Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Holy Spirit of History and the Mines of Idiom: William Carlos Williams and Stevens—Sufjan, That Is


All computers go to heaven
If you think you got the vision,
Put it in the conversation
I rejoice in what I carry in my heart

it overwhelms what a man
Great Emancipation plans,
and public transport, clap your hands, Abraham
Oh religion, superstition,
Man's conditioned mysteries incomplete

~Sufjan Stevens, Dear Mr. Supercomputer

Poetry has always managed to strike a unique balance between autodidacticism and high cultural learning. Modernist poetry in particular has served well as a bridge between high and low culture. The early modernist trifecta—Eliot, Pound, Williams—provides helpful delineating points on the continuum between the two ends of the spectrum. On the high end there is Eliot, trying to reconcile his genius into the long conversation of genius. Somewhere in the middle is Pound with his constant allusion tempered by his continual attempts to “make it new.” And finally, you have Williams on the low end with his emphasis on the American Idiom. This simple arrangement could never really do justice to the complexity of their respective poetics, of course, but it is helpful in orienting them with respect to this question.

William Carlos Williams found this relationship between the common and the poetic embodied in what he called the American Idiom. This concept is present in much of his work, though he never seems to have gone through the trouble of creating an exact definition. This is probably because he spent much of his career attempting to define it, in both his poetry and his prose. One such work is his book of historically themed essays In the American Grain. In it, he muses on the many famous figures in the history of the Americas. This interesting relationship between history and idiom still exists in some art today, namely, in the songwriting of Sufjan Stevens, whose albums Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (and its companion B-sides album The Avalanche) are tour de forces of the respective state histories and Christian theology. Into these Stevens weaves his own personal history, adding an element to Williams’ conception of idiom that most modernists generally shunned: personality. Sufjan Stevens, in many ways, could be viewed as one of the artists to wear the mantle of the American Idiom into current modern art. In this essay I will first define as much as possible Williams’ idea of the American Idiom from In the American Grain and comment how it works itself out in Williams’ poetry, particularly Spring and All. I will then consider how Williams’ idea of Idiom has fared in modern art, focusing particularly on Sufjan Stevens. I will assert that Williams idea of idiom is increasingly problematic as the speed at which information travels increases and society shifts (via information and commercialism). I will also argue that Sufjan Stevens is, in many ways, the heir to Williams’ American Idiom, appropriating it differently so as to resist the disastrous appropriation of his own art by commercialism, which thus far, has shown itself as a destructive force to the integrity of art.

William Carlos Williams was not a historian, but it appears he had a keen interest in the history of the Americas. His book In the American Grain is a largely poetic retelling of various points in the lives of many great figures who shaped the Americas. Williams vision stretches beyond just typical American history and beyond American borders; he discusses everyone from Montezuma and Red Eric to the Pilgrims to more typical American figures such as Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Sam Houston. It doesn’t seem as though Williams is engaging in an early form of political correctness by his inclusion of typically neglected figures of American history, but rather expressing the magnanimity of his vision of what America really is, and how its idioms are created. It is odder still that Williams would explore history as opposed to language to help construct his idea of what the American Idiom is, but for Williams one must look to plain things for the wisdom that is so definitively American. It is not, however, a form of primitivism. It is a eulogy to the frankness of American history, which he sees as diametrically opposed to an empty European complexity. Consider his essay on Ben Franklin, whom he describes as a great “gyroscope” (153), full of constant motion, but never really going anywhere. He says further:

[Franklin] represents a voluptuousness of omnivorous energy brought to a dead stop by the rock of New World inopportunity. His energy never attained to a penetrant gist; rather it was stopped by and splashed upon the barrier, like a melon. His “good” was scattered about him. This is what he called being “practical.” At such “success” we smile to see Franklin often so puffed up. (153)

It would be easy to think that Williams is criticizing Franklin for some sort of lack of vision. Franklin’s polymathic interests and abilities would have allowed him to go far in the courts of Europe if he had the drive and vision. Yet Franklin was unwilling even to be the president of his new America, much less travel to Europe and ambitiously advance himself (though he did some of this later as a diplomat). Rather, Williams says “the terrible beauty of the New World attracts men to their ruin. Franklin did not care to be ruined—he only wanted to touch” (155). What Williams calls this “terrible beauty” is almost like a siren call in the New World, calling men away from the posh European courts (which arguably ruined men more than the New World ever could) into a generally unexplored land. Their exploits may or may not reach the “civilized world,” but the call to be an adventurer was great. Indeed, this is the tone set by the earliest explorers, a relentless drive to see, to touch, as Williams says. One can see a greatness to these men, their restless gyroscopic nature that can only be satisfied by constant movement, a calling to something higher than the base nature of European court life.

