Sunday, September 19, 2010

William Carlos Williams Takes On Tea Partiers and Other Puritans

When I teach Foundations of Creative Writing to graduate students, I always include William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, a messy, exuberant book of essays that undoes the American myth, only to remake it in the image of America's apparent failures. The book offers a transition between the foundational texts (Plato, Sidney, Shelley, Riding, Bernstein, Ho`omanawanui) and those about place that come just after. Williams offers us writing out of a passionate, brilliant, anguished need; he also means to reframe our notions of place and historical necessity. Its genre a strained mix of manifesto, poem, essay, and documentary history, his book threatens to come apart at its various seams. Let be be finale of seams, to misquote his rival poet.

Truth be told, I ask students to read the 234 page book mostly so that they can read the last page, which is my favorite moment in all American literature. It is the chapter called "Abraham Lincoln," in which old Abe becomes a woman, the mother of his divided and grieving country:

It is Lincoln pardoning the fellow who slept on sentry duty. It is the grace of the Bixby letter. The least private would find a woman to caress him, a woman in an old shawl--with a great bearded face and a towering black hat above it, to give unearthly reality. (234)

and then the book ends thus: "Failing of relief or expression, the place tormented itself into a convulsion of bewilderment and pain--with a woman, born somehow, aching over it, holding all fearfully together. It was the end of THAT period."

This writing is worthy of Lincoln himself; it also ends the book about an America that "begins for us with murder and enslavement" (39) on an empathic note. Trans-gender is trans-formation, hard earned by chapter after chapter about American over-reaching and failure.


You can't read the same book twice, of course. This time through I'm noticing ways in which the 1925 manifesto echoes our time, especially its hyper-moralism in the face of actual ethical depredation. Here I'm trying to separate out the "moral" issue of sex from the "ethical" issues of greed, militarism, corruption, and so on. I am helped by the experience of having watched an hour of news and a couple hours of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with our Distinguished Visiting Writer, Adam Aitken, who comes to us from Australia. Adam's sense of the lunacy of American politics enforces my own, italicizes it. Stewart and Colbert have very little work to do these days; splice some video from Fox News and you have a show, especially when the voice over comes from John Oliver. The latest heroine of the Tea Party movement (so-called, because they're actually Republicans) is Christine O'Donnell of Delaware, whose platform is based on moralizing about sex and gender roles. O'Donnell is best known for her anti-masturbation work. (I have to laugh; when I write about her, or her fellow travelers, every word I write takes on an aura of moral turpitude!) And no, I have not watched the video.

Against O'Donnell and her ilk, I hear Williams calling out the Puritans, making his argument over and again that American violence and American sexual repression are allied. Turn to the end of "Voyage of the Mayflower," and Williams turns O'Donnell against herself (again I blush): "What prevented the normal growth? Was it England, that northern strain, the soil they [Puritans] landed on? It was, of course, the whole weight of the wild continent that made their condition of mind advantageous, forcing it to reproduce its own likeness, and no more" (68). Not only did the Puritans refuse to generate new names for the places, the plants, the animals they encountered in the New World, according to Williams, they also refused to touch the place they entered. Their purity was a mark of their fear, and their purity condemned them to isolation and violence. "It is the Puritan--" he writes in "Pere Sebastian Rasles": "Having it in themselves nothing of curiosity, no wonder, for the New World--that is nothing official--they knew only to keep their eyes blinded, their tongues in orderly manner between their teeth, their ears stopped by the monotony of their hymns and their flesh covered in straight habits" (112).

Against this morality of not seeing, marked as Puritan, Williams proposes a Catholic alternative in the figure of Pere Sebastian Rasles, a French cleric: "It is this to be moral: to be positive. to be peculiar, to be sure, generous, brave--TO MARRY, to touch--to give because one HAS, not because one has nothing . . . He exists, he is--it is an AFFIRMATION, it is alive" (121). Among his affirmations is the "peculiar" particular language; Rasles not only learns to speak the Indian's language, he reveres its pronunciation: "(Note, the figure 8 is used by Rasles in his alphabet of the Abnaki language to signify the unique guttural sound characteristic of the Indian dialects" (124). This is what Williams means by "peculiar," I suspect, this precision of attention to detail, to contact.

To name is to caress, Williams almost says. Not possess: he would be happier if the Puritans had taken on the names Indians gave their places, one suspects. But they should at least have offered up new sounds to go with the new places they lived in. My English 100A class will be reading about names this week, how names are given, how they are taken away and replaced by other names. One of the (shorter) readings is a poem by Tiare Picard from Tinfish 18 1/2:


Ford Island sits within Pearl Harbor, but of course neither name came first in the chain of names placed upon places in Hawa`i. How Moku`ume`ume came to be Ford Island is the subject of Picard's poem, which operates entirely by name, not by link or verb or plot. It's the literal presentation of effacement that she performs here. It's a document Williams would have liked.

In contrast to Williams's attacks on the Puritan come these love letters to the French (I get in trouble again, don't I?). Another of his heroes is Champlain, whom Williams admires simply because he sees the world around him, a quality ascribed to "the feminine": "Champlain, like no one else about him, watching, keeping the thing whole within him with amost a woman's tenderness--but such an energy for detail--a love of the exact detail--watching that little boat drawing nearer on that icy bay" (70). And so Champlain becomes Williams who then foresees (or hears) a poet like Jack Spicer: "This is the interest I see. It is this man. This --me; this American; a sort of radio distributor sending out sparks to us all" (70). Williams elsewhere describes himself as one whose "antennae [were] fully extended: (105). Perhaps he means his figure here to be an insect, but it also the antenna on a radio, taking impulses in, speaking them out to whoever will listen.

When I go to christine2010.com, the website for Christine O'Donnell, I find precious few written words. Her platform resembles a series of tweets. One bullet point is about "values": "Believes our country was founded on core values of faith, family and freedom and will fight to defend those values." Among these values are antipathies to sex of any sort, and to non-standard families. A recent interview had her saying this about science: “American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they’re already into this experiment.” If O'Donnell and other right wingers were attentive to detail, if they were close-readers, they would know that the Constitution does not found the nation on "faith," but on freedom to worship as one wishes. She would also know that mice have not been given "fully functioning human brains," though these days one wonders about the humans with mice for brains.

Both my classes this semester, the English 100 and the graduate course, are about forms of attention. Attention costs--one pays it, after all--but the costs are worthwhile if we are to find apt names for our places, our conditions, and our political process. I say this with some hope, as last night Hawai`i's Democrats nominated Neil Abercrombie for Governor. His platform is largely pro-education; he has ties to the University of Hawai`i, from which he graduated and at which he taught for some years. He was the educated choice, and that bodes well, at least for now. In November, he will be opposed by Duke Aiona, whose platform is God-drenched. We shall see.

[click on images to enlarge them]

1 comment:

Michael said...

I don't know if I'd call his alternative Catholic -- maybe catholic. WCW (& Spicer) is paraphrasing Emerson when he talks about the morality of Nature and the poet as Namer. The Tea Party, like many, confuse Emerson's self-reliance with Ayn Rand's selfishness.