Human History and the Natural World in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams and Yusef Komunyakaa
It is universally accepted that a poem, at least a “good” poem, should be able to stand by itself, to be able to strike a chord with its audience, whether this impact is immediate or more subtle and gradual. However, even the best-written, most influential poetry can take on a different, and often more arresting, meaning when viewed within the larger framework of social or historical context.
Once readers take it the aspects of the work that exist outside the boundaries of a sheet of paper, it may quickly become evident how much one artist may learn, lend, and borrow to another. For poets, then, it is important to recognize the work of past writers and the contributions each have made to the human world and our understanding of each other and one another. It should come as no surprise that certain themes are recurrent through the work of centuries of poets, not only because intellectuals are inevitably influenced by those who came before them, but also because human history itself has several themes that have remained constant since the establishment of written word, and perhaps even beyond this.
William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” published in the collection of the same name, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” both deal with, among many other things, the cyclic nature of virtually everything we, as human beings, experience. Whether the cycle exists in nature (and similarly in life) as addressed in “Spring and All,” or in human history (whether or not we can control these repeats) as examined in “Facing It,” it is hard not to take note of the routine in just about every aspect of our collective existence.
For instance, human emotions, despite advances in technology and changing mindsets to match, remain largely the same today as they were during the Renaissance and even in the time of nomadic tribes, even before the continents divided into what is now our familiar world map. Happiness, sadness, anger, fondness, dissatisfaction, jealousy, strife: all these most basal of emotions seem particular to the human species but completely nonspecific in terms of time period, location, color or creed.
These similarities are identified by poets attempting to better explain the human condition to the laymen among us, so we can someday, finally, better understand one another and the many cycles that surround us. Through years and years of change, there is constancy, just as the only true constant in life often seems to be certain change.
William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” quickly establishes a focus on nature and a central theme of the cyclic progression in the natural world – extending, of course, to all life forms, including human beings. Williams uses several structural elements and formatting devices – namely stanza length, line enjambment, and punctuation choice – to help support the poem’s content and greater themes.
The free-verse poem consists of six stanzas of various lengths, with an imperfect alternation between longer (4-6 line) stanzas and shorter, more abrupt stanzas with only two lines each. This pattern itself mimics the changing seasons, an endless and reliable transition from one year to the next. The narration seems to start in the dead of winter, with a relatively large block of text, this six-line stanza being the longest in the poem. Winter itself is often considered the longest and darkest season with its short days and long nights; despite the festive, comparatively uplifting holiday season in December, the majority of winter carries a weight uncharacteristic of the other seasons.
The second stanza, however, consists of only two lines, both of which are longer than any of the lines in the first stanza. These two lines seem to represent either a lighter month (April, for example, absent of the darker connotations associated with the winter months) or the transition between seasons – the week or so during which the weather may not seem particularly characteristic of any season. The third stanza returns to the longer format, five lines this time, and is followed by a two-liner, then a four-liner, a pair of two- liners and ends on a four-line stanza.
The poem itself is slightly top-heavy, since the two consecutive two-line stanzas appear towards the end. This signifies a gradual shift throughout the piece from winter to spring and summer, with the longer-stanza ending representing a return to autumnal weather.
Williams’ use of line enjambment also serves to highlight the aspects of weather and seasonal cycles, as well as their parallels to the cyclic nature of human existence. In the first stanza, he describes the scenery on the way to the hospital, focusing briefly on the “surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind” (lines 2-4).
Form mirrors and supports content here: the line breaks do not occur in natural places where a speaker might take a breath, and instead seem to signify a change in the speed or direction of the wind described in the scene. Readers are able to feel the wind shifting, the clouds in the sky changing formation, as their eyes jump from the end of one line at unexpected times.
A similar reaction occurs later in the poem, as a result to lines 9-11 (part of the third stanza): “All along the road the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes.” These adjectives are all describing the same aspect of the landscape and would naturally be grouped in the same line, as part of the same idea.
