Make your own free website on
Realism in Modern American Poetry

This is an essay on Realism in American Poetry from the 1920s to the present - focusing on T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and E.E. Cummings and is copyright David Pinching 2001. Footnotes appear at the end of the document. Enjoy.

"Realism is the minute, it is the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block" (FRANK NORRIS)

When looking for some continual theme, purpose or strategy in the post-Modernist poets of North America, one struggles to find any substantial movement that defines the fifty years after the First World War. This is not for the dearth of mutually influential figures or even of alleged groups of like spirits. For example, despite the similarity in their methods and outlook, William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings do not immediately lend themselves to comparison beyond their mutual affection for Spring; and the Beats are ultimately unified only by an urge to apply the spirit of carpe diem to the written word. In The Autobiography (1948), Williams sums this situation of poetic disunity up in asking,

"What are we seeking? No one knew consistently enough to formulate a 'movement.' We were restless and constrained..."

Then, as if to remind us of at least one consistent aspect of concern, he states that, "The immediate image, which was impressionistic... fascinated us all" [1]. Working in reverse, we find anti-movements, however: those formed among poets divided in method and subject matter (perhaps) while rallying against the same exponents of a certain type of controversial art. In drawing together such disparate figures as Williams, Cummings and Ginsberg we must not underestimate the degree of shared scepticism for the American-"European" Modernists, regardless of their substantial influence upon twentieth century poetry as a whole. Eliot, for example, seemed to be (and was vilified by some, generally outside the critical mainstream, as) the catalyst and the problem itself: the critic and the artist in potentially cynical harmony. He was, simultaneously, the supplier and the dictator of those standards by which the product should be judged. The greatest problem, then, for the poets who had not undone the work of the Mayflower and rediscovered Europe was Eliot's evident "genius" [2] (Williams) despite the way in which it seemed to betray some notion of America.

There emerged, in theoretical terms (and the period is defined by a catalogue of vague postures-as-dicta), "the rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elemental principle of all art, in the local condition" [3] . This perspective is one of a self-conscious appropriation of the basic values of post-Colonial art in the ability to portray life realistically. As Williams explains in reference to Poe, "He seems to have had romantic love of women, an idealized love". This, however will not suffice, especially not poetically, because he lacks the ability to equate the physical and the perfect-theoretical (the problem faced by Eliot confronted with a fear of God as we will see), Williams continues "he was cut off from the actual touch of female flesh - no reality at all" [4]. In his chapter on The Waste Land and its effect Williams establishes the way in which Eliot provoked not only an attempt to compete with this "genius" while on the other side of the Atlantic but a new voice of America unrestrained by tradition. This is, therefore, both Modernist and anti-Modernist: it is the "making new", in Pound's terms, of a poetry created from the elements of human experience rather than that which had its origins in its literary precedents.

This realistic poetry, for want of a better term, constituted the re-enlivening of the word lacking the innately po-faced neo-Spiritual "Word" of God, or the comfort of a tradition dated back to Ancient Greece and Rome, which even travelled beyond to Mesopotamia for a voice (in the application of Sanskit terms unannounced and in some cases even unexplained in his notes to the poem). The issue is not whether or not Eliot and Pound in some metaphorical way stole aspects of the language and literature of thousands of years for self-aggrandising purpose and the feigned pursuit of "liberating" words and myths to the great detriment of any kind of communal experience in art. Instead, it is that many American poets of the twentieth century believed to a greater or lesser extent that they did such damage, and consequently felt duty-bound to create a verse new on its own terms and outside the propagation of ephemeral critical jargon ("objective correlative" etc., ad nauseum). As such, the period is rife with contradictions. Thus, it is somewhat ironically Richard Wilbur in Mid Century American Poets who defines - despite his New Critical tendencies - the "minuteness" of the "realistic" [5] poetry that we will consider here:

"...limitation makes for power; the strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle." [6]

We notice the vagueness of this comparison of art and magic, the predominantly uncritical aspects of this brand of description, but also the way in which it enlivens a basic (perhaps solely self-justifying) principle with an apparently unquestionable metaphor. This is, of course, where we must begin our discussion faced with Frank Norris's similarly jargon-avoiding (and in the case of the word "tragedy" misappropriating) impressionistic code of "realism". Both are concerned with constructive limitation and the creation of the substantial-artistic from the basic and restrictive.

