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Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Babbitt
English 2091
A Surreal William Carlos Williams: How He Was What He Was
William Carlos Williams is considered one of the great American poets and is generally
associated with Imagism or Modernismand both for obvious reasons. His work is full of
striking imagery and much of his writing was revolutionary. What most people dont point out,
however, is his Surrealist tendencies. He is, in fact, very much so a Surrealist and this can be
proven through a study of his use of surrealist techniques in the poetry and prose of his book
Spring and All, as well as how his works compare to the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, which
was directed by Luis Buuel.
In his poetry and prose, Williams tries to do for his readers what films do for their
viewers. Films are depictions of dreams: they try to recreate the same subconscious, imaginative
mentality that people experience in their dreams. In fact, William Earle quotes Andr Breton in
the article Phenomenology and the Surrealism of Movies, as having said: I believe in the
future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory,
into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality if one may so speak (257). By accurately combining
these two worlds, films often travel through the story without readily apparent connections. This
is especially apparent in Surrealist films, which further disorient their audience with the method
of showing the film through different eyes: the audience, a single character, and multiple
characters (or, a very specific, condensed view, a personalized view, and a general, narrative

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view). Williams incorporates each of these techniques, as well as several more, into his writing,
making his works seem more Surrealist than either Imagist or Modernist.
A major detail of Surrealist films is the eye, or the eye of the spectator. In Buuels Un
Chien Andalou, the eye almost becomes a character itself. This eye is emphasized by other
objects in the film: the beginning sequence, with the man sharpening the knife on a balconyall
straight linesand then cutting his rounded nail, followed by a full moon being covered by a
thin line of a cloud, and finally the straight edge of the knife cutting into the womans eye. Susan
McCabe writes in her book, Cinematic Modernism, the montage of straight, sharp lines verses
rounded shapes builds up to the focus on the womans eye, and this focus is continued
throughout the film (112-13), as well as often made evident through the cameras distance to the
scene. For example, during one sequence, the camera closes in on a woman poking an amputated
hand, then moves back to show the crowd surrounding the woman, and finally retreats to a
balcony where a couple watches the people gathering on the street. This gives an impression of
an eye opening: as the eyelids part, more and more of the scene in front of the spectator is
In another sense, the eye is the camera itself, and, as Salvador Dal said, nothing proves
the truth of Surrealism so much as photography. According to James Lastras article Buuel,
Bataille, and Buster, or, the surrealist life of things this is because the image caught in the
camera could be manipulated, just as it could wrest an unknown reality from the realm of the
ordinary. Buuel called this camera that eye without tradition, without moral, without
prejudice (qtd. in Lastra 21). This machine vision prevented the invasion of poetic
subjectivity (Lastra 21); it let the art that had been captured speak for itself, even though it had
been captured and was revealed in a Surrealist light. This sort of thinking and technique was the

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turning point in Surrealist literature: instead of poetry being the main source of literature, films
became a major contributing factor to the society. William Earle put it this way in his article on
Surrealist film:
But mere descriptions of the factual components of any phenomenon whatsoever is mere
verbalization; and of what interest could that be to anyone who can experience the
phenomenon itself? Not that there are not misguided phenomenologists who try to do just
this, or for their part critics who in effect do the same. Putting into words what can be
vividly seen in itself is a tedious business, to no point in the first place, and impossible in
the second (255).
He saw Surrealist films as a way to show what cannot be revealed through words, which are so
inadequate when it comes to the Surrealist movement. He took the camera and turned it into the
eye without tradition: he was part of the revolution that wholeheartedly accepted this new
tradition that was Surrealist films.
Another reason as to why Surrealist films became so popular among Surrealists
themselves goes back to that same eye, but in a different, perhaps darker, light: the Surrealists
refused to perceive the eye as an organ of pure and noble vision and instead preferred to
objectify it as a vehicle of its own violence, deserving of mutilation and scorn (McCabe 113)
and were able to show this through film better than through writing. This belief is certainly
shown in Un Chien Andalou, with its constant references to the opening scene of destruction
concerning the eye. Lastra points out this emphasis, and names many of the objects the eye is
connected to:
As many writers have noted, the eye is linked explicitly with an image of the moon, with
a hole in a mans hand, an armpit, a sea urchin, an androgynes head, and the crowd who
encircle her. Through the link forged between eye, moon, and buttock, by treating words
as objects and vice-versa, the eye ultimately becomes interchangeable with breasts, the
mouth, the vagina, and through these back to the armpit, etc. (35).
Because he made the eye interchangeable, Buuel is able to reemphasize over and over again
the significance of the eye and the spectator in Surrealist films. At the same time, though, he