This is how Williams views history, particularly these people of history. They are objects of history that both shape and are shaped by their surroundings. It is the same way idiom functions. Williams knows that idiom rises out of history, and by this idiom Americans are conscious of their own history. Idiom codes history into the language. But he also knows that it is impossible to trace the complete roots of various idioms, and that one must put on the mantle of history to understand it more fully. This is what In the American Grain is ultimately a project about. Williams never purports to speak in the subject’s first person, but he has no problem speaking from an omniscient narrator perspective. It does not matter, of course, whether or not Williams is actually capturing every thought accurately; he realizes in his exploration of history and idiom, he is actually shaping both. He is taking history onto himself, and recreating something new. It inspires him and he writes it, a sort of Holy Spirit of history, not possessing, but rather inspiring and giving him energy and ideas to use in his own voice, his own manner.

Williams’ relationship to history and idiom is almost mystical. Because of these things, Williams does not see himself as writing in a vacuum, as one like Eliot might believe. Nor does he see himself as simply utilizing idiom towards an end, as Pound clearly does. In the American Grain has Williams as both user and victim of history. He comments on it, and in many ways, it comments on him. Consider Williams’ portrait of the Pilgrims, “Voyage of the Mayflower.” He is recounting many of the written words of the Pilgrims, remarking how they seem to view every event as a morality tale of some sort. History, for them, is a morality tale. Then he calls into question these morals, somewhat ironically since he himself is looking to history as an indicator of sorts. He declaims, “as with the deformed Aesop, morals are the memory of success that no longer succeeds” (67). What Williams has done here, inadvertently or not, is identify the intersection between morality and history. In looking to history, we inevitably seek answers as to why something has happened in the past. In doing so, we are indirectly seeking an answer to our present, as the oft-quoted adage indicates: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. And yet it is almost impossible to rationally assert current events are meaningfully similar to the past. The factors are too numerous to ever account for. And yet, it is completely natural for humans to look to their past as a legend to the present. It is almost impossible not to think of events in the past as somehow connected and indicative of our present, a moral indicator of what’s to come. Morality, in a great sense, rises out of our history.

Perhaps it seems thus far Williams sees no difference at all between history and idiom. Indeed, in one sense, history is idiom. But idiom goes one step further; it integrates the past into the currency of the present. Thus, when one roots poetry in idiom, as Williams advocates, one is rooting their language in that collective morality of history. For Williams, idiom is a way to guard against the amorality of European high society. Idiom provides a social conscious built right into the language. Williams sees this values system that arises out of history and the currency of the commonplace as essential to a poetics of value. This helps explain his animosity towards Pound’s and particularly Eliot’s poetics are rooted in a tradition that asserts itself over others; it does not arise naturally from history or the common language of the present. In Eliot’s attempts to escape his own personality, he subjects himself to a tradition that runs parallel to history and idiom, the tradition of genius. The tradition of genius could be seen as a sort of meta-history, parallel to Williams’ history, interacting some here, and reacting there, but separate, and purposefully so. It is a history of ideas, as opposed to a more personality focused history. This does not mean that Williams particularly favors personality. Even though it focuses on personalities, these personalities are largely objects in history, to be taken into ones hands, touched, explored, the same way the great explorers and personalities of the Americas did with the world around them.

Similarly Williams’ writing is not particularly personality centered. It is quite focused on objects, and particularly creating objects of the present in his poetry. Consider Williams’ seminal work of poetry Spring and All. Instead of objects of history that take part in the American Idiom, Williams is taking objects from his present, part of his local idiom, which, to some extent, entails much of the American Idiom at large. This objectness is vital to Williams’ understanding of idiom. Though the reasons for this cannot be explicitly understood, it is betrayed by his very approach to language. Consider what is perhaps Williams’ most famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow:”

