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'The poem is what we are after’: Puzzling Out Coleridge and Williams

-- Dana Ringuette

I begin with a passage:             

It is there, in the mouths of the living, that the language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression and, I add, basic structure--the most important of all. ("PFA" 291)1

One might be tempted, upon hearing or reading this passage, to marvel at how romantic it sounds-to my mind, reminiscent of Wordsworth, say, and his Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Yet, it is not Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, either Shelley, or Byron (perish the thought, grim reader!). Rather, it is William Carlos Williams from a talk he gave in 1948. That bears repeating: 1948. While my initial focus concerned puzzling romantic narratives, I confess at the outset a shift in focus to narratives which sound puzzlingly romantic--one by Williams and one by Coleridge--and while I do not believe these two pieces are puzzling in the same way, I do think they are mutually illuminating.

One might also be tempted--also quite legitimately, I think--to read Williams's words as yet another example of romanticism attenuated, especially in its apparent concern with origins and the expression of originality. Doing so would provide perhaps an initial link between those writings of Williams and Coleridge which I am about to discuss, but it might also have the effect of making Williams a romantic, or Coleridge a modernist, neither condition being particularly helpful, at this point, in understanding either. Still, the interest in "new means" is a noteworthy parallel between the poetic romanticism and modernism of Coleridge and Williams. Perhaps it is the case that every generation of writers has the responsibility to announce itself as "the new." And perhaps this is the legacy of romanticism to modernism and postmodernism. Recall even T. S. Eliot's call for a new sense of poetry "in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways," combine "to give us a new art emotion," contributing to an "ideal order," "modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art" (42-3; 38). He saw this new sense, of course, as a productive escape from the cult of personality inherited from 19th-century British poetry, even while Wordsworth himself, for example, called for a new poetry in which the poet ought "to adopt the very language of men" and ought "to bring [the poet's] language near to the language of men" (250-51). However, I forego all these possible puzzles in order to pose a different one, a different quizzical problem: What could such a language look like, as Williams projects it, and what could or would it do?

Well, Williams avers in this talk, but also in sundry essays, it wouldn't be "English," that is, not the English of England and of British poetry, nor, as Williams seemingly always delights in saying, the English of "Mr. Eliot," by which he meant, of course, Thomas Stearns. As Williams says, "For us rehash of rehash of hash of rehash is not the business" ("PFA" 291).

"Distress" occurs, says Williams in his essays, when "we are stopped in our tracks by the dead masquerading as life. We are stopped by the archaic lingering in our laboring forms of procedure--which interested parties, parts, having or getting the power will defend with explosives--seeking to prevent the new life from generating in the decay of the old" ("AW" 204). "Everything else is secondary," Williams goes on to say, but "that continual reassertion of structure ... is first," and this because the poet's "major opportunity" is "to build his living, complex day into the body of his poem" (217). The "major function of the artist [is] to lift to the imagination and give new currency to the sensual world at our feet" (215). And in this way, "the responsibility of the artist in face of the world is toward inclusion when others sell out to a party" (211).

Williams calls such imaginative structure a "measure," playing upon and with the myriad uses or forms and definitions this term might take on. As a substantive noun, "measure" is a "test," a standard of comparison. It is a "move" or procedure calculated to achieve a purpose. It denotes "degree" or relative intensity and amount, and it is a medium for ascertaining dimension and capacity, as well as size or magnitude. Measure carries the force of law and enactment, in the sense of a formal product of a law-giving body. Of course, carrying its prosodic emphasis as rhyme and meter, it is the regular, produced recurrence of stressed and unstressed words and notes in poetry and music. In addition, as a verb or action, measure "gauges" the dimensions, quantity, or capacity of something, as well as it "delimits," or "determines" the limits of something.

"Measure" is an extraordinarily flexible substantive structure, and designates the poem, in Williams's understanding, as a "field of action" ("PFA" 280). Williams's poet is trying "not only to disengage the elements of a new measure but to seek (what we believe is there) a new measure or a new way of measuring that will be commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living as contrasted with the past. It is in many ways a different world from the past calling for a different measure" (283). That is, Williams is seeking a structure or measure of language and poetry not correspondent to an ideal form or order, but balanced in relation to this world. Measure is a structure commensurate with the relations by which that structure is constituted. In other words, one might argue (although I won't pursue this), what is represented in structure is the "design," as he says, or the measure of the imagination.

