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Reading One: Enjoying (on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) [Section 2 of 2]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

(Continued from here.)

I did an experiment of my own in cultivating awareness and comprehension of a passion of mine - the first of the eight experiments that make up this book. I’m still not an expert on William Carlos Williams. I just love the poem “A Red Wheelbarrow.” Frankly, I love Williams himself, though I don’t know much about him. I love that he was a doctor and a poetthat he never stopped being either and, as far as I know, never wanted to. I love him the way I love the American poet Frank O’Hara for typing up poems on the typewriters in retail stores in Manhattan during his lunch hour and calling the result “Lunch Poems.” Indeed, Williams wrote the poem in question in about two minutes during a house call, looking out the window at the bedside of a young girl patient for whose life he feared.

But I wanted to understand how and why I loved this poem. I wanted to bridge the uncomfortable institutional silence that prevented that job candidate and me from talking about this poem during her interview. I wanted to do more than just love this poem, I wanted to understand my love and in that way to love more powerfully. So I just sat down and wrote longhand several pages responding to the question: “How do I love this poem?” I wanted to construct an adequate idea of the affections I experience in reading this poem and so to transform my joyful passion-“I love this poem”- into an action ”I cultivate the joy that this poem arouses.”

First, here is the poem.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Exhilaration arises at the poem’s apparent simplicity. Sixteen simple words, bare and stark, merely an observation, just a glance, one look at a gardening implement and this is a poem, and a celebrated anthologized poem. The language isn’t fancy or stylized. It is simple. An uncomplicated expression that makes me feel to my core. No quick cuts and dazzling dialogue necessary to intrigue and awaken the jaded. At an outsider art show I once overheard a visitor say, “I could have done this and called it a painting.” The gallery owner standing next to the person said, “Sure, but you didn’t.” Williams did it. Henry Miller writes in Sexus that “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” Anybody could do it. And some people do. Williams did.

My first response to this twenty or so years ago, a response that still arises to this day every time I read this poem, is a simultaneous rush of pain for the tender shoots I have stifled and of gratitude for Williams’ inspiring model of simple courage required to do it. But love also arises with the recognition that the poem is only apparently simple. Williams doesn’t simply say: “Look, I see a red wheelbarrow with rain on it next to some white chickens.” That report itself is made more than bare bones, is given flesh and mystery by the way in which Williams reports, by the “so much depends,” by the line breaks, by the word “glazed.”

At first glance, Williams appears to tell me “so much depends” on ordinary objects, like red wheelbarrows, being there. Maybe this seems obvious enough, but if it is, it’s one of those obvious truths that I can never seem to hear enough. After all, what would crumble to dust in my hands, heart, and head if my world were suddenly drained of ordinary objects: a pencil, a plate, a window pane, a chair, a plum, a cooking pot? Yet do I notice, really notice, such things and feel grateful for them? Not grateful that I possess them, but grateful that they simply are; that they are there making up the material fabric of the universe, quietly weaving themselves into the spiritual and intellectual and emotional fabric of the universes I make for myself and others?
As I wrote that day I noticed that had shifted the emphasis from the value of the object itself to the value of my seeing the object in some particular way; from the object to the relation between me and the object. This is impact of the line breaks.

Four stanzas of two lines each. In each stanza, the first line has three words, and the second has one. In this way Williams prompts us to read his words. He invites us to slow down and read in a new way. It’s just a simple sentence:

“So much depends on a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

Written out in a line from margin to margin I don’t think I’d read it the same way. It would just be a proposition about some bit of the fabric of the universe. Then I could agree or disagree, if I were even interested enough in it to take a position. But by breaking the lines the way he does, turning a one-line proposition into an eight-line poem with a pattern, Williams does more than just draw special attention to the proposition. He makes us slow down. By doing that he invites us to do what the poet has done and what the poem implicitly suggests is a good thing. It invites us to see the red wheelbarrow and that so much depends on it. On the red wheelbarrow itself, on my slowing down, and on my seeing the red wheelbarrow.

