When William Carlos Williams first agreed to write a poem for Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises in 1951, he did not realize that its delivery would truly require exercise. He could not have foreseen at the time of commission the stroke he would suffer the following month, and the toll it would take on his capacity to perform it.
This brush with death awakened in Williams insecurities he hadn’t entertained in decades. In his twenties, Williams had undergone what he later described (in a letter to Marianne Moore) as “a sort of nameless religious experience.” The episode had left him with a kind of resignation. He wrote:
It is something which occurred once when I was about twenty, a sudden resignation to existence, a despair — if you wish to call it that but a despair which made everything a unit and at the same time a part of myself.… I resigned, I gave up. I decided there was nothing else in life for me but to work. (William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle, New York: Routledge, 1980, 133).
What Williams called “despair” would be, by anyone else’s metric, a remarkably clear-headed sense of purpose. And indeed, at the time the letter was written, Williams had already proven himself to be a poet of particular self-possession. He was fifty-one. He’d just released a volume of his collected works, which Moore herself had reviewed and praised for its “inner security.” Williams may have despaired, but he was not hopeless: he was a poet, he had his work, he was: “I won’t follow causes. I can’t. The reason is that it seems so much more important to me that I am.” (Critical Heritage, 133).
It is precisely this poetic assurance that makes Williams’ appearance at the Phi Beta Kappa exercises on June 18, 1951, so poignant and jarring. If you compare recordings from before and after his stroke, it is clear that performing has become a task. In one post-stroke recording, we find him pausing during a poem to note: “I’ve read this hundreds of times, and even still I fall down once and a while.” In another, he prefaces a poem with: “Since I am not able to read as I like, I read as I can.” In the Phi Beta Kappa recording Williams is reading as he can, and you can hear it. The poet’s speech is labored and slow: he pauses and stumbles. There’s a strained necessity to the performance that even, or perhaps especially, comes across on tape.
And the poem itself, the long and explicitly autobiographical The Desert Music, is an obvious document of a poet grappling with his own fragility. Seventeen years had passed since his “despair” letter, and with them so much of Williams’ former confidence. In his PBK reading, the poet echoes his letter to Moore, but his assured resignation to poetry is replaced with a kind of embarrassed uncertainty. At the podium, he reads:
I am a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed.
(The Desert Music and Other Poems, New York:
Random House, 1954, 90).
Williams recreates this telling line-break — the terrifying split between I and am — with a short pause, hinting at his anxiety to put the two parts back together. Later, he asks it outright: “Am I merely playing the poet? Inventing it out of whole cloth?,” but from the beginning, it is apparent that, for Williams, The Desert Music is an exploration of the way back into his poetic self.
The piece begins and ends on a bridge between Juarez and El Paso, zooming in on a sleeping figure, “an inhuman shapelessness, / knees hugged tight up into the belly, // Egg-shaped!”. As the poem unfolds, it becomes clear that this figure, sleeping and still, is some iteration of the poet post-illness. Webster Schott once wrote of Williams that “he was the complete human being and all of the qualities of his personality were fused in his writings.” This figure is not that Williams — here he is an explicitly incomplete figure, without movement (“a form // propped motionless”), without sex (“it looks too small for a man, / A woman. / Or a very shriveled old man.”), without life (“Maybe dead.”).
Although the poem lacks (and is arguably a search for) its author’s former completeness, Schott’s idea of a Williams poem as schematic of his personality proves true in The Desert Music, perhaps more so than ever. Coming out of his stroke, Williams wrote in a letter to Louis Martz that the “enforced idleness and opportunity for thought” had afforded him a certain clarity:
…it may be that I have brought down hard on the facts of a situation which can no longer be delayed in bringing of it to a final summary. I must now, in other words, make myself clear. I must gather together the stray ends of what I have been thinking and make my full statement as to their meaning or quit. (The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, ed. John C. Thirwall, New Haven: 1957, 298).
That Williams conceived of this poem as a “final summary” makes the audio recording of its June 1951 debut all the more interesting, because it’s not the final version.
A comparison between Williams’ first public reading of The Desert Music and its first appearance in print reveals a small collection of changes, some subtle (a shift from musical jing-a-ling to more abrasive jing-a-jing), others less so (a discarded reference to Franco). The Phi Beta Kappa exercises predated the poem’s publication by Random House by three years, but the edits that brought the poem to its printed form appear to have been made within a matter of days. Only three days later, Williams re-recorded the piece at the home of Kenneth Burke, and already all but two of the changes have been made. [Listen to the June 21, 1951 recording of “The Desert Music,” courtesy of Penn Sound].
Perhaps Williams had edits in mind before performing or perhaps changes were made later, independent of the poem’s premiere. In a piece for which finality seems so essential, however, neither case seems likely. In his letter to Martz, Williams writes of his debut of The Desert Music:
It is an important event for me. Since my illness I have been working on it. Whether rightly or wrongly, I feel that many of my culminating ideas have entered into this poem. We shall see. (Selected Letters, 300).
Because these edits were so immediately implemented, it seems plausible that Williams’ Phi Beta Kappa performance was this chance to see, or perhaps more appropriately, to hear. The piece is, after all, a desert music and one that—like Williams’ effort to give form to its sleeping figure—was feeling for the new shape of his poetry and sound was an essential part of that shape. There is a way in which this poem is only fully rendered when heard. And perhaps it was for that reason that Williams’ first listen helped him understand that his desert music was not yet final.