I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train
Springsteen, Downbound train
“The America of Poets”
The above phrase was coined by the poet and critic Randall Jarrell about New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 to 1963). Williams was, in my opinion, one of the greatest poets America has yet produced and he spent almost his entire life in the town where he was born (Rutherford NJ).
In that regard, he reminds me of another great New Jersey wordsmith writing in the American idiom, Bruce Springsteen whom, despite his frequent tours and travels, cannot quite seem to stray too far from the town of his birth for any great length of time.
That is not the only similarity the two great men share in common. Both have used their work and talents to explore the minutiae of everyday peoples’ lives. The comedian John Stewart once famously said of Springsteen “When you listen to Bruce’s music, you’re no longer a loser, you’re a character in an epic poem… about losers”. This assessment could just as easily be applied to Williams.
The epic poem Paterson, written in five volumes over a period of twelve years, was Williams’ ode to that Northern Jersey city and its people. Joycean in its scope, Paterson is built around the modernist poet’s philosophy no ideas but in things.
I take this to mean that the seed is there in the commonplace situations and mundane moments of ordinary life, that there is no need to create grand poetical ideas; the poetry resides in the world around you.
An example of this can be found in his simple work The red wheelbarrow;
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In focussing on the very ordinary, Williams allows us an in to the poetic beauty and simple grandeur of the everyday.
This sort of greatness in the small things approach has come to be a hallmark of Springsteen’s work also. There is a no ideas but in things element in songs such as My hometown:
I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around this is your hometown
Both men have been deeply touched by the lives of everyday folk and both have striven to express the simple nobility to be found in unremarkable lives. Williams, in his poem Pastoral, conveyed his admiration for those who can only abide:
The old man who goes about
Gathering dog lime
Walks in the gutter
Without looking up
And his tread
Is more majestic than
That of the Episcopal minister
Approaching the pulpit
Of a Sunday.
Astonish me beyond words.
Both Williams and Springsteen were of mixed heritage (Springsteen Irish, Italian, and Dutch and Williams English, Dutch, and Spanish) and both have struggled with bouts of depression – a condition which, I believe, lends insight and compassion to the efforts of poets.
Williams was a not insignificant influence upon the beat poets and was mentor to Alan Ginsberg who, like Williams, hailed from Northern New Jersey. The beat poets were, in turn, an influence upon the very counter culture which, indirectly, birthed Springsteen.
I have found, in the works of both men, my personal entrée into the heart and soul of New Jersey; perhaps America as a whole. Certainly, as an immigrant coming to this land to build a new life, the America I am longing for is the America of Bruce Springsteen and William Carlos Williams.
William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird. ~ Randall Jarrell