Ciaran O Rourke

Ciaran O Rourke

Ciarán O'Rourke is a widely published Irish poet, living in Leitrim. His poetry appears in the Culture Matters anthology, Children of the Nation, and his first collection, The Buried Breath, is available here

'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams
Wednesday, 23 September 2020 16:45

'Poetry is a rival government': the poetry of William Carlos Wiliams

Published in Poetry

Ciarán O'Rourke writes about the thoroughly politicised, internationalist and anti-fascist poetry of William Carlos Williams

“Mourn O Ye Angels of the Left Wing!”, Allen Ginsberg exclaimed in 1963, following the death of William Carlos Williams: “that the poet / of the streets is a skeleton under the pavement now”. The accolade, although brief, was a fitting one. Williams, the documentarian of America’s urban life, now resided “under the pavement ”, an appropriate resting place for a “poet of the streets” who had also been a stalwart “of the Left Wing!”.

Principally remembered today for his literary credo, “No ideas but in things”, as well as for imagistic snapshots such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Williams was in fact a formally adventurous and politically impassioned advocate of literature as an instrument of democratic praxis. For him, art's purpose was to provide a record of lived experience, but one which at the same time shed light on the power dynamics at play in his society – from the gleaming suburbs to the impoverished tenements of New Jersey’s industrial towns, where he worked (for over forty years) as a doctor-on-call and pediatrician. “Poetry is a rival government”, he wrote, remarking elsewhere that the “revolution” will be accomplished when “noble has been / changed to no bull”.

As a poet, Williams balanced stylistic delicacy with an exuberance (sometimes a fury) of political perception. In one piece, the stirring still-life of a “sewing machine / whirling // in the next room” comes to stand for both the financial want and the practical industriousness of a whole community of working-class women – as nearby, the “men at the bar” are “talking of the strike / and cash” (perhaps recalling the 1913 Paterson silk strike).

Likewise, and although he would maintain a personal affection for the three-time President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his later poems remained unflinching in their depiction of post-New Deal American society as one defined by inequality and social neglect. “Election Day” (1941) is a case in point:

Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house –

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

The poem's “broken house” serves to reflect (and maybe also to accuse) the greater house of American democracy, divided or otherwise as it may be. By virtue of its very marginality, the slow, permeating poverty of the old man's surroundings comes to stand in a representational relation to the political system in which he lives.

The radical redness of wheelbarrows

Even Williams's beloved “red wheel / barrow” may be understood as a statement of inclusivity: like the rain that glazes it, the wheelbarrow is a humdrum specificity, now suddenly become general – made luminous by the poet's glancing view. It exists in multiple forms simultaneously: as a thing, a symbol, and a literary experiment in which Williams's readers are actively involved. The redness of this poem-object is radical in its universality, filling in for all the colour and vibrancy of the world at large, as the “yellow, yellow, yellow!” does in his piece, “Primrose”. “It is not a color”, Williams proclaimed in that poem, but rather represents the flash and flow of life itself: “It is summer! / It is the wind on a willow / It is a piece of blue paper / in the grass...”. It is as accessible to us, in our own lives, as it was to him – the very opposite of the literary fetish so prized in academic circles.

Williams himself ascribed his political and observational focus to his being, in some ways, an outsider in America. “My mother was half French [from Puerto Rico]”, he noted in 1954: “My father was English... [and] never became a citizen of the United States though he made no objection to my remaining one after I had been born here.” Such an upbringing, Williams suggested, “led me to look at writing with very different eyes from any to be found about Philadelphia”.

Crucially, however, by choosing to write in what he called “the American grain”, Williams was attempting to tap into an expressive tradition that for him was as politically exemplary as it was culturally original. Perhaps curiously, for so antagonistic a literary innovator, “tradition” was a keyword among Williams's motivating concerns – and was the trope, indeed, that he resurrected in the aftermath of the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, when he searingly blamed the American public (as typified by his suburban neighbours) for the outcome. “Americans”, Williams writes, “You are inheritors of a great / tradition”, despite doing only “what you're told to do. You don't / answer back the way Tommy Jeff did or Ben / Frank [...] You're civilized”.

Whether or not we accept the totalising equation of the radicalism of America’s secessionist settlers with that of persecuted anarchists of the 1920s, the logic here is telling. For if Williams's perennial urge as a poet was to “answer back” to his times, then such an impulsion, in his view, was by definition an American one: to be both dissident and dissonant amid prevailing orthodoxies, like Sacco and Vanzetti themselves.

