Some Old Modern (part one)

William Carlos Williams – Collected Poems Volume 1: 1909-1939 (Carcanet)

William C. Williams. It’s a name to ponder. There’s a Sociologist called Mike Michael. Either he was named Michael Michael, or he changed it by deed poll.

Both explanations seem equally strange, but in a time when the lid of naming has blown off to the skies, just mentioning this feels old-fashioned.

It is the name of a poet though, William Carlos Williams, it is already formal, W-C-Ws.

Mirrored, singular in the first instance, plural in the second. This is appropriate, as Williams worked steadily up to 1939, at which point he broke through into a different version of the same poet.

There are two Williams’ existing at either side of the break, although this book gives the lie to that story somewhat, a story that clusters around the publication of Paterson after the war.

The key dimension of this book then is not the content – although the importance of that content for poetry cannot be understated – but the linear development of Williams’ craft.

If even mentioning the double Williams feels old-fashioned, prepare yourself for his very first published poems. Here is a taste:

O, prayers in the dark!
O, incense to Poseidon!
Calm in Atlantis.

Hmm. But Williams’ trajectory goes upwards quite steadily. Unlike, say Ginsberg, who admired Williams greatly, the development seems gradual for much of the climb.

Ginsberg’s Collected Poems tick over for a short while, then explode into time and space.

These poems move across thirty years of intensive testing and experiment, the development of craft, to a form that will displace Poseidon’s fishy vapour forever.

At the end of this phase the ground is then cleared for Ginsberg – whom he mentored – and other American poets to follow.

When the grand romantic themes are gone, imagism falls into place: Words deployed as a painter might. His second book was published in London, with assistance from Ezra Pound.

Across the many pages (579+) the evidence for Williams’ questing, testing, consolidating and rejecting intelligence is laid out and proven. Carcanet put the poems and books back in order of publication for this volume, rejecting Williams’ own revised 1951 collected early poems, in order to place the emphasis on his development as an artist.

It might be tempting to play down this volume, focusing on the Williams that comes after the break, like Coltrane after Love Supreme. But there is a very rich seam of poetry in this period, although I do gravitate to the latter stages of this volume.

The Descent of Winter, 1928, is worth the price of the volume alone. It is still unexploded, a powerful seam of poetic energy and form. It switches between prose and verse, the critical, poetic and fiction voices mesh.

The numbering alone is genius. A simultaneously short and vast masterpiece, like modernity itself, a painterly work full of dazzling grey light. It is under-explored and exemplary.

A section switches, like a rail, to ‘freight cars in the air’. In the air?! Those heavy things? But modernity was experienced on many levels, below your feet, above your head, and as light, a giddy gas high.

It calls in all the other work pushing at the edges from the decade before it, Cendrars, with his Profound Today from just five years before it, teeth replaced with the clacking typewriter, the roads and rails leave the ground and head into space.

I have no idea if Williams’ read Cendrars’ Profound Today, a Williams scholar might know, but they are in the same zone, and of Zone by Apollinaire, and those who know those pieces will know that is high praise.

Williams’ Introduction to The Descent of Winter comes in the middle. Like a cubist painting, it takes all the angles and recombines them in a kind of Rorschach blot.

Then at the end he proclaims that ‘There are no sagas now – only animals, engines: There’s that.’ Note the lack of trees.

This section seems like a final rejection of the conjuring of the gods in his first published work too, and that should give hope to all budding poets, although in its time it might be seen as a harbinger of the horror to come.

Read, look and learn. This is an essential book for anyone who is serious about poetry.

– Steve Hanson

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I’m the Doctor

A.J. Lees – Mentored by a Madman (Notting Hill Editions)

There have been some cracking books this year, but for the sheer unexpectedness of it I’d have to say that Mentored by a Madman is the one I’ve recommended the most.

It was at the European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester’s Welcome Inn – a place dizzy with incense and laughing yoga – where I first met Professor Lees. He wore a pristine suit and spoke with a careful, measured and attentive voice. His eyes were very still. In the midst of the paranoid scholars and itchy artists he seemed unnervingly calm, standing out but very much at home. Oliver Harris, one of the world’s greatest living experts on Burroughs, introduced him as a colleague of the late Olivier Sacks, a renowned neurosurgeon and an ‘unexpected disciple of another man who made a habit of wearing suits in company like this’.

The book, which I picked up that day on the strength of Lees’ talk, is a memoir which – like all great memoirs – relegates the protagonist to a secondary character. Lees is shaped by early run-ins with Beat culture, the Dickensian stringency of elite medical schools, the humanity of the Parkinson’s sufferers he treated with L-Dopa and, alongside all of it, the ‘madman’ of the title: William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs crosses the text like a Buddhist Lama, appearing with unexpected insights from him texts in incongruous situations and proving – like all we Burroughs-lovers have always known – that what appears on first reading as mania or obscenity can become, in time, priceless and humanistic insights that span time.

Of particular interest is Lees’ own adventurous spirit when it comes to the limits of standard clinical procedure. A good physician, he believes, should be willing to try the medicines he or she prescribes in order to truly understand their effect upon the subjectively experienced organism.

How else, other than sharing their urges, could Lees have discovered the psychosomatic and potentially addictive qualities of his treatments which had been deemed safe under lab conditions?

Lees praises botany as another lost art of the physician. Some of the millions spent synthesising trademarkable drugs in labs could surely be spared to search the rainforests where evolution has very likely already provided cures in abundance. The Yage Letters are an influence here.

Lees points out that Burroughs was the first Western explorer to realise that yage was a product of two vines, not one; a secret which official medicine would take another half-century to uncover. Exotic botany and self-medication eventually combine towards the close of the text as Lees’ describes to us one hell of a retirement party.

The key message of the work, and one Lees’ appears to have embodied throughout his successful career, are the benefits of what academics now call ‘interdisciplinarity’ but are much better described as having varied interests.

Burroughs, though he dropped out of medical school after one semester, continued to hold a broadly scientific outlook. The knowledge he gained from a lifetime’s autodidactic medical reading allowed him to become a worthy proponent of the apomorphine cure for opiate addiction.

It was Lees’ openness to literary and aesthetic insights which introduced him, through Burroughs, to this same apomorphine. The dopamine-regulating qualities that Burroughs praised for reducing opiate need proved a great breakthrough when utilised alongside L-Dopa in the treatment of Parkinsons. Lees credits Burroughs with these insights, but it is clear to us who the truly great physician here is.

Most importantly, Mentored by a Madman is well written, compulsively readable, compact and balances sentiment and humour perfectly. It’s chock full of great anecdotes and carries a life-affirming message, especially but not exclusively for those interested either in Burroughs or the neurosciences. Buy that shit!

– Joe Darlington