William Carlos Williams achieved recognition concurrently with and often in reaction to Eliot. His Al Que Quiere! (1917) appeared in the same year as Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), both achieving in those volumes the first examples of their own distinctive voices after early, less acclaimed writing. Now they embraced the experimentally naturalistic in their "anti-poetic" non- forms. William's affectionate distrust of Pound kept the two at a great enough distance for the former to protect his poetry from that outside influence which ensured that Eliot's own vision was only partly responsible for this crucial part of his poetry:

"He was often brilliant but an ass... What I could never tolerate in Pound or seek for myself was the "side" that went with all his posturings as the poet... [due to] the conflict between an aristocracy of birth and that of mind and spirit" [7]

This seems crucial to the consistent reaction and subversion present in Williams's writing against the seemingly arrogant ethos of those writers (catalysed by intimate knowledge of the double agents of Modernism with whom he was initially bundled). Thus, the sense of posturing is undone to be replaced by a realism, which demands to be taken as it lies on the page. In this way, even when the words are fragmented, the impression of the thing envisioned is brought to life: "of... broken / branch/ come / white / sweet / May / again", he writes in the shorter version of "The Locust Tree in Flower". The verse is not held back by pure sense, and is beautiful since there is a slight violence in the month's resurrection forced by the stark images provoking reader involvement.

Only with The Waste Land did Eliot begin to fuse the American and European voices (the French poems in Poems [1920] are notably separate from those written in English): seamlessly breaking into German in the twelfth line and in the quotation from Wagner in the thirty-first, French in the two hundred and second, and integrating a plethora of (Dante's) Italian, Sanskrit and so on in "What the Thunder Said". Beyond the suggestion of Babel, this and the impressionistic sound-world of the "cock" crowing (391) and the "dry grass singing" (354) serve (as Williams suggests in "Pagany") to return poets "to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape closer to the essence of the new art form itself - rooted in the locality which gave it fruit" [8]. There is a double assertion in this justifiably famous lament: first, that Eliot was striving for an intrinsically unnatural academic form of poetry which demanded annotation at the moment of writing (along with Joyce's Ulysses and Pound's Cantos in a kind of elitist group of autocritical pieces); and second, that in doing so Eliot and his editor Pound had sacrificed any kind of immediacy for writer or reader by abandoning the basic language of his people which allowed for the universality of empathy which typifies realism. Instead, Williams believed that the poem was and should be "a social instrument... It embraces everything we are." [9] Thus, Spring and All (1923) appears to be a direct reaction (including the theme suggested in the title) against Eliot's masterpiece. With its combination of poetry and prose, simplicity of phrasing ("peasant traditions to give them / character / but flutter and flaunt / sheer rags", from "To Elsie" [10]) and unpretentious subject matter - relying on communal experience of nature - it is presented as an anti-Waste Land: a reaction, a condemnation, an alternative, an admission of that poem's import and, most importantly, an American analogue to it.

Norris's statement concerning the nature of realistic art seems to hold true for what Williams was attempting to achieve at this stage of his career (the later poetry, particularly The Desert Music (1954) and Paterson (1946-58) diverge towards epic and are less restrained by minutiae). The poem that has become known as "The Red Wheelbarrow", though tarnished somewhat by means of over-familiarity, is emblematic of realism as the "minute". It is a distillation of the moment of recognition of a (simple) state of affairs so successful as to relegate to farce the Modernist urge to seek the absolute in the unfamiliar via obscure language ("mensual", "piaculative" etc.) and sardonic scepticism of "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service", for instance. Williams sets out the totality of human affairs by avoiding such extremity of academic pretension or a self-conscious veil of profundity and, as such, finds reality in the stillness of a stationary scene:

"so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens." [11]

Certainly there is no literal form of "drama" or "tragedy" here, nor any kind of Modernist didacticism, but a kind of perfect (the word seems appropriate in this context at least) brevity which - apparently effortlessly - condenses life into a single image which cannot be judged to be true or untrue. Yet it has a resonance of implied life in the potential of the vehicle-tool, the ambiguity of the rainwater (symbolising neither total movement nor stillness in that state) and the pure, necessary animals: emblematic of a simple existence of toil and reward. Williams's poetry is rarely fanciful and is unguarded by obscurities of typography [12] or language. It depicts what he refers to in "The Eyeglasses" as "The universality of things": otherwise potentially and unfortunately left unseen (the eyeglasses remain on the table while it is the poet who assures us that their need is "to discover").