Just as Williams was keen to place his work on the side of rebels of varying political stripes, his modernism was remarkable for the insight into industrial modernity it conveyed. He portrays New York city as a conglomerate of “[s]weatshops / and railroad yards at dusk / (puffed up by fantasy / to seem real)”, a vista that chimes with a later, quietly irreverent portrait of Henry Ford as “[a] tin bucket / full of small used parts / nuts and short bolts / slowly draining onto / the dented bottom” and “forming a heavy sludge / of oil”.

Analysing the phenomenon of Fordism from afar, Antonio Gramsci had argued that “the new type of man demanded by the rationalisation of production and work cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it too has been rationalised.... In America, rationalisation of work and prohibition are undoubtedly connected”. If Williams's poems were intended, as he put it, to resemble a “machine made of words”, their outlook nevertheless presented a counter-vision to the mechanisations and resulting alienations identified by Gramsci here – presenting an alternative literary narrative, with all the lasting force (and occasionally the same slapstick sincerity) of a Charlie Chaplin picture on the big screen.

Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) in fact pivots on exactly those material contrasts and contradictions on which Williams's poems themselves so frequently hinge. In the film, the gloriously haywire dance of the main character's “nervous breakdown” in the factory (due to the repetition and strain of the job) makes for superb entertainment, recalling poet Hart Crane's gleeful celebration of Chaplin's key artistic insight: that “we can still love the world”, despite the “meek adjustments” and “random consolations” of contemporary experience.

But the performance also speaks to that condition of social invisibility, that deformity-in-labour, which repeatedly inscribes Williams's literary portraits, jotted down in stray moments during his medical visits among America's swelling population of “the very poor”. “The only human value of anything, writing included,” he summarised, “is intense vision of the facts.”

America adores violence

Given such concerns, it’s perhaps curious that Williams was firm in voicing his opposition to Marxism, which represented, for him, “the regimentation of thought and action”. And yet, his appreciation of daily “things” often served as an exposé of those hierarchies of power on which the development of capital in America depended. “America adores violence”, Williams declaimed, “we have violence for service [...] Battleships for peace. The force of enterprise for bringing bananas to the breakfast table”.

The internationalism of Williams’s perspective is notable here. Also obvious is that his approach was aesthetic and critical, rather than jargonistic, as the entwined imagistic elegance and political feist of his piece, “Proletarian Portrait”, similarly attests. It reads:

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

Williams's avowedly sympathetic stance toward the women he encountered and sought to praise in his poems is by no means immune from critical scrutiny – tending as he does to objectify and sexualise them as symbols of his own desires. The social voltage of this piece, however, is arguably comparable to the fine-tuned dispatches of George Orwell from revolutionary Catalonia in the 1930s: describing faces caught in “sudden glimpses” that stayed “vividly in my memory”, Orwell wrote, and somehow conveyed an “idea of what it felt like to be in the middle of the Barcelona” at the time. Williams's “young bareheaded woman” proletarian would not be out of place among such figures, or indeed among the revolutionaries photographed by Robert Capa in the same conflict – although never (and here lies the crux of Williams's insight into American life) “in an apron”.

“The bourgeois [is] tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be”, Adorno posited; and yet often Williams's social portraits are remarkable for their affectionate identification of both states, his insistent belief that in the very physicality of their dis-enfranchisement may lie the political promise of his subjects – as we see in the closing gesture of the piece above, when the woman is described, with both literalistic precision and parabolic force, reaching into her shoe to remove “the nail / That has been hurting her”.

If the juxtaposition of Williams's poems of urban New Jersey with Orwell's notes from war-torn Spain seems arbitrary, the truth is that Williams himself was often swift to propose such a context for his work. In 1944, Williams was forthright in arguing that the social scenes recorded in his poems were “the war, or a part of it”, constituting “merely a different sector of the field”. Indeed, one of the most compelling assertions engrained throughout his writing is that of the violence of ordinary life, which he, as a doctor on-call, served as a kind of first-hand witness. This perspective informs his account of attending to a “woman with a dead face” who “has seven foster children” and needs “pills // for an abortion” – a scene pointedly entitled, “A Cold Front”: “In a case like this I know / quick action is the main thing.” Williams was a vocal supporter of Margaret Sanger and the movement for reproductive rights in the USA.