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Even though this poem is essentially a sentence, each image is carefully isolated by means of juxtaposition. Each stanza contains images that are a juxtaposition within itself according to the line breaks: “depends” versus “upon” (two directional words going in opposite direction), the particulars of the wheel barrow (its redness and wheel[ness]) versus the wheel barrow in its wholeness, the glaze of rain versus the rainwater, the chickens versus their own whiteness. The details of the things are pulled apart and highlighted, bringing out a rich multi-faceted view of each object. Williams’ accomplishment is almost that of the cubists, allowing the reader to see these objects in many different ways, from the different angles of detail. Yet despite this almost excessive juxtaposition, the poem has a unity. It does not communicate the same fractured nature that a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Rather this poem explores the unity of objects, their interconnectedness, while also evoking the particularities of objects and, in some sense, how they vie with one another. What is even more striking about this poem is how commonplace it is. These are objects that many Americans in Williams’ time could see on a regular basis. For Williams to find so much juxtaposition and still unity, to be so common and yet absolutely metaphysical is a feat. More important here, we can see the way he perceives language. Each word is isolated either visually or by juxtaposition in the same way each imagistic object in the poem is isolated. This is one thing Williams does often in his poetry: isolate each word visually, either through an extreme sparseness of form or by simply leaving a word on a line by itself. What would today be considered gimmicky by most MFA students, Williams accomplishes with verve in a way that is not gimmicky in the least. This is because Williams largely helped pioneer this technique, but also because the reader senses the whole power of idiom behind Williams’ language. Its commonality is the source of its power. The idiom arises from the commonplace here. And more importantly, Williams communicates this idiom through objectness.

Williams’ American Idiom is a brilliant way of understanding language in relation to the society that creates it; however, today’s idiom lives in an age of rapid change, driven by the now instantaneous speed of information (plus ability to access it virtually anywhere) and commercialization’s utilization of this speed. Williams’ idea assumes a sort of static in the idiom that lends credence to it, keeps it from foundering with its audience. Today, however, no such state of static exists. The speed of information changes idioms faster than most dictionaries can keep a handle on. This can be especially maddening for poets, as a statement that is full of meaning and true emotion one moment, can, in a very short time be suddenly transformed into the worst clichĂ© or most unsurprising turn of phrase. This can happen particularly fast if something is popular. Many Led Zeppelin fans remember with horror the day that their favorite music was used to sell cars. In many ways they were right to feel the sense of betrayal, that a car company would attempt to capitalize on all the various feelings invoked or associated with such music. Music, perhaps, is the most blatant indicator of the audience at which a commercial is aiming. But today, it is assumed almost, that if something is artistically popular, whether it is a style of clothing, piece of music, or catch phrase, a company will pick up on it quickly and appropriate it for sales. Thus, there is a sense of irony which any socially conscious artist feels today about the raw materials of their craft. In one sense, it is impossible to resist this commercialization, for if something is popular, even if the artist refuses to release the rights to it, a sufficient imitation will almost inevitably be created and used in place of the desired work. The theft of work today is inevitable, so artists must create art that is difficult to steal if they want some sense of lasting impression on their labor, something that is almost impossible to replicate, or will at least stave off replication and appropriation as long as possible.

Ironically, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Sufjan Steven’s Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, manages to accomplish this very feat. It has appeared in popular movies, commercials, and been discussed widely, and yet still manages to retain a freshness with every listen, which seems to reproach the listener for feeling as though they have a grasp on it. Good art, of course, has done this for centuries. But much good art has also withered under the bossy eye of commercialism. In many ways, one could say that the current world has decreased the half-life of much art that would have lasted much longer. But then, most artists have never had the opportunity to respond to the decreased half-life of their own work. Most artists have not faced such a quick death for their art. Much art, of course, has always faced high stakes. The art of marginalized or oppressed people has been under this duress for centuries. Yet there is a different pitch to this current challenge. First, everyone is subject to the relatively blind eye of commercialism (money truly seems to be the greatest factor in equality today). Second, oppression demands art, in a manner of speaking. It is natural to respond to oppression with art. It is not natural to respond to commercialism any other way except buying. Commercialism is designed to disarm us completely, to find what we like and use it against what might be our better sense. Commercialism is designed to lull us, not oppress us. More importantly, commercialism is adding to the idiom in its own way, changing and manipulating it to its own ends, not simply appropriating it.

To resist this appropriation, an artist can respond in several ways. The artist may create a whole new set of terminology foreign to commercialism, in a manner similar to the music of Ornette Coleman or John Cage. That is, reject the general terminology of art for the sake of creating a new kind that is impossible either by technology or “principle” of commercialism. One composer, Patrick Kavanaugh (who, incidentally, studied with Cage), went so far as to divide the octave into three hundred notes (as opposed to the traditional twelve). Much of his music can only be performed on computer. Another approach an artist can take is to simply be so far ahead of the music curve as to risk alienation. One might think of groups like Wilco, with their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and later A Ghost is Born, shaking the commercial music world. The problem with this option is that critics are often so anxious to predict the next great thing that the speed at which the curve changes is almost impossible to beat. It seems almost as if many artists accidentally find themselves ahead of the curve in some manner[1]. The last option, however, is to mine the idiom. That is, to take the artistic history that’s been given and use it to express oneself. This, in one sense, is what is happening with “found” art, people who use reuse found objects only to create a piece. There is another sense in which this can be accomplished: to mine the various idioms of society—ones that have been thrown out, overused, or forgotten—dust them off and express via those objects. This ultimately exposes the absurdity of the speed at which commercial culture is paced by reminding the listeners of past wreckage, long forgotten in the garbage dump of commercialism. This is the method Sufjan Stevens employs.