Norris suggests, perhaps, that it is possible to achieve a coherence of both the single, seemingly trivial thing, with a notion of great art (tragedy, drama) without one needing to be strained in allowance of the other. In "The Mind Hesitant" from The Clouds (1948), he describes this process retrospectively:

"Sometimes the river
becomes a river in the mind
or of the mind
or in and of the mind" [13]

There is, here, a coherence of thought and stimulus, just as he had stated in Spring and All: "[The poet] holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature's composition with his own... he becomes nature" (p.121). There is a unity here between internal and external - undistinguished in Eliot - where it is apparent that the river is entirely outside and is reconceived (as uncertain guesswork rather than heightened perception) as "a strong brown god" [14]. In Williams, "a likeness" corresponds to "a complex / image" [15] - they are one and the same, not divided by the whim of the poet or the continuing dilemma of the separateness of mind and matter which constitutes Cartesian dualism. In that way, Williams's poetry is the more realistic, and self- consciously so. Further, as Markos suggests, by breaking down this barrier to unity with nature he acquires "a kind of cosmic sanction to his endevors" [16]. Where Eliot will "show you fear in a handful of dust" (The Waste Land l.30), one suspects that Williams would likely show you a handful of dust and expect "you" to decide for yourself.

The implication is clear in Williams's poetry beforehand and yet it is only in Paterson that he states it as the famous dictum "Say it, no ideas but in things" (p.14). We should not necessarily take this any more seriously than Norris's apparently certain statement on realism. These are merely well-meaning attempts to describe the process and to open it to all who wish to follow that path which had been laid by Whitman [17] (this is largely a poetic opposed to Pound's fascism), now precisely against the elitist instincts of Eliot and Pound. Moreover, Williams asserts later in Paterson "No ideas but in the facts" (p.39), somewhat negating the over-emphasis on the former dictum critics have used in discussing his poetry (indeed Markos who chose to name his study of Williams after it). This latter ideal represents a more general and Modernist (even Eliot-like) point of view, which allows for the transcendental in existence. However, the final judgement is the same: that even within the restrictive bounds of poetry there must be further limitations, predominantly those of language. It is in their reactions to this crisis of communication that we may understand their different approaches to portraying the world (and this is, after all, the essence of Norris's theory: realism consisting of the process of capturing a single moment and transforming it into art). Williams states in the second volume of Paterson that "I am aware of the stream / that has no language, coursing / beneath the quiet heaven of / your eyes / which has no speech... to pass beyond the moment of meeting... to fall... to seize the moment" (p.33). His crisis is negotiable through the medium of poetry itself. Eliot, in palpably greater distress (having not embraced human limitation in the same way) states that "Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden... Decay with imprecision" ("Burnt Norton" V. 13-16). The absence of the realistic bathos of Norris allows for despair in the medium. If poetry is taken beyond reality or the potential for the insignificant to achieve importance is lost, then nothing will suffice. Crucially, though, Williams's voice is looking for a human, real, solution and - in the manner of Donne - is manipulating the language for expression in pursuit of sex. In contrast, Eliot's "deeper" intention is to reach a voice of prayer for God (a theme, if not the theme of Four Quartets). Regardless of their different attitudes towards potential perfection and its necessity, both find the English language itself failing them: leading to greater verbosity and an abandonment of poetry for drama respectively. Only Leonard Cohen, in discarding the certain restraining principles of art held by these men, seemed able to complete the progression between the two separate worlds of sexuality and religion essential to these two poets in his Book of Mercy.

We arrive at Allen Ginsberg at this point since he appears to pick up the realist baton from Williams at the time of Paterson (i.e. between the late forties and early fifties), and, while his mentor investigated in his mature poetry a more comprehensive poetic vision (see Journey to Love [1955]) with a new concern for history and myth, the former re-established that joy in nature and revelation, in an admittedly more extreme manner. The connection between the two poets, apparent in their letters to one another during Ginsberg's apprenticeship to verse (documented retrospectively in the Empty Mirror and The Gates of Wrath collections: juvenilia published in Collected Poems 1947-1985) is vital. Ginsberg explains,

"Disparate simultaneous early styles juxtaposed aid recognition of a grounded mode of writing encouraged by Dr. Williams, 'No ideas but in things.'" [18]

He, the pupil, created his own dictum, based on a Freudian concept of reality and the instincts of delight more than drama in the ordinary (never interrupting the flow of thoughts) which is of still greater importance in comprehending the scale and frequency of his writing:

