1Attempting to define what constitutes, for him, the modernity of the poem, William Carlos Williams wrote, in a well-known passage of his Autobiography: “It is the making of that step, to come over into the tactile qualities, the words themselves beyond the mere thought expressed, that distinguishes the modern” (1951, 380). His comment may be understood as enouncing what critics see as a central principle of modernism, calling attention to language as medium, making language “tangible”, to borrow a word the poet Charles Bernstein uses of Louis Zukofsky, Williams’s close friend and editor (70). Yet the expression “tactile qualities” also raises the question of how Williams’s poems write what it means to be a body, of how bodily existence may be expressed in language—and conjointly the question of the expressive or mimetic function of words. Making language “tactile”, I would like to argue, is a central aspect of Williams’s writing practice, bound up in the problem of recognizing a self, which for Williams means recognizing one’s connection to the natural world. One might be tempted, then, to understand the expression “tactile qualities” in the context of traditional conceptions which see poetic language as an exception to the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, as Cratylian imitation of nature. I will try to show, on the contrary, that mimetic effects in Williams’s poems are a practice of subjectivation, in that they participate in a system of discourse.
- 1 “My whole life has been spent (so far) in seeking to place a value upon experience and the objects (...)
2Understanding Williams’s writing as mimetic practice must take account of the fact that he rejected the idea that art should be a copy of nature. One of the central statements of his poetics, Spring and All, a collection of poems and prose writings published in 1923, embraces the ideas of the Cubist painters, Juan Gris in particular; Williams there affirms that art must achieve its own reality by means of the imaginative transformation of everyday life: its reality then consists in the fact that it is not a representation. Imagination functions in one sense in Spring and All as a way of affirming the artist’s individuality: central to Williams’s poetics in this text is an assertion of the historicity of language. Yet the basis for the reality of the work of art is its capacity for what Williams calls “completeness” (1970, 116)1; the imagination is also what makes possible a fuller sensory apprehension of the world, because it puts into question existing categories of reference, what Williams calls elsewhere “the so-called natural or scientific array” (1970, 14). Writing is then a process of individuation which yet involves the freeing up of a wider human perspective, transcending the fragmentariness of modern life: the artist, writes Williams, must “fix the particular with the universality of his own personality” (1970, 105).
3Unsurprisingly, however, accounts of the “tangible” qualities of Williams’s writing commonly have recourse to mimetic interpretations, interpretations in which the material attributes of poems, their speech sounds, their visual disposition, are said to correspond to their referents. Thus, Donald W. Markos notes that Williams sees words as “objects or things in themselves”, with “tactile, phonic, and visual qualities”; onomatopoeia and other imitative play then function as a way to “bridge the gap between words and things” (87). Similarly, mimetic interpretation is one of the central strategies employed by Stephen Cushman in his important book on rhythm in Williams, William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure; enjambment, for example, can be understood locally, as “enact[ing] what the words are saying” or more generally, as a marker of “fragmentation” (42-43). Mimetic or expressive interpretation is almost a conditioned reflex in academic readings of poems; I incline to these as well. Yet such approaches pose a fundamental problem, in that they presuppose and thus reify meaning: mimetic effects can only correspond to an already given semantic content, rather than specifying or historicizing it.
4If Williams uses the expression “tactile qualities” to define the modern poem, it is also because touch functions in his writing as a metaphor not only for sensory awareness, but also for social interaction, for the way bodies are taught to behave. In a collection of essays entitled In the American Grain, where he attempts to explain American culture by reconsidering American history, Williams describes the negation of sensory contact, both with the natural environment and with other human beings, as a central legacy of the puritan settlement of America. What Williams calls Americans’ “lack of touch” (1956, 128) is simultaneously an alienation from self and from the life of the body. In the American Grain restates the ideal of democracy thus: “Men intact—with all their senses waking” (1956, 206). The function of art, as Williams notes in “Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist”, an essay published in 1939, is that it “preserves [man] in his full sensuality” (1969, 200). Touch, then, for Williams, is inseparably a question of politics and poetics.
