost all the music is spectacular (a surprise to me was how good Babes in Toyland were live). But the strange thing to see the film now is, these people (primarily band members themselves) mostly act like a bunch of idiots (to be blunt). Yes, it’s a rock’n’roll tour and these are primarily young people (except for Sonic Youth, who were already in their thirties at the time), and I guess they are mugging for the camera, and there were probably intoxicating substances involved (e.g. Nirvana do virtually nothing but horse around, jump on each other, and fall down). But as I watched, I couldn’t help seeing this as all pretty shallow and ridiculous. Thurston Moore especially — apparently, we were supposed to buy into his “cool,” but his cool is based on a combination of inane drivel and arrogance (it appears to me, in this film), and he’s actually extremely annoying here. (J. Mascis and Murph are exceptions to the off-putting personalities of most and come across well.)
Secondly, they are supposedly attacking/critiquing pop culture, with the Madonna parodies and so on, yet what is actually documented is really what the title says — it is the moment in time where what was formerly underground/challenging/or just weird is suddenly becoming subsumed into the mainstream (“broke” big, i.e. crossed over), becoming just another signifier of hip taste and faux individuality. Adorno was right; the culture industry wins. While the figures here think they are ironically subverting mainstream pop culture, they are really only a part of it. If anything, this film demonstrates the ways that neoliberal capitalism by the late 80s/early 90s had suddenly found a way to subsume what was formerly an underground, unassimilated scene (hardcore punk), as bands brought in pop hooks and got major-label record contracts. As Steven Shaviro writes in his essay “Accelerationist Aesthetics” (2013), “In today’s capitalism everything is aestheticized, and all values are ultimately aesthetic ones. . . . Aesthetic sensations and feelings are no longer disinterested, because they have been recast as markers of personal identity: revealed preferences, brands, lifestyle markers, objects of adoration by fans.” The “cool” tastes and ironic humor that the participants in the film think shield them from the mainstream no longer do that job.
In the social-media thread, a couple of commenters charged that I was taking the film too seriously or “overthinking it,” suggesting that it was all just a bunch of fun, which only happened to be caught on camera, nothing more. However, if you’re going to put this (or anything) into a film, and put the film forward and ask everyone to watch it, then inherently it is making some kind of argument or statement. Additionally, the participants know they are on camera and act accordingly, for the wider audience it affords. In that sense, (yes I repeat myself) nothing is ever “just” without some kind of intent.
Others in the thread said that Moore’s seeming pretentiousness was all just a joke, that he wasn’t in any way making any kind of serious point through his comments or his mode of communication. Yet, tellingly there is at least one pretentious attempt at a serious message, when Moore says that their doing the tour is a challenge to “your parents,” (okay, he may have been hyperbolic and silly about the “parents” part), the Bush administration, and the KGB. He seems seriously concerned about the arrest of Gorbachev, which had just happened at that time. It’s one brief moment where he seems like he’s trying to make a serious point, which suggests that underneath all the irony, he does take himself somewhat seriously. I.e. he wasn’t pro-Bush etc., so that was not actually ironic, one of the few non-ironic moments. However, it is unclear (at least in this documentary) how rock bands on tour, aside from offering a momentary good time, presents a challenge to the political order.
Undeniably, though, there is then a certain intent in what is going on in this film, and it captures the way that subcultural figures rather consciously attempt to project coolness: again, by attempting to satirize pop culture while also becoming inescapably part of pop culture. The Madonna parodies, for example, are not just random happenings, but an ongoing skit that tries to make a deliberate point. Then there is the attempt to be seen as ironic, disengaged, which is itself a particular social stance that, being in their twenties and thirties, i.e. adults, the people enacting this knew they were taking.
For another example, there is a scene where Moore makes fun of Iggy Pop (who doesn’t actually appear in the film, though he was on the tour). The scene is noteworthy because on the one hand he’s satirizing Iggy for being “outrageous,” but then it’s also just another ironic way for him to show how cool he (Moore) is, that he’s incorporated the influence of the Stooges even as he also seems to suggest that that it’s now become oh-so-cliché. More of an attack on those not as disengaged/cool, then, than an attack on Iggy/ Stooges themselves. There’s a similar moment where Lee Ranaldo acts silly and dismissive in front of the Ramones, and right before that (in a car out of earshot) Moore says something like, “Where’s Dee Dee,” when obviously Dee Dee was out of the band at that point. Again, not really an attack on the Ramones — it’s well-known that SY were Ramones and Stooges fans — more a means of showing how passé respecting your influences is. Or something like that.
It is an odd feeling, in retrospect, to realize/confront to whom and how much we once accorded credibility or cultural capital. I imagine that if I had seen this in 1992, I too probably would’ve thought most of it was pretty “cool.” The early 90s seem like such a different time now. The music was (largely) better, but the narrative of cool kind of uncool.
