The work of William Carlos Williams has been somewhere described as 'what the ordinary man would write if the ordinary man could write poetry'. I have always had some difficulty with this supposition, principally because I believe that the poet is an ordinary man or woman conscious of living in an extraordinary world. It is this awareness, this kinetic tension between the mundane and the miraculous, which drives the poet.
The ordinary man or woman is capable of extraordinary feats: dramatic, heroic, generous; spiteful, destructive, nihilistic. In 'Asphodel', Williams wields this awareness around him like a cloak. He places himself, a New Jersey doctor, at a pivotal point in history - his and ours.
The lines: My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men / comes near the end of section 1. The preceding lines are dramatic; they treat of existence on the grand scale, not just in terrestrial and maritime terms, nor either merely in terms of what Camus called 'the benign indifference of the universe,' but also in terms of human instincts and emotions – the paternal, the sexual; and in the melding of these elemental forces in a mythic/historic/poetic context. – Hector, Helen; sex and death; heroism and betrayal.
The language of these lines cannot be read as distinct from the two millennia and more of understanding asphodels as being the flowers strewn on the floor of the Underworld meadow visited by Achilles; that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. It seems to me (and this is a reaction, I realise, more of sensibility than sense) that the paragraph is set almost as on a stage while battle rages elsewhere; the fog of inner human conflict. The heart ‘rouses’ – a quasi-archaic, quasi-military verb, somewhat strange in the context of a mid-twentieth-century poem. But it is /thinking to bring you news / – as a Shakesperian messenger would to the hero.
News, rather than truth, because, in battle, conflict, of whichever kind, truth is fragmentary and cannot be delivered whole. This is word travelling from (or to) the country of the dead. The bringer and recipient of news must of necessity be separate. There may be kinship, equality, but never quite a complete meeting of minds. Truth is whole, reflected upon; news, fragmentary, elemental, even visceral sometimes. There is a sense of the immediacy of discovery; a sense of ‘why didn’t I realise this a long time ago?’. News of this kind is the arrow-tip of truth, no less potent because delivered in shards. I think of the messengers’ lines in 'Oedipus Rex,' in 'Antigone,' or the breaking open of the seal from Delphi in ‘A Winter’s Tale’.
I have often thought of poetry as being of two types. This is in no way a definitive, or even practical model of looking at poems, rather a reaction to certain poems which leap out at the reader or leave a lasting impression. This is a response, more even an instinct on my part, and has no particular validity as a means to critical reflection. But for what it’s worth.
In Greek myth, Prometheus was associated with forethought. It was he, after all who brought fire to man, knowing what benefit it would bring him. Epimetheus, on the other hand, was associated with hindsight; with seeing in retrospect.
Certain poems, or the work of certain poets, it seems to me, have a Promethean quality. In that you feel that the poet knows quite well before, or while, he/she writes, how the poem will read, what the poem will more or less mean, when finished. Wordsworth, Eliot, Heaney, come to mind.
Patrick Kavanagh, on the other hand, Keats, Buadelaire, seem to be writing from within the poem. There is a sense in which these and other, Epimethean poets, will look at the poem afterwards and say ‘Ah, so that’s what I meant to say’. Which is not at all to imply a lack of knowledge or insight. There is more than one type of insight, just as news and truth do not diametrically differ from each other. These poets, this type of poetry, lives more in the instant, in the instinct, than the Promethean.
Neither type of poetry – I use the term loosely, and aware that most poetry has elements of each – has a greater or less value than the other.
It seems to me that using the word ‘truth’ rather than ‘news’ in the poem would move it more towards the Promethean than the Epimethean. The main strength of the poem, one of the many, is the way in which Williams seems to be flooded with tenderness at the instant at which he writes. The lines in the poem are truth, yes; but presented to him and to us as shards of news knit whole as the poem unfolds.
The image conjured by the poem, by the word ‘asphodel’, of the outsider in the Underworld, has fascinated me for many years. I have written of it a number of times. One, which I’m enclosing, was triggered by the canto in which Dante, in Purgatory, is recognised as human and mortal by the fact that he casts a shadow. I wrote it in memory of my aunt, a sufferer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Copyright © 2011 Ted Mc Carthy
I live and teach in Clones, Ireland. My work has appeared in publications and anthologies in Ireland, UK, Europe and the U.S. I have had one collection, 'November Wedding' published; the follow-up ‘Beverly Downs’, is due out next year. I am currently working on a number of scripts for short films.