"'First thought, best thought.' Spontaneous insight - the sequence of thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind". [19]

This is an explanation of a method that goes beyond the initial prescriptions of Williams [20]. Clearly, it is an alternative approach towards realism: ordinary mind producing natural thoughts without unembellishment. However, it mimics Williams's perspective in isolating images: thus in "CÚzanne's Ports" we have the absolute minimising of subject matter to the individual scene (here, a painting). It ends, like a Williams sketch, in a non-conclusion, typically focussing on Norris's "the minute":

"And the immense of L'Estaque is a go-between
For minute rowboats."

If it is as inconclusive as the red wheelbarrow or the "permanent", "exciting" and "uniform" crowd of "At the Ball Game" [21], then it has the same aura of mystique and beauty (in life being lived by a community symbolised by the image of vehicles) apt to the portrayal of something seemingly insubstantial as eternal. The proof of the value of the poetry is in the detail and the reader's reaction; it fails or succeeds outside or criticism: the basis of pop art. This reaction is not supposed to be bewilderment but, instead, the rehabilitation of memories in verse which is itself a reminiscence of art or nature. It is a celebration of familiarity of sense. This is the antithesis of Eliot and Pound's methodology we have already discussed. If less of a direct reaction to those poets than Williams's, Ginsberg's motive remains the same: to produce purity of expression in verse. To achieve and justify this, Williams had believed in the power of Aristotelian imitation, which might surpass copying. For instance, in "Trees" [1917], we are offered the "thing" itself, which is the actual plant as a whole, but also its fruits which are the music of "long yellow notes" and the companion "heaving contra-bass / of the dark". Nature offers an image, and the poet in communion with it compounds the creation itself with the consequent sensations of reaction through the writing experience. This is the aspect of realism that Ginsberg follows most directly. His method, however, differs substantially.

Ginsberg extends the experience of vision in poetry from Williams but also the initial precedent of Wallace Stevens. Stevens suggests the isolation of the individual thing but often contents himself with a general overview of nature. Thus, in "Credences of Summer", he sees "the anatomy of summer as / The physical pine, the metaphysical pine" and insists, "Let's see the very thing and nothing else. / Let's see it with the hottest fire of sight" [22]. Yet, by and large he seems to present a wider and less specific image, for instance in "Sunday Morning" we see "wide water", "deer", "quail", "berries" and "casual flocks of pigeons" long after the ideas ("Does ripe fruit never fall?" [23] etc.) have been presented. Ginsberg appears to follow this method as much as Williams's in his poetry of the 1960s. In "Wales Visitation", for instance, he imagines "Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance", where "sheep speckle the mountainside" and "pheasants croak". He suggests, in other words, that a multitude of images is as acceptable as the specificity of a single image. It is here that he reaches communion: between a succession of minute, dramatic visions: the revelation is one of the sexuality of nature that we find also in Cummings (see later):

"I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside,
smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless,
tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness" [24]

The distinction from Williams is clear. The succession of images have no clear progression but (as the poet suggests) that of the mind itself, passing as if in brain-waves between images and consequent ideas. Thus we have the observations of colour and the consistent reference to "hair" ("lamb-hair" and "rain-bearded" also appear in the following lines) as if linked by instinctive synapses and not poetic mannerism or formal notions of appropriate subject. This is realism as the unrestrained impulse to combine like images, which gain importance by their very written state. This is the meaning of Norris's description of the genre. However, the greatest difference, perhaps, is the degree to which form itself is utilised by these poets.

The major feature common to of these poets that may be considered the central shared tool for realistic poetry is free verse. As a medium for ideas this has, unsurprisingly, offered differing possibilities to different poets as it has arisen as a viable and accepted medium (not least after of the influence of Eliot became felt). Its theoretical purpose, though, has consistently been to purify expression; to reject the potential for allowing the metre or rhyme to dictate the word or image and not the thought in which it originated. This is in defiance of Dryden's now largely disregarded argument that a great poet will always know in advance of the initial rhyme or phrase, what the subsequent ones will be to complete the lines of verse. When these poets do resort to rhyme or non- colloquial or "natural" rhythms it tends to be to suggest that two concepts necessarily parallel each other. This is emblematic of a twentieth century poetic preoccupation with "serious" truths and the investigation of the individual mind (after the poetry of Coleridge and his contemporaries). It is striking that the man most capable and willing to embrace consistently a traditional, formulaic verse is Ogden Nash who writes almost without exception with wry comedy as the basis for meditations upon society. It is important to note that he sees words themselves as flexible when applied to the device of rhyme. Thus he is able to conclude a humorous satire upon linguistic pretension America-wide with:

