Spring and All: The Mirror Phase and a Modernist Imagination

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This excerpt is from an essay by Associate Professor Blake Leland, Ivan Allen College School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech and was originally published in Philologie im Netz 76/2016 (100 - 111), Die Freie Universität.  

Spring and All: The Mirror Phase and a Modernist Imagination

This essay applies a psychoanalytic framework to William Carlos Williams’ critical mid-life attempt, in Spring and All, to express to himself and for himself his own urgent notion of poetic Imagination. The essay proposes that the qualities Williams attributes to genuine manifestations of the poetic Imagination have their psychical foundations in the mirror phase of primary narcissism. Poem “XXII,” also known as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” is presented as the exemplary case.

In 1923 William Carlos Williams made Spring and All, an urgent, often turgid, volume in which that good New Jersey obstetrician, struggling to accomplish his own rebirth, found a way of doing poetry that would free him and his work from what seemed to him the mechanical repetitions of a played-out tradition. As a record of Williams’ impulse to “make it new,” Spring and All is simply one of many Modernist manifestos announcing a salutary demolition, with renaissance to follow. Unlike so many of the others, Williams does not announce an “-ism.” Spring and All must be partly a response to events in a public world, but its often confused and broken prose does not make for convincing polemic. It does, however, indicate a sense of profound crisis, a genuine urgency.

It is generally agreed that that crisis was precipitated by his encounter with the work of his friend Marianne Moore and the publication and reception of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land. While Williams was publishing poems like “Tract,” energetic plagiary (to use his term) in the tradition of Whitman, Moore was publishing unique artifacts like “The Monkeys,” and “Those Various Scalpels.” By his own admission Williams found Moore’s work puzzling, but felt too that she was “of all American writers most constantly a poet” because “her work is invariably from the source from which poetry starts” (Williams 1971: 145).

That source is a kind of intention, a willful “‘something’” that Williams recognizes but doesn’t quite name (Williams 1971: 144). He knows what to call The Waste Land, however. It is “‘literature’” (Williams 1971: 169), and it is opposed to the imagination, the one force that can “refine…clarify…intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live” ( Williams 1971: 89).) Literature does not see spring as “THE BEGINNING” in which “THE WORLD IS NEW” (Williams 1971: 94-95); it sees only a kind of plagiary: “April is the cruelest month…” It sees tradition absorbing the individual talent.

I polled my colleagues, asking what was their favorite poem of spring, or what was the first bit of poetry that they associated with spring. E.E. Cummings was popular. Williams was mentioned, and Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Housman. I thought it odd at first that some of the poems from earlier in the English anthology were missing. No one nominated “The Cuckoo Song” or the first verse of “Alison,” and only one person mentioned the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. But perhaps it wasn’t so odd. For us the most recent poetic springtime was in fact the blossoming of Modernism, and even when the subject of the poem isn’t spring itself the work of those poets seems somehow akin to spring. Still, the line that was cited most often in my little poll was the one spoken by the nameless corpse, reluctant to be reborn, at the beginning of The Waste Land. Williams was right to be anxious about Eliot’s influence.

The question I put to my colleagues I put to myself as well. The sequence of my associations went like this: poems of spring, Spring and All, then “…reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes and small trees…”, then, vividly, poem number “XXII” (also called “The Red Wheelbarrow”):

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(Williams 1971: 138)

No blossoms, no singing birds, no slim young trees, but it seems nevertheless an essential poem of spring. More than eighty years after it was first written, and more than thirty-five years since I first read it, it is, like spring, still startling, uncanny, beautiful. For me what is especially striking about this poem is the nearly hallucinatory visual impression it evokes; I don’t mean the arrangement of letters or words on the space of the page (although surely that contributes to its effect), but a vision of the scene. It hasn’t always done so. I vaguely recall being baffled by it the first few times I read it. I wanted to know what depended upon that wheelbarrow; I thought that must be the point of the poem. I found, however, that I was unable to produce a convincing answer to that question; it seemed to me that everything or not much at all depended on the red wheelbarrow. So I focused on its redness, the whiteness of the chickens, the glazing water, all those strong appeals to vision. This enabled me to disentangle the poem from my desire to make some sort of discursive sense of it, and once I had given up on the idea of being able to say what it meant, it became a vivid luminous presence in my imagination.

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