The Simple, Everyday Poems: “The Artist” and “Constantly Risking Absurdity #15”

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I really enjoy “The Artist” by William Carlos Williams for two main reasons. First, I love when a poem is visual, creating movement in the form of the lines. Second, I take joy in the simple, every day poem because I believe that it actually contains many deeper sentiments. For example, the first time that I read “The Artist” I was sure it was a poem about a man caught in the act with his mistress. In reality, the poem is a male dancer performing for his mother, and his less important wife happens to walk in. But there is ambiguity in the poem about who the narrator is and who Mr. T and “the man’s wife” really are. Perhaps the narrator, referring to “my mother,” is a child of the mistress retelling the incident later. There seems to be something amiss with the last line, as if the wife has walked in on something that she shouldn’t have. On the other hand, it could very well be that she literally just missed a brilliant dance performance in the kitchen by her husband for his mother.

When I first read “The Artist” I noticed that it possessed striking similarities to Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity #15” from A Coney Island of the Mind (A poem that I also love and have written about on this blog before; it was inspiration for my poem “Skipping”). So, I did a little research. Not surprisingly, I learned that Williams was actually quite influential on the Beats movement, which Ferlinghetti was a large part of. According to Poets.org, “Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. His influence as a poet spread slowly during the twenties and thirties, overshadowed, he felt, by the immense popularity of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; however, his work received increasing attention in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor.” (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/119#sthash.JPEoOXbq.dpuf)

The allusions in “Constantly Risking Absurdity #15” to “The Artist” are many. To start, there is the apparent similarity in form. Both poets emphasize the movement of the dancer or acrobat through spacing in the lines. The poems focus on the themes of performance and art. Furthermore, both poets depict the dancer completing an “entrechat.”

I most love Ferlinghetti’s lines,

“and all without mistaking

                     any thing
                               for what it may not be”

These lines are wonderful. I was inclined to see “The Artist” for something it may not be. Yet Ferlinghetti’s insertion of these lines and reference to the “super realist” who must see everything plainly force us to reconsider these poems; they are simply moments of beauty depicted with words.

But then, surprisingly, Ferlinghetti’s poem becomes very abstract, and subtly sexual. Just as I am about to let go of my misreading of “The Artist,” I circle back to my original disposition. Perhaps the simple everyday isn’t.

The Artist

by  William Carlos Williams

Mr T.
           bareheaded
                      in a soiled undershirt
his hair standing out
           on all sides
                           stood on his toes
heels together
           arms gracefully
                           for the moment

curled above his head.
           Then he whirled about
                           bounded
into the air
           and with an entrechat
                           perfectly achieved
completed the figure.
           My mother
                           taken by surprise
where she sat
           in her invalid's chair
                           was left speechless.
Bravo! she cried at last
           and clapped her hands.
                           The man's wife
came from the kitchen:
           What goes on here? she said.
                      But the show was over.

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)

By Lawrence  Ferlinghetti b. 1919 Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be
       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap
      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence