Saturday, September 06, 2008

anti-intellectualism & its contents

William Carlos Williams' misunderstood, overused mantra, "No ideas but in things," succeeded in mobilizing the young modernist and later post-modernist base (to use the election-season idiom, aptly I think). It also, unfortunately, tended to alienate the undecided middle. Many used it as an excuse to express a false anti-anti-intellectualism. (False because they themselves were showing their anti-intellectual impulse in making the claim "against" Williams.) Others, allegedly pro-WCW, used "No ideas" to sanction their head-in-sand-ism: verse is distinct from all other disciplines and interpretive activities (history, sociology, political analysis), different in sticking to the "purity" of sensory apprehension, of observation, and/or the material world stripped of ideology or of "agendas."

By April 1963 - a month after WCW's death (this was an elegy of sorts) - the misunderstandings seemed so bad to Hayden Carruth, a proponent of Williams' ideas about things, Carruth felt the need to write a hyperventilated parallelistic one-sentence paragraph on the matter:

"When they set aside everything in Paterson, beyond the statement that there are 'no ideas but in things,' when they say that the statement is literally true, when they claim it as a sanction for their anti-intellectual attitudes, and finally when they use it as a warrant for attempting to write poems without ideas, poems which (in their terms) will have the 'purity' of 'self-existent objects,' then they are doing Williams, themselves, and all poetry, a grave disservice."*

Here's a lot of theys. You'd think the antecdent would be a major point made in previous paragraphs, but no. "They" = (mentioned just once prior to this outpouring) Williams' "disciples and admirers."

With friends like these...

* The New Republic, April 13, 1963, pp. 2, 3, 32.