The story of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All is the story of a book in search of readers. Hailed by the Library of Congress in 2012 as one of the “Books That Shaped America,” it is also the source of essential poems of the twentieth-century canon: “To Elsie,” “Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital],” and the ubiquitous “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Literary scholar Marjorie Perloff has dubbed these “classroom poetry”—oft-anthologized pieces read and discussed in literature courses, where they’re presumed to represent Williams’s work as a whole.
Published in November 1923 in Dijon by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Publishing Co., the edition of about 300 was, for the most part, unread—with much of the print run confiscated by American customs officials, who, according to Williams’s biographer Paul Mariani, believed the volume was “foreign stuff and therefore probably salacious and destructive of American morals.” It was not until 1970 that the work was printed in full again, in New Directions’ Imaginations, a collection which also included four other early Williams works. In 2011, New Directions issued a facsimile edition of the original book, with a new foreward by poet C. D. Wright. It finally entered the public domain eight years later.
The poems as we typically encounter them in poetry anthologies or on the internet are given titles and sometimes terminal punctuation. They have neither in the original book. Moreover, the poems are interspersed with quasi-improvisatory prose, which is part manifesto, part aesthetic meditation, part rant, and sometimes “nonsense,” as Williams himself once said. Today, we’d call Spring and All a “hybrid work.” As a result, the poems look lean amid large swaths of prose, and take on a deeper resonance. “Williams meant the twenty-seven poems of Spring and All to emerge from the prose passages in which they are embedded,” Perloff writes. “Each relates both to the prose which precedes and follows it as well as to all the other poems.”
Williams makes evident his search and concern for readers from the book’s first pages, which open with the writer commenting to himself, almost in a hot mic moment, about his aspirations for and fears about the work: “If anything of moment results—so much the better. And so much more the likely it will be that no one will want to see it.” Though thirty-five years later, Williams conceded “it had no circulation at all—but I had a lot of fun,” the would-be readers were on his mind when he first set pen to paper:
There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between . . . The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in mind a vision of what he would be, some day. Oh, some day ! But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is.
Williams’s central concern in Spring and All is the imagination, and how it might bring the reader and Williams into a shared quest:
To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination. . . .To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force — the imagination. This is its book. I myself invite you to read and to see.
In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.
Williams claims that “This is [imagination’s] book.” Indeed, the word imagination and its cognates appear roughly a hundred times (by my count) in Spring and All’s ninety-three pages. But what does Williams mean to say with the term “imagination?” And what does imagination have to do with “the eternal moment in which we alone live?” Certainly, it’s the subject of Williams’s more striking, if circuitous, passages, such as the instance cited above and this: “As birds’ wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight”
Note that Williams omits the period at the end of this sentence, suggesting perhaps incompleteness or openness. Later he offers:
The imagination is a —
That’s it. The unfinished sentence is a stand-alone paragraph, suspended in white space, which doubly emphasizes its incompleteness. Clearly, Williams means something more than our ability to dream things up, or any other common definition of the term. J. Hillis Miller rightly connects Williams’s use of imagination to its capital-R Romantic roots, but that does not seem to encompass Williams’s use of the term. Yet according to Williams, it is the imagination that brings reader and writer together in a “fraternal embrace . . . [as] one.” So in a sense, for the reader as well as Williams, imagination is the guiding principle as well as the destination. That may seem contradictory, but contradiction is an essential feature of this work.
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What might readers who take up Williams’s invitation find? It might be better or more accurate to ask: What difficulties might they encounter? The fragmentary or discontinuous nature of the book, for one, evident to some degree in the poetry, and entirely in the prose. Donald Wesling contends that the book employs several “violations of sequence,” including what he calls alternation and interruption. Alternation might also be called contrast or juxtaposition. It works on several levels. First, there’s Williams’s typographical games at the beginning of the book with random chapter numbers: the first is labeled “Chapter 19” followed by “CHAPTER XIII,” printed upside down. This contrasts with the poems, which are numbered in order, and also contrasts with the second half of the book, which dispenses altogether with such shenanigans.
Then, at the most basic and obvious level, alternation is what happens between what Lisa Steinman describes as “the manic prose” and the “the crystalline, ordered poems.” To Steinman, these jolts “provide the best image of the creative process at work or play.” To Ian Copestake, the two modes are locked in a fruitful struggle, with prose burying the first poem beneath 217 lines of prose, and poetry eventually emerging victorious; it quite literally has the final word in the volume.
For Wesling, “Interruption” is when Williams “turns in another direction, seeks an example, breaks off, tires out, cannot or will not complete a thought.” Interruption is “the most pervasive design feature” of the writing. He notes two forms of it, the dash and “the non-punctuated stoppage.” Interestingly, Wesling tries to count just how often Williams does this, explaining “I got about a third of the way through [the book], and I had at that point 88 dash constructions and 52 mostly unpunctuated mid-sentence stoppages.” Consider the following of Williams’s text:
Later in the book, we encounter a passage in which Williams defends this practice: “form in prose ends with the end of that which is being communicated — If the power to go on falters in the middle of a sentence — that is the end of the sentence — Or if a new phase enters at that point it is only stupidity to go on.”
Interruption and juxtaposition are essential features of Spring and All. What then holds it together? Certainly not narrative. It is the language itself. J. Hillis Miller remarks that
the verbal tissue of Spring and All is made up of the repetition, modulation, and connection of. . . key words as they weave in and out of the text creating various patterns and combinations. Among them, along with “elucidate,” are “spring,” “beginning,” “new,” “alleviation,” “enlargement,” “imagination,” “force,” “life,” “sympathy,”. . . “imitation,” “copy,” “plagiarism,” “illusion,” and “symbolism.” These words arrange themselves in two groups, the larger related to “spring,” immediacy, “life,” and newness; the smaller polarized around the notions of “repetition” and “imitation.”
For an example of how words reverberate or modulate, consider the first poem of the book, one of its most well-known, located about ten pages in. It’s simply titled with the Roman numeral I, though it’s often called “Spring and All” or “By the road to the contagious hospital.”
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
The first fourteen lines form a series of noun phrases, Patrick Moore points out, with no verb appearing until the fifteenth line. Using prepositions to do the heavy lifting—”By,” “under,” “beyond,” “along,” and “under”—Williams creates an exquisite landscape, albeit one that shows few traditional signs of life. That emerges with the appearance of Williams’s first verb:
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.
Reading these lines, it’s hard not to be reminded of the fact that Williams was a doctor who delivered over 3000 infants during his forty-year career. But I want to pause on a key term, “naked.” In the prose that appears shortly before this poem, Williams imagines his critics: “Is this what you call poetry? It is the very antithesis of poetry. It is antipoetry.” Williams explains what he believes to be the subtext of such attacks: “You have robbed me. God, I am naked. What shall I do?” When we encounter the term again in this poem, it’s associated with the reemergence of life.
Then about sixty pages later, we encounter this echo of the poem in the prose: “To enter a new world, and have there freedom of movement and newness.” Though this sentence fragment/ stand-alone paragraph appears among some especially stammering and fragmentary writing, the repetition of “enter the new world” suggests both the method and the goal of Williams’s poetics: a stripping away that creates the conditions of emergence. The poem ends:
But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon then: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
As is the case for all but one poem in Spring and All, there is no terminal punctuation. Its absence, suggests Burton Hatlen, “mute[s] the sense of closure,” thereby underscoring the sense of emergence. Perloff suggests that with its lack, the poem bleeds into the prose. For instance, that “awaken;” some pages later, in the prose, we find this seasonal awakening connected to the awakening Williams seeks, and the awakening it wants to inspire in the reader. “[N]ow at last spring is here! [. . . .] a curious force awakens. . . . Yes, hope has awakened once more in men’s hearts. It is the NEW! Let us go forward. . . . The imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art,’ takes the lead.” What is awakened is of course the book’s central term/subject, the imagination.
This is just a sampling of how this poem and its language sound and resound throughout the work, creating what James Breslin calls the “multidirectional” experience of reading Spring and All.
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Near the end, Williams ponders the difference between poetry and prose in a discussion filled with compelling ideas, contradictory statements, and moments of bewilderment. Eventually, he asks, “Is what I have written prose?” Henry Sayre suggests this moment is a wake-up call for readers. “As Williams worries over the difference between prose and poetry, we realize that Spring and All actually operates in some indeterminate area between the two, between ‘the exposition of the facts’ (prose) and ‘the crystallization of the imagination’ (poetry), between life and art.”
It’s easy to see Spring and All in terms of opposites: poetry vs. prose, tradition vs. innovation, realism vs. “the real,” plagiarism vs. imagination. For Williams, however, creation is not the opposite of destruction (“destruction and creation / are simultaneous”)—these are simply different phases of becoming, of emergence, that is to say, what we call “life” or perhaps more accurately “living.” For Williams, it is the ongoing process that matters.
Likewise, navigating our way through “indeterminate areas” and other challenges offered by the book, we as readers are compelled to reconsider not only our understanding of “classroom poetry,” but also the act of reading itself. “The fresh and unexampled structure of Spring and All requires us to do something, to discover a way of constructing a reading in order to go on,” argues Mark Long. Our expectations unsettled, we confront Williams’s text “naked,” without readerly creature comforts of narrative, logical sequence, and continuity. We are released from what Williams terms the “fixities” that prevent us from engaging world and word, and “the author and reader are liberated to pirouette with. . . words.”