Below I read William Carlos Williams Spring and All through a Thing Theory lens in an attempt to understand “Thing Theory.” My understanding of Thing Theory may not be complete, so if you have suggestions and/or want to clear up any of my misunderstandings, please leave a comment below.
Thing and All
In Bill Brown’s “Introduction” to A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, he makes a comment about Williams Carlos Williams and Williams’s Spring and All when he writes, Williams “seems to understand the process of wresting things away from life and experience to be the essential dynamic of the artist’s endeavor” (2). Later on, however, Brown misunderstands the meaning of Williams “no ideas but in things,” a quote from Williams that appears a few years later than Spring and All in the poem “Paterson.” In that misunderstanding, Brown also misses out on an opportunity to read Spring and All through a Thing Theory lens. By reading Spring and All through a Thing Theory lens, and asking some of the questions Brown asks in “Introduction” about how to read literature, Thing Theory can illuminate how Williams enables the reader of his poems to see things as aesthetic items devoid of utilitarian value and to objectify latent pleasure within the thing as beauty.
Thing Theory’s main focus is on things, especially in relation to objects, or how things transform into objects and objects into things. For Brown, a thing can be encountered in two manners, and in either manner “we only catch a glimpse of things” (Brown “Thing Theory” 4) before they are transformed into objects. One way is to encounter an item is to interact with it as a percept, or thing, before language intervenes and transforms the thing into an object with meaning. Perhaps this can best be explained by seeing something for the first time and not knowing what it is, or imagining a baby first perceiving an item, or even imagining how an animal might witness an item for the first time – all occurrences are in a sudden pre-linguistic state. It is from this “amorphousness out of which objects are materialized by the (ap)perceiving subject” (5). The other way to encounter a thing is to “imagine things [. . .] as what is excessive in objects” (5). That is to say, objects are things that have accumulated meaning (whether from culture, tradition, history, etc.) or have a use value, and to strip away those meanings and utilitarian values is to find or encounter the thing as it really is. Brown points out that “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us” (5). For instance, if a person has a flashlight and the batteries in it die, then the flashlight can no longer beam light. Instead of a flashlight, the person now holds a cylinder of plastic with no use value. As a result, the relation between the object and subject change, where the subject is the perceiver of the thing/object, user of the thing/object, or the person who gives the thing meaning or name. With a flashlight that doesn’t beam light, the subject has to create a new relation with the plastic thing, which the subject could render useless or transform into something new, like a hammer. In other words, as Steven Connor points out, “Objects are what we know, objects are things that know their place, and whose place we know” (1), and once the subject no longer knows the object, it loses its use value, or the object loses its place, the object becomes a thing. Much of Modern poetry is also concerned with the thing, and it tries to rediscover objects or relocate them into environments where they have new meanings and aesthetic values. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as using the mythic method or through non-representational means. As a result, Thing Theory becomes a useful tool for reading poetry from the Modernism era, especially in order “to imagine a work of art as a different mode of mimesis – not one that serves a thing, but one that seeks to attain the status of thing” (“Brown “Introduction” 3).
The fundamental impulse of Modernist poetry is to find or create utopia. For some poets, such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, this utopia is found in the past, and for other poets, such William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, this utopia is in the future or what can be created now. These poets who find utopia in the past, or mythic poets as Roy Harvey Pearce calls them, see history as static and believe that there are a set of beliefs that hold true everywhere and at all times. Without these beliefs, T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative could not exist, because its underlying premise is that there are symbols that speak to all people in the same way. For the mythic poets, the past is something a person wants to return to because it holds an existence as it should be. These poets use objects and all the cultural, linguistic, traditional, mythic, and historical residue that has accumulated on them over the centuries as a means of expression. For Eliot, to use an object or symbol is for him to use all the meanings and allusions that are associated with that word or object and then relocate the object into a new environment. For him, the rose, for example, will carry all the symbolism and tradition that comes with the rose.
The poets who see utopia in the future or as a form of creation, however, think differently. These poets, or the Adamic poets as Roy Harvey Pearce calls them, want to break from this tradition. These poets want to scrape off all the cultural, linguistic, traditional, mythic, and historical accumulation and residue that has gathered on an object in order to see the thing again and then to recreate the thing into a new object in order to create and direct the foundational terms of culture. The poet wants his/her audience to feel a rupture from their expectations of art and how they live. An example of this rupture happening occurs with William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All.
