Love the sun
This is a short essay on a very short poem. I chose it because the poem is one of my favorites. I sent it to someone the other day, commending it despite its brevity. I acknowledge that there is a strangeness to my choice to write about a such a simple poem. This past week I went to lots of chamber music – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms especially – and encountered complexity upon complexity. I get complexity. Simplicity, well, it is sometimes hard to know what to make of it….
The poem I have sent you, above, is simple. It is a late poem of William Carlos Williams, the central poem of three; the series is entitled “Calypsos.” I don’t think what it tells us, thematically, is very hard, although I hasten to say (before briefly embarking on what it ‘says’ ) that I don’t think much about its linguistic content at all, even though I will forthwith write about that. So here I go with its ‘content:’
Love comes, and it goes. It is a natural thing, like the sun with which it is, metaphorically, identified. When it goes, like the sun suddenly going down, its ending can be quick: “zippy zappy.” That would be about it. Love comes and it goes.
I have loved this poem for five decades. Why? Not because of what it says, since I am not sure I am in agreement with Williams. My marriage has lasted almost fifty years, and is full of love. Williams, in a late poem – one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” – recognizes with wonder and thankfulness that his love for and with his wife, Floss, has been long-lasting and the bulwark of his life. Along with poetry. So I don’t think even Williams, ultimately, agrees with what is being said about love in the poem.
It is a kind of musical grace note (it is called a ‘calypso,’ after all) that entertains us, tells us something that is sometimes true. Love comes and goes. And it tells us something that is deeply true, which is that love is a sun, humanly created, lighting and warming our world. A natural thing.
So: If what the poem says is not what really interests me, why am I sending it to you? Because of two words, “zippy zappy.”
First, those two words punctuate and alter the rhythm. I read the poem, out loud, as I do with most poems. I read this one in slow and measured fashion. The greatest stresses in the poem are on the word ‘love’ with which it begins, and two prepositions (!) ‘up’ and three lines later, ‘in.’ The conjunction ‘and’ receives the stress of being on a line of its own. (There is also the final word, ‘goes,’ and that strange eighth line, about which I will write for the remainder of this letter.)
In the midst of this simple, simple poem, one in which prepositions and conjunctions stand out, there is that sudden “zippy zappy.’ Hmmm. Not words, not a known phrase, that ‘zippy zappy.’ He kind of makes up the phrase. But we know exactly what the phrase means. Suddenly, sort of erratically, full of energy. Energy.
I love that ‘zippy zappy.’ I mean, I love it. The phrase echoes so strongly that the whole poem remains fixed in my mind. I did not need to memorize it. The poem is so memorable that it entered my mind and stayed there, whole. Anchored by the “zippy zappy.”
Words can have a regularity that soothes and connects us to our deepest selves. ‘Deepest selves?’ Yes, to that being we had even before we were born, where breathing and heartbeats surrounded us, enveloped us; where the sound of speech came to us in the womb as Whitman described it, “only the lull I like…” He was writing of that primal heartbeat, but I think he was describing the universe of sound we lived in even before we were born:
Not words, not music or rhyme I want—not custom or lecture, not even the best;
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
Poems speak to this, speak in this: the endless rhythms of life. The heartbeat’s systole and diastole, breathing’s in and out, the murmur of speech we hear even before (if ever we do) we make out the ‘meaning’ of the words.
But we can quickly grow tired of the regularity of sounds, for we live in a world where difference and not just similarity jolts our consciousness. Wordsworth famously wrote of the poet discovering “the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude.” But two sentences later he speaks of the poet also finding “dissimilitude in similitude.” The former, finding likeness amidst the multitude of what we see and hear and feel, is the basis of simile and metaphor and, if we think of it, what defines what ‘happens’ in poems when we consider what they ‘tell’ us. But something else happens in poems too: they set up a regularity of sound, which we call meter or rhythm, and then they ‘violate’ that regularity to remind us of the multiplicity of what we experience. And we get pleasure from that too, from recognizing that there are subtle variations in what would otherwise be a boring regularity.
Nothing subtle about “zippy zappy,” which is why I love the poem so much. It intrudes on the poem, on its poetic sententiousness, and says, “Hey there, not everything is regular or predictable, there is energy and fun in the world.” They sure sound like fun, those two words, “zippy zappy.”
Those two words make the poem. Poems are probably what Williams told Mike Wallace in an interview which he later inserted into his long poem, Paterson: “I would say poetry is language charged with emotion. It's words, rhythmically organized…” But the organization is also disrupted as we pay attention to language as it is used in the world, as we encounter it in the great proliferation of sounds that surround us. In poems we encounter regularity, to give us an anchor; and irregularity, to bring us excitement and eruptions of joy.
“Zippy zappy.” Two words which intrude, which disrupt, and which bring us great joy.
That’s it. A simple poem with two marvelous words. For me the poem is about the joyousness of language. Language, and joy, erupts into the regularity of the poem. Wallace Stevens, so poetically opposite to Williams yet nonetheless a great admirer of his poems, called humans (and their language) “happy fecundity, flor-abundant force.” Or, as he says in “Esthetique de Mal,”
Natives of poverty, children of malheur,
The gaiety of language is our seigneur.
There’s no more to say. Gaiety of language. A remarkable and gay rhythm, a sudden surprise, mark this poem and make it memorable. “Zippy zappy.”
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