I love this because Williams has worked the creative or generative side of words. We can think of words as relational events that at once create and mark an encounter between ourselves and the world. Often, perhaps even typically, we use language as if words just represent things in the world and don’t do anything to us and that we don’t do anything to the world with them. But Williams now is making them do something to things in the world, including us, and inviting us to read his words with an adequate idea of this creative relational function of language in mind.
The poem encourages me to follow Williams in bringing this red wheelbarrow forth in language.

Recently scientists have come to see the processes of self-generation and self-perpetuation carried out by living systems as a form of cognition, or knowing. We tend to think of cognition as involving accurate mental representations of things out in the world as they “really are in themselves,” but these scientists have redefined cognitive processes in terms of material interactions between the organism and its environment. In these interactions, the organism, in the words of scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “brings forth a world” according to a continual, minute level assessment of its own state, the state of its environment, its needs and the potential for harm or growth implicit in each unfolding moment. Cognition thus includes perception, emotion, and behavior and, for human beings, with our highly complex nervous system, language. From this point of view language is central to how it is that we human beings maintain ourselves as living organisms because it brings forth a world, rather than merely represents it.

This is an important point that bears emphasis. When we use words as though they represent things out there in the world, we tend to treat both those things and words as though they were objects, fixed and static. When we use them as Williams does here, we actually participate in the making of a dynamic, potentially endless fabric of relations whose threads connect and pass through all fixed and static things or identities. And this is to say that an adequate idea of language entails understanding its constitutive force in the creation of a universe of relations much like the universe described by Spinoza in his Ethics, or by contemporary scientists in a number of disciplines for whom, increasingly, the world is best understood as an integrated system of interrelated parts, parts that are themselves a part of further interrelations. The interconnectedness of things and all that this implies, all that is joyful and inspiring and painful and terrifying about it, is what comes to matter most when we understand our use of words in this way.

A student once pointed out that the one word that really does seem just a bit out of place in this poem of very simple words is “glazed.” I think that’s connected to this shift from the object to seeing the object, to my relationship with it. “Glazed” describes a kind of addition to the surface of the red wheelbarrow. It’s where the red wheelbarrow meets the rain and their meeting makes a glaze. But if that’s the case then glazed also describes the moment of my optical encounter with the red wheelbarrow. This glazed surface, which I might imagine for myself as somewhere between completely reflective and completely transparent, is what my eye meets when I look. Glazed then also emphasizes the surface of the wheelbarrow over and above its three dimensional volume. It’s not so much that I can’t imagine or, could not see the whole wheelbarrow. It’s that this word draws my attention to its surface. In this sense, I think of this poem as a way of saying, “Yes!” in response to a question. But the question isn’t “is there a red wheelbarrow?” The question is “Do you see that a red wheelbarrow exists, and do you see that it matters, do you see what depends upon it?” As important as the object, and indispensable to grasping the importance of the object, is grasping my relationship to the object, my recognition of my participation in the existence of the object. Indeed, I’d go one step further and assert that at this particular moment in the reading the very categories of subject and object no longer have any meaningful purchase on the experience.

But "glazed" takes me beyond the optical encounter with the surface. The translucent glistening of the surface makes the surface not only visible but also palpable. When the poem makes me slow down, I feel as if my eyes have touched. Through "glazed," it is as if I can almost feel the cool, slippery surface, and seeing feels like touching. “Glaze” is the artificial, the fictional, in that sense of fiction that refers to our powers to bring forth and to make something new out of the web of life in which we are a strand. Glaze is the made thing that exists and by so being stands for the connectedness of things, of wheelbarrow and rain and eyesight and touch. In that sense, glaze stands for the connecting that we do when we read to live.