What I will pursue, however, is the idea that those relations are often scattered, disparate, though abundant. As Williams says: "We seek profusion, the mass-heterogeneous-ill-assorted" and he says further, "we should be profuse" (284-85). Of course, the next question that arises is: how does "profusion" and the "ill-assorted" relate to "measure," that is, to a notion of discrimination, of measuring and sorting out? The answer, I think, can be found in Williams, but it is so elegantly and provocatively rendered, if not always simply, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that I can't resist being profuse myself and moving toward his essays on method, which are found in The Friend.

The problem with moving to Coleridge's thoughts on Method is that they truly are as profuse as they are fascinating: no one definition of method seems to obtain for him. But this is perhaps method's signal strength for him, especially when found in writers, as he mentions, from Shakespeare to Plato (nice historical inversion that): "the purpose of the writer is not so much to establish any particular truth, as to remove the obstacles, the continuance of which is preclusive of all truth" (472), and hence, I might add, of all method. Perhaps his clearest explanation of method comes early in these essays in an operative definition. Coleridge writes:               

Method … becomes natural to the mind which has been accustomed to contemplate not things only, or for their own sake alone, but likewise and chiefly the relations of things, either their relations to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. (451)

And he takes this further: "To enumerate and analyze these relations, with the conditions under which alone they are discoverable, is to teach the science of Method" (451). It is the relations of things--this "science of Method--that I want to emphasize in puzzling out both Coleridge's notion of method and Williams's attention to "structure" and "measure."

Coleridge seems to be arguing, at base in these essays, that cohesion is not what spurs on thought, but rather dispersion, difference--and so the world (as Williams invokes it), I suppose, could be legitimately called--and not at all in a derogatory way--fragmented. Or, as Williams says, "profuse." That is, incomplete, still developing.

Were things already figured out, already ordered, and intrinsically regular and arranged, then a notion of or need for method would not be necessary. And for Coleridge this is a fundamental point. As he says, "The term, Method, cannot therefore, otherwise than by abuse, be applied to a mere dead arrangement, containing in itself no principle of progression" (457). Method doesn't assume continuity to begin with; rather it assumes heterogeneity, dispersion, the centrifugal rather than the centripetal. "There is method in the fragments, " says Coleridge, and from all this, I draw some further conclusions about what Coleridge means by "method":

1. A method is not simply a single method or the method, that is, a separate truth or the truth; rather, Method is, as he says, a "PRINCIPLE OF UNITY WITH PROGRESSION" (476).
2. As such, Method is, what he calls, "a progressive transition," which is the meaning of the word in the original Greek (literally "a way, or path of transit") (455).
3. If method, then, involves the relations of things, and if such relations must be studied or understood under such conditions in which the conditions themselves are the products or instances of relations, then Method must be the study or understanding of the relation of relations. In other words, method is the discovery of relations and the transit from one idea to the next.
4. The path of transit through and with these fragments--the unity of progression which holds things together--are ideas continually being re-thought, affected as they are by the past, the present, and the future. But note they are no less cohesive just because the "leading thoughts" or principles, as Coleridge calls them, are always developing.

Now this is all very confusing--and profuse and fragmented--until we follow Coleridge's advice to set aside what he calls the "confused multiplicity of seeing" (512)--(much like the complaint Emily Dickinson poses in "I heard a fly buzz-when I died" when the fly interposes between the speaker in the poem and the light to which she is drawn: "I could not see to see-"): if this is true of method at the broadest and most general levels, it is also true at the most particular. And if this is the case, then, as Coleridge claims, "One fact is often worth a thousand," and he says that the person who "has not the head to comprehend this will never receive an auspicious answer from the oracle of nature" (481). In other words, our ideas are not simply our own--or rather my or your own--rather, they are shot through with relations to other ideas; they are comprised of transitions and transits which themselves comprise progressions and the promise of further progressions. And if this is the case, then it is precisely here where Coleridge's method intersects with Williams's faith in the "poem as a field of action" and his emphasis on "measure" as, he says, "the only reality that we can know" ("PFA" 283).