"I have forgawtten oll I ever knew of English, I find my position as an
articulate mammal bewildering and awesome,
Would God I were a tender apple blawssom." [25]

Nash demonstrates the potential of freedom of words within a detailed poetic scheme, and shows the same kind of confounding of expectations favoured by Cummings and, to a lesser extent, Ginsberg.

In some cases, then, "free" verse is free only in that it holds no familiar form, and yet retains an inescapable internal structure or the "ghost of iambic pentameter" [26] (Nejgebauer) of Robert Lowell which derives from Williams and applies even in some of Cummings's less avant-garde poetry ("or truth can live with right and wrong / or molehills are from mountains made" [27]). In many cases, however, such as the Cummings poems recently compiled in the book Another, free verse suggests utter transgression of lines, rhyme, metre due to wilful experimentation in defiance of the hierarchy of sonnets and Spenserian stanzas. In "the sky" [28] , for instance, Cummings isolates vowel sounds and places them on the page according to those values. Still, this is ought not to be perceived as utterly "free", but driven by non-literary theories. Only Ginsberg, in truth, seems to stray totally into something which is formless for any great length of time and often as in Howl offers a partial form in the division of lines across the page (Williams also attempted this by cutting lines into three; while having seemingly inspired Howl with the similarly phrased The Waste Land). It is precisely the application of the "First thought, best thought" dictum which allows for such an outpouring of ideas as immediate. Perhaps then, this form of realism is incompatible with the descriptions given by Norris. Though occasionally the constituent parts of Ginsberg's poetry are sequences of minutiae, they do not necessarily produce the kind of immediate drama of the mundane that Norris implies. The progressions of thoughts as words resonate instead as a whole, like numerous broken teacups and walks down blocks (though the majority of Ginsberg's work is necessarily stationary since its brutal honestly often admits his nakedness, literal or not, placed in front of a typewriter). Thus we are presented with the painfully unmediated list of personal details of his deceased mother in "Hymmnn", Part IV of Kaddish: "with six dark hairs on the wen of your breast/ farewell... with your sagging belly... with your mouth of bad short stories" [29]. The iconoclastic frankness here, in terms more appropriate to distaste than devoted love, and the fact of his being the first overtly gay published American poet give him a position of extremity and honesty which betray (despite the urge to experiment through narcotics with heightened experience) his wish to embrace realism in his verse. Yet, this realism has its basis (again) in Williams, where we see "the truth about us... her great / ungainly hips and flopping breasts" ("To Elsie" [30])

The fundamental difference between Williams's and Ginsberg's early poetry is that the latter is not merely capable of isolating the thing and developing the reaction to the provocation in words; but is also willing to integrate a declaration of purpose when it occurs to him (not merely in improvisation or detailed retrospection as Williams had in Kora in Hell and would later in I Wanted to Write a Poem). So, in "Aether", we are not merely presented with the "chirps the crickets have created" but also the consequent "Fear of the Unknown" and finally, in continuation to the next image and thought, the apostrophe of the envisioning of a constant battle to satisfy the senses, "Yet the experiments must continue! / Every possible combination of being - / all the old ones!" [31]. Thus, we see Ginsberg recreating the imagistic textual detail of Williams through automatic writing (again, the influence of the Modernists is felt just as their principles are brushed aside - in this case Yeats who had also been concerned with the spiritual aspects of spontaneous writing). The fundamental distinction between the two poets, then, is that the Ginsberg's verse is inclusive; Williams's minimalist and selective, largely purged of explanation until The Desert Music [32]. In his "madness of chatter", the former goes beyond the mere implications of his predecessor to something approaching a comprehensive vision of the world through the immediate reaction to a single image (the suggestion of Williams in the first place, perhaps):

" think to see, outside,
in a tenement the walls
of the universe itself" [33] ("After All, What Else is There to Say?")