As of this writing, the thread in the SST group is still there:
Friday, June 12, 2020
Sunday, May 03, 2020
The sound is good, clear, coming from the original reel of the initial mix-down. As the story goes, the band were not happy with this mix, and you can see why. Producer John Cale was trying to be fancy with the dials and does some weird things with fade-ins and fade-outs, and just generally has Ron Asheton’s guitar mixed down way too low. I like it as an alternative, a kind of “what if” — but thankfully it was not to be released as the official album in 1969. The version as released is far rawer and noisier and more guitar-centric than this one.
Something that should be cleared up and is not, however, in the new liner notes by Sean L. Maloney (who has previously written an illuminating 33-1/3 Series book on Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers), is that Cale mixed both versions of the album, not only the initial, rejected mix. It is purely a myth (albeit one propagated until recently by Iggy Pop himself) that Iggy and Jac Holzman mixed the released version of the album. That is not true, and did not happen, but sadly it is repeated in the liner notes of this new release. What happened, as delineated in Paul Trynka’s definitive Iggy biography Open Up and Bleed (which was published in 2007), is that Cale remixed it with a producer named Lewis Merenstein, who worked the controls under Cale’s direction. Iggy finally acknowledged that he did not take part in the remix in Jeff Gold’s Total Chaos (2016). Thus, this new album should not be called “John Cale Mix,” because both mixes are John Cale mixes, and I’m not sure why, with the correct information freely available, it is still being portrayed in this manner.
I also find it really strange that this version is being touted as “even gnarlier, more antagonistic” or “too abrasive,” when as noted, it is the released version that is far noisier and more aggressive. This first mix really tamped down the guitar sound, which is just plainly obvious. Yes, there is a kind of rawness to it in the sense that it was just a rough mix, without a lot of finishing touches (aside from extensive use of the faders), and in that sense it is the direct sound of the instruments from the room to the tape. But it doesn’t have the energy or loudness of the version that was ultimately released. Again, it’s great to have as a weird alt-version, but it ultimately confirms that Cale and Merenstein (again, not Pop and Holzman!) subsequently remixing it was for the best. “But what if [the second version] was the tame version?” Maloney asks. No, it’s really not.
I wish that labels would stop trying to market the Stooges with the usual hyperbolic “they were the original punks” kind of language that is now so cliché as to be cringe-inducing. The spine-covering hype card that comes with the Vinyl Me Please package takes this to new heights by claiming, “The original punk album, The Stooges is a Molotov cocktail delivered straight to the faces of the hippies of 1969, an album made by Michigan goons. . .” In fact, neither were the Stooges goons nor were they against hippies. In a 2005 interview by Simon Reynolds in Uncut, Ron Asheton went so far as to say, “we didn’t have any great animosity towards hippies. We certainly had a lot of sex with hippie women! And we listened to the San Francisco bands. It could get a little too earthy and pious. But there was a great divide in America and we were on the same side as the hippies. You don’t shit on an ally!” Further, the image of the Stooges as a bunch of dumb guys really does them a disservice. They knew exactly what they were doing and pursued their art very deliberately and with a musical intelligence that was the equal of anyone’s. Their “musical ineptitude” (to quote Maloney) mistakes a stripped-down approach to rock’n’roll for a lack of artistic consciousness. The Stooges were not stupid.
Of course, there is something to the Stooges being situated at the beginning of punk, if we see it as a continuum, but the punk of 1969-70 existed mostly in the minds and writing of certain music critics and did not quite yet compose a genre with wider recognition, which it accrued later. Yes, there’s a connection, but to throw around the term “punk rock” as if it meant the same thing in 1969 as it did in 1976, or indeed in 1982, is to elide the evolution it went through. I wish that those in charge of commissioning this kind of “Stooges are punk” copy would realize that most of the people who are going to be buying this already know something about the band and don’t need to be presented with the same-old-same-old sensationalism in order to want to have this record.
And perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the inner sleeve had not used a photo by Tom Copi from the spring of 1970, when the Stooges were no longer playing the songs from the first album. There are plenty of good shots of, say, the NYC Pavilion engagement in September 1969, which would have been more relevant to the time period that is involved here. I’m glad this came out. I have wanted to have this mix all on one vinyl record, and the look and feel and sound reproduction of it are great. Of course I was going to buy this. But is it too much to ask that copywriters and project producers bring a bit more scholarship to these ventures?
|Photos from Discogs|
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Friday, April 17, 2020
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Monday, March 23, 2020
Friday, March 20, 2020
Saturday, March 14, 2020
This is the manuscript I referred to at the end of my interview at California Journal of Poetics, where I was asked about my latest writing projects, and replied “At the moment, I’m writing an ongoing, I suppose weird surrealistic poem, in which I try to compose without a lot of conscious control, actually not always easy. Whereas some of my more recent poetry is concerned with form (albeit, I would say, in an oblique way), this is more free-form.”