Spring and All is collection of poems and prose pieces that was released in 1923 from Contact Publishing in a print run of 300 copies, and it acts and often reads as a manifesto to what poetry should do in the modern era, at least what Williams wants to do, anyway. It acts in a manner to support what Williams will say a few years later in his poem “Paterson” (which precedes by a number of years the epic poem Paterson), “no ideas but in things,” and this “no idea but in things” is at the heart of Thing Theory despite Brown’s misunderstanding of it in his “Introduction” to A Sense of Things, where Brown writes:
Williams’s creed [“no idea but in things”] violates his own poetic practice of rendering things – “a red wheel / barrow” – in their opacity, not their transparency. “No ideas but in things” should be read as a slip of the pen: a claim – on behalf of replacing abstractions with physical facts – that unwittingly invests objects with interiority, whereas Williams meant to evacuate objects of their insides and to arrest their doubleness, their vertiginous capacity to be both things and signs (symbols, metonyms, or metaphors) of something else. (11)
Since Brown refers to the now very well-known poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or “XXII” as it appears in Spring and All (see “Attachment A: ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’”), I can point out Brown’s misunderstandings while at the same time viewing the poem through the Thing Theory lens. Just prior to this poem are three other poems and a little over two pages of prose. In the prose sections of this book, Williams sets up points of his manifesto for a new poetry and/or how the old poetry is no longer adequate. The prose sections are then followed with an example of what he means or wants to accomplish by presenting one of his poems or a group of poems that perform what the prose has said it wants poetry to perform. In the prose section before “The Red Wheelbarrow,” one concern for Williams is to mark the distinctions between prose and poetry and between fact and imagination. For Williams, prose is a “statement of facts concerning emotions, intellectual states, data of all sorts – technical expositions, jargon, of all sorts – fictional and other” (219), and prose “is the accuracy of its subject matter” (219). Poetry, however, is a “new form dealt with as a reality itself” (219) and is “related to the movements of the imagination revealed in words – or whatever it may be –” (219). Natalie Gerber explains Williams’s distinctions more clearly:
Poetry’s organization frees words from their usual discursive burdens of making and securing meanings. Whereas the form of prose is determined by its need to present an exposition of facts, poetry situates words as the transcription of immediate perceptions that are serially considered and modified, and yield in turn to further clarifications. (13)
In other words, Williams is rendering things, and the rendering is accomplished through the imagination rendering things physical as they are, or rendering their opacity and not their transparency. Turning back to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” we can see Williams’s idea in practice. The first two lines of the poem open in abstraction, “so much depends / upon” before it turns to the physical world. So on one level, Brown is partially correct, as Williams is replacing the abstractions with physical facts. However, Williams’s poem is actually moving like the imagination through words. The opening of the poem, and the prose that precedes it, is actually cleansing the reader’s lenses of perception in order to see new again (to re-see) and not necessarily replacing abstractions with the physical. As Brown says in a different essay, “Thing Theory,”:
The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation. (4)
This is what Williams is doing. He is changing the relation of the subject and object. And what’s being named are not the objects but the reader coming out of abstractions (“so much depends / upon”) and then seeing, as if for the first time, a red wheelbarrow. Actually, first the reader sees “a red wheel” and then, after the line break (“a red wheel / barrow”), the reader sees a red wheelbarrow in full. The reader’s relationship has changed thrice. Twice by looking at the thing before and after the line break and once by looking though the dependency – “so much depends / upon” (“The Red Wheelbarrow” 1-2). In addition, the reader sees the wheelbarrow in a stationary position. It is not being used to carry or move anything, such as mulch, feed, or seeds. The wheelbarrow has no utilitarian value. In fact, one could say, as Brown does, “You could imagine things [. . .] as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects” (“Thing Theory” 5). In other words, an object becomes a thing when the object loses its use value, as the wheelbarrow does here. But the wheelbarrow does gain another value – an aesthetic value – and not only because it is in a poem. It is because it is red. There is no need to paint a wheelbarrow, unless it is made of metal so as to protect it from rust. This wheelbarrow from 1923, however, was most likely a wooden wheelbarrow, and would not require coloring, except for aesthetic reasons. In fact, the paint, adds to the opacity of the thing, and not the transparency that Brown thought, as mentioned earlier. In addition, the wheelbarrow acquires value but not of a productive labor value, but it acquires the value that arises from the new subject-object relation, and this relation is an aesthetic relation. In addition, Williams redefines the object of the wheelbarrow, he strips it of its traditional use value and associations as a tool of labor, and returns the wheelbarrow to its thingness. Then, because he is a modern Adamic poet, Williams transforms the thing into a new object, or rather, Williams enables the reader to transform the thing into an object.
