Book Review

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams

so much depends upon

William Carlos Williams has a lot to answer for. This little selection, published as part of the latest thrall of miniature Penguin Classics (officially Penguin Modern), not only contains the memetastic ‘This Is Just To Say’, but also a full slew of the short, delicate poems that the man is famous – or should that be infamous 😂😂😂 – for.

The *kind of* poems included here have had a MASSIVE structural influence on the *kind of* instagram poetry I have riffed aggressively on as part of my personal poetic development, but here they are presented in a way that shows the strengths, rather than exclusively the weaknesses, of the form. William Carlos Williams’ (WCW’s) poems are short – 😁😁😁 – and concise. They are not short because they run out of ideas or because he couldn’t be arsed, they are short because that is how they need to be. Some of the poems, especially that dirty viral sensation ‘This is Just To Say’, DO kinda read like prose with line breaks and implicit importance added to them due to their status as poetry (best summed up and kinda investigated by the sensational – and not present here – ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’).

This is the legacy of WCW’s output (far more than it is the legacy of the haiku 😋), this equation of line breaks with profundity, a technique that has been copied by millions of mediocre poets in the 100 years (ish) since WCW published his first collection. Probably the earliest poetry of mine that will be published in MY first collection, largely unchanged, is this one, which began as a satire of said trait but perhaps now, having put it within the context of a complex human narrative, almost does have meaning more weighty than it initially appears:

I put my poopoo on the ceiling,
I put my poopoo on the floor,
I’d put my poopoo in the toilet,
But there’s poopoo on the door

I myself am guilty of attempting to elevate verse by using caesurae (is that the correct plural?), however it is not for me to say if I am any better than mediocre at poems (tho obvs I’d love it if you, whoever you are, said that).

So, the first time I encountered WCW was in a 20th Century American poetry module while I was an undergraduate – the same module where this essay on the beats originated – and I remember being thrilled by the simplicity and possibility of, as I said above, that stonking ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ piece. Most of my classmates didn’t like it, felt that it wasn’t justifying the importance it implied it had, felt that in purporting to be both vague and profound it had failed: how can you be profound about nothing? I don’t know, but I thought WCW could, I thought WCW did. “So much depends” as an opener lit up my mind to the possibilities of simplicity as complexity. That is what I wanted, that is what I have wanted and what I have been aiming for with my own poetry: I do not want to alienate with complexity, but I also do not want to make something that is merely a series of poo gags. Can a weighty, literary, catharsis be achieved using a combination of scatology, graphic cunnilingus, Pierce Brosnan references and loads of fucking hashtags? To be blunt, yes. I really wish I had a link for preorders of the poems, lol, but I do not. If you don’t like me @ my blogger u don’t deserve me @ my poet 🤙🤙🤙🤙🤙

Anyway, William Carlos Williams:

WCW’s work is the literary equivalent of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). By this I mean that, though many of those who know little still consider minimalist poems and readymades revolutionary, both of these techniques CAN be used to create great emotional and affecting works of art. As an example: very few people would dismiss the validity of Tracey Emin’s “unmade” bed, My Bed. In much the same way, many of my poems started life as words written for other purposes, they are almost literary readymades lol. Many of *my* poems have been tweaked from their original purposes as tweets, as texts ‘n’ sexts 😎, as letters written to myself as exercises in positive psychological change, as searing WhatsApp messages, as gags made to myself while dogwalking. What I’m trying to say, basically, is that my in my debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, I prove that I am AT LEAST as good at poetry as Tracey Emin is at art. Notice I said “at least” in order to not alienate anyone who thinks Emin is shit.1

This is the most I’ve ever written about my poetic method lol, and I’m not going to stop.

I only really started writing poems about a year ago. As I spiralled into a deeper and deeper psychological hole, feeling more and more and more like suicide was the only way I could escape my isolated, deeply unfulfilling life, I started doing something I had previously viewed with as much suspicion as I had viewed my own continued existence: writing poetry. The initial impetus was what turned out to be my first print publication for years, a handful of novelty, oulipo-inspired haikus included in Morbid Books’ 100 Haikus about Boris Becker’s Breakfast. I then wrote a poem that was published months later online by Here Comes Everybody and then I just basically stopped being able to function for several months. A lot of the poems I would later come to write centred on trying to recreate the feelings I had had at that lowest time, trying to write back into a damaged mindset that I had scrambled to escape. The blog posts and automatic writing exercises I wrote at the time did not have much to them, their “rawness” didn’t really evoke the emotions they were describing: the intensity of my depression may not have prevented me from pouring out fucking thousands of words of prose, but it absolutely prevented me from pouring out any good ones. It was thus both a relief but also a disappointment to discover that happy me could write believable sadness better than sad me could. I felt like I was being dishonest, but I know that that is how art is made. Recognising how to imbue a creative form with emotionality is what I needed to learn, and I suppose that what I learned, again, was the importance of distance, of time. I have seen people weep after reading my poems. I haven’t seen anyone respond to any of my depressed automatic writing with anything but genuine psychological concern. Bad Boy Poet is more moving because it is less raw: I have learned how to capture slash describe strong emotions better for stopping feeling some of them with such intensity.

Does that make sense?

Anyway, WCW wrote some beautiful poems, short, delicate moths of poems. Phrases of true greatness peak out, barely buried, in tiny haikulike verse; images and narratives and moments and experiences exist on the page, rich and dense (like ur dream bf 🤣🤣🤣) in their ten, twenty, words.

WCW didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before, but he popularised something that hadn’t been popularised before. Now everyone – including me – is giving it a go. And that, I suppose, is the best thing about being a poet: it is the second easiest thing in the world to find an inspiring, glorious other poet, but it is the *easiest* thing in the world to find a poet who you think is fucking atrocious. Like the political spectrum, how good you think another poet is is pretty much a circle lol. I’m positioning Bad Boy Poet gently to the anticlockwise of Death the Barber, in a spot which – surprise surprise – I think is the absolute fucking best position on that circle.

Here’s a found poem made up of some of my favourite phrases from Death the Barber. This is WCW remixed by Scott Manley Hadley:

the barber / talked to me
This is just to say
he said,
love’s ascendancy
flaccid / moons
they lie there with the gold
along the wet road until
young branches / on all sides
stepped down / into the pit of
the empty / flowerpot

Flowers through the window
I saw a girl with one leg
ringed with / running lights
Around her ankles
in a grimy frock / And another boy
he’s / a godforsaken curio
a solace of ripe plums
the heavy leaves
crushed it to / the ground.

The barber / talked to me.
Death shaves / him twice / a week

  1. I would write a poem listing everyone I’d had sex with (not unlike Emin’s famous tent-based piece, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995), but even I think poems should be longer than [make your own fucking guess at the number] words. As a clue, the number of lovers I have had is probably LESS than George Michael but MORE than George Michael Bluth. I’m all but certain of the number now, thanks to that all clear from the GUM clinic: I’m positive that were I to have ever had reckless sex with a stranger while too fucking wasted to remember a thing, I would have been very, very unlikely to have worn a condom and I can’t imagine any strangers prepared to fuck wasted me bareback wouldn’t have been prepared to fuck ANYONE wasted bareback like all the time. Then again, I could’ve got lucky, in both senses. I was blackout wasted at A LOT of parties when I was first suicidal and HAD HAIR so was thus attractive!!!

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