To broaden our discussion of parts of speech, their places and powers, we read two versions of a poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Locust Tree in Flower.” One goes this way.
loosely strung —
A very pretty poem about a pretty old tree. A lovely coined word, “ferncool,” whose extravagance only starts to look off in the light of the renunciations of the later version. Which goes this way.
This poem never fails to stun me.
Ten Thirteen words on ten thirteen lines. (Oops. One line short of a sonnet.) All but three are monosyllables. The thing’s almost entirely empty. And out of that great narrow strait the poem blossoms endlessly.
And not a metaphor to be found here. All the power comes from metonymic resonance and a powerful torque applied to syntax.
For instance the strange construction
How can we be both among and of? Among means in the midst of but distinct from. Of means belonging to and identified with.
Are we thrown to a green we remain apart from? Or do we belong to a green we can’t get out of? Spring is the swell and swirl of the new it is and does. And so the poem dizzies, endizzes, lucky us.
Master Dogen said to his monks:
When you paint spring, don’t paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots — just paint spring. Painting willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is painting willows, plums, peaches, or apricots. It’s not yet painting spring.
The longer poem paints a pretty picture of a locust tree. The shorter invites us to be spring in the tree.
These thoughts, by the way, formed in collaboration with my students, who saw deep and well into this one.
POSTSCRIPT. Want a master class in revision? Track how the first version becomes the second. What words go, what words stay, how the words that stay drift into new places. The depth of the letting go here is astonishing. Nothing less than total.