Characteristic Of The Modern Art English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this


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This sentence by the American poet and writer contains what art means in the modern world: experimentation. This characteristic of the modern art is deeply present in Williams’ poetic. The poet’s world is the America at the beginning of 20th century, a period in which change is everywhere. America becomes an industrialized urbanized society and starts being one of the main power in the world. The field of art in the U.S is influenced by the economical, social changes of the modern time and the artists have opposite reactions to this change. On one side they take their strength from technology, for example the invention of the typewriter will modify artists’ method of writing. On the other side, they reject the materialist stamp of the modern era by involving themselves in aesthetic experimental adventure. These artists want to substitute the old values of 19th century with a radically different attitude toward art, based on the social political changes of the that era. In the literary world, the main current of the period is Modernism, a complex movement which comprehends different artistic conceptions. The Modernism has its origin in Europe, but it develops also in America with his own timbre. The American artists of the 20th century look for their own voice, different and detached from the traditional European models. They need to emancipate themselves from the European culture. In particular, poets and writers feel the necessity of founding their own identity, they look backward to their short literal history in order to free themselves from the English and European tradition. The poets start thinking about what is poetry and what is the method to use in poetry. Their research for an identity “makes the task of the American poet one dedicated to exploring the peculiarities and strangeness of the liberal American condition.”(Clive Bloom, The American Poetry, 1995 , 3). What the poets want is to adapt the demands of Modernism to the American environment. They change the form, the language of poetry. They want to renew their poetic, their method, in order to adapt it to the modern American world. Their language will be close to the mass culture, to popular idioms and deeply different in its structure. In fact “for the Modernists, structural organization is both a way of “knowing” and acting within the world” (Clive Bloom, The American Poetry, 1995 p. 7), it becomes meaningful and changes the way the reader approaches to the poem. At the end of 1920s poets and writers’ experimentation will transform the American literature from being provincial to being cosmopolitan. All these and other aspects of the modern art are present in Williams’ poetic, which is characterized by experimentation in the modern world.

Williams’ most famous poem is doubtless “The Red Wheelbarrow”, a poem which concentrates his poetic and shows his relationship with the modern world of experimentation. It was published for the first time in 1923, in the collection “Spring and All”, which mixes poetry and prose. Here the poems are just numbered, “The Red Wheelbarrow” will obtain its title only later, in “Collected Poems”, published in 1934. This poem consists of 8 lines of simple and intuitive words. It could be considered a banal poem, but from this lines it emerges Williams’ world. Many times the poet has been accused of being elementary, but this poem demonstrates the exact contrary, his poetry is complex. In fact the same Williams states in “January Morning” : “I wanted to write a poem/that you would understand ” and then he adds “But you got to try hard”. In this poem we can find the main aspects of his poetic, which leads him to experimentation: the importance of locality, the language experimentation, the objectivism, the structure experimentation and his relationship with the visual art.

William’s poetic is closely connected with the experimentation of modern American and European painters. His mother was an artist, he is deeply interested in this field from his childhood. Furthermore, in 1913 in New York is held the Armory Show, an exhibition which contains the most new and fresh works of art. The Armory Show pushes the painters in New York into radical experimentations. Williams finds himself close to the New York avant-garde and from 1915 he takes part in “The others”, a group of artists and writers. He is influenced by contemporary literature, by Joyce, but it is thanks to the visual art that he finds his original style. In fact, reflecting on 1920s Williams states : “It was the French painters rather than the writers who influenced us, and their influence was very great. They created an atmosphere of release, color release, release from stereotyped forms, trite subjects.”(Wisker, William Carlos Williams, p.32).

Analyzing “The Red Wheelbarrow” we can notice how Williams present three detached images with color connotation (the red wheelbarrow, the rain water, the white chickens). This implies a connection whit painters’ work, but Williams does more. He wants to transfer in his poetry the possibilities of painting. This aspect of Williams’ poetic has produced different theories, the most interesting is Bram Dijkstra’ s one. The scholar sustains in his book “Cubism, Stieglitz and the early poetry of William Carlos Williams” that Williams is attracted by the immediacy of paintings’ impact and the painter’s ability to select and isolate a moment of reality, concentrating on the aspects which increase its meaning and suspend this moment outside the progress of time. This is in fact what William is experimenting in “The Red Wheelbarrow”. He has selected an aspect of reality, in this case a common object ( the wheelbarrow) and, trying to avoid vain details, he concentrates on what for him his the real essence of the wheelbarrow, giving to it a new meaning and allowing it to be eternal, out of the flux of time. Dijkstra then demonstrates how William’s concept of imagination is close to that one of Cubism. For Williams imagination chooses the meaningful aspects of series of images which the poet remembers and intensifies them, gives them a new meaning, by putting them into its realm. In the same way, for Cubists imagination reconstructs reality. They paint moments, things, reassembling them on the page ,in order to intensify their main details and offer a new comprehensive view of reality. The effect of this feature can be seen in the rearranged structure of “The Red Wheelbarrow” and in its fragmentation, which can also corresponds to the fragmentation of the modern world. In the “Red Wheelbarrow” there are 3 images, isolated in syntactic unites, fragmented in 16 words, each of them heavily evocative and meaningful. Another interesting feature which Dijkstra points out is Williams’ ability to make tangible invisible aspects of reality, through the use of concrete words (for example in the “Red Wheelbarrow” the word “glazed”). This method could be associated to painters such as Picasso or Braque, who uses geometric forms to paint the abstract space.