The two color references to “reddish” and “purplish” could even stand to be hyphenated and made into one word, one image. Instead, Williams places line breaks throughout this descriptive stanza and the poem overall, giving the piece a staccato feel that speaks to the changing scenery and the changing seasons. On the other hand, the poet’s choice of punctuation – long dashes in all but two stanzas – mirrors the consistency (that is, the reliability, the routine nature) of these very same changes.
The lack of any punctuation whatsoever at the very end of the poem implies that, though there are clear distinctions (beginnings and endings) to seasons and years, the pattern of change goes on and on and on, throughout natural and human history. The open-ended final sentence shows that, although the poem is technically over, the cycles it speaks of are endless.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” puts an equally strong emphasis on the cyclic nature of human life and, as part of the big picture, not only an individual life but human history in general – aiming to prove, perhaps, that it repeats itself. Komunyakaa uses several elements of format to better serve the aforementioned points and themes, including stanza number and length, sentence length and variation, and line breaks. Like “Spring and All,” “Facing It” is a free-verse poem, this time with 31 lines, all in a single stanza, one large block of text on the page.
The single- stanza format marries form with content: the poem itself, on the page, resembles a large block or stab and, with a little imagination, a slab of black granite much like that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serving as the setting of the present-day portion of the poem’s narration. Furthermore, it allows readers to follow the changing timeframe of the narrator’s mindset and memory and he finds parallels between himself and the names on the wall. The setting shifts between present- day (in lines 1-17 and then speckled throughout the second half) and the looks back on the past through images of the Vietnam: in line 18, – “I see the booby trap’s white flash” – in lines 24-25 – “A plane in the sky. / A white vet’s image” – and in lines 28-29 – “He’s lost his right arm / inside the stone.”
If the poet had inserted stanza breaks to break up the present-day scene and flashback scenes, readers would not be able to feel the same confusion (images melting into other images, bird’s wings into fight planes) that the narrator feels – a confusion that often prefaces enlightenment.
The realization here, of course, is that the narrator can see his own face reflecting on the stone that holds the names of so many fallen soldiers. The reflection is both literal and metaphorical, something deeper: he can see parallels between his own life’s journeys, obstacles, and obligations to those of men and women in a vastly different time.
Komunyakaa’s use of sentence variation and line breaks help to pace the narration, adding a subtle drama where necessary and a smoother telling at other points. In lines 4 and 5, the sentences are extremely short (“No tears. / I’m stone. I’m flesh.”) and readers can feel the same breathless, speechless wonder the narrator feels during his experience at the Vietnam Memorial.
None of the sentences are particularly long, wordy, or winding; this adds a simplicity to the poem that allows the war imagery and subsequent realizations to speak for themselves. Similarly, the lines themselves are relatively short and all end on words that, if forced to stand alone, could probably offer up a summary of the poem’s events: “me,” “night,” “turn,” go,” “inside,” “Memorial,” and so on (lines 6-11).
This device may be mere coincidence but, if we choose to give the poet the benefit of the doubt, this can also be read as a commentary on wall itself, where the names offer only a brief glimpse of the casualties of the war, as the vowels and consonants alone certainly cannot do justice to what the soldiers went through in battle.
While the human element clearly plays a large role in “Facing It,” readers must work a little harder to find the same aspect in Williams’ “Spring and All,” which, upon first glance or read-through, seems more concerned with natural elements.
However, if one notes the carefully- chosen descriptors throughout the piece, one will inevitably be struck by the “contagious hospital” in the opening line and the personification speckled throughout. In a sense, Williams turns the various aspects of nature (clouds, bushes, trees, grass, leaves, vines) into moving, speaking people. Once these recurring metaphors become evident, the parallels between the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of human history become well-established. In the fourth stanza, the “leafless vines” from the previous lines are described as “sluggish” and “dazed.”
In the following stanza, they “enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all” which is perhaps the most poignant example of inanimate things personified in the entire poem. Here, the leaves on the vines and trees are being closely compared to newborn babies, innocent and oblivious.
The connection between nature and humankind is impossible to ignore and is made even stronger in the closing line of the poem, where they “grip down and begin to awaken” (line 31). Just as season changes and flora sprouts, grows, and wilts, generations of mankind will be born, then live, then die. The narrator seems accepting of this routine – it is, after all, inevitable.
Metaphor is a particularly important device for poets attempting to better illustrate the human condition. Human nature itself is both infinitely familiar to us – we are human, after all – and constantly out of our grasp when it comes to full understanding (resulting in an ever-limited ability to understand ourselves and communicate with one another).
Metaphor, then, is an ideal device through which one can examine the cyclic progression of the natural world and of human history. We have all heard about these cycles – “what goes around comes around” and variations on this same concept – so metaphor offers a fresh perspective on a tired idea. Moreover, this repetition, overcoming all boundaries of time and distance, is often a bit abstract; metaphor can help some audiences decipher meanings through different, more visceral, sensory approaches.
Komunyakaa also uses a great deal of metaphor in his “Facing It”. Many of these comparisons have to do with the narrator’s perception of his own “self” in comparison to things around him and also to the lives belonging to the names on the wall before him. The entire poem seems almost a quest for recognition of identity. In line 5, he says, “I’m stone. I’m flesh.” This sharp contrast between hard, cold stone and soft, warm flesh offers the first of many contradictions that establish the narrator’s uncertainty towards the world around him and the way its history seems to always repeat itself.
Later, in line 27, he claims, “I’m a window.” The metaphor here seems clear: through himself he can see others’ lives and experiences, just as in others’ histories he can see his own, his past and his future. Another reading could be that his own life is transparent, relatively meaningless and on-the-surface in the larger scheme of the Universe.
In “Spring and All,” Williams seems to be speaking from the point of view of himself, if not as a poet then certainly as a person and, even more likely, as a pediatrician, the occupation he held outside of his career as a poet. His alternate, perhaps lesser-known profession gives him a certain degree of credibility when it comes to writing about the cycle of human mortality: he saw, on a daily basis and without doubt, the untimely deaths of multiple children to various ailments and diseases.
His choosing to examine these painful losses, apparently out of his control even as a doctor, through the lens of the natural world, speaks volumes to, first, the human condition of grief, and then to the parallels one can find between all things, emotions, life forms, and experiences.
Similarly, Komunyakaa has a great deal of believability as a poet writing on the subject of “Facing It” once readers find that he actually served in the Vietnam War as a war correspondent. The telling of his poem, however, could really be from the perspective of just about any self-aware person looking for insights into the human condition and the way war binds us all to one another, past, present, and future.
Nevertheless, it is natural to picture Komunyakaa himself standing before the long, winding black slab wall and making these connections in his own mind. The sense of responsibility and, to a certain extent, guilt that plays out in the poem could be attributed to the poet’s seemingly “indirect” participation in the war when compared to the soldiers on the battlefield.
“Spring and All” and “Facing It” also contain several references to colors and their various connotations. Williams describes, rather hesitantly, the “stuff of bushes” as “reddish / purplish” (lines 9-11). The use of the “ish” seems to poke fun at the written word and its inability to capture the splendor of the natural world around us, which renders language obsolete: there are not words enough to describe its beauty.
Komunyakaa refers back to the color black several times in his poem, first in the opening lines – “My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite” – and later towards the end of the poem when referencing the “black mirror” of the Memorial wall (lines 1-2 and 29). The idea that so many seemingly different things, both physical and abstract, can be the same color (or, in a way, lack thereof) establishes an inherent connectivity between all things.
The concept of all worldly things being connected, of course, relates easily back to the idea of a cyclic nature to all progression, whether it be change in the environment, the inevitability of human mortality, or the condition of human history repeating itself.
Williams, William Carlos. 1923. "Spring and All". http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/2004/wcwspring.html
Komunyakaa, Yusef. 2001. "Facing It". From Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems. Wesleyan University Press. Web: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177382