Beyond the Mundane: William Carlos Williams and John Heath-Stubbs

A friend and I have a standing engagement to read poetry together and judge which poet is better (using the very precise metric of whatever we happen to enjoy in a given week). Each week, we each pick a new poet to do battle. Not that there’s any sense of competitiveness. We often pick poets we’ve never heard of before. Who cares? It’s just a silly excuse to hang out and read stuff. But this week, I’ve found one of the most imbalanced matchups so far: William Carlos Williams vs. John Heath-Stubbs. I can’t fathom giving William Carlos Williams a vote, but not for the reasons you might think.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with William Carlos Williams. He wrote the famous poem This is Just to Say:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This is Just to Say, William Carlos Williams

I hadn’t looked at this one since high school, but here it is again. Here’s another of his, Danse Russe:

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

WCW

Now, WCW’s opponent is someone I’m sure most of you haven’t heard of: John Heath-Stubbs. Who on earth is that? I didn’t even know who he was before I stumbled onto him. He’s much less famous and considerably more contemporary, but here’s a little selection:

In the middle of the world, in the centre
Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;
A stake stemmed in the rubbish

From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull
Gasped up through the garbage:
‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,
Ground down again to the red dust,
The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice
That sounded once over the billows of chaos
When the royal banners advanced,
replied through the smother of dark:
‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-
All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.

Golgotha, John Heath-Stubbs

And, at the risk of posting altogether too much poetry, here’s another that’s indicative of his style:

The Old Swan has gone. They have widened the road.
A year ago they closed here, and she stood,
The neighborhood houses pulled down, suddenly revealed
In all of her touching pretentiousness
Of turret and Gothic pinnacle, like
A stupid and ugly woman
Unexpectedly struck to dignity by bereavement.

And now she has vanished. The gap elicits
A guarded sentiment. Enough bad poets
Have romanticized beer and pubs,
and for those whom the gimcrack enchantments
Of engraved glass, mahogany, plants in pots,
Were all laid out to please, are fugitives, doubtless,
Nightly self-immersed in a fake splendour.

Yet a Public House perhaps makes manifest also
The hidden City; implies its laws
of tolerance, hierarchy, exchange.
Friends I remember there, enemies, acquaintances,
Some drabs and drunks, some bores and boors, and many
Indifferent and decent people. They will drink elsewhere.
Anonymous, it harboured
The dreadful innocent martyrs
Of megalopolis- Christie or Heath.

Now that’s finished with. And all the wide
And sober roads of the world walk sensibly onwards
Into the featureless future. But the white swans
That dipped and swam in each great lucid mirror
Remain in the mind only, remain as a lost symbol.

The Old Swan, John Heath-Stubbs

I’ll be the first to admit that Heath-Stubbs isn’t my ideal cup of tea.  Golgotha, for instance, has some clumsy-sounding alliteration (“gasped up through the garbage” and “discarded dross” are a bit much for my taste).  The Old Swan seems to play to his writing strengths a little more, but I recognize that it’s a poem that may stick in my mind because I can relate to the circumstances. Not everyone can, and I’m sure some people would just find it dull. All of that to say, I’m not arguing that John Heath-Stubbs is some kind of perfect paragon of poetry (points off for alliteration; it’s a bit much for my taste). I do, however, think that his work is infinitely preferable to that of William Carlos Williams.

At first, I didn’t really get what WCW was doing at all. Why the jaunty plum poem? Why the weirdo dancing guy? So I read up a little on his goals. Williams wanted to uncover the poetic spirit of the everyday life and the beauty of American language as it was genuinely spoken. No traditional prose was needed. Nothing fancy. Nothing extraordinary. Instead, just look to the ordinary and see it for what it is. Cut away all the unnecessary ideas about what poetry is supposed to be and what fancy words should be used and you’re left with an honest statement of what is. While all of WCW’s work doesn’t conform to this methodology (American Imagism), most of his famous stuff seems to (This is Just to Say, Danse Russe, The Centenarian, Between Walls, etc.). To WCW, what is poetry? It’s a note that you left to your wife explaining where the plums have gone. It’s a broken bottle in a parking lot. Poetry is nothing pretentious. It’s just life! Simple, beautiful life.

Now when we look at the selections from Heath-Stubbs, what do we see? Not a glorification of the mundane, but a yearning for something just beyond the mundane. Why is an old pub worth remembering? Because that place was different somehow. It was a place where community was possible between radically different people. It was a place of ideas and chatter. It may have reeked of a tacky faux-elegance, but both it and everyone there aspired to something more than what was. Even his more straightforward poem of the two, Golgotha, looks at what humans are through deep metaphorical, religious language. We have this brilliant depiction of Adam, the heart of what humanity is, discarded each person’s heart, buried in a trash-heap. He’s crying out to be created properly. Something beyond has to rescue him. What is poetry to Heath-Stubbs? It’s capturing something more. There’s something juuuust beyond our eyes. Can we see it directly? No. Can we fully understand it? No. But if we use the right words and look in the right places just right, we might get a peek of this thing that’s better than all that we’ve made.

Ultimately, I see two styles: one content with what is, and one that looks beyond what is to see what really is. One is glorifies the mundane, while the other sees the mundane as something that beckons them onward. William Carlos Williams would see a pub and write a poem about a fun moment that occurred at that pub or a beer glass that gets a special sheen on it when seen in a particular light. Heath-Stubbs sees a pub and he sees the glories of Heaven.

To be clear, I don’t think William Carlos Williams is some kind of despicable hedonist. I just think he’s missing out. I think the simple, self-contained pleasures are just a shallow taste of what lies beyond them. To paraphrase Saint Augustine in On Christian Teaching, every thing exists either as something to be enjoyed or something to be used. “Toenjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake.” (I.4), whereas to use something is to find whatever you’re looking for through its proper use. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using things in Auggie’s model. After all, God is the only real end for our desire. Nothing else will fully satisfy us! Even people are meant to be used as means to the end of enjoying God. That’s why we ought to talk to people and care for them; we enjoy God through them. William Carlos Williams spends a lot of time on plums and tiny, self-contained ideas. He’s enjoying the thing. I wish he would move past enjoying the plum to enjoy the God that we can know through it.

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