April: and in these tremulous, scarifying days, I hope that you all are safe and well. I’ll be brief, in this prelude to Joseph Campana’s intensely moving and insightful piece on William Carlos Williams’ “Danse Russe”. I merely want to draw your attention to this month’s cover art, Jose Manuel Ballester’s diptych on “Francisco Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’”, part of a series in which you’ll note the technique of, essentially, erasure – in this case, human figures removed from works of art. What better metaphor for our benighted times? “Chilling,” I think, is the word I’m looking for. I stumbled on it in the online art journal Colossal – a magazine I highly recommend you take a look at, to fill, if you are so gifted, a few of the hours otherwise given over to work and duties of every sort.
And with that I happily cede the stage to Mr. Campana and subjects.
On William Carlos Williams’ “Danse Russe”I was looking for something to share this month but nothing felt quite right. That feeling of “nothing felt quite right” spreads as quickly right now as any virus. A student chatted with me in (virtual) office hours about what she called writer’s block, which I don’t entirely believe in. I tried to talk with her about the difference between time, which many of us have right now, and concentration, which can be more elusive the more time we have. I spoke to another friend, a prolific poet, who felt something similar and who would never otherwise identify with the idea of writer’s block. I think we were more at ease for talking about it, all of us who feel trapped in a forced writer’s retreat with little “writing” but a whole lot of “retreat.”
People struggle with so many things right now—fear of sickness and death, loss of livelihood and home, simple loneliness. The worst is not quite yet, and so much anxiety results from not knowing how long this will last. More people than otherwise normally would also now struggle with a species of what artists struggle with daily: how to cultivate solitude, the kind that nourishes rather than destroys.
In the months to come, there’ll be time enough for poems of quarantine and poems of inspiration, the two kinds I see circulating right now with the greatest frequency. I chose, instead, a poem of solitude that enjoys healthy circulation and was written by a doctor no less.
William Carlos Williams
If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
We’re all in our households more of late, and it’s likely none of us feels ecstatic about it. We might be crying “I am lonely, lonely” for very different reasons. What’s moving about the poem is how it gets to this eminently quotable final sentiment. What’s the equation in which loneliness, a grotesque dance, and a setting sun adds up to genius? What makes loneliness best?
We find, in the poem, a man alone, although it seems this man might need isolation more than any of us do. Or maybe he has no longing for it. Perhaps he doesn’t feel the pressures of his relationships. Instead there’s just something in the air that draws him into this naked moment of unexpected motion.
I’ll get to the quality of that motion but not before I say that my favorite lines have always been
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
The guttural cry, “I am lonely” has its own appeal, of course. But I love these lines more, in part for the clarity of images, something Williams was known for. There’s something about the rhythm of the lines, which in fact scans as roughly iambic but stops feeling that way by the final lines. Something about “above shining trees” feels drawn out, like spondees, even though they aren’t. One rhythm overlies another. They don’t quite fit, the result of which is to drive the reader breathlessly on.
It’s no wonder I was drawn to this poem. It cherishes loneliness. It transforms loneliness from dirge to dance. But it’s the quality of dance I’ve been wondering about. Sure, there’s a form of dance here we’re all familiar with—the kind of abandon we might practice when we think we’re utterly alone, although many of us lack the courage for even that. There’s nothing harder, sometimes, than being naked.
But then there’s that title, which makes me wonder what Williams was thinking about in the nineteen teens, just a few years after Igor Stravinsky’s odd and now-rarely performed ballet Petrushka, which premiered in 1911 and the first movement of which is called “Danse Russe.” A vibrant slice of that movement appears here with the score. I was lucky to discover this a few years ago at La Scala on an all Stravinsky program. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.
The world of Petrushka is a world of dolls, of puppets, to be more precise, animated by the will of a cruel creator figure called the Charlatan, who brings them to life to perform at a Shrovetide Fair. Complex erotic scenarios arise. Petrushka falls in love with the ballerina who will not love him back. She falls in love with a Moor who Petrushka challenges to a duel. Petrushka dies and then returns to life long enough to curse the Charlatan before dying again.
Stravinsky’s characteristically off-kilter composition is undeniable in its pinpoint barrage of violins and piano. Listening to it, you feel you can never quite catch the rhythm and in this it feels like things to come in Stravinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring. And yet, my husband tells me when I ask, it’s in 2/4, a sort of march, a simple duple (or double) time. But the salvo of sixteenth notes makes it feel otherwise, as if there are two competing rhythms the confluence of which drives its hearers forward as if in frenzied motion. Michel Fokine choreographed Petrushka and created the title role on the great Vaslav Nijinksy, with movement characterized by a precise and intended awkwardness. The dolls seem to strange to be human, their motion too articulated and attenuated. In one painful scene all three “dance,” their limbs jerking awkwardly to Stravinsky from the pegs on which they are hung.
So what does any of this have to do with William Carlos Williams? We know a gorgeously grotesque dance of loneliness happens under the cover of the vespertinal hours when all others sleep. But is our lonely doctor, our happy genius, also a puppet with someone pulling his strings? Does he wonder how human he really is in the late hours of the day? Is the movement we imagine a little less gorgeous and a little more grotesque? Many poems refer to music, of course, and often by composition. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that a poem might be utterly transformed if you imagined it had a different soundtrack than the one you anticipated. Or that it had a soundtrack at all. Which makes me wonder if ever, in the many many times I have read, taught, and loved this poem, if I ever imagined the music of its world and not just the music of its language. (Which in turn makes me wonder what else I’m missing from the many poems I’ve known and loved for years. I suppose that’s the comfort in returning to works we love).
We may not, just now, feel it’s best to be lonely. We many not feel like happy geniuses. I certainly don’t. I had always thought of this poem as uplifting, and I think that’s not wrong. But perhaps I should say that it might more precisely but precariously balance generative and destructive forms of solitude. That, at least, is what this doctor ordered.
For biographical information on William Carlos Williams, one might begin here.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
AWP – I have heard conflicting reports: some truly seemed to miss the crowds, others to revel in the comparative emptiness. As I mentioned last month, I was among the many who did not attend, for reasons previously delineated. Onward, then to Kansas City in 2021!
Like almost every other event, our in-person Plume readings have been put on hold for the foreseeable future. If/when things settle down, I hope to reschedule them. It’s likely in the interim, we’ll hold some online events – I’ll keep you posted.
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month, as noted, is from Jose Manuel Ballester, his “Francisco Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’”. You can find more on the artist here.
And finally, per usual, a few new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors: