Thursday, October 25, 2007


"Automobile comin' into style" (Dorn, myself, William Carlos Williams)

When I had the classroom conversation about the Air Bag poem with Ed Dorn mentioned in my May 19 posting (about which I've been asked to expand, but I have some mental block about doing so--basically it's that I would feel compelled not just to report what I remembered of the exchange, but also to expatiate further on some very tricky issues), I felt compelled to disclose my own relation to cars and the preservation of Life and Limb: I don't drive. Dorn said something about that being a good decision for certain people to make.

After my second attempt at passing the Road Test (during a vacation from college), I told myself I would never take the Test again, as I might well be a menace on the roads if I ever managed to pass it. One thing that led me to this vow was experiencing the consternation of the man who sat beside me and administered the test. Well, what can I say?--being perceived, and perceiving myself, as "clumsy" and "lacking coordination" has always been an aspect of my life.

In practical terms, through rides from others, and Public Tranportation, I've gotten along fairly well without the License most citizens take for granted. I do feel I've lost something in terms of joy (and challenge). A friend tells me he felt a decline in vitality when certain circumstances caused him to decide to give up driving. When practicing for the driving test, while feeling very nervous amidst traffic lights and close traffic, I felt happy, and secure, speeding down Long Island's freeways.

In any case, I'm fascinated by the love of cars and driving to be found in William Carlos Williams' 1923 hybrid poetry/prose wonder-piece Spring And All. (I will designate each poem I cite both by the numbers that are used in the original text, and by the names Williams later devised for the publishing of the poems in other contexts).

In Poem VIII ("At the Faucet of June") we are told that the presence of this relatively new entity, the motor vehicle, is extremely welcome and legitimate:

And so it comes
to motor cars--
which is the son

leaving off the g
of sunlight and grass--

In the famous conclusion to Poem XVIII ("To Elsie") the apparent absence of anyone with the ability to act and react helpfully in a social landscape of nullity and distress is stated as:

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

There's much that I'd like to explore about Poem XI ("The Right of Way", also known as "The Auto Ride"), but in this post I'd like to focus on the first six lines--I include 4 additional lines in my quotation to give a taste of what "I saw" leads to:

In passing with my mind
on nothing in the world

but the right of way
I enjoy on the road by

virtue of the law--
I saw

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house--
a woman in blue

Two puns show how much pleasure Williams is taking in The Right of Way: he "enjoys" it both in the sense of 'having the possession of it' and in the sense of 'being pleased by it'; and this is "by virtue" of the law both in the sense of 'by means of' and in the sense of 'by the goodness of'. He's enjoying the order created by the traffic laws because they allow him to look out at and experience the world without excessive worry about the surrounding traffic (unless he finds himself witnessing and adjusting to a sudden circumstance of danger.) I would think that also he's gleefully enjoying the privilege of having The Right of Way in his favor whereas other cars don't. For when the possession of the right is the one thing occupying his head ("passing with my mind/on nothing in the world//but..." it is already quite pleasant; that his mind becomes filled by somethings that he eyes see is additional pleasure. (I should probably add that I am reading the phrase "nothing in the world//but" as meaning simultaneously "nothing in the world, except (this thing called The Right of Way)" and "nothing in the world, but rather (this conceptual/legal no-thing, The Right of Way) )1

When thinking of how the joy of sight meshes in these lines with the elation of having an advantage (The Right of Way), I was reminded of another Williams poem I vaguely remembered in which the pleasure of seeing is starkly opposed to the desire to gain and maintain power and privilege. After at least an hour of frustrated searching, I discovered that the poem I had remembered was to found in The Descent of Winter, that other WCW poetry/prose hybrid of the '20s (1928 to be exact). And I was delighted to note what I had not consciously remembered, that this short piece also was an automobile poem!:


I make really very little money.
What of it?
I prefer the grass with the rain on it
the short grass before my headlights
when I am turning the car--
a degenerate trait, no doubt.
It would ruin England.

That's rather self-explanatory, except that the concluding slur on Great Britain could surely provoke a long discussion, which I won't get into here. Returning to Spring and All, I'd like to note finally Poem XVII ("Shoot it Jimmy!"). It's a monologue by an enthusiastic jazz musician ("Our orchestra/is the cat's nuts--") and it doesn't ostensibly have anything to do with automobiles. And yet these lines, in which the speaker expresses disdain for composed music as against improvisation--

That sheet stuff
's a lot a cheese.

gimme the key

and lemme loose

--makes me think, in the context of the car-happy world of Spring and All, not only of musical major and minor keys, but of a car key initating an exploratory, joyful windswept journey.

1Note Williams' play with the word "nothing" in Poem VI ("To Have Done Nothing").

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