5How then is one to understand Williams’s application of the expression “tactile qualities” to language? In a series of talks he gave in 1962, Ted Hughes suggested that writing poetry was a matter of using “[w]ords that live”, these being, for Hughes, those that “belong directly to one of the five senses”; “prickle” and “oily” are the examples he cited for touch (12). Hughes’s suggestion is attractive; it implies, however, that sensory qualities, and moreover, poetry, are inherent properties of words, rather than effects of discourse. The underlying assumption here supposes a relation of adequation between speechsound and meaning, the idea, also defended by Jespersen, that some words more effectively symbolize their referents than others. Such views derive from the sign theory of language, that is, from a conception of language based on the heterogeneity of signifier and signified. T. V. F. Brogan, in a discussion of sound symbolism in the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, explains the frequency of sibilants in Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places” by noting that sibilants “are the sound that snow makes” (s.v. sound, 1176). Brogan’s comment exemplifies one of the inherited reflexes of poetic analysis, the tendency to attribute to speechsounds qualities derived from a word’s lexical meaning.
6The problem of mimetic language is that of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. As Henri Meschonnic points out in an essay entitled “La nature dans la voix”, F. de Saussure gave as much importance to the motivation of the sign as to its arbitrariness—but he consigned motivation to the domain of parole (67). E. Benveniste, developing F. de Saussure’s concepts, argued that the connection between signifier and signified is not arbitrary, but necessary (51); signifier and signified are in a relation of “consubstantiality” (52, my translation) and thus necessarily determine each other. Meschonnic posits that the concept of necessity in Benveniste’s work is inseparable from those of subject and discourse (68). If the relation between signifier and signified is necessary, then there can be no question of adequation between the terms; imitation then becomes an activity of subjects in discourse, as they invent ways of motivating the necessary. Of this activity of motivation, Meschonnic writes: “Ce n’est pas la nature qui fait le langage, c’est le langage qui nous fait la nature, et justement quand il l’imite” (39).
7In Spring and All, Williams writes: “The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words” (1970, 120). In context, this proposition refers, not to the fabrication of neologisms, but to the capacity of the imagination to “separate” words from their everyday usage (ibid.). But it might also be understood to point to the speaker’s subjective interpretation of speech elements and their significance—to what Saussure called the subject’s “sentiment de la langue” (2002, 184). According to this view, every speaker derives the elements of speech from the consideration of a language’s “rapports associatifs”—relations between morphemes based on similarities of derivation, lexical meaning, or speechsound. These Saussure assigns to the individual speaker’s unconscious, and thus to the domaine of parole or discourse. Saussure argued in this respect: “Ce qui est réel, c’est ce dont les sujets parlants ont conscience à un degré quelconque” (2002, 183)—a remark which implies that speakers reconstruct the language for themselves, treating speechsounds as quasi-morphemes, motivating signifiers, inventing a personal morphology. I would suggest that it is precisely this process which we see at work in the “tactile qualities” of Williams’s poems.
8The attention to sensory experience in Williams’s work means that his writing is based, often, on the presentation of objects or scenes. As Susan Stewart notes in her book Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, touch is already implicit in relations of proximity, more specifically in the face-to-face orientation which is characteristic of human encounters with persons or things; deixis, in the sense of an act of presentation, a gesturing towards, is a form of touch in potentia. Yet Williams’s poems, as Bram Dijkstra noted, do more than point to and describe visible phenomena; they present acts of perception (52). In a discussion of E. E. Cummings published in his Selected Essays, Williams writes, “it must not be forgot that we smell, hear, and see with words and words alone” (1969, 266). One might ask then, whether we also touch by means of words alone, and, if so, how English configures touch. The enactment of perception in Williams’s poems depends on the way visual representation interacts with the expression of tactile sensation.
