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Williams: A Sort of a SoNG

Continuing to explore spaciousness this week, let’s look at the poetry of the notoriously plainspoken William Carlos Williams. In just 16 words, he created one of the most-unpacked American poems of the last century. But today I want to look at one that, by comparison, is an epic: 1944’s “A Sort of a Song.”

There’s a sense of space between the lines “Compose.… Invent!” — a space filled with the parenthetical “No ideas but in things.” While we often tend to ignore the parentheses, glossing over them as they’re siloed within the text, this is one of the most-quoted William Carlos-isms. He uses the same phrase again in his literal epic, Paterson.

I could probably go on about “A Sort of a Song” for a good week, but that’s a lot of ideas. Let’s get to the thing itself (or, as the old writerly saw goes, “show, don’t tell”). In the moment, being with things as they are, it’s almost impossible not to have thoughts or ideas about that moment. Look at Levin in Anna Karenina. Look at Bruegel’s Harvesters (which also lent itself to a WCW poem).

But, at the same time, can we find the truth of the moment, independent of ideas? Can we tap into Berger’s sense of “least knowing, most truthful”, or the moment’s enough-ness as in Woolf’s The Waves? Consider, if you will, that the reality of this moment is not the ideas we have around it or the thoughts we are thinking during it. Rather, it’s our bodies in this dimension of space and time. It’s the arc of our breath on the inhale and exhale. It’s the sounds of the room we’re in and the feeling of fabric on our skin.

This is the line, the space, between composition and invention.


Today’s Contemplation: Asking the mind not to think is, as my teacher Lodro Rinzler is wont to say, akin to asking the heart not to beat. But can you exist in the space of being in the thing-ness of the moment and letting the ideas live in their own parentheses? Try it for 5 minutes. Try it for 10. Try it for 20. Each time a thought comes to mind, rather than throwing up a border-wall against it, gently usher it into a set of parentheses. You’ll come back to it later. In the meantime, place your attention on the breath, on the felt sense of the body breathing itself.