This is, then, the transformation of the mundane to the substantial ("profoundest nothings" [34]) in conceiving a kind of heightened everyday life that Norris has implied is the essence of realism. What differentiates Williams and Ginsberg from the Euro- American poets and their English predecessors in the nineteenth century (early Yeats particularly, and in antetypes, Tennyson and the Romantics who preceded him) is that there is very little which seems to separate Williams the conscientious doctor or Ginsberg the bearded, paranoid, gay addict from their poetic counterparts: the voices, though less concerned with the first-person directly in the case of Williams, represent the reality. There could be no surer definition of essentially realist poets, even if they are fundamentally divided by being the provider and the receiver of drugs respectively: one the man of mental, one of physical extremes. The fact that they are aware of human responsibilities (aside from those of poetry of religion), whether they follow them or abandon them, sets them apart from Eliot who prefers to keep daily life from his texts and instead conjure the spirit of blind Tiresias or the Magi as if in rejection of (modern) reality itself. By feeling the extremities of nature in resistance or immersal, those poets create the intensity which makes grand the everyday event or thing.

Cummings is more clearly introspective and sensitive than either and yet a follower of the same tradition of realism. Like Williams, his concern is to identify the moment in the most precise terms possible: a different, more sensual communion perhaps, but one which similarly does away with Modernist aloofness to approach the reality of the visionary experience. He asks, "Why do you touch flowers... as / if they were ideas?" [35] This could well constitute a challenge to the passing poetic establishment of the 1920s but his is a poetry less obviously partisan. Again, he does not fit very well inside any one single period or group besides having links to the Cubist painting movement and the influence of turn of the century Russian composers dealing with new ways of arranging melody and dissonance (just as Cummings did for words in poems such as "sh estiffl") for example Stravinsky, whose ballet Petrouchka Cummings attended after arriving in France in 1917. More even than Williams and Ginsberg he seems to be one with the nature he describes. The antagonistic precedent is Eliot who has April as the "cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of dead land" in perhaps the most familiar non sequitur of modern poetry. He is seemingly without feeling for life or the nature he depicts with such contempt ("stony rubbish", "broken images"), presenting death in every image: most distastefully in his fellow men, condemning them to Limbo for traversing London Bridge without obvious revelation in their downtrodden eyes [36]. In stark constrast, Cummings depicts Spring in its fullest, most intense and sexual bloom:

of the jostle of
thy breasts and the slobber
of your thighs
i am so very
glad that the soul inside me Hollers" [37]

If he is more concerned with realism of sensation in the mind in reverence to nature reflected through the image of the female lover (or vice versa) in "breasts" and "thighs", then at least we sense detail of truth and not of a political or religious reaction to distant people and places. With Ginsberg he operates a new form of organic anthropomorphism wherein the character of the human-like qualities resides also in the land itself. Further, in "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r", the image of the grasshopper is created in a motion (as far as might be possible) on the page through the deliberate usage of spatially orientated typography to depict the unravelling of nature in a specific thing (and no more), including stated response, and physical movement. This is precise detail, and as such "the minute". Yet there is no sense of tragedy or drama here. Instead, we are offered celebration. Perhaps the intensity of Ginsberg's unquestionably dramatic Kaddish sequence or Leonard Cohen's playfully pseudo-tragic images of the mundane in Nazi Germany (Flowers for Hitler [1964], for instance "The Music Crept By Us", whose title is drawn almost precisely from line 232 of The Waste Land) resonate through a kind of emotion untapped by Cummings, but merely to isolate (to a great extent) the positive aspects of experience as selective rather than unrealistic. It is safe to say that not every walk down the block will be tragic, but the emotions involved may be extreme nonetheless - worthy of capturing within the bottle of verse.

What we have established, then, is that Norris's statement concerning realism offers only an adequate guide to a certain method used by this group of similarly inclined American poets to depict life accurately in reaction to the Modernists. By isolating the single image, and applying to it a sense of importance in the trivial using free verse and brevity the minute becomes essential. Williams's "Proletarian Portrait" is precisely Norris's image of a "walk down the block" made dramatic: "toeing the sidewalk... She pulls out the paper insole/ To find the nail/ That has been hurting her" [38], whereupon it ends, as if the image of pain might substitute for catharsis. While these poets deal with greater matter than these "minute" images, even in longer poems such as Paterson, there is an instinct to isolate the "particulars" in depicting the whole (in this case "The City"): it is a form of metonymy. What Norris's judgement offers is unlimited possibility: that poetry need not be restricted to the literary-philosophical discussion of the Word of God or the downfall of man as in Eliot and Pound. However, as we have seen, the freedom of the verse and the sense in which it reacts against a genre of unreal Modernist poetry informs us that the works of Williams, Cummings and Ginsberg required those of their antagonistic forebears to form an antetype. However, in attempting to remedy the situation that, as Cummings puts it, "mankind would rather know than feel" [39], a new realistic mode was produced, and for much of the period 1920 to 1970 it appeared that there could be no truer way of expressing reality than in the "minute".


