Disagreeing with most of Dr. Williams's article, as with Marsden Hartley's last month, I shall try to carry forward this discussion in the September number; not that I wish to use Wallace Gould's poetry as a special point of debate, but that I am interested in "putting over" certain abstractions about art which most people in this country seem to look upon as unintelligible.
by William Carlos Williams
It never fails to anger me when I have read ten paragraphs of hair-splitting argument in this or that modern paper of literary pretensions to come to the end and find it is a book boost. The trick seems to be to air a number of more or less pleasant fancies and then to refer casually at the end to a new book by Mr. Soandso.
I have a definite and constant determination to set up in his place the man whom I find to be a poet and to revile and beat down endemic critics such as the Louis Untermeyrs who leave their pock marks wherever they are given an inch of entry and who are opposed to my excellences. What if I do not succeed? What if I am wrong in my judgments? To the full of my power I intend to maintain my fight as long as I live. This is no time to quibble over nice merits or demerits.
Wallace Gould is an exquisite performer upon his instrument. By his instrument I mean his Maine. I have said my say against "the chance lovely singers" who pipe up and do conventional ditties in Wyoming or Texas or Delaware or Nebraska, taking in the ready scenery of the place, and whose poetry is judged to be excellent by the "connoisseurs" because it is so charming. Wallace Gould is not one of these. Yes, he sticks to what he sees, what he knows, but the quiet scorn of his music has set him free. He is free in form, since any other freedom for an artist does not exist, free to turn his emotion into the use he sees fit to put it to without a thread to bind it upon some sterile track.
If he is lovely in his portrayal of a landscape, always a pure Maine landscape, one had better be on his guard for that pigment is in the hands of a master. If you dare to praise him for his loveliness you will find out that he has perhaps turned you around in the dark and soon you are out of the house by the back way. The artist throughout everything is conscious and working at his images with unerring leisure and often with horrid intention. This is the thing that no tissue paper critic can stand. That an artist should be a man of power; that he should use a catbird to proclaim the death of the whole world; that he should be such a mean fellow as to befool the poor critic who has been trying so hard to explain things—
I am not writing of a book, though book there must be when a publisher shall have emerged; I am writing of certain manuscripts of Gould's which I had the good fortune to hold in my hands and read through and more especially to poems published in Others and the Little Review.
An artist of immaculate craft Gould is. But I have another reason for praising him. It is because he has stuck to what he knows for his songs. No artist cares a damn where a man comes from or how he comes by the knowledge of perceptive values he uses in his work. But to me there is an overwhelming satisfaction in feeling that a man can be a poet under any circumstances and that this has not removed him from his world but has fastened him upon it with such a deadly grip that he has transformed it in spite of itself.
It is for the poet to announce that no condition can change him, that be he American, Russian Chinese, Jew he is poet first, last and always. But one way of announcing this is to take anything, take the land at your feet and use it. It is as good material as another. It is no better but it is as good. In fact the material
is nothing. But to prove it is nothing one must no depend on special circumstance, one must use it.
It might one day become imperative for a man to write of some environment foreign to his own provided the use of his own had grown to be a fetish; but Gould's heroic battle, his determination to use nothing but his Maine, at least in the poems I speak of, gives me an additional sense of joy in his mastery.
Poetry is made by the hands of the poet out of nothing. This must be continually proclaimed. Not only must the assertion be made to a possible public but there must be a proclamation by the poet to himself which is far more important. Then for God's sake let us proclaim to ourselves that it isn't made out of the brains of Frenchmen, Englishmen or dead Greeks. Poetry is as fully at home in the woodsy brain of Wallace Gould as in another man's living in Teheran. I for one am inspired to feel the presence of so capable an artist north of me, a man full of quietness and love and bitterness and infinite bravery and pointed scorn for the world of jackasses.
I have nowhere said that Gould is a great poet. I wish I could find the material for making such an assertion. I don't know the man's range. I only begin to feel the depth of his intensity, but that he is a splendid artist I declare now as well as I am able.
(The Little Review, Vol. 6, No. 4. August, 1919)