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
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:


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:


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


Approach of Winter

Commemorating the first day of Winter (Winter Solstice) 2012:

Approach of Winter

by William Carlos Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

Happy Winter Solstice!

To see a Poem Flow of this poem, go here.


Do You Believe in Magic?

I long ago I gave up trying to explain to those who don’t appreciate or understand poetry why it is so wonderful, what makes it work or what it’s all about. In that regard, I’m reminded of something John Sebastian once wrote in a song: “I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul/But it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”

Art, whether it is poetry or painting or music or something else, has a certain indefinable quality that seems transcendent, and I’ve come to understand that some people are just not wired to be receptive. Art either speaks to you or it doesn’t, and because we are all different, some forms of art resonate with us while other forms do not.

Ultimately, poetry resists our attempts to define it precisely and analyze its nature. That may have something to do with what Sigmund Freud once noted: “[P]oets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science.” So, for me, poetry is magical. Not because it springs from some supernatural source but because it comes out of the human spirit, something as equally indefinable as we find poetry.

The first poem to cast its spell on me in a big way I read when I was in the third or fourth grade. It was e.e. cummings’ “in Just-“:

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

This poem’s simplicity and innovative structure bowled me over. Even at that young age, it made me feel nostalgic. More so now, of course, reading it as an adult, for the poem never fails to take me back to a time of innocence, a time of splashing in mud-puddles and running with childish abandon.

In just a few lines, some of them repeated, cummings captures the wonder and joy of spring. Since then, I’ve always preferred shorter poems to longer ones (and developed a fondness for non-capitalized poesy). Anyone can use a lot of words to communicate, but to distill thoughts using fewer words lends a directness and immediacy to a poem that seems lost in longer works, even if, in being spare, the poet keeps his precise meaning vague,  abstruse, or completely hidden.

A great example of this can be found with a famous poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

That’s the entire poem. You’ll notice that each line is shaped like a wheelbarrow. It’s said that Williams wrote this poem in just five minutes while gazing out his window. So much depends on the red wheelbarrow – like what? To do chores, or perhaps for some unknown, out of the ordinary reason? This, I think, is a part of Williams’ artistry: each reader can conjure for his or herself a back-story. I always thought it would be interesting to base an entire novel or a collection of short stories on this poem. Short poetry like this has a lot in common with Japanese haiku, where less is not only more, it’s a must.

One of my favorite short poems is by Aram Saroyan (son of Armenian American dramatist and author, William Saroyan) who once wrote a poem consisting of just one word – crickets – repeated down the page. Immediately upon glancing at the poem, you can almost hear the crickets chirping:

Some people would say that’s not poetry, but I feel it’s poetry in its purest form. Anything can be a poem. The word “poetry” comes from a Greek verb that is transliterated as poieo, meaning “I make or create.” But that was then and this is now, and I don’t believe that a poem has to be “created.” There are poets who will tell you they don’t write poems, that the poems already exist and the poet is merely the vehicle for the words to reveal themselves. Sometimes, poetry just is. It’s like the line in the Springsteen song, “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be.”

Henry David Thoreau called poetry “a natural fruit.” He said, “As naturally as the oak bears an acorn, and the vine a gourd, man bears a poem, either spoken or done. It is the chief and most memorable success, for history is but a prose narrative of poetic deeds.”

To appreciate poetry I think it helps to be a romantic and an idealist. Romantics can understand on an intellectual level that there is no supernatural, yet they can also believe in magic. And poetry is a lot like meditation. You have to let go of stuff and clear your mind to really appreciate it, especially much of the poetry that’s been produced since Whitman. You don’t necessarily have to understand a poem, and it certainly does not have to make sense – just appreciate the arrangement of the words and be open to the encounter with a poem. Be in the moment of the poem.

I have a little paperback book that I bought in a drug store in Omaha, Nebraska some 42 years ago. It’s called The Poetry of Rock, by a well-known (at the time) rock critic, Richard Goldstein. It’s a collection of lyrics from various rock songs. Although he is largely forgotten today, John Sebastian (quoted above) of the Lovin’ Spoonful has three of his songs included. Here’s one that no doubt you have heard many, many times, but have you ever seen it?

Hot town,
Summer in the city.
Back o’ my neck getting’ dirty and gritty.

Been down
Isn’t it a pity;
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.

All around
People lookin’ half-dead,
Walkin’ on the sidewalk hotter than a matchhead.

Even without the music as support, the words have an impact. They are hard and terse and they hit you like hot air itself. Reading them, you feel summer, in the same way you feel e.e. cummings’ spring. Living in LA with the relentless sun, the words easily paint a scene where is it so hot and the sun beats down with such intensity that there doesn’t seem to be a shadow anywhere.

I think it does more than merely convey a feeling, and that poetry is more than just a snapshot in words of the world, a mirror of reality. If you love poetry, you understand. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can explain it to you.

One thing I feel strong about is that poetry is special, if for no other reason than that it brings beauty into our lives, and beauty is truth. It may be only an aesthetic kind of truth that appeals to our emotions, our senses, cultural values and the range of our experiences, and in the long run we may come to realize that nothing is beautiful, which, as Nietzsche said, is the first truth of aesthetics. Nevertheless, it is the kind of beautiful truth that appeals directly and forcibly to my romantic, idealistic nature.

I suppose the best way to end this post is with a poem about poetry. This is a selection from “La Poesia (Poetry)” by Pablo Neruda:

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.


The Escape, The Error and The Flash of Genius

No joy in Mudville tonight, for mighty Casey has struck out . . .

And now, a few words from William Carlos Williams:

The Crowd at the Ball Game

(Published in The Dial, 1923)

William Carlos Williams in 1954

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them —

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius —

all to no end save beauty
the eternal –

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied —
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut —

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it —

The Jew gets it straight – it
is deadly, terrifying —

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
idly —

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought