"To Elsie, To Elsewhere": W. Carlos W.

since i mentioned the discussion on “To Elsie” in the last post, i wanted to post my responses from Barbara’s blog, so if you are interested in context, please go there also. and if you have any thoughts on this, please comment……………………….

on “ethnographic modernity” i think he (talking about James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: 20th c. Ethnography, Literature, and Art) means to explore ethnographic tendencies in the new world order…it is against the anthropology of Mead and Levi-strauss, of a too easy western-centric metanarrative of culture. instead, modernity being rooted in rootlessness, displacement, discontinuity, etc..and the ethnographer (or poet, perhaps) having to find new ways to depict culture that takes modernism/postcolonialism into account (this is also an issue in Renato Rosaldo’s Culture and Truth, and Jose David Saldivar’s Border Matters).

also, “ethnographic modernity” as being able to deal with “a pervasive postcolonial crisis of ethnographic authority.” that “the subjectivities produced in these often unequal exchanges — whether of ‘natives’ or of visiting participant-observers — are constructed domains of truth, serious fictions. Once this is recognized, diverse inventive possibilities for postcolonial ethnographic representations emerge…activities with which it shares modernist procedures of collage, juxtaposition, and estrangement…exploring possibilities of a 20th century ‘poetics of displacement.'”

clearly i too am still trying to wrap my mind around this and how it relates to my own poetic practice…

on elsie: i agree that williams does not share the same fate as Elsie, for he is privileged, but they share the same fate in a general (generic, in my opinion) sense – that they are both part of modernity. i would also throw in that they share the same fate in a different way: they are both “impure products” (in clifford’s conception of pure/impure) – williams being half puerto rican (altho clifford never mentions this) and how does he become a doctor and she a maid – there is no reason.. perhaps a psychoanalytic reading might be generative here… a guilt complex???

I also agree that clifford’s conception of the “pure” is limited: Elsie is impure only if the pure is conceived as uncorrupted by modernity (and def. one can argue that many americans still believe that this is the case). but i like your twist, that the pure is actually the hybrid, that pure america is the borderland “project and process of americanization.” so i think you are both right and both point to consequent violences.

when williams says “…some Elsie– / voluptuous water /expressing with broken // brain the truth about us” — what do think he means? what is the truth? who is the us? do you think he means to say that he and her are both “hybrids” – that they are both “mongrels” (i hate that word) getting by in white society? and she might expose him? or is the “us” modern society, that she might “speak” about how america has gone crazy? or something else entirely?

Also, how do you read “No one / to witness / and adjust…” because it seems like he is the witness…so by saying there is no one to witness, is he including himself as a “degraded prisoner”, does he lose his ethnographic distance here? and the “adjust” has always seemed to me a critical moment…no “agent”, no agency??? curious to hear your thoughts if you have time. thanks!

p.s. the last phrase “no one to drive the car” i can never take serious after hearing the story of the NY dada poet (her name is escaping me) who was in love with williams and one day got into the back seat of his car naked, knowing that he would be going to work. apparently, he kicked her out the car. now i am always disappointed that whenever i get into my car there are no naked dadaists. oh well.

hello again…i guess it’s okay about the naked dadaist, they would probably be into some kinky stuff involving potato salad anyways.

thank you again for taking the time to comment. it does seem true to me also that in their perceived shared rootlessness they do not share the same fate. nice articulation. you say that he is in a privileged position “to lament his own hybridity and rootlessness.” this is quite true also, he is a “privileged subaltern” (as is Spivak, i suppose, or would she say this term is a contradiction?) but I wonder if we can say that he is also lamenting her hybridity and rootlessness, that he doesn’t speak for her, but provides a space for her “plurality of emergent subjectivity” – that there is a certain redemptive empathy.

perhaps that is going too far. i agree with the feminist critique here to some extent, although i could also read “voluptuous water” as a critique of the usual comparisons of women and water (it just seems too un-Williams to not be parodic) and “broken brain” seems more like slang (as in crazy?) than degradation, although i can definitely see how it can be offensive.

i like your reading of “No one / to witness” … and both your reading of the “no one to drive the car” – the loss of domestic help is interesting, but i wonder if williams actually drove his own car… but i think you mean in a symbolic sense.

yeah, the “go crazy” is strange and all the slang like “tricked out” and “devil-may-care men” – really makes it accessible to an audience of common people, the fishermen in Spring and All. I like how this gesture of “non-poetic diction” attempts to create a space for communion (in the imagination) for an immigrant population. It always boggles my mind how Williams’s ethnicity is hardly ever taught, yet i feel that his ethnic hybridity is a major factor in his work. He grew up in a bilingual househeld and looking at pictures of him when he was young, he could never be mistaken for “a pure product” (altho he is a “pure product” in the way you have described it). anyways, i want to make an argument that part of his insistence on a “common” english is that this is the english of immigrants, of hybrids, a kind of “currency english” or “immigrant english.” this feels like a bit much, but what do you think?

one last point: the only thing i disagree with is that he “laments his loss of privilege.” mostly because i don’t think he really ever perceives that he has lost his privilege. even though he kind of loses himself in “ethnographic empathy” he seems to me to be well aware of his subject-position as a privileged subaltern…


13 thoughts on “"To Elsie, To Elsewhere": W. Carlos W.