9The relations between the visual and the tactile were a central preoccupation of late 19th-century thinking about art. In the opening chapter of Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich notes that the idea that painting was an imitation of nature was put into question during this period by developments in the psychology of perception: psychologists and then art historians argued that visual perception was a construction based on tactile memories; it was held that two-dimensional retinal images can only become recognizable to the extent that they are interpreted through the sense of touch (13-14). This tactile understanding of visual perception is developed as well in Heinrich Wölfflin’s theory of empathy; in Renaissance and Baroque, Wölfflin argued, “We always project a corporeal state conforming to our own onto the object of the interpretation”. As Susan Stewart, who quotes this passage (157), notes, such projections confer on inanimate objects “a sense of body posture and mood” (ibid.), the stuff of visual-tactile perception.
10The introduction of tactile expression into visual representation can be observed in the poem “Approach of Winter”, from the collection Sour Grapes, dated 1921:
The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden. (1986, 151)
11Here verb forms like “stripped” and “struck” clearly imply force, animation and contact; more subtly, the evocation of leaves that “refuse to let go” suggests the tactile-motor sensations of muscular effort; while “hard carmine” presents a color in tactile terms, making use of stress clash and consonance to translate a visual effect into a kinaesthetic experience. Finally, the poem’s tactile orientation is clearly suggested by its closing association of the words “edge” and “bare”, both characteristic of Williams’s early poetry.
12The tactile language of the poem, the presentation of natural objects in terms of motor-sensory processes, represents an instance of the device of personification: trees are being represented as people. But to reduce Williams’s poem to a rhetorical procedure neglects the specific ways in which the procedure is motivated here. Tactile expresssion functions as the means by which the speaker gestures towards what he perceives, and thus projects himself into the scene: if one follows the suggestion made by Wölfflin, tactile representation is a way of grasping oneself in the other, or of recognizing an otherness in oneself—here, of inventing a continuity between natural process and human speaker. Referring to the opening passage of Williams’s long poem Paterson, Hélène Aji notes that in Williams “le seul connaissable réside dans des projections de nous-mêmes” (36). What is figured here, however, is not so much the knowledge of “exterior” objects, as the process of becoming a subject through interaction with an other.
13Williams’s poem does not simply make use of “tactile” expressions; it confers specific value on its tactile language. The word “edge”, here a verb, works through the tension or contradiction suggested between its purely stative, pictorial “meaning”—referring to objects in a certain position—and the force imparted to the word through transitive syntax, enjambment, and its closural position and function, giving it the value of a predicate of action (it seems important for this effect that the verb form “edge” is morphologically identical with the noun); thus “edge”, a word denoting a place or point of contact, functions here as a way of dynamizing contact, in that it appears to embody both passive and active voices. Position, enjambment and grammatical complexity all contribute to the salience of the word “edge”, making it a semantic culmination, a value-word in the poem; all of these factors, in my reading, contribute to placing a pitch accent on “edge”, in such a way that the pitch contour highlights the final consonant: the affricate \dj\ is thus made available to the reader for an articulatory performance of contact. The word’s “tactile quality”, then, arises here out of Williams’s practice of enjambment, and functions inseparably from a semantic invention, a subjectivation of language.
14The problematic of subjectivity inherent in touch is likewise at issue in the short poem “The Gentle Man”, also from Sour Grapes:
I feel the caress of my own fingers
on my own neck as I place my collar
and think pityingly
of the kind women I have known. (1986, 158)
15“The Gentle Man” stages an occurrence of self-touching; the repetition of “my own”, linked here with the closing verb form “known”, suggests that what is, partly, at stake is a moment of problematic self-recognition, a discovery of self as body, and the problematization of the relation between self and body. Here the inseparably active and passive functioning of touch is made to suggest an otherness in the self, also the self as revealed through the gaze of an other. What appears to be at stake in the poem’s “tactile qualities”, then, is the artist’s “touch”, the mark left on his materials, the manifestation of self in language.