However, it’s important to underline that William’s poetry is influenced by European avant-garde especially in the first period of his activity, later he will concentrates on the New York avant-garde.

In fact Williams is also close to American painters’ position. In 1920 the poet publishes “Kora in Hell: Improvisation”, using in the frontispiece a drawing by Stuart Davis. Choosing this picture he affirms: “It was, graphically, exactly what I was trying to do in words, put the Improvisations down as a unite on the page.”(I wanted to write a poem, 29). Williams also in “Kora in Hell” uses the fragmentation of images and sentences, with the consequent visual implication. Finally, the American poet is close to another important figure of contemporary art, Marcel Duchamp. This artist is characterized by experimentation and research. His art is not simply a material, concrete fact, it’s a mental act. Duchamp creates work of art by taking everyday objects, the famous “Ready-mades”, and placing them in an unusual context, under a new light. William does the same with poetry. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” he chooses a common object and places it in a new and uncommon situation, the page, giving to it a new meaning. This fact raises questions about the nature of a work of art, what it consists of, demonstrating the level of experimentation that Williams reaches.

Williams’ contact with Duchamp shows another important feature of his poetry: the importance of locality. In fact in his works of art we find everyday situations, common objects, portraits of simple people, aspects of reality which are not usual in poetry and on the page reach a new importance, a new dignity. These objects, these people belong to the environment in which Williams lives and observes, the town of Rutherford. Williams in fact view is that the modern, the experimentation must be reached through locality. He lives all of his life in Rutherford and from here he tries to adapt Modernism to the American situation.

Williams sees locality also in terms of language. In fact, through is poetry he wants to reproduce “the hum and buzz of everyday life” (American Poetry, pp 77).

To achieve this for Williams is necessary to use a new language, based on the American speech, which can reproduce modern American environment.

This research is common between American poets and writers at the beginning of twentieth century. In fact they feel the necessity of detaching themselves from European tradition, in order to find American models. For example for Williams a point of reference in the American literature is Poe, because he notices in his work the importance of locality.

The poet’s search for a new language leads him again to experimentation. He wants to use a vernacular language, which can reproduce the American Idiom.

His poetry is based on the rhythmic unit, which follows the rhythm of American speech, breaking the rules of traditional poetry. This means that the line in his poems end when the rhythmic unit ends, not the sentence. Williams the same underlines this aspect in the book “I wanted to write a poem”.

However, Williams goes further. He notices how advertisements, radio and new technologies influence the way of speaking and he wants to put down it in the page. We can see this aspect in the “Poem XXV” of Spring and All. Here he uses sentences taking by advertisements and streets, for example line 7 “What the hell do you know about it?”.

Moreover Williams wants to make poetry more musical and tries to reproduce in poetry the dimension of jazz.

This is well explained in the essay “Rephrasing Whitman: Williams and the visual idiom” by George W. Layng. The author analyzing the poem XXV of Spring and All , shows how Williams’ variation of the pattern of the stanzas can recall the jazz music in its improvisations and returns to pattern.

If we analyze the “Red Wheelbarrow” we notice the importance of locality and language experimentation. He chooses a common object, unusual for poetry, which becomes the subject of the poem. Williams could have met this rural instrument in his everyday life.

In fact poetry for him and for many modern poets is a specialization. He is a doctor and lives most of the time among simple and poor people. Then , looking at the lines of the poem we can observe that they don’t end when the sentence ends. Furthermore words such as “wheelbarrow” are divided in their constituents, in an artificial way.

Another poem which demonstrate Williams’ interest for locality and language experimentation is Paterson. Here he chooses a city that he knows well, Paterson, and identifies it with a man and all people in general. He describes its history, its contemporary situation, its environment with a simple and colloquial language.

