Saturday, July 12, 2008

Naked American Superstar Poet

Dear Everybody:

Today is primary day in Pennsylvania. I voted for Howard Dean. It makes no difference to me that he dropped out of the race months ago. I am a stubborn man.

Meanwhile, the poetry polls closed Saturday night and the results are in. Two people voted to continue the Poems du Jour. One person asked to stop receiving them -- I counted that as a vote no. And two people abstained, possibly because they hadn't read the du Jours that week. Figuring that as a weak indication of disinterest, I counted them as a third of a no vote apiece. So, by the slimmest of margins, we continue.

Today, American superstar-poet, William Carlos Williams:

Danse Russe
by William Carlos Williams

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
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

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Strange stuff, nicht Wahr? The key to this poem lies in the pun in the final line, in the title, and in our knowledge of the poet's life. A genius is, or was originally, a spirit, a household guardian. The Ballet Russe (Red Ballet) was all the rage in Paris when WCW wrote this poem. And Williams disapproved of American poets going to live in exile in Paris, as was all the rage with intellectuals at the time, and thought that they should stay home and write from the heart of their own society and culture.

(You didn't know this last, did you? So how was that "our" knowledge? Well, first-person plural pronouns are notoriously tricky. As witness the sentence, "We have set foot on the moon.")

So there Williams is, at home, his family asleep (poets get, like, zilch attention in America), the "flame-like disc" of the sun or possibly poetic inspiration overhead, and he begins to dance. Clumsily, grotesquely, not like the elegant dancers in Paris at all. But perhaps he is doing what he is supposed to. Perhaps he'd the guardian-spirit of this country. Perhaps he's a genuine American genius.

Got that? That's a pretty safe interpretation of this poem. Now I'm going to give you a bad one. I ran across this on an on-line posting, but I've seen it before. It's a common enough reading: The narrator is a psychopath who's just killed his family. That's why they're "sleeping" when the sun is up. Now he dances grotesquely in front of a mirror, admiring the blood on his "arms, face, shoulders," etcetera. Whence, "Ballet Russe."

I mention this interpretation because it demonstrates the value of knowing something about the poet's life and intentions. Nobody who knows anything about William Carlos Williams believes that he sat down one day and thought, "Hey! I'll write something splatterpunk!" So this is not a valid interpretation.

But aren't all interpretations equally valid? No. The closest you can come to that statement and still be true is this: Everybody has a right to make their own interpretations. A poem (or any work of art) is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. The better the reader, the better the poem. But, let's be honest, some people are dolts.

Or, as we writers like to say, a book is like a mirror. If an ass looks in, he's not going to see an angel looking out.

All best,


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