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William Carlos Williams SELECTED POEMS, edited with an introduction by Charles Tomlinson (New Directions: $17.95; 302 pp.)

December 22, 1985|John Espey | Espey is professor emeritus of English at UCLA. and

With the complete body of William Carlos Williams' poetry readily available in four books, this volume of selected poems, replacing and expanding Randall Jarrell's 1963 selection, would appear to be aimed at either the general reader or Williams enthusiasts who want their favorite poems in one convenient format. If this is true, the jacket blurb sounds an ominous note with the claim that Tomlinson's introduction "reflects the most up-to-date Williams scholarship," which can hardly be of interest to the general reader and is unnecessary for the enthusiast. It is reassuring, then, to find that instead of engaging in the current clash of fanatic armies in the dark night of the graduate seminar, Tomlinson opens his remarks by approving a statement of Ezra Pound's in 1913, responding to Williams "instinctively." It is good to learn that Uncle Ez did somehow say the real right thing.

In a standard discussion of Williams' insistence on "writing American" rather than English, Tomlinson, like Hugh Kenner (who should know better), takes literally Williams' claim that he got his language from "the speech of Polish mothers," and that his "flatness" comes from the urban work yards of New Jersey. Williams should be taken no more seriously here than any other disturber of the established idiom's pace.

One of the better comic classroom turns is reading from "The Yachts" in the manner of a "Polish mother," assuming that one knows what that is: "Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute/ brilliance of cloudless days, with the broad bellying sails/ they glide to the wind tossing green water/ from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls/ ant-like, solicitously grooming them. . . ." (This, by the way, is not a racist slur, but, for once, a good Polish joke.)

The arrangement of the poems is chronological, giving the rare reader who goes straight through the book a chance to observe Williams' growing confidence in handling the long line. In addition to "The Yachts," other standard favorites are here: "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"; "On Gay Wallpaper"; both versions of "The Locust Tree in Flower"; "The Red Wheelbarrow"; "Tract." No one can quarrel with these, but the themes developed in absent poems, such as "The Monstrous Marriage" and "The Clouds," are severely slighted.

Tomlinson gives a disappointing 40 pages to excerpts from "Paterson." Books Four and Five are represented by a single page each. Tomlinson says nothing about the revolution that takes place between these two books, with "the old man" finally acknowledging the equality of the beasts and blooms of the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters with the living flowers and animals on the Jersey side of the Hudson.

In sum, this is a safe anthology--safe enough, perhaps, to tempt the reader first meeting Williams in its pages to venture further. A good second step would be picking up "Paterson" whole in paperback. It fits comfortably in the pocket, a stunningly dangerous poem.

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