It becomes, then, a matter of texture. That's where the chickens come in. I just love those white chickens that seem to punctuate the poem. I think it is because "white," besides being just a color with its optical contrast and harmony with red, becomes a texture – feathery – in contrast and harmony with the surface of the wheelbarrow. I start to wonder if the feathers of the chicken are also wet and if so how? Surely it is differently than the way the wheelbarrow is. So I am drawn in to play along these varied surfaces and I think this is so simple and just so nice. And like all play, it is also not so simple and still so nice.

I am lost at play,. For once I am happily relieved of the usual categories of subject and object, self and other, and so forth. Instead of a seeing eye, a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside some white chickens, there is a single undulating, dynamic fabric of being woven from the relations among these things. These things, after all, only appear as things apart from me when I step out of the playing and separate them out from one another as things with names.

We may experience the poem as a prayer or incantation. We may experience the poem as magical in the way that it uses the vehicle of verse poetry to draw intense focus upon a single instant of the ordinary seeing of an ordinary object upon which in the moment of reading, so much does depend. So it’s a poem made of magic words. Like all incantations these sixteen magic words make themselves true by being said, they bring into being the conditions in the world that they describe. But we can experience all words as magic words, at least in the sense that even when they are pretending just to describe a bit of the world they are doing something to the world.

To speak more precisely, I’m arguing that we might gain something valuable in our relationship to words if we accept that all words express relations in which we do something to the world and at the same time, have something done to us. Part of the magic is in the increase in our capacity to act that comes with acting in accordance with an idea of the potency of language. In other words, the magic is in transforming a passive, passionate appreciation into an active understanding. Certainly, nothing could more excite a person like me who has devoted most of his life to words than to hear that they are all magic, and magically powerful.

Now Williams’ words scurry around the page like elementary schoolchildren bustling to get in line during a performance. They arrange themselves in an orderly single horizontal line, like the one I set out a few pages back, stretching across the page, each one exciting on its own, but also now, with their unique mysterious powers fully restored, the overall magic intensifies. Because now that horizontal line of words isn’t an ordinary proposition claiming to represent truly a piece of the world. Now their movement, which is nothing more than an effect of the encounter called reading, brings forth not only the force of an ordinary object like a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens, and the force of the act of seeing, but also the force of what I might dismiss as ordinary language and the force of my relationship to the universe moving inside and outside of me. The reading makes the ordinary extraordinary and shows me how it is done so that I can do it too, in reading the poem but also on my own, when I have set his book and his words down and picked up a pen to write my own.

In so doing the reading also shifts us back from extraordinary to ordinary. The poetic function, in most cultures an extraordinary function of seeing and making, ceases to be solely the property of the poet as an exceptional genius. What else might I have expected from an extraordinary poet who never stopped being an ordinary doctor, writing poems on his prescription pad between visits? It is extraordinary to bring the extraordinary back to the ordinary. By the end of the whole operation, even the categories “ordinary” and “extraordinary” (like those of “subject” and “object” previously) just don’t seem to matter much anymore: there is just the breathtaking composition of forces at play, of impersonal powers exercised, capacities flexed.

Such a reading activates the capacities of the poet and communicates them to the reader, like a gift. In that sense the reading makes me feel gifted. And so I am, in fact, to the degree that I am aware of the gifts of a red wheelbarrow and of the facts that I can see it and bring it forth in language. To the degree, in other words, that I form an idea of this encounter. That is the feeling of exhilaration I experienced when I first encountered this poem, The term poetry comes to us from the Greek word poiesis, which means “making” in a broad sense of the term. Reading Williams’ poem had made me able to say I am a poet in the sense that in reading – though I do not literally compose a poem – I activate my own creative powers in language. I make myself: autopoiesis.

