I am going to show the implications of Williams’ maxim by demonstrating the effects it has on his poetry, and most notably himself. First of all I would like to divert our attention to duality as a major theme, and affecting factor of such a maxim. For my introductory explanation I would like to consider the criticism of J. Hillis Miller.
In his famous essay on William Carlos Williams in Poets of Reality (1966), J. Hillis Miller contends that the world of Williams is beyond dualism. According to Miller’s pre-deconstructive argument, “A primordial union of subject and object is the basic presupposition” of Williams’s poetry (“Introduction” 6).
Citing Williams’s dictum, “No ideas but in things,” and such poems as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Miller claims that–in contrast to the duality inherent in the idealism of the classical, romantic, or symbolist traditions, wherein the objects of the world signify transcendent “supernatural realities”–the objects of Williams’s poetry signify themselves and nothing more, existing “within a shallow space, like that created on the canvases of the American abstract expressionists” (“Introduction” 3), exposing the poem not as a representation of an object, but as an object in itself. Miller finds in Williams’s verse “no symbolism, no depth, no reference to a world beyond the world, no pattern of imagery, no dialectical structure, no interaction of subject and object–just description” (“Introduction” 5).
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For Miller, this triumph over duality represents nothing less than “a revolution in human sensibility” and an “abandonment” of the ego: “There is no description of private inner experience. There is also no description of objects that are external to the poet’s mind. Nothing is external to his mind. His mind overlaps with things; things overlap with his mind” (Poets 288 & “Introduction” 7).
Accordingly, Miller echoes Williams’s claim that a good poet “doesn’t select his material. What is there to select? It is”. (Poets 306)
Clearly Williams was no symbolist; his poetry does consistently foreground the surface value of ‘things.’ And critics of Williams’s poetry owe a good deal to Miller’s essay, which, among other things, considerably solidified Williams’s position in the canon of twentieth-century American literature. As Paul Mariani notes, “However we view his approach and strategy, J. Hillis Miller’s is one of the most important and seminal encounters in the sixty-year history of Williams criticism. Miller can be argued with and perhaps substantially qualified; he cannot be dismissed” (Poet & Critics 198).
Yet how can even the poet who asserts his identity with his material avoid selecting it? Is not the poet much more than meets the page? And if material is selected, consciously or unconsciously, can it truly be “just description,” signifying only itself, free of associative values and psychological content for either poet or reader? Of course not. Something in Miller’s approach cries out to be “substantially qualified.”
Miller’s complete denial of the psychological terrain of Williams’s poetry leads him to mistake Williams’s identification with ‘things’ for non-differentiation. Relying far too heavily on Williams’s prose criticism at the expense of his poetry, Miller confuses Williams’s goals with his achievements. This makes a world of difference, for as a psychoanalytic interpretation of his poetry suggests, Williams consistently identifies with the world around him because he longs to exist in a state of non-differentiation with it. The difference is that between Freud’s primary and secondary narcissisms, between the infant’s primordial failure to differentiate between itself and the universe and its later, even adult, attempt to recapture this primordial state by misrecognising itself in its objects, paradoxically repeating the very process by which it formed its own separate ego. This and Williams’s avoidance of overt symbolism suggest that his penchant for resolving dualisms is in fact but the flip side of a preoccupation with dualism itself, the logical hallmark of the narcissistic Lacanian Imaginary. Furthermore, as Lacan would suggest, language and therecognition of sexual difference, among other things, forever separate Williams from his promised land; he may struggle against duality and even assert his triumph over it, but he cannot transcend it. Yet it is precisely this tension between his desire and his inability to satisfy it which fuels the fires of his creativity. Perhaps this can best be seen by analysing the image of “woman” in “Portrait of a Lady” (1920,1934), and most notably in “The Lonely Street”(1921).
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Again I would like to emphasise the fact that I feel in order to explain the implications of the aforementioned maxim, it would be necessary to examine Williams’ fascination with duality which after all is an integral part and resulting factor of the explanation of the maxim, “no ideas but in things”. In “The Lonely Street”, Williams betrays a obsession with dualism in his erotically charged, almost leering, portrait of schoolgirls innocently clad “In white from head to foot,” who “walk the streets” with “black . . . stockings” and suggestive “sidelong, idle look[s].”
As Audrey T. Rodgers has demonstrated, this seemingly oxymoronic image of the virgin/whore is central to Williams’s poetry–a metaphor for art, America, love, and what Williams termed the “feminine principle” or life force–symbolizing not the distinction between good and evil, but rather the union of identity between the mythical figures of Kore and Demeter, between daughter and mother, between birth and death, between the pure and the defiled, between innocence and experience, between the world of the imagination and the world of the senses. Women in Williams’ poetry encompass the realisation of the proposed maxim and similarly effect some sort of duality. The insidious gender stereotypes invoked by the virgin/whore might trouble us, but Williams’s project seems, at least in part, to be to demolish precisely these stereotypes. Yet while the attempt to establish a unity out of such apparent duality is valiant–Williams even identifies himself with the figure of Kore, the daughter who through defilement and descent into Hell is resurrected as her own mother, Demeter–it is a monism of desire, not of conviction or fact. The “loneliness” projected onto the street and young girls, belongs to the unseen observer–a thinly veiled, if at all veiled, Williams. Hence, there can be no “abandonment of ego,” for loneliness implies precisely the lack of and desirefor an other. “Too hot” to be “at ease,” Williams, playing the voyeur, finds this other in the form of the sexually budding girls.