To understand how Stevens’ album works to resist commercialism and the changing speed of idiom, one must consider the album as a whole. This is necessary to simply get a hold of the album to begin with. With titles such as “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Going to Have To Leave Now, Or…” and “A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane But For Very Good Reasons,” it is impossible not to consider the whole scope of the album seeking an explanation. One can imagine the difficulty a commercial radio DJ would have in saying that title, or the trouble MTV might have in fitting that whole title in the corner of a music video. Perhaps this explains why the song simply titled “Chicago” has been one of the most popular tracks from the album and received the most commercial attention. The fact that Stevens would even title one of his songs a “Reprise” seems to indicate he is interested in exposing the seams of the album’s framework. This is confirmed by the absurd extremes to which he pushes the song titles. Additionally, when one considers the interplay between Come On! Feel the Illinoise! and its B-sides companion The Avalanche the interplay between the images of the songs is clearly meant to be seen on the level of the album as a whole. Stevens originally intended to make Illinoise! a double album, but decided to release half the album in its current form and clean up the rest for a B-sides track. It is notable that the most popular song from Illinoise!Chicago” is reprised three more times on The Avalanche, clearly indicating the concept’s larger unexposed framework of even the most popular and commercialized aspects of the album. If somebody unfamiliar with the work of Stevens as a whole mentions their favorite Sufjan track is “Chicago” one can retort “which one?” Sufjan seems intent on undermining the commercial success of even his own songs.

Looking at Sufjan’s songs specifically, one clearly sees an use of idiom. The idiom, however, is separate from what Williams ever conceived. For Williams, the idiom is chickens and a red wheelbarrow, linguistically speaking; historically speaking, it is Ben Franklin, Montezuma, the Pilgrims. Stevens mixes history and idioms of language, theology, and music all seamlessly together. In the title track of the Illinoise! album, Stevens works together many figures prominently (and not so prominently) playing in the history of Illinois (particularly Chicago): Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg, Cream of Wheat. This is true for the whole album and The Avalanche; the listener encounters Abraham Lincoln, Saul Bellow, the Kaskaskia River (Sufjan is particularly fond of bodies of water), even Superman. History stands for Stevens, much like it does for Williams: a place to draw inspiration from, a well to continually drink at. Like Williams, Stevens seems to often speak from the position of a third person omniscient narrator, but other times, he simply encounters them, as one might encounter somebody in the street. Sufjan is haunted by this Holy Ghost of history, in a sense.

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this all is the similarity of approach between William Carlos Williams and Sufjan Stevens to history as an object. Though it is not especially clear why both artists relate to history and idiom as objects, it is clear that the two are closely related.

Much of Stevens’ writing is object oriented not only towards history, but towards the idioms of the every day, as it is for Williams. Consider the song Casimir Pulaski Day, a delicately crafted love song mined from the memories of Sufjan’s personal history. The song begins “Golden rod and the 4-H stone / The things I brought you / When I found out you had cancer of the bone” (1-3). It is full of literal objects, the artifacts of love and the personal history shared between two people that the objects imply. It continues to recount deeply personal encounters through a very object oriented lens: “In the morning through the window shade / When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade / I could see what you were reading” (7-9) and “Tuesday night at the bible study / We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens” (13-15). There is a powerlessness communicated through these objects, a sense that as Sufjan’s lover slips away into nothingness, these objects will be hollowed out of meaning. The body of the lover itself is even objectified in “the shoulder blade” and “we pray over your body.” In one sense, this death is a devastating blow to objectness. It could, however, be seen as a radical affirmation of them, that there is a value to reciting these objects of history, and remembering the various objects that helped compose their life together. It is extremely reminiscent of Mina Loy’s “Letters of the Unliving” in which she muses on the various objects left behind by a dead partner, and wonders if they can still be considered as “from” a person who no longer is. There is, of course, the larger theological theme in Sufjan’s work, particularly evident here. God is at once praised for His gifts—“Oh the glory that the Lord has made / And the complications you could do without / When I kissed you on the mouth” (10-12)—and also cursed for such giving and taking—“ Oh the glory when He took our place / But He took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes” (40-42). But it is in this giving and taking of these objects, that God’s existence if verified for Stevens. More importantly, it is His existence that allows these objects to be drawn together in a meaningful way. God has given and taken the object from Stevens, but has also given Stevens the means to keep the object alive and meaningful. That is one thing unique to Stevens, and the one thing lacking in Williams’ work. Sufjan’s personal history is as valid a topic as the state history. In fact, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Layered in the album amongst songs celebrating state history, Casimir Pulaski Day (of which the only mention in the song is “On the first of March, on the holiday”) places Sufjan’s personal history in the midst of the state’s. It is Sufjan’s cosmology, however, that allows him to do this. For Sufjan, there is a God that gives value and cohesion to seemingly emptied out objects. But God is not freed from complexities of the pain surrounding those objects. He is implicated in this history as much as Stevens himself. There is no Deus Ex Machina saving Sufjan’s precious objects, but rather the hand of God that both slaps and comforts. This is ultimately the difference between Loy’s take on absence and Sufjan’s. Loy allows herself to be caught up in the objects, but cannot escape the pain of absence—she begs it to be taken away. Sufjan, however, lives constantly in the absence, in both the giving of Christ’s life and the taking of love, as the very last stanza indicates. Williams, by contrast also, simply does not implicate himself with the objects. They are largely separate from him, and if they are absent. There is a grief to saying “nobody to drive the car” as he does in “To Elsie,” but it is not explicitly his. It is the grief of those who read his poetry and engage the objects.