16As suggested in “Approach of Winter”, touch is vegetal in Williams: it is envisioned through the representation of plant, flower, and tree, in Wölfflin’s terms, through the projection of human corporality onto plant forms. Sensation is figured actively, as the extension of bodily extremities into the world, as suggested in the epigraph to one of Williams’s first collections of poems, Al Que Quiere, published in 1917. This text, an extract from a story by a Guatemalan writer, Rafael Arévalo, entitled El hombre que parecia un caballo, makes identification with the vegetal a way of representing unconscious impulse; in Williams’s translation, the epigraph reads: “I had been an adventurous shrub which prolongs its filaments until it finds the necessary humus in new earth. And how I fed! I fed with the joy of tremulous leaves of chlorafile that spread themselves to the sun, with the joy with which a root encounters a decomposing corpse […]” (quoted 1986, 481). Vegetal touch is here envisaged in particular through the blind, underground movement of roots, leading to contact with a taboo object, the cadaver, a way of suggesting the instinctive processes inherent in human bodily existence.
17The expression of touch is dramatized through the representation of vegetal extremities in “Young Sycamore”, from 1927:
I must tell you
this young tree
whose round and firm trunk
between the wet
pavement and the gutter
is trickling) rises
into the air with
thrust half its height—
dividing and waning
young branches on
hung with cocoons—
till nothing is left of it
hornlike at the top (1986, 266-67)
18Here tactile sensation marks the implicit comparison of the tree with a human body by means of expressions like “round and firm trunk” or “bodily”; more particularly, touch is suggested through the description of the tree’s upward-tending movement. The poem closes by evoking the tree’s topmost twigs, which take on tactile significance in that they are compared with horns, “hornlike” suggesting at once hardness, pointedness, animality, and phallic masculinity. Here the evocation of extremity and touch is effected through the association of “twigs” and “top”, while these signifiers make up a densely patterned series with other words containing \t\ (“till” “left” “it” “but” “two” “eccentric” “knotted” “at”). Sound patterning organizes here what Gérard Dessons and Henri Meschonnic call a “consonantal hiatus” (172; my translation), which they define as the immediate repetition of a consonant in two successive syllables, most notably in two successive words, as here in “but two” and, perhaps also in “knotted/ twigs”, which link \d\ and \t\ across the line break,—a rhythmic figure which seems to function here as a specific articulatory gesture, a mode of tactile orality.
19The problem of touch and its representation through plant life is central to another poem from the same period, “The Wind Increases” (1930), which, revisiting the traditional poetic identification between wind and inspiration, portrays a sexual force active in artistic invention:
The Wind Increases
earth is swept
the tulip’s bright
Loose your love
Good Christ what is
a poet—if any
whose words will
having the form
At each twigtip
upon the tortured
body of thought
to the last leaftip (1986, 339)
20Here again, tactile sensation is consonantal: the sequence “The trees/ the tulip’s bright/ tips/ sidle and toss” associates “tulips” and “tips”, a word that appears further along in the poem in the compounds “twigtip” and “leaftip”; the tactile expression “tips” is here isolated by the poem’s typography, and marked likewise by the consonantal hiatus “bright/ tips”, an effect exacerbated by stress clash and enjambment. “Tip” functions thus as the central term in a network of signifiers associating words containing the plosives \t\ and \p\ and their voiced forms \d\ and \b\, linking “poet” and “bite” with the sequence “upon the tortured/ body of thought”, and suggesting, thus, that the poem is a form of thinking grounded in the disturbing materiality of words; while the signifiers “actual”, “each”, and “tortured”, linked by the affricate \t∫\, assert the relation between poetic language and heightened sensibility.