I want to finish my story about Eva by sharing with you a passage from a book she chose, with certain words she underlined (which I will italicize) and the few lines she wrote to explain why she’d underlined those words. We found a passage in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The book centers on the adventures of a young, headstrong girl named Meg whose scientifically gifted little brother has mysteriously disappeared. In a climactic scene in the novel, Meg encounters her brother Charles, apparently possessed by this emotionless brain called IT. When we get to the scene that Eva chose, Meg is at the end of her rope, unable to think of a way to rescue her beloved brother:

She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to Camazotz, to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.
“I love you!” She cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!”
Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. “Meg! Meg! Meg!”
I love you, Charles!” she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

Eva and I sat at the kitchen table. And I ask her,
“What words jump out at you, Ev?”
Almost without hesitation she circles the phrase “Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch.” So then I ask her,
“Why do these words jump out at you, do you think?” Eva stumbles a bit,
“I don’t know...they just do...it’s like...’slowly his mouth closed’...” and then Eva falls silent but she slowly closes her mouth. And then she stands up and begins to twirl her body around.

Here’s what she wrote for her homework: “I like the way the author said ‘twirling’ and ‘slowly his mouth closed’ because it makes me so excited that I want to do the movements instead of just thinking ‘I’m reading this, wow whoopee, what the heck!’” What better demonstration could we have to show that even descriptive words do something to the world? When she had finished her homework Eva danced around the room repeating the words and then, still chanting the magic words, she skipped off to her bedroom to reread the book. She’d been transformed by the magic. She was spellbound. In that moment, the author and Eva and I had worked together to bring words to life, to give words dimension and depth and feeling and flesh. May she always be so enchanted and may she always – may we all always -- be so graceful in communicating her enchantments, be they literary or otherwise.

Of course, in that moment, Eva wasn’t thinking all the things that I’ve just written above. She was, rather, we were, simply doing them. And doing them as she did can be joy enough for any of us. But we can take the extra step, the risk, of understanding the joy of that practice and thereby make it an enduring source of active joys.

I’m reminded of how the physicist Richard Feynman responded to an artist friend who teased Feynman that his scientific understanding of the world left him unable to appreciate the beauty of a flower. Feynman acknowledged that he might not be as aesthetically refined as his friend, but still insisted that he could see the beauty his friend saw. What’s more, he went on, “I can see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure.” Feynman employs his imagination and his scientific powers to understand, deepen, and enrich his enjoyment of the beauty of the flower.

To give an idea of the endless communicative potency of such readings, I would like to add a brief coda. When Claire discussed with me her suggestions for this reading, she recalled her own childhood love of L’Engle’s work. She explained that she used to read L’Engle’s journals as well, in which the author discussed the importance of love, particularly the Christian notion of agape, to her fiction. Claire pointed out that in this particular scene, which is tense with the apparent hopelessness of Charles’ prodigious scientific gifts being governed forevermore by the affectless, lifeless IT, Meg breaks down. Meg has always considered herself quite ordinary and relatively powerless. In this scene, she confronts quite dramatically the limits of her power as a subject, that is, as an agent who might consider herself the author and executor of a calculated plan to manipulate the object world around her. All plans have fallen apart. Meg herself has fallen apart.
But, as Claire pointed out to me, what rushes in when Meg falls apart is the potency of affect, unleashed from the bounds of a world of subjects and objects. Crucially, Meg understands this. She forms an idea of the affects she is experiencing and of their true power. And it is at that moment that the love pouring forth through and beyond the bare outlines of “Meg” absolutely overwhelms even the awesome, prodigious powers of IT,which are still bound and limited by the inadequate idea of possession (and, by extension, of the categories of subject and object that possession still implies). Spinoza could ask for no better example. And so the reading, and the joy, goes on.

My reading of Williams’ poem, emerging within the context of my academic experience and the challenge of helping someone else love not only reading but thinking about reading, has introduced some of the basic concerns of this book: the nature of affect, in particular of joy and love, and its relation to thought, in particular to reason, in the process of joyfully living a series of encounters, of which reading is one, while embedded in a world of relations that we do not fully control nor understand. This book is an attempt to describe and practice a way of reading that shares Spinoza’s vision of the world and partakes of the ethic of joy, which that vision led him to advocate. Part of what makes Spinoza’s Ethics so moving and inspiring is his acute sensitivity to the fragility and uncertainty of our existence in the universe, taken together with his generous, painstaking attempt to communicate a life that accepts that uncertainty and builds from it a capacity to act and to experience joy. Reading to Live sees reading as an opportunity to experiment with and become aware of the nature of all kinds of encounters, including the most mundane, in all their material, affective and intellectual richness. Then, through such experiments, to nourish those encounters that augment joy; that is, those that enhance our ethical power of acting.