Anti-fascist poetry

In this and other respects, and whatever the limitations of his approach, Williams's poetry may provide an alternative model of literary politics to that associated with many writers among whom he is regularly ranked today, including Ezra Pound. A longstanding friend – from their time as university students together until Williams's death in the early 1960s – Pound offered formative criticism of Williams's early work, and remained an important influence thereafter. Pound, of course, welcomed the rise of Italian fascism, and became notorious for broadcasting openly anti-Semitic views.

Williams, by contrast, was forthright in his condemnation of political movements that propounded racist and anti-Semitic ideological concepts. Expressing his contempt for “that murderous gang [Pound] says he's for” (referring to the fascist parties of Hitler and Mussolini), Williams vented a despair that was both personal and political:

The logicallity [sic] of fascist rationalizations is soon going to kill him. You can't argue away wanton slaughter of innocent women and children by the neo-scholasticism of a controlled economy program.

Once signalled, Williams’s divergence from Pound is everywhere to be found in his work. “[Whenever] I see a newspaper that mentions Hitler or Abyssinia”, Marianne Moore wrote to him in 1935, “I wonder why I do not walk up and down the street like a sandwich-man wearing as broadside your [poem] 'Item', for good though certain other things are, this says it all.” Suffused with Goya-esque dread, the poem depicts a woman “with a face / like a mashed blood orange” who wears a “thick, ragged coat” and “broken shoes”, and goes “stumbling for dread” as soldiers “with their gun-butts / shove her // sprawling”. Few of his contemporaries were so attuned to the violence and foreboding of the times.

Williams's art was often silence-breaking. The central character of his late modernist epic, Paterson, sets himself the task of “loaning blood / to the past”, before pinpointing episodes of ethnic and colonial violence from New Jersey's history. The poem thus highlights the murder (in the mid-nineteenth century) of a group of native Americans, accused of “killing two or three pigs” that had in fact “been butchered by the white men themselves”, quoting documentary sources that recorded the original incident:

The first of these savages, having received a frightful wound, desired them to permit him to dance the Kinte Kaye, a religious use among them before death; he received, however, so many wounds that he dropped dead. The soldiers then cut strips down the other's body [while some stood] laughing heartily at the fun... he dancing the Kinte Kaye all the time, [they] mutilated him, and at last cut off his head.

The brutality and racism recounted here present a reproach to the nostalgia of traditional narratives of the emerging nation, which even the poet himself occasionally indulges. The episode likewise closes with clamour and impotent grief, as a captive group of indigenous women “held up their arms, and in their language exclaimed, 'For shame! For shame! Such unheard of cruelty was never known, or even thought of, among us.' [emphasis mine]”

It is all for you

If it would be misleading to depict him as a post-colonial writer, as the segments here suggest, he at least engages a colonially conscious understanding of American space and history – and one often matched by an equally visceral acknowledgement of the formal inadequacy (and historical complicity) of American English as a mode of expressing this understanding. “What do I do?”, asks the narrator in the poem above, “I listen” in silence: “This is my entire / occupation.”

Voiced with an energy entirely his own, Williams’s work is the outcome of a thoroughly politicised historical and environmental consciousness. Ranging from delicately seething portraits of his locale to the vivid imagination of atrocities suppressed from history, Williams's chronicle of his times sought to effect change – if not political change, then communication in a new mode, which for him was perhaps the deeper necessity. “[H]ave you read anything that I have written?”, he once asked, declaring with a flourish, “It is all for you” – a credo that may be taken by readers everywhere as an invitation to construct from his work not only a record of his place and time, but an image (and a critical understanding) of our own.

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes
Friday, 11 September 2020 09:14

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes

Published in Music

As increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists provoke and attack people of colour and their allies, Ciarán O'Rourke shows the relevance of Langston Hughes' political poetry

“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays: songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”

For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimesnions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic comaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency.

Colloquial sass and effortless cool

His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” thus begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.

In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”

Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially through the Civil Rights Movement) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,

There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?

Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”

As the last image implies, to capture and distil down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”

Communist sympathies

In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracism that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:

In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold. 

As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.

As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.

The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”

To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.

The Black Prophetic tradition

“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:

Now I do not understand
Why God don't protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
We'll see.

Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed the Black Prophetic tradition, specifically as a means of highlighting the mutual bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”

Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, then, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”

The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwedolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.

Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.