21Evoking tactile sensation, the two poems cited thus bring together dense patterns of signifiers containing the two consonants present in the word “touch”, the alveolar plosive \t\ and its affricate extension \t∫\. Williams’s writing would then appear to suggest the fiction that English \t\ and \t∫\ were somehow destined to signify touch—since, in the pronunciation of these phonemes, unlike \p\ or \k\, contact is made by the tip of the tongue; since, unlike \p\ again, their articulation appears to involve, as with touching, the action of an agent on a patient; and since, unlike \d\ or \dj\, they are fortis consonants, pronounced with explosive force. The collocation of words like “touch”, “tip” and “to” in Williams’s poems would then seem to carry the underlying implication that these words begin with \t\ because they have something to do with touch. Yet one is obliged to recognize that any English phoneme or signifier involves tactile activity, to the extent that their articulation makes possible an experience of kinaesthetic proximity. All seems to indicate that, in evoking tactile sensation, Williams brings together the fictive sounds of touch—makes touch audible—at the same time inviting the reader, through the articulatory intensification determined by alliteration, to partake in a linguistic performance of touch. In this manner, speech itself is made to participate in the natural processes the cited poems represent, which are themselves in turn figures of human corporeality.
22The expression of touch in Williams is thus specified by sound patterning, which associates lexical words pertaining to tactile sensation, such as “touch” and “tip”, or “touch” and “edge”; but also, words which have no direct or necessary connection with tactile sensation suggest touch, to the extent that they are associated through speechsound with other words of tactile significance: “tulip” or “petal” thus appear to function as a mode of expressing tactile sensation. And finally, it seems that the lexical series organizing the expression of touch in Williams’s poems likewise motivates the use and value of grammatical words which are contextually associated with them, such as the pronoun “it”, the preposition “to”, the relative pronoun “which”. I would like to look at one of these grammatical words, the determiner and pronoun “each”. In their Grammaire explicative de l’anglais, Paul Larreya and Claude Rivière note that “each” emphasizes the separateness of the elements it determines; they conclude: “each individualise” (148). The specific value of “each” in Williams, I will argue, derives from its collocation with words of tactile expression, “touch”, “edge”, “flesh”. As already noted, “each” is found in poems describing plants, where it refers to analogous parts; but it is also a way of thinking about how individuals come to self-knowledge through tactile interaction. What follows is then an attempt to show that “each” is bound up, for Williams, with a representation of the erotic body, with a conception of human love.
23Touch is central to “Queen-Anne’s-Lace” (1921), a poem in which tactile experience is once again represented vegetally; here, if one is to believe a note he made towards the end of his life, the image of a plant refers to Williams’s wife Florence:
Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing. (1986, 162)
24The poem contains four occurrences of “each”, linked by sound patterning to “touch”, “which” and “blemish”. The collocation of these words in the sentence beginning “Each part […]” produces a moment of articulatory intensity; the sentence itself, its syntax and the relation between syntax and line point to the reversible nature of touch. The passage simultaneously describes the sun eliciting flowers from wild carrot plants and a woman’s response to a male lover’s caress, as a way of suggesting a continuity between human sexual impulse and natural process; the syntax pivots on the word “touch” placed at line end, and its mirroring in the relative clause construction “to which”. This construction makes touch itself the object of touch, while the sense of animation is emphasized here by a typical Williams device, the use of the monosyllabic verb form “stem” in initial position in the line. The identification of this active verb with the female plant perhaps serves to nuance what at first appears like a fantasy of male sexual dominance; while “each to its end” describes the woman’s response in terms of unconscious natural agency, opposed here to the conscious control implied by “his touch”, the repetition of “each” at the beginning and end of the sequence and the reverberation of final \t∫\ throughout the passage point rather to the simultaneously active and passive nature of all touching, making “each” the signifier of an equalizing, reciprocal touch.
