Friday, May 29, 2009
So Much Depends
At BIW (Brooklyn Is Watching), there is an installation by Penumbra Carter that interprets William Carlos Williams' 1923 poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The installation is interesting. It goes against a literal image of the wheelbarrow, the way I picture it, on a farm, rustic, Hopper-esque or Scheeler-ific. Definitely realism. I have taught this poem a long time now and, like the things I teach again and again, revisit it twice a year, sometimes with much to say about it and sometimes, despite all the discussions and lectures, as if I have never seen it before. There is a lot there, and there is nothing there.
What does he mean "so much?" Those are the only words that are extra, and the first two lines are the only ones that are not pure imagist; they give it context, theme, and position us as readers. The wheelbarrow is important; it is the crux of the farm. And for modernism, the thing itself, not the idea of the thing, to misquote the Wallace Stevens poem I always think of as the companion to Williams':
NOT IDEAS ABOUT THE THING BUT THE THING ITSELF
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.
That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Modernism hoped for a "new knowledge of reality" with its turn to the thing instead of the idea of the thing, but of course it could not escape the idea of the thing, was enamored with the idea of the thing even as it tried to get past it to the thing itself. That is why Williams puts in those first two lines. Nevertheless, the imagist impulse in Williams' poem--by 1923 an old trick perhaps in need of those first two lines--demonstrates, among other things, the possibilities of interartistic discourse, of when poetry becomes more visual, and, in Penumbra's installation, when a virtual art becomes poetic.
The content of Penumbra's piece can't go without discussion. It was a positive virtual art experience. I saw the notecard giver box outside the mysterious big box with the window, I read the poem on the notecard--hello, old friend! I cammed in, not realizing until later the walls were transparent, which made for a nice exploratory point of view excursion. And then, NOT the farm images I expected, but, well, SPERMY shapes!! Glorious, striving, glowing, wriggling spermlike figures reaching up and out the window, maybe to an egg, maybe to Comet's unreachable mountains. Oh, but sperm nonetheless. There was a nice couch and poseball to click on, and so I can check off the clickability box on my list of virtual art criteria, and when I slipped into mouselook, the sperm pov was good.
And the wheelbarrow? It was at the other end of the room, and there were no chickens, unless the sperm were proto-chickens, but the golden seminal fluid emanates from the red wheelbarrow, and indeed, everything does seem to depend on it, or at least "so much."
There are strong compositional elements as well, nice framing of windows within windows, boxes within boxes, very much in keeping with the modernist painters and photographers who were Williams' contemporaries in the early 1920s. I think of some of the modernist paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, like Hopper's Drug Store, from 1927 or his Room in Brooklyn (1932), or Charles Sheeler's Spring Interior from the same year, or his 1931 View of New York, of those strong verticals and horizontals, the right angles, the boxes within boxes that make up those buildings and trapped their inhabitants, so often hidden from view.