Look for Tropospheric Clouds later this summer.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
Friday, January 31, 2020
In “The Farmer,” Williams offers nothing less than a vision of the nature of art. For Williams, the farmer is not a figure representing any supposed harmony between man and nature (as, for example, a traditional pastoral poem might assert), but rather he is more akin to an artist – a painter, a composer, or especially a poet. Though Williams utilizes images of the natural world, in doing so he is not attempting to symbolically integrate the farmer with nature, but rather to show him at odds with it. Here, the farmer and the natural world are in a sense hostile to each other. The farmer must physically sow the earth, just as the poet must score their pages with words, or the painter their canvas with paint. Williams expresses this in the violence and harshness of his images, and in the parallels he draws between the farmer and the artist. The farmer/artist is an “antagonist,” as he wrangles with his medium and surroundings, and Williams suggests that there is an aspect of violence or antagonism in the creative process as well as in the agricultural. Yet despite the violence inherent in such enterprises, both the farmer and the artist ultimately produce something valuable – art, crops – which, with this poem, Williams implies are both necessary sustenance for human life.
“The Farmer” opens with the image of the farmer himself, “in deep thought.” The farmer in deep thought “is pacing through the rain.” So far Williams has offered us nothing to make us suspect he’s going to do anything other than present a quaint image of country life. However, the farmer here is not just “in deep thought,” but is also pacing “among his blank fields,” considering them – not unlike an artist before his blank canvas, or a poet before a blank sheet of paper, on the verge of creative action. In fact, as Williams lets us know just a couple of lines later, he has “in his head / the harvest already planted.” The farmer is a visionary; he sees the fields planted (planned) in his mind before he actually goes about it. He looks on the fields as a medium, waiting to be acted upon, as an artist also interacts with their medium.
Williams goes on to delineate the natural world in which the farmer is situated, with this heavy-duty imagist passage: “A cold wind ruffles the water / among the browned weeds.” Something, an active force (a cold wind), is acting upon something else (the water), which like the fields lies there passively. The “browned weeds” add a vague sexual element. “On all sides,” he then continues, “the world rolls coldly away: / black orchards / darkened by March clouds— / leaving room for thought.” The surrounding world now takes on a hostile, menacing aspect – cold, black, and dark. And it “rolls away,” in the sense of “away from.” There is a disjuncture between the figure of the farmer and the natural world, humankind and nature at odds. But this disjuncture provides the opportunity for thought. Indeed it is human beings’ consciousness which in many respects sets them apart from the natural world, and it is also what gives them the capacity for art (suppposedly, anyway – we now know that other animals are capable of art as well). Along with this, however, comes an awareness, and an enactment, of a sort of Heraclitean strife. This is not a picture of harmony, or of the farmer at one with the cosmos. Rather, the farmer must mold the materials, the earth, the fields, and make them into something other than what they are in their natural state, and doing so often seems to requires violent means.
The image of “the brushwood / bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad” echoes the earlier image of the “cold wind ruffl[ing] the water / among the browned weeds.” The “wagonroad,” presumably a muddy dirt road, is “rainsluiced” – in other words cut into by the running liquid – thus deepening the impression of the violent nature of the poem’s subject matter. The brushwood is “bristling,” adding a further charge of strife and dissension. Williams specifically contextualizes the farmer in relation to all of this – the passage actually reads, “Down past the brushwood/ bristling by / the rainsluiced wagonroad / looms the artist figure of / the farmer…” The farmer is not a disinterested personage. He is intimately involved (he “looms” over the whole scene), and, for Williams, cannot pretend otherwise. But it is not enough for Williams to say something as simple as, “A farmer is like an artist…” No, the poem is also about the nature of art itself. What Williams is actually saying, then, is that there is a certain aspect of violence in poetry as well. The poet not only marks up the blank pages with ink and words is asserting theirself in the world, and actively inserting the poem into the world.
Having established that the farmer is an “artist figure,” Williams concludes the poem with two more words: “…looms the artist figure of / the farmer—composing / —antagonist”. (The words being “composing” and “antagonist.”) The meaning of “composing” should now be obvious. Williams drives home the idea of the farmer as a poet – both figures needing to take action in order to accomplish their intentions in the material world. The more important word, though, is “antagonist.” Both words are set apart by the use of the long dash, but it is “antagonist” which closes the poem, and which earns the distinction of owning a line unto itself. As an “antagonist,” the farmer, again, is neither disinterested, nor is he part of a harmony between nature and man. The farmer does violence to the earth in his sowing, just as – Williams is clearly saying here – the artistic act is also a violent act. He has agency, and he uses it – the poet marking paper with pen, the painter marking a canvas with particular strokes of paint, the wind ruffling the water, the rain sluicing the dirt road, the farmer sowing and planting the earth. The artist is not neutral, the poet is not neutral, and the farmer is not neutral. Each takes what they need through violent action. The world of this poem is nothing other than a world of forces at odds with each other, endlessly clashing, yet, in this respect, productive.
Though it is not stated (it doesn’t need to be), the farmer in his wrangle with the earth ultimately produces food. The poet of course produces poetry, and as a poet himself, Williams suggests poetry is on the level of food. For Williams, poetry is just as much a necessary product of his artistic labor as edible crops are of a farmer’s sowing. In this sense, “The Farmer” can be seen to anticipate WCW’s own more famous lines in the much later “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955): “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”