The Validity of Spring and All as an Argument Against The Waste Land
By Michael Sarnowski
The Validity of Spring and All as an Argument Against The Waste Land
The Modernist era of poetry, like all reactionary movements, was directed, influenced, and determined by the events preceding it. The gradual shift away from the romanticized writing of the Victorian Era served as a litmus test for the values, and the shape of poetry to come. Adopting this same idea, William Carlos Williams concentrated his poetry in redirecting the course of Modernist writing, continuing a break from the past in more ways than he saw being done, particularly by T.S. Eliot, an American born poet living abroad. Eliot’s monumental poem, The Waste Land, was a historically rooted, worldly conscious work that was brought on by the effects of World War One. The implementation of literary allusions versus imagination was one point that Williams attacked Eliot over, but was Williams completely in stride with his own guidelines? Looking closely at Williams’s reactionary poem to The Waste Land, Spring and All, we can question whether or not he followed the expectations he anticipated of Modernist work; the attempts to construct new art in the midst of a world undergoing sweeping changes.
A version of Spring and All without the sections of prose that were interspersed with the poems was first published in 1923; a year after The Waste Land first appeared. In titles alone, we can see the opposing ideals peeking through, The Waste Land, a poem embedded with imagery of “breeding / … out of the dead land,” a proposal of life moving forward in the wake of immense death that came with World War One, against the direct presentation of the title Spring and All, which seemingly appears as the solution, the key to rebirth (Ramazani 474).
To put The Waste Land in context, a primary concept in Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is that “you can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology (Ramazani 942). The Waste Land is a poem that calls upon literary history by utilizing texts through allusions, direct quotes, and non-English languages as if another voice is standing forward to reassure a particular point. The average reader would need footnotes to make sense of many of the key concepts particularly when it comes to this transcription of languages, such as the closing line, a repetition of the Sanskrit word “shantih”, a summation for the entire piece (Ramazani 487). Williams, a poet that remained in America, promoted his beliefs through his poetry; he embraced American culture and especially the voice of America. Since Eliot is drawing inspiration from the collective unconscious, the mind of Europe, the overarching views of what is considered to be good literature, he maintains an unwavering devotion to classic literature in composing The Waste Land. Meanwhile, Williams was a strong advocate of implementing the American Idiom into his work, using American speech the way it is spoken every day. The motivations of these poets is only the beginning of their differences, the issue of plagiarism became a debated issue as well.
Williams viewed Eliot’s use of allusion and quotation in The Waste Land as plagiarism, as an effort devoid of emotion. Yet, Williams cannot be let off the hook making a statement like this without questioning why he claimed this, whether or not it is justified, and if he is guilty of his own accusations as well. Since a modernist objective was to escape from the past, to “make it new” as Ezra Pound proclaimed, Eliot’s heavy use of other people’s words to further construct his ideas fuels Williams to accuse him of plagiarism. Though one would expect the presentation of new ideas or methods of the Modernist poets, where is the line drawn between allusion and plagiarism, and does Eliot cross it in one direction? To look at the issue fairly, one must assume that Eliot did not set out with the intentions of plagiarizing anyone, but to reach to the past to shed light on the present. Williams intended Spring and All to be a stand against the movement of Modernist poetry that “gave the poem back to the academics” as Williams wrote of The Waste Land (Autobiography 146). Eliot presented ideas through various voices, is Williams doing anything different when he speaks from the perspective of the poor or the jazzman in Spring and All? With lines like “gimme the key / and lemme loose- / I make ‘em crazy / with my harmonies- / Shoot it Jimmy” we are left to assume that Williams is speaking through another’s experience (Spring and All 216). Despite his advocacy of presenting the American Idiom in his work, how is Williams’s jazzman voice different from the bar scene in the second section of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess”, where the voices are discussing abortion, with the bartender interjecting “Hurry up please its time” (Ramazani 478)? Issues raised by Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” include the inescapable nature of the past in terms of current writing; all current production is influenced by all that came before it. This idea differentiates Eliot from Williams when it comes to how they manipulate influence and the derivation of ideas, yet neither is devoid of the reaches of influence.
Just as Eliot took influence from the likes of Dante, the Upanishads, The Holy Bible, and many more worldly texts, Williams drew from what he saw in and around New Jersey. With that being said, is it possible for Williams to write devoid of the same influences? It is impossible that Williams could go untouched by the work of the past and the abroad present. Not only in the respect that it was the “high modernists” which he was reacting against, but he also influenced and mimicked art movements of the period. Movements like Imagism and Cubism were not solely rooted in America, nor were they immune to historical influence. Picasso, Gris, and Duchamp are three popular cubist painters, none of which are American, none of which created work that was not derived in congruence or opposition from an entire history of painting, artwork, and life. Williams was can not deny that he was uninfluenced by other’s voices and artistic visions, strongly from European movements, which puts him at the same liability as Eliot as one who reaches to the past and to other writers and artists to produce their own work, despite using different methods to execute it.
