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Reason Writers Around Town: Nick Gillespie in the American Conservative on William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain

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The American Conservative is running a symposium on great works that have been neglected. Participants inlcude David Bromwich, San Tanenhaus, Florence King, and Reason's Nick Gillespie, who writes:

Is any major American writer fading faster than William Carlos Williams, who had the bum judgment to write a five-book epic poem about Paterson, New Jersey, of all godforsaken places? Williams is best remembered, if at all, for his "red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water" and his introduction to Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, which is more than most poets, and certainly most Garden State loyalists such as myself, deserve.

But at least one Williams work deserves to be read by every American and every citizen of the world who aspires to be American or understand the place: 1925's In the American Grain, a wide-ranging collection of essays, fragments, and prose poems that challenged and exploded the very idea of national identity. Eric the Red, Ponce de Leon, the French missionary Sebastian Rasles, the Indian princess Jacataqua—they are real Americans by Williams's count, as are Poe, Lincoln, and Aaron Burr, whose antinomianism infuses our historical experiment with its greatness, peril, and often self-defeating arrogance.

"They say, they say, they say," Williams's Burr utters near the end of his life. "Those two little words have done more harm than all others. Never use them … never use them." Williams's meditation on what it meant to be living in the New World was written at the start of the American Century, but it continues to speak loud and clear to our current confusion over our place in the world.

Read the whole symposium here.

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  1. “The Sparrow” is a great poem.

    1. Agreed:

      Don’t go to bed, with no price on your head
      No, no, don’t do it.

      Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time,
      Yeah, don’t do it.

      And keep your eye on the sparrow.
      When the going gets narrow.

      Don’t do it, don’t do it.

      Where can I go where the cold winds don’t blow,
      Now.

      Well, well, well.

  2. the memory of Dr. Williams lives on strong in his hometown of Rutherford. We’ve got a historical society and a performing arts center in his name.

  3. “Y’all forgot about me? Sayin’.” –plums

    Williams (Paterson, especially) is hugely influential among a bunch of writers no one cares about, now, but some will pretend, briefly, soon, to care about a lot, then they’ll resume not caring, until someone complains that no one cares about them anymore, and some lesser some will pretend always to have cared, then resume not caring, etc., just like with Williams.

    Literature is a goofy hobby (for assholes).

  4. great works that have been neglected

    “Modern” poetry will always be neglected, except by English professors and their hapless students. I was one of them, and still have my copy of Patterson. I just thumbed through a few pages for the first time in a long time and it’s still dense and ponderous prose with odd punctuation and line breaks, making it “poetry,” I guess. No matter. I regurgitated what my professor told us and aced the course without really benefiting from any of it. And don’t even get me started on Pound.

  5. And don’t even get me started on Pound.

    Williams is nothing more than Jersey filth. As are you, you Goddamned animal.

    1. At least nobody put me in a cage, fascist!

  6. Count on Nicky G to make libertarians look even more obscure and marginal than we already are when literature is concerned.

  7. But at least one Williams work deserves to be read by every American and every citizen of the world who aspires to be American or understand the place: 1925’s In the American Grain, a wide-ranging collection of essays, fragments, and prose poems that challenged and exploded the very idea of national identity.

    Why does that not surprise me?

  8. C’mon, guys. Give Nick a break. He spent all that time getting a Ph.D. in English Lit. Every so often he has to break it out, if only for nostalgia purposes.

  9. That fucking red wheelbarrow poem.

    And who the hell gives their kid the same first name as their last name?

    1. People named Sirhan.

      1. And Abdoula Abdoula

    2. There are drawbacks.

  10. And my favorite: Humbert Humbert.
    Not that I am a pedophile.

  11. This post made my head hurt…

  12. I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    saving
    for breakfast.

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold.

    I’ve read this poem a few times in my classes, and I think it sucks. Also, the writer of this poem is a jerk. He’s not even sorry. He just rubs it in, talking about how good the plums were.

  13. “… the rare occurrence of the expected” -WCW

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