Thing Theory has other issues it is concerned with besides transforming objects into things and then into new objects. Some of the concerns can be addressed by answering the questions Brown asks about literature but by rephrasing those questions as questions concerning Williams’s Spring and All, such as: what does Spring and All do “with objects” (Brown “Introduction” 16)?; how does Spring and All “reinvest the subject/object dialectic with its temporal dimension” (16)?; does Williams turning things into objects, as a result, objectify the subject (17)?; and “how do objects mediate relations between subjects, and how do subject mediate the relation between objects” (18)? A reading of the poem “The Rose,” the only unnumbered poem in Spring and All (see “Attachment B: ‘The Rose’”), will help to answer these questions in relation to Spring and All, as a whole.
The first line of Williams’s “The Rose” is “The rose is obsolete,” but before the rose can become obsolete, Williams first must make the world surrounding the rose obsolete in order “[t]o refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we live” (Spring and All 178). Williams realizes “[t]here is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world” (177), and much of the barrier comes from cultural, linguistic, traditional, mythic, symbolic, and historical barriers, and most of these barriers come from Europe. These barriers, according to Travis Timmons, prevent “us from making contact with and engaging the rose. So Williams’s poem [“The Rose”] seeks to recover this sort of encounter with the rose” (41). To accomplish removing the barrier, Williams declares war on Europe:
Tomorrow we the people of the United States are going to Europe armed to kill every man, woman and child in the area west of the Carpathian Mountains (also east) sparing none. [. . .] Kill! kill! the English, the Irish, the French, the Germans, the Italians, and the rest: friends or enemies, it makes no difference, kill them all. The bridge is to be blown up. (178-79)
When “the annihilation of every human creature on the face of the earth” has occurred, when this “holocaust” (179) is completed, when the destruction of the bridge to the past and European cultural values, symbols, and meanings, “[t]hen at last will the world be made anew” (179). The imagination previously “intoxicated by prohibitions” (179) will be freed. A new spring will rise, a new spring witnessed through the perception of poetry and seeing the thing blossom and “with a full realization of the meaning of ‘art’” (181).
As a result, Williams has established a world of things. A place where objects no longer have use value or meaning, and a place with a new subject-thing relation and the potential for a new subject-object relation. Williams has established a place where “The rose is obsolete” (“The Rose” 1). Meaning, the rose with all its European cultural, traditional, sentimental, symbolic, etc. accumulation and residue on the rose have been removed, so the rose is just a rose, which recalls Gertrude Stein’s a “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (“Sacred Emily” 187). What follows in Williams’s “The Rose” is the reconstruction of the rose, and as a result, the relation between subject and thing is reconstructed and “the oneness of experience” (Spring and All 194) is revealed.
In order to accomplish this, the reader needs to know how to re-see, or to see things as if for the first time. The prose section preceding the poem helps the reader understand how they can now use their imagination as a “means of expression, the essential nature of technique or transcription” (193) of reconstruction. The imagination, however, is only a tool. There is also a process of how the “subject mediate[s] the relation between objects” (Brown “Introduction” 18). This process, the process Williams will use in “The Rose” and other poems, uses the new Modern art techniques of Cubism and artist Juan Gris, as explained in the paragraph before “The Rose,” where Williams says, “the attempt is being made to separate things of the imagination from life [. . .] by using the forms common to experience so as not to frighten the onlooker away but to invite him,” (Spring and All 194). Notice how the paragraph ends with a comma before the poem begins. The comma separates, but it also invites. A period would be an end, but the comma suggests to the reader to continue. This comma is the first hint at the new technique of seeing anew – the collage method. The comma acts as place to begin the juxtapositions. On a literal level, it’s the juxtaposition of prose and poem, but it also hints at the workings of the poem, where the passive is juxtaposed with the active, and nature is juxtaposed with the mechanical, mathematical, artistic, metallurgy, romance, and the metaphysical.
After the opening line, the rose becomes active. Each rose petal’s edge is “cementing,” “cuts,” “meets,” and “renews / itself.” The rose through its actions is trying to define itself. In fact, at this point, the subject is a passive observer watching the rose redefine itself. Soon the subject’s passiveness becomes active and is actively perceiving the rose, “so that to engage roses / becomes a geometry” (12-13). In just these first few lines, the thing has imposed on the subject and then the subject has imposed on the thing. However, neither has redefined the other. The rose is still a rose, as the subject has not attached value or meanings to it. The rose is just asserting opacity through action. The subject while engaging the rose geometrically, realizing how its shape interacts with space, how its shape defines space and space defines the rose, the subject has still not recreated the rose. The rose is still a rose, and the subject is still learning how to interact with a thing, and to interact with the thing in the moment. The subject has not imposed old meanings and symbolic associations on to the rose nor has the subject made assumptions about the rose. At this moment, perhaps subject and thing are both things. The subject, yet defined, is only perceiving, and the thing, without meanings, has only begun to enter the new space. This new space will be collaged, and as we will see later, will become a place of definition.
