Two locust trees

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.

Among
the leaves
bright

green
of wrist-thick
tree

and old
stiff broken
branch

ferncool
swaying
loosely strung —

come May
again
white blossom

clusters
hide
to spill

their sweets
almost
unnoticed

down
and quickly
fall

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.

Among
of
green

stiff
old
bright

broken
branch
come

white
sweet
May

again

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

Among
of
green

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.


Black Locust

One more torn page

One more from Barb (she’s on a tear).

image

And transcription:

(old men)no books (3)

on is made in Was—
of the Mone.

Man how pear trees
settle power

to see and believe.

(such
dire
need)

I think I mentioned I came up with this exercise 10 minutes before the first meeting of my Art of Compost class this summer when I saw in my notes “exercise: something with torn pages” and realized I hadn’t worked out what “something” was.

William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “write carelessly, that nothing that is not green survives.” Not sure the same always applies to lesson planning but here it worked okay.

The pages we tore in class were from a battered second copy I had of his Imaginations.

Exercise: Torn page (2)

This time you have a little more say. (One point of attention here is the play of decision and accident in the composition.) Take a page and tear it in half vertically. Find a language area you like. Begin reading from the (left or right) gutter and go as far as you like along the line (moving right or left). When you’ve had enough of that, jump to the next line, and repeat.

When you’ve made your selection, you can also make some small number of amendments, let’s say three. This came from William Carlos Williams’s Imaginations, looks like Descent of Winter, though I’m too lame to go check.

Again, transcribe the poem, as the act of making it your own.

And Coolidge said, let fenders
behind pine booths stead of the
old-time cake-thick faces! made
of some certain, how they shape for
the oven, the woven grey strips
wound pneumothorax pavement
office upon lights.

This one has at first the feel of being a sentence, but around “pneumothorax” it abandons the pretence of sentenceness and gives itself to its wordliness.

First day of class

First day of class tomorrow, a bit of butterflies now, as I always have.

Want to remember my classes go best when I don’t plan too much. Have something in mind about tearing pages and discerning poems in the strips we’ve made — as prep for the fragments we have of Sappho, many recovered from the mummies her poems were recycled to bear on in the afterworld.

Have a couple of books on hand of W.C. Williams, already spine-split and spilling their pages. They should make good material.

Am struck by — a feeling the books are sacrosanct! shouldn’t be torn with! Interesting.