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In his role as voyeur, Williams is paradoxically trapped between his narcissistic desire to identify with the girls and an irreconcilable need to reassert the presence of his ego. As Freud recognized, its “active” counterpart accompanies every “passive” perversion. He who is a voyeur in his unconscious is concomitantly an exhibitionist (575).
And that quintessential assertion of the ego, “exhibitionism,” Freud contends, “is strongly dependent upon the castration complex; it would emphasize again the integrity of one’s own (male) genitals and repeats the infantile satisfaction of the lack of the penis in the female” (569).
Rather than envisioning voyeurism and exhibitionism as complimentary opposites, Lacan finds them to be fundamentally identical: “What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind a curtain. There he will fantasise any magic of presence, the most graceful of girls, for example, even if on the other side there is only a hairy athlete. What he is looking for is not, as one says, the phallus–but precisely its absence . . .” (182).
And yet what does the voyeur of “The Lonely Street” find? It is the girls who have the phalli of “pink sugar,” while he, himself, has perhaps been castrated. After all, whose phalli could the girls be holding? In a sense, the male observer becomes “one of the girls,” while the girls, like the observer, are paradoxically “the boys.” This, however, is not so much a triumph over dualism, as it is an expression of ambiguity and anxiety over the nature of duality and the status of the ego. Confronted by his disconcerting phallic position construction of the anatomical distinction between the sexes, symbolised for him by castration anxiety, the voyeur/exhibitionist is left with two options. He can deny that the difference exists at all, narcissistically identifying with his object either by assuming a feminine role himself or phallicising the female (responses which tend to intensify the very castration anxiety against which they are supposed to defend); or he can reassert his ego by stressing the supposed “superiority” of his own equipment, further alienating himself from his object in the process. In fact, to varying degrees both options are taken, leaving the voyeur/exhibitionist in an agonistic relation to intimacy, craving it as a cure for his loneliness while dreading to give up the protective distance of the unseen observer. As Kohut suggests, the voyeur attempts to alleviate loneliness by replacing narcissistically invested lost objects; yet this attempt is ultimately frustrated by what Joel Rudinow calls the “paradoxical centre of voyeurism”: the “wish to be in two places at once, both in and out of the presence of the object of interest” (177).
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In “The Lonely Street,” Williams projects his loneliness onto the street and his passions, which he longs to have acknowledged, onto the girls, finding them returned in “sidelong, idle look[s]” and in the way in which they touch “their avid mouths” with “pink flames.” But if through this projection Williams identifies with, and misrecognises himself in, the street and the schoolgirls, there is no universe of non-differentiation. The transient moment of almost coital intimacy (and for the voyeur the act of looking can–and frequently does–represent the act of coitus), when the girls “mount the lonely street” (my emphasis), is also the moment of absolute loss. The voyeur is left alone to redirect whatever exhibitionistic desire he had once projected onto the looked-at girls. For Williams the publication of this poem was plainly an act of exhibitionism, exposing his sexual desires before the very schoolgirls who inflamed them.
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Far from being the work of sexual re-pression, poetry, claimed Williams, is the product of sexual ex-pression. On the first page of his Autobiography, he announces: “I am extremely sexual in my desires: I carry them everywhere and at all times. I think that from that arises the drive, which empowers us all. Given that drive, a man does with it what his mind directs. In the manner in which he directs that power lies his secret”. Yet Williams’s distinction between repression and expression almost suggests a (much too simple) precept for distinguishing between the psychoanalytic “neuroses” and “perversions”. I would like to propose it is the natural, raw instincts that motivate Williams’ poems and thoughts, which help us identify his work as complying with the maxim “no ideas but in things”; the plain ordinary poem content has no pretence or illusion as a result. While Williams’s poetry clearly is the product of sexual expression, his argument is also the classic alibi of the voyeur/artist: “I am not looking at something forbidden; on the contrary, I am permitting myself to be looked at” (Bergler 270).
Bibliography & Referencing
-Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature 5th Edition, Volume 2. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
-Bergler, E. “Psychoanalysis of Writers and Literary Productivity.” Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences. Ed. G. Róheim. New York: International Universities Press, 1947. 247-296.
-Freud, Sigmund. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: Modern Library, 1938. 553-632.
-Kohut, Heinz. The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press, 1971.
-Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.
-Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
——————————. William Carlos Williams: The Poet and His Critics.: American Library Association, 1975.
... Mind: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams, Bucknell University Press, 1998. Larson, Kelli A. , Guide to the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, Prentice-Hall, 1995. Laughlin, James, Remembering William Carlos Williams, New ... physician.French Hospital and Nursery and Child's Hospital, New York, New York, intern, 1906- 09; private medical practice in Rutherford, New ...
Miller, J. Hillis. “Introduction.” William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. 1-14.
——————————. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1965.
Rodgers, Audrey T. Virgin and Whore: The Image of Women in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland, 1987.
Rudinow, Joel. “Representation, Voyeurism, and the Vacant Point of View.” Philosophy and Literature 1979: 173-186.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Rvsd. ed. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Stoller, Robert. Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. New York: Pantheon, 1975.