“The Rose” begins with descriptive terms borrowed from the world of construction: “cementing,” “columns,” “metal,” and “porcelain”; then the poem brings in the mathematical term “geometry” (and later “infinitely”); moves to artistic terms, such as “majolica,” “plate,” and “glazed”; then moves to metallurgy with terms like “copper roses” and “steel roses”; then moves to romance with “love”; and eventually will end in the metaphysical world as the rose “penetrates / the Milky Way” and then “penetrates space.” Each one of the description presents a unique way of encounter the rose. It’s a collage of encounters, but each encounter uses the “forms common to experience” (Spring and All 194). Each encounter repositions the subject to have a new relation with the thing. That is, the subject can now choose how to interpret the rose. This is especially true in the fourth stanza, where the impression of a rose is given:
Sharper, neater, more cutting figure in majolica – the broken plate glazed with a rose (14-17)
On this plate, was a mimetic representation of a rose, and it was an even more precise rendering of the rose, as it was “Sharper, neater, more cutting” (14). This representation was made by a person (or subject) or a machine programmed by a person, but now the plate is broken and so is the image of the rose. Much like the war Williams waged on Europe, this broken plate has freed the rose from another form of representation. The mimetic rose is shattered. Its broken self is now only a collage of fragments. As a result, the plate no longer has use value and it no longer has aesthetic value, or it has the potential for newly rendered aesthetic value but without use value. The broken object, now a thing because its use value has been removed, forces the subject to interact with it in a new way. More important, though, is that the poem has forced the reader to interact with a mimetic rose stripped of its “glazed” context as well as a natural rose stripped of symbolism, tradition, cultural, and historic contexts. As a result, “Williams’s solution [to creating a thing] in this poem is to disavow the ‘crude symbolism’ accrued around the rose by creating a present moment in which the rose happens to us as an artistic event” (Timmons 41-42). The subject-thing relationship has changed for the second time, and it will change a third time, too.
Before the third transformation, however, the rose needs to be stripped of its only remaining association – its romantic associations. The rose needs to have the heavy symbolism of love removed from it because “love is at an end – of roses” (22). The rose can no longer be associated with love, at least not in same ways it has been for centuries. This love is now “at the edge of the / petal” (23-4), where the petal cuts into space, the space of renewal, as indicated in the first stanza. And while love waits there, in the next stanza it’s as if the rose has finally lost all its virility and is now impotent:
Crisp, worked to defeat laboredness – fragile plucked, moist, half-raised cold, precise, touching (25-28)
It’s delicate, limp, and without passion. All the accrued meanings of the rose have finally been removed and removed using mechanical, natural, and sensual word descriptions, which are the same types of words that tried to re-render the rose in this poem. In Gerber’s words, “Instead of confirming words in their emotional implications, this organization liberates words from their emotions. Words no longer convey ‘facts’ but are experienced as facts in themselves” (13). And this leads to the third transformation – the rose as poem.
In his “Introduction,” Bill Brown wonders: “The question of things becomes a question about whether the literary object should be understood as the object that literature represents or the object that literature has as its aim, the object that literature is” (3). In other words, is the poem a symbol of literature, much like the rose is a symbol of love, or is the poem a thing waiting to be rendered a literary object with meanings? Is the literary entity, such as a poem or collection of poems, mimetic, representational, or creative? To begin answering these questions, “The Red Wheelbarrow” needs to be revisited.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a 16-word sentence, and as Hugh Kenner points out in A Homemade World: The American Modernist, it is without rhetorical situation (59-60). It’s not a sentence, he thinks, that anyone would ever say, and if it was said, the person who heard it would “wince” (60). This sentence is really a collage of three items (wheelbarrow, rain water, and chickens) and one abstraction (the opening stanza) and is held together by three prepositions (“upon,” “with,” and “beside”). The poem has linguistic elements, though it lacks punctuation and rhetorical situation. In that sense, it’s not a traditional literary item, at least not in 1923. It has no symbolism or meanings. It is a thing, or as Kenner says:
But [“The Red Wheelbarrow”] hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exists in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings.
