The Purple Sky

Today is the birthday of two of my favorite poets: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and Hank Williams (1923-1953). They shared the same last name, but as far as I know, were not related. William Carlos Williams was one of the most respected and innovative American poets of the Twentieth Century, and Hank Williams was the legendary singer-songwriter who remains one of the most important country music artists of all time.

I imagine there are still some academics out there who are resistant to the idea of songwriters being designated as poets, but everyone else seems to have gotten past that prejudice. In my opinion, Hank Sr. was not only a great poet but he and WCW had much in common, in terms of writing that is. Take this comparison:

WCW-1bFirst, from W.C. Williams’ “A Love Song”

The stain of love
Is upon the world.
Yellow, yellow, yellow,
It eats into the leaves,
Smears with saffron
The horned branches that lean
Heavily
Against a smooth purple sky.

Now, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”

HW-2bHear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low:
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
The silence of a falling star,
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

The similarities of these examples go beyond the use of “purple sky”; here are two men, each alone, thinking of a loved one whom they are separated from by distance and emotion, and both are beset with doubt and a touch of hopelessness. The imagery of a train “whining low” and the “silence” of the purple sky are powerful and evocative. A few lines on in his poem, the William Carlos Williams wonders “How can I tell if I shall ever love you again as I do now?” while Hank Williams wonders “where you are” and if he will ever meet and love her again.

Both poets used a simple style. One was by choice, through experimentation, and the other by the demands of the songwriting craft and the musical genre in which he labored. It’s doubtful Hank Williams had any idea that he was writing poetry or that his songs would last. “He had the ability to write lyrics that the average person could emotionally relate to,” said Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson.1 “He had the ability to write music that the average unmusical person could understand and yet was not trite. His songs were accepted in the pop field because they were realistic, and they were melodically and lyrically understandable to everyone.”

Fred Rose is credited as co-writer on many of Hank Williams’ songs.  Rose was a songwriter but he was also a music publisher and attached his name to the work of quite a few songwriters so that he could share in the royalties. He may have helped Hank polish some of his tunes but the artistry and sincerity that shines through them is straight from Hank.

William Carlos Williams said that with his poetry he was trying to find something like “the natural and subtly varying rhythms of the spoken voice, based on the natural rhythms of breathing . . .”,2 what poet Stephen Tapscott called “some poems of natural speech,”3 the natural rhythms of American English.

In their personal lives, the men could not be more different. Williams Carlos Williams lived a rather conventional life as a married country doctor in Patterson, New Jersey. As for Hank Williams, his life was a rather dissipated affair, he was the epitome of a person who lived fast and died young, passing away at the age of 29, in the back seat of a car while traveling to a New Years Day music gig, of heart failure brought on by excessive abuse of alcohol and pills.

I have shared W.C. Williams’ poetry before (here). His poems are often just snapshots of moments in time, scenes that come and go in the blink of an eye. In this poem, I can easily picture Hank as the subject:

THE HALFWORLD

Desperate young man
with haggard face
and flapping pants –

As best they can
under the street lights
the shadows are

wrapping you about –
in your fatigue
and isolation, in all

the beauty of your
commonplace against
the incestuous

and leaning stars –

Very many of Hank Williams songs were rather desolate ballads about lost love.  This tune, which you have likely heard hundreds of times, is more upbeat.  It is tight, and despite all the double entendres, the simple compact imagery faithfully adheres to William Carlos Williams’ famous maxim “no ideas but in things.” I don’t  imagine, though, that Hank knew much, if anything, about WCW.  The song is a little bit country, and a lot of bit rock and roll:

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’

Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?
Hey, sweet baby – don’t you think maybe
We can find us a brand new recipe?

I got a hot rod Ford, and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun, come along with me

I’m free and ready, so we can go steady.
How’s about saving all your time for me?
No more lookin’ – I know I been cookin’
Hows about keepin’ steady company?

I’m gonna throw my date book over the fence
And buy me one for five or ten cents
I’ll keep it till it’s covered with age
Cause I’m writin’ your name down on every page

Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?

 

– – – – – – – – – –

1. Roger M. Williams, Sing A Sad Song The Life of Hank Williams, Ballantine Books, 1973, 105-106

2. Eberhart, Richard, “The Speaking Voice and Direct Wisdom”, Saturday Review, Feb 18, 1956, 49.

3. Terence Diggory, William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting, Princeton University Press, 2014, 87

“The Halfworld” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1; Volumes 1909-1939, New Directions Publishing, 1991

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