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reveals the level of scorn Surrealists had for the eye: by making it synonymous with things such
as a hole in a hand, an armpit, or a buttock, Buuel implies the eye is no greater than any of these
things, and does not deserve to be thought of as fairer or more useful. In fact, it could even be
viewed as a burden, like a hole in a hand would be, or, in America, the amount of armpit hair
shown in the film.
Even Williamss poetry incorporates the same negative associations with the eye, with
lines that are chopped off firmly. This forces the readers eye to follow in an abrupt, fractured
manner. Poem I from Spring and All is a good example of this method as it portrays the
speakers vision through images that the reader will be able to see in the same manner while still
giving the impression of an eyes mutilated vision:
By the road to the contagious hospital
Under the surge of the blue
Mottled clouds driven from the
Northeasta cold wind. Beyond, the
Waste of broad, muddy fields
Brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
Patches of standing water
The scattering of tall trees
The speaker is driving a car, and the readers have the impression that they, too, are driving
because of the use of line breaks: the frame of the car gets in the way of the view and disrupts the
eyes movement, effectively cutting it off.
Surrealism is most well-known for its combination of the imagination and reality; with
these, it creates a new reality that holds the same beliefs the Surrealists holds. Williams also
meshed the imaginary realm with the realistic realm and incorporated his own beliefs or

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practices. In Poem XVIII from Spring and All, this practice is revealed through prisoners
dreaming of an escape:
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us
The prisoners avoid their reality of jail and imagine themselves in fields of goldenrod where
their freedom is obvious in the wide, open fields and sky. The world they imagine, though just
imagination, is also a possibility: there is nothing improbable about a field in September, other
than the prisoners being there to experience it.
Right after the prisoners create this new world, Williams rips it apartutilizing another
surrealist technique: cleavage. Cleavage is a technique that can be used in many wayswhich
is perhaps why Williams, who uses his own rules for punctuation in order to let the reader
interpret his works however the reader wants to, likes it so much. The first two definitions of
cleavage, the most well-known, are the division of something (in science, the splitting of an
embryo) and the space over the sternum, in between a womans breasts. In opposition to division,
cleavage can also mean to adhere to something. According to McCabe, the term can also refer
to the methods of film editing where celluloid is cut cleanly and its surfaces sewn or glued
together, Williamss habit of [dislocating] the spectators body away from what the spectator
is experiencing, or the way in which Williams forges a visual path in a continual process of
creation and destruction (93). This method is seen in the poem quoted above, but is not

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completed until the lines Somehow / it seems to destroy us. The prisoners, first separated from
their reality by imagination and then glued to the surreality they created, are now torn apart by
the false hope their imaginations provide. Thus the two worlds are divided again, thrusting the
prisoners back into their degrading reality. As a doctor, Williams had experience in both
separating the spectator from their body (with anesthesia) and in giving false hope of a new
reality (with the diagnoses he gave). When he worked these experiences into his writing, they
became Surrealist.
These separations and bindings that litter Surrealists works can be confusing and
disorienting. Williams, too, has a tendency to mystify his readers. He does this by his use of
structure, the refusal of coherent bodily image or text, and typographical tricks (McCabe
123), as well as other writing techniques. As Lastra says in his article, Un Chien Andalou never
lets what is logical, expected, or promised by intuitions about character psychology or plot have
any precedence over purely graphic developments or variations on the specific qualities of
objects (35). Williams, just as Un Chien Andalou, doesnt put what the readers expect to see in
his writings; instead, he writes what he wants them to see.

One example of Williamss unexpected is the line breaks in his poetry. They are severe
and there to force the readers complete attention onto the poem. However, they often make the
reader pause, go back, and reread in order to fully understand, such as Poem II:
Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamps horn
petals aslant darkened with mauve

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red where in whorls
petal lays its glow upon petal
round flamegreen throats
(Spring and All 13)
By splitting up adjectives and nouns, Williams turns his sentences into lines that must be left
open at the end. His poetry calls for a reading in which there is no break between lines, for doing
otherwise only confuses the reader.
Furthermore, this poem incorporates several different, seemingly unrelated images.
Michael Golston, while discussing the work of Lorine Niedecker in his article Petalbent Devils:
Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and the Surrealist Praying Mantis, says that she, in true
Surrealist fashion, throws together dissimilar images that present a dream-like collage
(341). Williams also does this, when he jumps from flowers to flames to a lamps horn and then
back to flowers. All of these different images called to mind in a short period of time create a
jumbled collage of pictures and words in the readers mind that can otherwise only be seen
with the imagination. Pierre Reverdy stated:
The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a
juxtaposition of two or more distant realities. The more the relationship between the two
juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will bethe greater its
emotional power and poetic reality. (qtd. in Skaff 186)
This is the epitome of the Surrealist image: two clashing realities conjoining to make a poetic
image a reality, but these two realities must be polar opposites for it to work well, which is what
makes this cultural movement so confusing for so many people. Robert Hobbs takes a somewhat
different perspective on the disconcerting juxtaposition of images in Surrealist works, however.
In his article Early Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, he says emphasizing wonderful
conjunctions of radically different objects and images, [Surrealists] created thrilling sensations of
a higher reality (Hobbs 299). Indeed, the contrasting images can form beautiful pictures, such as
the example William Earle gives in his article Phenomenology and the Surrealism of Movies

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when discussing the medium of poetry as the original surrealist medium: Indeed how could one
paint soluble fish, or a sky as blue as an orange (258)? However, regarding Williamss use of
contrasting images, the former theory of bewilderment applies.
Williams also disconcerts his readers by refusing to use a clear, systematic order for his
section titles. Spring and Alls chapter titles proceed: Chapter 19, Chapter XIII (which is
upside down), Chapter VI, Chapter 2, Chapter XIX, and so on. The random numerical
headings perplex the reader and can often cause him or her to think he or she has skipped several
sections, forcing him or her to go back and look at the previous pages. This bewilderment throws
the reader off, causes them to hesitate, and they lose the flow of what they were readingjust
like his erratic line breaks. In one respect, this is a good thing: it forces the reader to pay rapt
attention to the words and the meaning behind the text. It has more of a negative effect on the
reader, however, because it is so confusing and off-putting. This is further emphasized by
Golston, who explains the tendency of the Surrealists to subdue the senses awareness, which
therefore subdues the present scene in their pursuit of the unconscious (338).
Another process of disorientation used by Williams is his combination of prose and
poetry. In Spring and All, the shifts between the two are often sudden and unexpected. For
example, the transition from the first section of prose to the first poem is Suddenly it is at an
end. THE WORLD IS NEW. / By the road to the contagious hospital (Spring and All 11).
Another example begins on page 30 of Spring and All, with the prose section discussing one of
Juan Griss paintings, when suddenly a poem cuts into the middle of a sentence. After the poem
ends, the prose picks back up where it left off, just like there had been no interruption. This
mixing of two writing styles represents mixing the dream world with reality: two different ideas