That zone is what Williams in the 1920’s [sic] started calling “the Imagination.” (60)
In other words, Williams has created a thing from words. When these words are arranged, they are non-referential other than to themselves. That is, they have no allusive content, symbolism, or culturally imposed expectations, especially since they have no exterior or outside context. The reader can only assume the scene is on a farm, but the assumption is without certainty. In addition, the words do not create any meaning. They have no use value, other than to enter that “zone” of the imagination, that “Somewhere the sense / makes” (“The Rose” 18-19) things into objects and makes objects of aesthetic value. This poem does its best to take language and things out of a context, so they can be reinvented new by the reader. The poem has, thus, changed the subject-thing relationship and subject-object relationship, but on a slightly different level than mentioned in the earlier discussion of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
“The Rose” is also redirecting the reader to see the rose as a poem. For instance, the poem “The Rose” begins to draw attention to itself in lines 29-31: “What // The place between the petal’s / edge and the.” The poem in its collage descriptions of the rose interrupts itself to ask “What do you mean that love is between the petal’s edge and air? What do you mean the petal’s edge cuts without cutting?” These questions become self-reflexive as we can now see the petals as the lines in the poem. Each line cuts into nothing, or into the page’s white space, and sometimes this is dramatically rendered with the em dashes at the ends of lines. Even the incomplete sentence, “The place between the petal’s / edge and the” (30-31) cuts into the white space and into the expectations of a completed thought, but the sentence is cut short. As a result, as Timmons points out, the actions of the poem and its lines:
encourages us to simply notice the poem happening on the page, rather than reducing the poem merely to a vehicle for meaning. Readers experience these words free from the conventional expectation that the edge is meant metaphorically. The edge happens in reality on the page. Thus, the poem happens as something that undoes any prepared knowledge of what is rose is that we might bring into the poem. (43)
The poem is reduced to a happening, an artistic event like watching the rose become. The poem has become a thing. The poem is not the traditional meaning container of a literary object. It is a container waiting to be filled from the imagination of witnessing the happening. The rose is not its petals and thorns, but it is what penetrates space. To return to the earlier question, “Is the literary entity, such as a poem of collection of poems, mimetic, representational, or creative?” the answer is none of these. The poem is a happening. It is a thing cutting into the space of a page, with the potential for beauty to be projected on or in to it.
In “Thing Theory” and “Introduction,” Brown quotes Leo Stein, who says, “Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project” (“Thing” 3, “Introduction” 11). In “The Rose” and in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” as well as Spring and All, Williams has created things through words. He has created artistic events wherein the subject and thing can recreate each other through an act of the imagination. The reader does this by objectifying the latent pleasure within the poem/thing through projection, and the thing or poem through various decontextualized linguistic endeavors transforms the subject’s relation with it and, thus, enables an aesthetic object to be created, whether or not it has any utilitarian value.
Brown, Bill. “Introduction: The Idea of Things and the Ideas in Them.” A Sense of Things: The Object Matter in American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Photocopy.
—. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Autumn 2001): 1-22. JSTOR. Database. 18 Oct. 2013. PDF.
Connor, Steven. “Thinking Things.” Textual Practice 24.1 (February 2010): 1-20. Ebsco. Database. 17 Nov 2013. PDF.
Gerber, Natalie. “‘The Movements of the Imagination Revealed in Words’: Williams Poetics in Spring and All.” William Carlos Review 24.2 (2004): 11-17. Literary Reference Center. Database. 14 Oct. 2013. PDF
Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Print.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. “Sacred Emily.” Geography and Plays. New York: Something Else Press, 1968. 178-188. Print.
Timmons, Travis P. Spring and All: Foraging a Link to the Present Moment. Diss. The Florida State University. 2008. DigiNole Commons (The Florida State University). Database. 12 Oct. 2013. PDF.
Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I: 1909-1939. Eds. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: A New Directions Book, 1991. 175-236. Print.
Attachment A: “The Red Wheelbarrow”
XXII so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens
Attachment B: “The Rose”
The rose is obsolete but each petal ends in an edge, the double facet cementing the grooved columns of air – The edge cuts without cutting meets – nothing – renews itself in metal or porcelain – wither? It ends – But if it ends the start is begun so that to engage roses becomes a geometry – Sharper, neater, more cutting figured in majolica – the broken plate glazed with a rose Somewhere the sense makes copper roses steel roses – The rose carried weight of love but love is at an end – of roses It is at the edge of the petal that love waits Crisp, worked to defeat laboredness – fragile plucked, moist, half-raised cold, precise, touching What The place between the petal’s edge and the From the petal’s edge a line starts that being of steel infinitely fine, infinitely rigid penetrates the Milky Way without contact – lifting from it – neither hanging nor pushing – The fragility of the flower unbruised penetrates space