1. W. C. Williams, The Autobiography (London, 1991) p.148

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid. p.146

4. Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem (London, 1967) p.56

5. Without question, the term "realism" holds too many alternate suggestions of form (etc.) to describe adequately the poets who are also inclined to the stark opposite in romantic poetry (e.g. Cummings). It is, however, a shared instinct as we shall see, for a certain kind of perception and description. Further, it suggests a locus that may act as the focal area for this discussion, which would otherwise be as good as boundless.

6. Cited by Aleksander Nejgebauer, "Poetry 1945-1960: Self versus Culture" in American Literature since 1900 (London, 1975) p.146

7. Williams, The Autobiography p.58

8. Ibid. p.174

9. Williams, (To Henry Wells), 12 April 1950 Selected Letters pp. 286-7: cited by R. H. Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry [Princeton, 1961] p.336

10. Williams, Selected Poems, (London, 1976) p.55

11. Williams, Selected Poems, p.57

12. "...the poems were kept pure - no typographical tricks", Williams assures us in I Wanted To Write a Poem, p.49

13. Williams, Selected Poems, p.154

14. T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems (London and Boston, 1963) "The Dry Salvages" l.2

15. Williams, Selected Poems, p.154

16. Donald W. Markos, Ideas in Things (London and Toronto, 1994), p.41

17. Williams acknowledges Whitman as the source in a letter to Henry Wells, 12 April 1950, (Selected Letters p.286): "Whitman was to me an instrument, one thing: he started us on the course of our researches into the nature of the line by breaking finally with English prosody".

18. A. Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1985, (London, 1985), p.xix

19. Ibid. p. xx

20. Ginsberg explains, further, in the lecture "Early Poetic Community" (April 7, 1971) that, "I'd settled in my mind by 1950... I wasn't interested in the American language as proposed by Williams" (Ginsberg, Allen verbatim: lectures on poetry, politics, consciousness (New York, 1975)).

21. Williams, Selected Poems, p.58

22. The Penguin Book of American Verse, ed. Geoffrey Moore, (London 1983) p.255

23. Ibid. pp. 250-1

24. Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1985, pp. 480-1

25. O. Nash, ("This is My Own, My Native Tongue"), Candy is Dandy (p.283

26. Aleksander Nejgebauer, American Literature since 1900 p.173-4

27. E.E.Cummings, Selected Poems (London, 1985) p.11

28. Ibid. p.38

29. Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1985 p.226

30. Williams, Selected Poems, p. 56

31. Ibid. p. 242

32. The "minimalist" tag does not seem inappropriate. For our purposes here, Williams may be approached from the direction of his realistic impulse, as seen in the inclusion of actual letters from friends of undisclosed identities in Paterson for instance. However, there is also a sense, particularly in the later poetry, of structure and repetition. Thus, in "The Orchestra", he tells us (and, more specifically, musicians and composers) to "repeat the theme. Repeat / and repeat again, / as the pace mounts" and in the following lines does just this with the heightening sense of desire in "My heart is innocent"s and "I love you"s completing the sense of "design" in love (Collected Poems Volume II [London and Glasgow, 1988] pp. 251-2). Ginsberg rarely followed these approaches towards a musical poetic style - instead writing actual songs. However, composer Steve Reich's The Desert Music follows Williams's principles in an actual orchestral environment and uses the poet's verse to create "minimalist" dramatic and percussive music. The minimalist movement's rejection of classical Modernist trends for tonality (remaining in the same key) would seem to be precisely what Williams and Cummings wish to do, analogously replacing key with set of emotions derived from an image in rejecting the work of the Euro-American poets. The final objectives, then, aside from the subject matter, are realism and consequently truth in poetry and music alike.

33. Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1985 p.29

34. Ibid. p.250

35. Cummings, Selected Poems, p.114

36. Eliot "The Burial of the Dead", The Collected Poems, pp. 63-5

37. Cummings, Selected Poems, p.17

38. Williams, Selected Poems, p.92

39. Cummings, Selected Poems, p.102