The sheer complexity of Sufjan’s work, arising both out of his personal history and state history, its disparateness of topic, keeps it from being effectively appropriated. The one thing commercialism has working against it is the need to satisfy short attention spans. Thirty seconds of a Sufjan begs for the whole song, which begs for the whole album, which begs for a deeper understanding and multiple listens. And yet Stevens’ music is not unnecessarily complex, not a maze one must wander through to get to the center of meaning. It focuses rather on complexity of implication. It challenges the listener to make sense of their own life, to appropriate his music for themselves through the object of the album. The meaning is simple, the expression is plain, but the implications are vast.

Williams’ understanding and use of idiom provides important shoulders for an artist like Sufjan Stevens to stand on. In some sense, he too provides this complexity of implication, rather than meaning, though Williams lack of personality in his poetry leaves a space for the reader to completely fill. There really is no implication of Williams’ personality in his poetry, and one wonders where Williams work might have gone had he allowed himself a more personal relationship with the objects he himself was creating. He still stands, of course, as a testament to the power of idiom, particularly his American Idiom, the mantle of which, artists will surely carry for years to come.


Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain. New York: New Directions, 1933.


Come On! Feel the Illinoise!

Sufjan Stevens

Oh great intentions
I've got the best of interventions
But when the ads come
I think about it now

In my infliction
Entrepreneurial conditions
Take us to glory
I think about it now

Cannot conversations cull United Nations?
If you got the patience, celebrate the ancients
Cannot all creation call it celebration?
Or United Nation. Put it to your head.

Oh great white city
I've got the adequate committee
Where have your walls gone?
I think about it now

Chicago, in fashion, the soft drinks, expansion
Oh Columbia!
From Paris, incentive, like Cream of Wheat invented,
The Ferris Wheel!

Oh great intentions
Covenant with the imitation
Have you no conscience?
I think about it now

Oh God of progress
Have you degraded or forgot us?
Where have your laws gone?
I think about it now

Ancient hieroglyphic or the South Pacific
Typically terrific, busy and prolific

Classical devotion, architect promotion
Lacking in emotion. Think about it now.

Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?
Oh Columbia!
Amusement or treasure, these optimistic pleasures
Like the Ferris Wheel!

Cannot conversations cull United Nations?
If you got the patience, celebrate the ancients


I cried myself to sleep last night
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window
I was hypnotized, I was asked
To improvise
On the attitude, the regret
Of a thousand centuries of death

Even with the heart of terror and the superstitious wearer
I am riding all alone
I am writing all alone

Even in my best condition, counting all the superstition
I am riding all alone
I am running all alone

And we laughed at the beatitudes of a thousand lines
We were asked at the attitudes
They reminded us of death

Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

And I cried myself to sleep last night
For the Earth, and materials, they may sound just right to me

Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level
Are you writing from the heart?
Are you writing from the heart?

Casimir Pulaski Day

Sufjan Stevens

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard 5
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the Lord has made 10
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens 15

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night 20
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house 25
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom 30

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday 35
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when He took our place 40
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

[1] This is really what Wilco’s song “The Late Greats” is a response to: the Gnostic knowledge of music criticism, always seeking out the unheard, “the greatest lost song of all time.”

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