Furthermore, Williams could have gained immeasurable inspiration with the American Idiom from his day job as a pediatrician. Williams often made house calls to help patients, many of which were “poor, working class immigrants” including “Polish, Swedish, Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Black women” (American Idiom vii). If Williams is including American speech into his poetry, the every day words, inflections, exclamations, and sentence structures of people, it is inevitable that he would be deriving ideas from a vast background of non-native American voices. The immigration of European and people of other countries to America comprises a blend of heritage and vocal background. By incorporating the American Idiom into his work, he is also gathering language from various worldly people, all speaking with their own idiom. With no regard to this issue, Williams continued to push the importance of using a distinctly American language in Spring and All.
Numerous prose sections in Spring and All are structured upon Williams’s critiques of other writers and artists. Coming off like a literary criticism rather than a poem, Spring and All appears at times to be prose sections of Williams’s feelings towards varying issues, followed by poems that are exercises of the ideas presented. In addition to plagiarism, before the verse begins in Spring and All, Williams identifies points on the mode of expression and imagination. Taking a jab at Eliot he says “If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot” and concludes with “it is spring- both in Latin and Turkish, in English and Dutch…” and so on (Spring and All 179-180). Both of these statements imply that it is an unneeded effort to go through different languages to express ideas that can be stated in one’s native language. Are the concepts and ideals presented in Williams’s Spring and All any more accessible and clear than those in The Waste Land? Could it be said that poetry in itself is a language, if Williams felt so strongly against the way Eliot was writing, why dress up the basic thoughts in the form of poetry? Would a direct statement be more effective? Williams responded in the form of poetry so he could address Eliot while exemplifying the style of writing he hoped to advance. Nonetheless, as poets, it would be a counterproductive battle to argue why they used certain methods of communication to spread their ideals.
Through his own poetry, personal reflections, letters, and essays, Williams was an outspoken critic of Eliot’s work. Even though we see Williams reinforcing numerous writers and artists within Spring and All, such as Marianne Moore, Alfred Kreymborg, and William Shakespeare, which furthers the debate of originality and imagination in producing new work, no one is devoted more attention than Eliot. Williams does not say Eliot’s name, yet as a reactionary piece, the reader can gather that the majority of points made are all in effort to support Williams against Eliot’s academically based poetry. Poem “XX” in Spring and All seems to be a parody of Eliot’s The Waste Land in its use of sing-song sounds such as “ula lu la lu… O la la O… Oom barroom… la lu la lu” (Spring and All 222-223). Eliot used similar rhythmic elements such as “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”, a reference to lyrics by Gene Buck and Herman Ruby, as well as “ Weialala liea / Wallala leialala” (Ramazani 478, 482). Williams’s section reads as if he’s saying I can do that too, in other words questioning if The Waste Land deserves the praise it received. This can be interpreted as a very retaliatory method, as understood by the reader, Williams is not expressing contentment through Spring and All, but more so the disagreement he has over how poetry should be read, what makes good poetry, and most importantly how he feels poetry should be written.
William Carlos Williams presents a rebellious work that undoubtedly brings up issues for consideration regarding the state of Modern poetry and how he believes it should be dealt with, yet, is he any more justified in his work than Eliot? Plagiarism, imagination, methods of expression, and validity of argument are all monumental debates that can be taken up with regard to Spring and All and The Waste Land, yet for the primary accuser, Williams, it is imperative that he presents sound actions that in no way stray from the accusations he is making. Is this the case? Hardly, this is a situation where the validity of Williams is essential because he presented his argument as a poem, the same format as The Waste Land. Therefore, the reader is prone to believe Williams leading his readers by example, the correct way to exercise the power of imagination that in his mind is “supreme” (Spring and All 179). It is not enough to accept Williams’s words in Spring and All as a sound argument for the direction of poetry or as a proper list of what poetry shouldn’t be. One must examine the work as a reactionary piece to the issues of the time period it was written in while insuring that it carries along the ideals it intends to redefine, without question.
Ramazani, Jahan. Richard Ellmann, Robert O’Clair, ed. The Norton Anthology Of Modern And Contemporary Poetry. Vol 1 Modern Poetry. Third Edition. Norton. 2003.
Williams, William Carlos. Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New Directions. 1967. 146-150.
Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. 1923.
Williams, William Carlos. The American Idiom: A Correspondence: William Carlos Williams & Harold Norse 1951-1961. Ed. John J. Wilson. Bright Tyger. San Francisco 1990.
© Michael Sarnowski