“No ideas but in things.” William Carlos Williams wrote that. Wallace Stevens has a similar quote, in fact it’s the title of the final piece in his Collected Poems: “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” Here’s a link to it on the amazing Poetry Foundation website. (Don’t worry, it’s short.)
And you hear a lot of variations on those statements when talking about poetry, it’s a truism by now. I’ve often heard it used to mean, “Show, don’t tell.” Like, “Don’t tell us the soldier was sad, show us the frayed edges of the scratchy green blanket his buddy just died on.” That’s not bad advice, as far as it goes. It’s not good advice, either: it’s the poetry class equivalent of, “Wash your hands before eating finger foods.” It only helps when you haven’t tucked in to the meal yet.
Speaking of classes, I took one with Pacific Northwest poet David Waggoner a while ago. One of my vivid memories was his admonishing us never to use the word “thing” in a poem. “It’s an empty word, a useless word. It gives you nothing you didn’t already have.”
But it does, doesn’t it? “It gives you no thing you didn’t already have.”
(“Marvel Comics Superheroes Game Card 04 - Thing” by David Marriott, Jr. is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
I’ve always found “no ideas but in things” to be hypocritical at worst and self-contradictory at best. (Self-contradiction is always better because it’s interesting: hypocrites are inevitably dull.) Neither Wallace nor William actually included things in their poems! They’re not mailing the reader a twig or a copper coin, they’re not including a sprig of holly or a bird feather in the pages of their books. So maybe what they mean is, “No (IDEAS of) ideas but in (IDEAS of) things.”
There’s this constant imaginative remove taking place, we’re always at least one degree of separation away from things. In some ways, that’s the beauty of it – we’re applying our experience or opinions to the proceedings. It’s never just a sunrise or a bird song or a kiss or a slap or a daffodil or a bell jar. Things are always what we make of them, an interpretive function.
And what really flips my lid is that this is happening on both ends of the process! The poet is applying their own skill in composing, their tastes and value judgments, their ideas and opinions and free associations and childhood memories and half-formed logic. And the reader does this, too: taking the raw stuff the poem is made of, the scratches on the page, the spaces and punctuation, the line breaks and stanza breaks, the title and epigram, the margins and font, and using that as grist for their own mill of wonderment and transubstantiation.
Plenty of academics in the linguistics field marvel at the fact that language can be used to communicate anything at all, given the gulfs that separate any two humans. It is truly strange that poems do what they do: poems have the same kind of appeal to me as a flashy kickflip on a skateboard or a daring stage illusion or a parkour video on YouTube. They’re things that shouldn’t be possible but yet here they are, doing the weird wild subterranean business of jointly creating meaning when it seems hardly likely such a thing could ever happen.
It’s kind of cheating chaos, making something out of nothing when there really should only be nothing. And to prove my point, I’ll end with a creepy poem that proudly defies Mr. Waggoner’s sage advice.
Hope things are good on your end.
A Reader’s Companion
Please pay attention.
I have news for you.
You are being watched.
I am watching you
read these very words
even as I write them.
You have felt unafraid
for a very long time,
safe in your careless observation.
But I see you.
I know what you are doing.
Even ceasing to read
will not break my gaze.
Feel free to stop. Look around,
shake off the creeps crawling the skin
in the back of your mind.
turn around turn,
around and turn.
I’ll still be here
doing nothing else
but patiently waiting
to watch you do
whatever things you do
when you read this.
Even if the panic subsides
and you can forget
the words you read.
Get used to it.
I’ve been here a long time.
I’m not going anywhere.