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
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.
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