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are thrown together and, while they can blend together in some cases, their forms are so different
that they cannot help but stand apart from each other.
Aside from the perturbing habits of Surrealists, they place a lot of focus on the object.
Golston labels Surrealism an aesthetic epistemology, concerned to understand how an object
means what it means (326). Lastra compared Surrealists to children in that they put so much
focus and energy into an object that it would grow into something that it could never be, and thus
becomes a new object entirely (22). In Un Chien Andalou, Buuel tried to do just that with the
objects: he took the eye and developed it into something more than an eye. As was stated before,
he turned it into not just a womans head, or a hole in a hand, or a sea urchin, but he turned it into
the spectator. The eye itself became a character, a spectator, in the film and, having seen the
potential of the objects in the film, such as the moon, the mouth, the breasts, the hair etc., it
created a new reality:
Like the ethnographic Surrealist, the spectator can see in the commonest everyday item a
complete world, a reality as total as that defined by science, but one that finds its
coherence in the unconscious or in the fantasies of the individual. ( Lastra 23)
To the eye, which is now considered a spectator, its reality of being interchangeable with these
objects is no longer simply an unconscious fantasy, or a dream, but a new reality where these two
worlds have met, mated, and created a new realm full of possibilities for the spectator. Buuel is
quoted in Lastras article, NOTHING in this film SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING (31). This is
true: Surrealists were very anti-Symbolist, and refused to use at least the traditional symbols in
their works. Instead, they gave symbols a new meaning: in the case of the eye and the other
objects in the film, the eye doesnt just stand in for them temporarily, or vice-versa, but it
becomes them. All of these objects can be a different object, because the spectator has connected
each and every one of them. Lastra also quotes Buuel saying the Surrealists are less on the trail
of psyche than on the trail of things (37). Surrealists werent concerned with making intelligent,

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obvious, or coherent connections in their works; as Freud said, the source of Surrealist objects
as well as Surrealist acts was the unconscious where opposites were identified or not
distinguished (qtd. in Earle 257). Surrealists didnt want connections within reality; they wanted
connections between multiple realities, so that is what they did: they made unequal objects or
ideas equal, and left it at that, with no more explanation than a Symbolist would leave with his
Hobbs says the Surrealists had a desire to reformulate Renaissance perspective by using
the irrationality of dreams (300). This desire can only be considered successful for them, as they
had a major impact on art in the world. John Ashbury once said Surrealism has influenced us in
so many ways that we can hardly think to imagine what the world would be without it (qtd. in
Golston 327) and the article Dada and Surrealism agrees, saying: the significant art of our time
could not have been produced without it (36). This is all true, as the world today is often based
on dreamers: people are told they must always chase their dreams, or that they will never achieve
their dreams and goals if they dont try for them. The Surrealists were reaching for their dreams
without even knowing that was what they had to do to succeed, as people are told in todays
culture. In fact, they were so focused on their correlated rejection of the arbitrary rigidities of
the social world and their joyful embrace of absurdity (Lastra 24), they didnt even know they
would have such a great effect on society. If they did, perhaps they would have stopped their
movement, since they were so opposed to conformity.
William Carlos Williams can be labeled a Surrealist in the same respect: aside from using
many of the same techniques as Surrealists, such as controlling the eye in order to reveal or hide
certain things from the reader, or connecting objects that do not have obviously similar qualities,
or disorienting the reader with typographical tricks and odd line breaks, he also was a non-

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conformist. Most people considered themselves part of just one or two movements, but Williams
is considered to belong to at least three, and these three often contradict each other when it
comes to their manifestoes. He remained open-minded and focused on imagination throughout
his whole life, and can certainly not be called anti-Surrealist.

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Works Cited
Breton, Andre. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1924. PDF.
"Dada & Surrealism." New Republic 158.22 (1968): 35-38. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17
Apr. 2012.
Earle, William. "Phenomenology And The Surrealism Of Movies." Journal Of Aesthetics & Art
Criticism 38.3 (1980): 255. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.
Golston, Michael. Petalbent Devils: Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and the Surrealist
Praying Mantis. Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006): 325-347. Academic Search
Complete. Web. 7 May 2012.
Hobbs, Robert C. Early Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism. Art Journal 45.4 (1985): 299.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Apr. 2012
Lastra, James. Buuel, Bataille, And Buster, Or, The Surrealist Life if Things. Critical
Quarterly 51.2 (2009): 16-38. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
McCabe, Susan. "W. C. Williams and Surrealist Film: "a Favorable Distortion"" Cinematic
Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2005. 93-132.
Skaff, William. "Pound's Imagism And The Surreal." Journal Of Modern Literature 12.2 (1985):
185. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.
Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Luis Buuel. 1929.
Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. New York: New Directions Pub., 2011. Print.