William Carlos Williams translates some words into sound

The portentous first line of poem XXV in Spring and All, “Somebody dies every four minutes,” undergoes a shift in tone after the second line, “in New York State—” After the line reveals it to be a sentence whose frame of reference is not elegiac but civic or commercial, it can never be the same again. The rest of the poem is a collage of similar morphing sentences. It forms a picture of the poet riding New York’s Interborough Rapid Transit elevated line on a specific day in the summer of 1922, surrounded by words as he cruises the changing skyscape at the level of a city’s roofs.

Here, for instance, the poem takes on poetry’s traditional task of instruction. “Axioms,” reads a subhead at the top of the right column, and the axioms duly follow.

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Or rather, a single axiom: “Don’t get killed.” The rest of the page consists of practical applications: data found in the el car and turned to account in language. “I was studying a presentation of the language as it actually is used,” Williams explained to John C. Thirlwall some 35 years after he reached his station (Collected Poems I.505). This note comes to demonstrate that for Williams, studying language on that trip meant translating visual artifacts into sound.

I don’t know what visual artifact resulted in Williams’s calligram of the prancing horses, black and white. However, the alliterative poem about crossing crossings cautiously came to Williams out of a history with a splendid Williams conception at its heart: “one idea only.”

(Condon 64)

And the artifact that provided the obstetrician-poet with his specimen of Georgian Home Counties heartiness (“Ho!”) was a stillborn poem on an advertising card pretending to be a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why the poet gazed studiously right through font and picture and context and pretext to the words alone. The left column of this illustrated Williams shows us words in rapid transit, passing through the visual field as fast as the images in a movie. The right column is a translation of the words into permanent form: the form of a poem.


Condon, J. G. “Railroads in a ‘Careful Crossing Campaign.'” Printers’ Ink 119.9 (1 June 1922): 64, 68. Online at http://books.google.com

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. 2 vols. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986, 1988.

The “Cross Crossings Cautiously” poster is ubiquitous on the Web. The “Ho! for the open country” advertising card is in the Ivy Ledbetter Lee papers at the Princeton University Library, http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/5662330a-4238-492a-abc0-f950f14124e2

Star: dingbat


The November-December 2008 issue of Gilbert, the journal of the American Chesterton Society (http://www.chesterton.org/wordpress), is devoted to the topic of “Chesterton and the Jews.” Its cover shows us a photograph of Chesterton in 1910 with the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill. Next to Zangwill on the page the compositor has inserted a six-pointed star.

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About that star, known to Jews as the Shield of David, The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (Holt, 1966) says, under Magen David:

It has neither biblical nor talmudic authority and its origin as a Jewish symbol is extremely obscure. . . . [It] is mentioned by the 12th cent. Karaite writer Judah Hadassi, but developed into a distinctive and representative Jewish symbol only after the 17th cent.

That is, the Shield of David isn’t an icon, in either a religious or a semiotic sense. Jews don’t venerate the sign of the star; their distinctive and representative symbol is nothing but a conventionally accepted identifier. Positioned next to a picture of a Jew on the cover of a magazine about Jews, the star communicates the idea “Jew” only as a denotation. It is no more than a caption: a caption without words, because it doesn’t need words.


A few pages into the magazine, the star reappears as part of an article called “‘I Am Fond of Jews’: In Defense of Chesterton.” The article reprints in full the source of its title quote: a little poem.

In the article, the poem is labeled like an exhibit for the prosecution: “Exhibit C.” It may be a little too easy to imagine tears of Chestertonian jollity rising to the author’s eyes as he regarded that delicate irony. But the six lines of verse are also labeled with a Jewish star, and (for me, at least) it’s more interesting to try to read the volition underlying that typographical gesture.

Because this isn’t quite the star that decorates the cover. On the cover, within the zone of connotation of a non-verbal image of a man, the star is a conduit for both verbal and non-verbal significance. It connects the man’s pictured image on the page (say, an image that isn’t but could be captioned “Zangwill in 1910”) with his existence in an unpictured but imaginable history off the page (say, a history titled “Jewish Writers in Edwardian England”). But in the magazine’s interior, the star is cut off from external reference and has to work as if it were a word. Within text, the star functions as what printers call a dingbat: a stylized picture typically used to break up blocks of type and communicate a pause – that is, an instant during which words stop functioning. That textualized silence within the text has communicative value, but its meaning arises only from its contiguity with the text. On a page of words saying only “Jew” to other words saying only “Jew,” a dingbat – even a dingbat shaped like a distinctive and representative Jewish symbol, with a history off the page – can only repeat “Jew” as if it were a word itself.