25The suggestion of mutual touch embodied by “each” is also central to “The Crimson Cyclamen” (1936), William’s elegy for his friend the painter Charles Demuth. The poem is a description of a cyclamen plant, a type of primrose, in flower; in the passage I would like to look at, description mimes the dynamic process of flowering, at once equated with making love and with artistic creation:
From such a pit
the color flows
a purple rim
the light! the light!
to flare, inverted
a full flower
each petal tortured
the while, warped edge
side by side
until compact, tense
to the last fine edge
from the empurpled ring
climbs up (though
firm there still)
by excess of tensions
in its own flesh
standing until it
upon the rest, above,
ecstasy with excess
acrobatically (1986, 423-424)
- 2 Daniel Morris, reading “The Crimson Cyclamen” in relation with Demuth’s homosexuality, sees in ano (...)
26The passage is organized around the association of “each” and “edge”, these in turn linked with the tactile expressions “tortured”, “flesh”, and “tension” on the one hand and with a series of words beginning with the letter “e” on the other, including “eccentrically”, “evenly”, “ecstasy” and “excess”. The use of “each” where a collective designation—“the petals”—would have been possible (this expression appears later in the poem, when it is said that the flowers “grow older”) suggests that the poem is a way of thinking about how human bodily existence and human sexuality work through individuation, and through individual experiences of pleasure and pain: in the poem’s fiction of flowering, it is the painful contact of the petals with each other which causes them to take on color, here the ecstatic result of an internal tension. “Each” functions, then, on the one hand, as a way of defining sensory wholeness, internal continuity, predicating an experience which suffuses the flower in all its parts, the plant’s organic continuity figuring that of the work of art; while at the same time portraying physical interaction between individuals as a relation of anonymous equality: here individuation is dependent on the mutualities of touch2.
27The question of individuation and its relation to sexual desire is likewise posed in “The Lonely Street” (1921), a poem first published in the high school magazine of the town where Williams lived and practiced as a doctor, Rutherford, New Jersey. The poem portrays young girls in a public setting, where they appear at once ambiguously available and unavailable, on parade and yet taboo:
School is over. It is too hot
to walk at ease. At ease
in light frocks they walk the streets
to while the time away.
They have grown tall. They hold
pink flames in their right hands.
In white from head to foot,
with sidelong, idle look—
in yellow, floating stuff,
black sash and stockings—
touching their avid mouths
with pink sugar on a stick—
like a carnation each holds in her hand—
they mount the lonely street. (1986, 174)
28The ostensible subject of “The Lonely Street” is sexual frustration, manifested through reference to lollipops—one thinks of the famous still of Kubrick’s Lolita. The girls are at first treated collectively, described as “they”; their behavior is portrayed as a form of social mimicry. It is the odd evocation of eating as “touching” which seemingly commands the introduction of the pronoun “each”, along with the feminine pronoun “her”. The speaker’s attitude appears knowing or contemptuous; yet the collocation of “touching”, “sugar”, “carnation” and “each” involves the reader in a performance of articulatory contact which identifies him or her with the girls. The value of the pronoun is specified by this imaginative identification: if “each” insists, here, on isolation and loneliness, at the same time it organizes the emergence of the individual within the crowd through the experience and discovery of one’s own anonymous corporeality, as suggested by the transformation of the sugar-based food product into a flesh-colored flower.
29As Dwight Bolinger explains in his articles on “word affinities” in English, words do not imitate “nature” so much as they imitate other words. In making this point, however, Bolinger is talking about the historical processes which shape a language. The “tactile qualities” of Williams’s poems are an invention of discourse. Williams’s treatment of “each” is a motivation of the necessary relation between signifier and signified, working, it seems, with the the specific “rasp” of the affricate, which he makes perceptible by patterning “each” with signifiers which share it, signifiers of tactile meaning. The value of “each” is inseparable, then, from the speechsounds of “each”, or rather from the word’s “tactile quality”. Williams uses this quality to suggest a complex of meaning, a specific value determined by a system of discourse. He makes of “each” a word of tactile interaction, a way of talking about the sexual principle of individuation as it impinges on the status of the individual in twentieth-century America. As such, his writing invents a specific “sense” of English words and of the way they mean, what Saussure calls a “sentiment de la langue”, a poetics of English.