In an essay not published during his lifetime, "The Basis of Faith in Art," c. 1937, and written in the form of a narrative, specifically a dialogue between himself and his architect brother, Williams insists that "the purpose of art IS to be useful" ("BFA" 179). Poetry ought to lead both from and in the direction of, as he says simply, "people." He goes on:

In the world we are confused, embittered, we lose our sense of order and are likely to cling to death because we fear the apparent disorderliness of our lives. We have no faith so we accuse everyone else of breaking his vows. This is pitiful but who is free either from the sins of commission, of lying or envy? Why, envy is the very backbone of conformity. But there remains the province of art. (189)

While his brother assumes that Williams will now go on to "canonize the artist," Williams does no such thing. Instead he asserts the "rediscovery in people of the elements of order" (189). This baffles his brother, who speaks from an orientation of first-order, primary principles of order. Williams does not respond with yet another "more adequate" or "more sufficient" universal; rather he revels in the secular, the mundane, the profane, the heterogeneous, insisting that we need not more sophisticated, transcendental or ideal "grounds," but more inclusive and tolerant designs to help us understand and use what is already before us. In this way, Williams, I believe, invokes an understanding of "measure" which is commensurate with STC's "method." While his brother assumes a principle of order that comes top down, Williams insists that order can only be inferred, that is, not ascending from the bottom up (which would merely be the inverse of his brother's understanding), but rather located in the mundane and social inter-action and inter-dependencies. He who would be the "best designer," as Williams says, whether architect or writer, is "He [or she] with the most profound insight into the lives of the people and the widest imaginative skill in its technical interpretation-or any part thereof" (195).

"The poem is what we are after," says Williams, because the pursuit of poetry--and the measure and method to be found or experienced therein--offers a structure of understanding or imagination commensurate with the measures (the constraints and the freedoms) of lived experience ("PFA" 291). This is not a matter of making experience conform to predetermined primary categories, for either Coleridge or Williams, but rather a method wherein "human need," to use Williams's term, is the leading concern ("BFA" 178). Poetry, for Williams, is a "rival government" attuned to the needs and experiences of individual people (180).

In a 1939 essay, Williams writes:

I've been writing a sentence, with all the art I can muster. Here it is: A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm. ("AW" 196)

Now as tempted as we might be to read this sentence as saying that the work of art makes a new world, we should resist. Rather, Williams says the work of art only makes a structure which affirms a new world already here, already in existence, if we have the skill, the art, the understanding to see it. Now insert "method" for "structure" and you have an idea of what I mean. It's a new world not really "found" in a work of art, but rather affirmed--and reaffirmed and affirmed again in the worlds represented and made in other and various works of art. In the broadest terms, in as much as the world is made, we inhabit a world made by art--made by us. We inherit not sealed and impenetrable worlds and ideas, but traditions and conventions which were made--made up of and by ideas, methods, dialogue, conversation, communication, exchange, give-and-take, and so on. And if that is so, then perhaps the last thing we need to do is to make rigid and inflexible that which never was so in its inception.

Following Coleridge's cautions concerning "mere dead arrangements," Williams writes: "the mind is merely enslaved by these ideals, these ideas, unless we can relate them, here, now, in our environment, to ourselves and our day. This requires invention" ("BFA" 179). Note that he says not my but our ideas--gesturing not toward the private, but toward the communal and inclusive, toward dialogue, exchange, conversation. Coleridge's emphasis on relations--and on the relation of relations--while often maddeningly theoretical becomes incisively practical: If, as Williams says, the poem is what we are after, then--adapting Williams-- "it can only be in the hope that [we] may gather to [ourselves] others with whom [we] would like to see the world better populated" (180). This, I think, is "path of transit" that Coleridge travels and celebrates. And thank goodness they both invite us along for the ride.


1 For ease of reference, I will use abbreviations of the essays by Williams cited in this essay: "AW" for "Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist"; "BFA" for "The Basis of Faith in Art"; and "PFA" for The Poem as a Field of Action." All of the essays can be found in Williams's Selected Essays to which the page numbers refer.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Essays on the Principles of Method." The Friend. Vol. III. Ed. Barbara E. Rooke. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. 448-524.

Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1975. 37-44.

Williams, William Carlos. "Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist." Selected Essays 196-218.

---. "The Basis of Faith in Art." Selected Essays 175-95.

---. "The Poem as a Field of Action." Selected Essays 280-91.

---. Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1969.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Preface. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A. R. Jones. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1963. 241-72.