Besides , starting from Book Two of Paterson he achieves the theorization of the variable foot. He was looking for a way not to use neither the free verse, nor the fixed foot. With the variable foot he reaches an half way between them. In I Wanted to Write a Poem he says that in this way “the verse becomes not free at all but just simply variable, as all things in life properly are.”

This demonstrates how Williams in this poem experiments and how also talking about the local Paterson he can be modern and cosmopolitan.

Another important feature of Williams’ poetic and experimentation is objectivism.

In fact, he moves from the position of the Imagists poets to reach a more radical style. Williams shares Imagists’ idea of direct treatment of the thing, of the theme of the poem, using new rhythms and patterns. Then he becomes more radical.

In his poetry he wants to shift from the concept, the abstract thought present in Imagists’ poetry, to the poem, the thing itself. In fact in Williams’ style the poem becomes a thing among other things in the world and independent of them. In order to achieve this result, he does not use metaphors or symbolic meanings, because the subject of the poem must be the image, the thing, which represents itself and nothing else.

This idea can be summed up in the poet’s dictum “No ideas but in things”. Therefore, for Williams the poem is an object, made by poetry itself and nothing else.

Moreover the poem is constituted by words, which have their intrinsic meaning and are independent of each other.

This feature of Williams’ poetic demonstrated in J. Hillis Miller’ s essay “William Carlos Williams”. Here the author demonstrates how William can observe directly an object, without fear, because the object and the poem about that object are independent things, they don’t need each other. Besides, Miller sustains that each word in Williams’ poems has its intrinsic meaning and is separated from other words, as in the real world things have their own existence and are independent of other things. To demonstrate this, Miller takes the example of one version of the poem “The Locust Tree in Flower”. Here Williams separate each word to make it stand alone in the page. Every line is constituted by one word, forcing us to reflect upon their own evocative meaning.

In the “Red Wheelbarrow” this aspect of Williams’ poetic is clear. Here we can observes the direct treatment of the object, the wheelbarrow. There are no metaphors, no comparisons. The image of the wheelbarrow is built through simple and descriptive words, which make the wheelbarrow tangible and visible (for example “glazed”, “red”, “rain”).

Then, we can see how the structure of the poem( tree words in the first line of each stanza, one word in the second line of each stanza) stresses the important presence of each word and leads us to reflect on them. There are few words, only sixteen, sometime divided between the lines in an artificial way (wheel/barrow). Each of them is meaningful and independent, but at the same time they build a single, whole image.

Again, this aspect of Williams’ poetry, objectivism, demonstrates how his poetic is led by experimentation in the modern world. His need to treat the object of poems in a more direct way, brings him to modify deeply the structure, in order to represent a new modern idea of world and of poetry.

The search for a new structure is common between the poets of twentieth century. This poets don’t want to use the traditional methods of poetry. They don’t want to create poems copying reality, they want to create a poetry which is reality itself.

This aspect of Williams and other poets’ experimentation raises a new relationship between the reader and the poem. The reader now must reflect not only on the content of a poem, but also on the structure. He must analyze each part, each word of the poem, trying to understand why the poet has chosen that particular word or structure, what he wants to communicate through what “”he makes “. In this way the relationship between reader and poem becomes more complex and modern.

If we take again the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” we can demonstrate now how behind this eight lines, which could be considered simple and elementary, it’s hidden the proof of Williams’ complex and experimental poetry.

It’s a complete piece of art. It shows Williams’ contact with the visual art, in his use of images with color connotation, of lines fragmentation, of tangible concrete words. He chooses a common object (as Duchamp does), the wheelbarrow, intensifies its meaning and makes it eternal, a concept used by Cubism and other experimental movement.

Then, writing about a local, rural wheelbarrow, with a simple language he reaches experimentation again. Williams wants to use the American idiom and for doing this he breaks the rules of traditional poetry about rhythm and versification. The words of the poem are simple and descriptive, the lines do not follow the logical sentences and breaks words in an artificial way. Williams uses here free verses, no traditional rhyme scheme and no metaphors.

Each part of this poem, from the way words are placed in its structure, to the choice of words that William has done, tells us something new compared to the previous methods used in poetry.

There are different theories about the meaning of the sixteen words of “The Red Wheelbarrow”. In fact the poems doesn’t say what depends upon the wheelbarrow, leaving to us the answer.

The scholar Barry Ahearn believes that is the human civilization that depends upon this rural machine.

Williams maybe wants to tell us that the poetry itself depends upon this common object and a wheelbarrow can contains all the new , radical experimentations of the modern poetry.

Most probably there is no answer.

What is sure is that “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a symbol of Williams’ experimental poetic and it demonstrates that the American poets aims at “a new form of poetic composition, a form for the future”.( American Poetry, William Carlos Williams, pp77)

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