Sunday, September 16, 2012

Poetry Monday: On WCW's "Smell!"

I'm reading William Carlos Williams again today. We've had WCW before here, with "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower". Following is a poem written while WCW was a fair bit younger, which I've been reading and analysing as part of the wonderful ModPo poetry course I've been doing (I'm afraid you're going to have to follow along with me - I'm immersed in it). The poem is William Carlos Williams' "Smell". Of course you can take this poem at face value (sorry...), and indeed, as it sits below, with Williams' rather distinguished nose right above it, that's certainly the initial temptation. It's fun enough in a literal sense: who hasn't followed his or her nose into the "festering pulp" like a hungry dog.  But of course there's more to the poem than that.  You can listen to WCW's own reading at the PennSound Archive (an amazing resource that I can't recommend enough) - he reads with obvious delight at his own foibles. What writer hasn't wondered in one form or another, something similar - in curiosity, in desire, or felt that "deep thirst" for "that rank odor of a passing springtime". Think lower, baser, more richly sensual. In a meta-poetical sense, I see this as the writer's lot - to pick at everything, to smell it all, to taste what is unlovely and savour it.


Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedreggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?


  1. Well, I can see I must come here every Monday! (Looks like the feed is working, for I saw this pop up.) The TAs were great on this one, weren't they? Though I think even better, if that's possible, on Danse Russe. Do you know the author Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, 11 Kinds of Loneliness)? Something about WCW's "condition' reminds him very much of him.

    1. Yes, I agree about the TAs - very helpful. I really like Al's socratic method too - he's very generous. Just finished working through "Danse Russe" which I liked even more than "Smell!" (I'm afraid I can relate to the poem in every sense). I've heard of, but haven't read any Yates. Will look out for him though.