  1. I studied with Creeley and Bernstein and don’t remember ever knowing WCW was half puerto rican. But this could totally be my memory. I do know David Blaine is half puero rican and that I’m totally on my way to lincoln center to gawk at him in his AquaRing after work.

    Everything you say in your penultimate paragaph is certainly explicit in Zukofsky, who communicated with Williams. I wonder to what extent? Is there correspondence? And if so, did these issues come up?

    What you say might not be such a stretch, especially if Williams grew up bilingual (which sensitizes an ear). I know he knew spanish, but don’t know how he learned it.

  2. francois: despite high gas prices, the promise of a naked dadaist almost makes it worth it…

    ez: WCW seems to often be whitewashed when taught and written about. even when people mention he’s half puerto or that neither of his parents were american, it’s never as if this is important to his work. altho he was included in one anthology of latin-american poetry once (i forget the name at the moment) – he had like 15 pages and gloria anzaldua had 25 (we could definitely read her form in La Frontera/Borderlands as descending from Williams’s preface to Spring and All).

    there is “the complete correspondence between williams and zukofsky” ed. by Barry Ahearn. (i only read excerpts from, so don’t know to what extent).

    he learned spanish from his mother. his father was English (a traveling salesman of sorts) and met her in puerto rico (his mother was a painter) – when they moved to the states, she didn’t speak much english. the sweetest thing is that he translated the spanish poet Quevedo with her…

  3. johannes göransson invited me and barbara jane reyes to speak at an awp panel about immigrant and minority writing next year. maybe wcw’s puerto-rican roots should be brought up.

  4. Craig,

    The more I think about it, the more important this is.

    In the Pantheon of Great American Poets, we have WCW’s bust, under which reads something like “Hero of the American Idiom” or common speech or some such.

    Bernstein talks much of Zuk’s play with idiom as a game learned in his immigrant, biligual childhood.

    The old, one doesn’t notice his/her own speech, unless it is not fully his/her own.

    There is almsot cetainly a big story here, once again, given WCW’s place in letters.

    It’s a story in my book because it could have real-world applications, like fueling the fire to educate all Americans (at least) bilingually.

  5. Francois: congrats on the invite. don’t you think barbara is amazing (writer, scholar, etc)…do you have a paper for the panel, an angle? would def. be interesting to bring it up.

    Ez: great points and i agree. i have an old post around here on williams and Zuk. (not necessarily about their bilingualism, but i will try to find it and repost…)


  6. jumping in late here, so i apologize.

    now i tend to wonder if popular deemphasis on WCW’s ethnicity has to do with his own deemphasizing of his ethnicity. just a question moreso than an observation.

    i do agree on zuk, the major significance of his family’s history of immigration, and his languages. so yes, this is definitely a nice contrast, and good evidence that ethnicity and language are not on the whole dismissed in academic discussions of american poets’ lives and work, hence not an argument to use in defending the popular omission of discussions on WCW’s eth/lang.

    ah, and what to discuss on that AWP panel. my head’s all over the place on this.

    in the meantime, re: lorca on gacela and casida, i’ve gone haywire on my arab poetic forms blogpost. interested in yr thoughts, as always.

  7. great point on williams…he is definitely never overt about his heritage – it’s not like he wrote:

    I have eaten
    the flan
    that was in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    for breakfast

    Forgive me
    it was delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold


    then again, his emphasis on an “american” idiom in a time when other major poets were going international does seem in a way a backdoor emphasis on his own desire to establish a coherent identity from which to incorporate his “divorced” ethnicities, thus forcing us to examine his ethnicity as well in relation to these formations. hmmm….i wonder tho, does the chicano/a community desire to “claim” him? if yes, why? if not, why? ENOUGH! i want to see what you wrote about Lorca!

  8. hee hee, as far as the flan goes, the question i wanted to ask is: if williams used more cultural signifiers, would we consider him more ethnic? does the presence of these authenticating signifiers validate ethnic writing as ethnic writing? how different is williams when we replace plums with flan?

  9. craig,

    i have absolutely no clue as to what i am going to talk about. i posted a putative reading list on my blog (forgetting to say what it was for). i still have 10 months to see what i am going to talk about and lots of free time (due to time off before heading to grad school).

    i’ve discovered bjr’s work only recently, with ron silliman’s post. it left me intrigued, and i liked what she wrote on her blog about reviewing fellow F/Pil Am poets.

  10. aw dang, on the cultural signifiers. that’s a whole ‘nother lengthy discussion altogether. needless to say i have much to say on that, so let me think of where to start on that.

    francois, interested in yr thoughts on my book review post.

  11. francois: well, keep us updated on the panel, am very interested. also, where are you going to school? what is your project?

    bjr: hee hee … i was aw dawgging after reading your post yesterday also … i will comment soon …

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