As a Fly



From The Nation:

Williams skipped college, enrolling directly in the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school in 1902, and it was there that he met Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle, who would become the poet known as H.D. when Pound showcased her poems in the various Imagist manifestoes and anthologies that flourished in London around 1913. As a student, Williams was already as devoted to poetry as he was to medicine, and he would be influenced crucially by Imagism’s emphasis on directness and concreteness in poetic language. One might even argue that, while Imagism was a passing phase for Pound, it was for Williams a religion, a set of principles around which he would spin startling variations for the rest of his life.

“The World Contracted to a Recognizable Image” appeared in Williams’s last book, Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1962:

at the small end of an illness
there was a picture
probably Japanese
which filled my eye

an idiotic picture
except it was all I recognized
the wall lived for me in that picture
I clung to it as a fly

Apparent here, in miniature, are all of Williams’s strengths. While the language of the poem records the visible world meticulously, the poem is not so much about the world as about the act of vision. The lack of punctuation feels disorienting, but the first four lines divide the syntax into easily digestible grammatical units (“there was a picture”), allowing us to participate viscerally in the act of the language making sense: a simple sentence emerges, much as the Japanese print came into focus as the ailing poet opens his eyes. The second quatrain begins by extending that sentence with an apposition (“an idiotic picture”), but then the sentence stops short at the end of the second line, interrupted by two startlingly terse one-line sentences—“the wall lived for me in that picture/I clung to it as a fly”—sentences in which the poet suddenly describes not the world but himself. There is no fly in the world of this poem: the fly is a metaphor for the mind, and we hear it buzzing relentlessly in the poem’s exquisitely calibrated dance of syntax and line.

Williams’s great gift to future poets is his prosody, but he worked long and hard to hear the immense sonic possibilities that even the simplest sentences afforded him.

“This Is Just to Say: On William Carlos Williams”, James Longenbach, The Nation