C Meade May 11, 2010 at 3:13 PM  

Yago,thanks again for putting these tools out there. Today especially I'm glad to snatch up and utilize the scientific definition of "autopoiesis" that you're using to describe the relationship among organisms and environment. I have a question, and not one that's really related to workshopping the manuscript. How can we characterize these "worlds" that are brought forth by animal-territory interactions, human-language interactions, etc.?
While I've been thinking about Melville and Carpentier, and Willa Cather recently, I have started to move toward the word "unhistorical" for a number of reasons. First, because these worlds seem like the type of intensive space that history denies or represses as un-empirical; and second because I love the way that "unhistorical" wanders from Nietzsche to Deleuze, who seems to make it analogous to "becoming" in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? and in conversation with Negri.
And for me, the kicker seems to be that both of those reasonings--that the "unhistorical" is real but outside of the scope of history and that is a view of the world in its immanent fluctuation--keep bringing me back to the distinction between fiction and history in general. And, to be honest, letting me see the world as more fictional than historical.
I get the feeling, when I think about this, that the unhistorical itself is like the tender shoots Henry Miller mentions, and that it is constantly being repressed by a historical consciousness (or a historicist consciousness, to use a better term). And I get the feeling that part of the value of Reading to Live--probably the part that I'm most likely to run with at present--would be the recovery of the unhistorical in our present plurality of worlds and within the "literary history" of our texts.
So thanks again, for helping to set off my thoughts, and if I can't remember this on June 1st perhaps you can remind me.

Yago Colás May 11, 2010 at 5:30 PM  

You're welcome Chris! Thanks for reading and thinking along with me, and for taking the time to comment of course.

I follow and like your reasoning here, though as I read your comment and absorbed it, I kept getting snagged on the question that formed your point of departure: "how can we characterize these 'worlds,'..."? Even as I nodded in agreement all the way through the rest of your post, I couldn't help but wonder: do we really have to characterize them at all? then, if we do, to serve what purpose or purposes exactly, what or whose interests? But then, as I say, holding those questions in abeyance, I followed along your path and liked where you went, though I prefer the term "fictional" to "unhistorical" -- though I think I understood why you might deliberately choose the latter -- and I like very much the connection of that to Miller's "tender shoots". Oh yeah, and I also wonder if you/we might not be talking less about "unhistorical" vs. "historical" and more about two different kinds of historical?

C Meade May 12, 2010 at 1:39 PM  

Yago, I agree with you that "unhistorical vs. historical" really presents two different kinds of historical, in the same way that "disorder vs. order" would refer to two different kinds of order.
Along those lines, I feel like I have a few interrelated purposes for characterizing fictional/linguistic worlds along the lines of historical/unhistorical. One purpose would be that I'm really interested in this fictional/linguistic/unhistorical base of the ("real") world; for me, for the last few years, one of the most interesting things about the literature I've been dealing with is the way in which it shows that the historical world shoots forth from a fictional world and not vice versa. I think the biggest reason I want to write about fictional spaces is to claim to people that it is a more basic kind of space than historical space.
Another interest, of course, would be "in partial fulfillment of the degree of doctor of philosophy...". I think a third would be that the distinction "unhistorical vs. historical" is much easier to repeat than, say, "vulgar historicist vs. materialist historiographic" (even if it requires more explanation). I think I've veered kinda far off topic, though.

C Meade May 12, 2010 at 5:51 PM  

Probably, where I've said that the historical world "shoots forth" from the unhistorical, it would be more consistent to say that it is pruned back from the unhistorical.

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