Archive for March, 2016

Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016

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The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.

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Baudelaire’s Clock

March 10, 2016

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All of Charles Baudelaire’s writings stand on their own, but many of them bear nearly identical, overlapping titles (i.e. “Cats,” “Cat,” and “The Cat”). Though I am at the mercy of translation from French to English, I’d argue that these overlapping titles are conscious, calculated moves on Baudelaire’s behalf. On the surface, many of these instances of title duplication reveal little, if any, patterns across the source material of Baudelaire’s writings. But, in the following paragraphs, I wish to turn to Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” and use a reading of it to then scrutinize his prose-poem “The Clock.” These pieces appear quite different, yet many identical themes are evoked, which yield interesting insight into the mental machinations of Baudelaire. For the purposes of this essay, I will henceforth refer to “The Clock,” from Baudelaire’s Poems, as the “Midnight” version, and “The Clock,” from Paris Spleen, as the “Noon” version.

Before turning to comparisons, it would be wise to briefly unpack each poem individually, beginning with the Midnight version. This poem explores the obvious existential implications of “Time” in human life, and begins by characterizing the clock as an “Impassive god! whose minatory hands / repeat their sinister and single charge: / Remember!” Here, the movement of clock hands represent the passage of time; the clock serves as a mnemonic device of one’s ever-aging life. But Baudelaire characterizes this reminder as “sinister” which suggests something beyond the mundane: mortality. Or, in other words, “Remember!” your time is limited, and you are on your way to the grave. The poem continues with images of theatre and, implicitly, performance on a stage being the metaphor for one’s brief life: “One pirouette, the theatre goes dark.” And as this theatre goes dark–as time marches on, and death approaches–the poem’s narrator remarks how “each instant snatches from you what you had, / the crumb of happiness within your grasp.” No happy messages here. The clock is a mnemonic token of death to the narrator, moreso than the literal ticking away of one’s own life.

Perhaps the most profound stanza present in this Midnight version of “The Clock” is the third: “Thirty-six hundred times in every hour / the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies /in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past, / who passing lit and sucked your life and left!” The mosquito incarnation of the present moment–”Now”–is both hilarious and shudder-inducing; for time, as Baudelaire is presenting it, is always out of our “grasp,” it is beyond our control: “Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins / on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.” The narrator is frantically pointing to the Clock, impelling the reader to “Remember!” how fugitive each passing moment truly is. And there is some irony embedded in this Midnight version, given how, regardless of this apprehension of mortality-remembrance, “Time” defeats us in the end.

The “Noon” version of Baudelaire’s “The Clock” is, on the surface, a much more lighthearted departure from the menacing “Impassive god” of the Midnight version. This version, as a prose-poem, contains cats, a little boy, and notably takes place in broad daylight. It begins, “The Chinese can tell the time in the eyes of cats,” which is a very provocative and unscientific assertion. For who in the West has ever heard such nonsense? But the narrator, passively and credulously, observes a “missionary, strolling through a suburb [who] had forgotten his watch.” This missionary asks a little boy the time, and the “ragamuffin” (boy) darts off to catch a “very fat cat,” which correctly yields the time: “he declared without hesitation: ‘It’s not quite noon.’ Which was correct.” A surprising and accurate clock is revealed to the narrator in the form of a cat. This leads the narrator to reflect upon his own cat which, when he gazes into the “depths of her adorable eyes,” he always sees the hour “distinctly, always the same hour, an hour vast, solemn, and grand as space, without divisions into minutes and seconds–a motionless hour unmarked by the clocks, but light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye.” This “hour” the narrator describes has an uncanny quality about it, especially given our unpacking of the Midnight version of “The Clock.” That is, one can’t help assign this “motionless,” “solemn,” “unmarked,” time as something akin to death.

If Baudelaire’s intention is to divorce the Midnight version from the Noon version by setting up a bright sunny day with a children and cats, then he did an awful job. But Baudelaire was no fool; the prose-poem continues with a question to the narrator: “‘What are you looking at there so attentively? What are you seeking in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the hour there, you idle, wasteful mortal?’–I would reply without hesitation: ‘Yes, I see the hour; it is Eternity!’” The words “idle” and “wasteful mortal” suggest the connection between time and death as explored in the Midnight version. This hour, “Eternity,” may in fact be everything outside of “Now” (borrowing from the Midnight version).

The form of the Midnight version is that of linear quatrains, whereas the form of the Noon version is that of paragraphs. The Midnight version is constrained moreso to the realm of conceptual analysis and reflection, images and ideas, rather than narrative or plot. The Noon version, as a prose-poem, reads almost like a story, with time passing within the prose-poem itself. Baudelaire may have intended to embed the link between time and death, from the Midnight version, into the Noon version’s light-hearted imagery of the Orient. The “pretentious gallantry” found within the Noon version serves to mask these ideas within the setting and story of the prose-poem itself, whereas the Midnight version does not feign to do so; the Midnight version is explicit in its message, whereas the Noon version requires a more scrupulous reading.

The parallels, however, between the Noon and Midnight versions of “The Clock,” provide some synthetic reading regarding the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry, his prose, and even his conceptual positions, are implicated by, and are found within, each of his poems. By name, by time, or by theme, Baudelaire’s inner turbulence, regarding his own antagonistic relationship with death and time, spills onto all the pages he penned.