That inability to translate itself is the dingbat’s own distinctive and representative symbol. A dingbat is what is juxtaposed to words in order to communicate the idea of separateness from words. If language were spoken anywhere within the orbit of an actual Jewish star, it wouldn’t be the language of Exhibit C, and the American Chesterton Society wouldn’t be able to translate it. But the silent void that surrounds a dingbat can be a school for translation – a special kind of translation that speaks to us not as words to be heard but as symbols to be seen. What Chesterton means, and what the typographers of the American Chesterton Society faithfully translate for us in the interval between his words and their star, is a word followed by a dingbat. That two-morpheme unit says:

“Jew. Haw haw!”

Some little animals


A missing comma made the sentence funny.

In the United States during the fall of 2011, a group of Republican candidates for President traveled from city to city, holding televised “debates” before enthusiastically Republican audiences. When one candidate was asked whether an ill person without health insurance should be allowed to die, people in the audience responded with scattered shouts of “Yeah!” The shouts weren’t at all scattered when a gay soldier spoke; that time the audience bellowed its loud and all but unanimous boos. The boos turned to high-volume cheers when anybody spoke the word “execution.” And as to the problem of immigration from Mexico — the more murderous a candidate’s suggestion in the way of high-voltage electric fences along the border, the more frenzied was the noise from the plush seats.

In Texas, the noise evoked a quiet response: a Mexican-American talk show host cut his Republican party card in half and posted a picture online. Reporting the cut, however, the Hispanic blog “¡Somos Republicans!” went noisy. It explained, “The Republican Party lost a long life [sic] Republican, who is a Texas Latino GOP leader due to the continued betrayal of the Republican Party.”


Well, I did take that sentence to class to do the English-teacher thing and talk about listening to the words. Oh yes: please listen, then please indicate the pause that wants to be heard before the phrase “due to.” Better still, eliminate “due to.” Best of all, rearrange the whole sentence into something like, “Because of its continued betrayals, the Republican Party lost a lifelong Republican, the Texas Latino GOP leader Lauro Garza.”  That version says more and says it more clearly, and it’s four words shorter too. But it’s also educational about words, and as such it misses the point of what it is to be a Republican. That point has nothing to do with words.

You can see this in a tellingly imperative word a few sentences farther down the page. Bellows the blog: “FOR THE CRITICS: Lauro is a long life [sic, again] Republican, staunch advocate of 2nd amendment rights and hunts religiously.” For Lauro, apparently, killing animals is in the first instance neither an economic necessity nor even a pleasure. It’s an act of obedience to duty, the noun that Wordsworth called “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” Connected with the noun “duty” by the adverb “religiously,” the verb “hunts” enters the special thought-lexicon of prayer, perhaps as prayer is defined by George Herbert: “something understood.” For the blogger who interprets Lauro’s trigger-words, to hunt is to go after God, for whatever purpose. Think of Ahab and Starbuck changing places.



In the same month that Lauro was wielding his scissors in Texas, Kurt Cardinal Koch, the head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, was going after God in New Jersey with a different implement. A Jewish newspaper reported:

This past July, [Cardinal Koch] came into conflict with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, when he wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the cross is “the permanent and universal Yom Kippur” and a symbol of reconciliation.

Di Segni responded in a subsequent edition of L’Osservatore Romano, “If the terms of the discussion are those of pointing Jews to the way of the cross, it is not clear why there should be dialogue.” . . .

When Koch was asked [in October] about his statement regarding the cross as the eternal Yom Kippur and the cross’s connotation to Jews as a symbol of persecution, he said, “I know the history what Christianity have made with the cross and I think that it is our duty to show that the cross isn’t a motive for hate. In the Christian view the cross is an invitation of reconciliation and I can’t understand because Jews can’t be content with this invitation.”




In a 1927 photograph from Life magazine’s online archive, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, Nuncio to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII, sweeps out of the palace of President Hindenburg and descends a short flight of stairs to his waiting limousine. His driver is saluting, as are President Hindenburg’s two rifleman sentries. Since approximately 1933, the silhouette of the riflemen’s helmets has borne an unfortunate connotation in the archive. But what the image preserves is a pre-archival instant in 1927, and within that instant the archbishop’s own silhouette has been fixed pre-archivally for all time, suspended for a fraction of a second just as it became a sign. Within the silent picture, for a fraction of a second of 1927’s time, it was as if a word had been spoken. As the archbishop stepped off the last riser into air, his foot passed under his cape and became invisible. There in his image, then and now, the archbishop has stepped and is stepping into ascending flight, forever. When he hunts his prey, he will leave a wake through heaven.

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As to the mice in the shrubbery at the moment of the Nuncio’s ascent, they never were archived. The camera didn’t understand that they were present. They were only there to die anyway.