From the world of William Carlos Williams (requires red-and-blue stereo viewer)

Percy Loomis Sperr, “Post Graduate Hospital: girl in bed looks up from book,” 1923. New York Public Library Digital Collections, images and Merged to anaglyph and photoshopped.

Poetry: a value-added return on investment

The economic historian and conservative policy intellectual Niall Ferguson was in the news in an embarrassing way on May 4, 2013. Speaking to a conference of financial advisers, Ferguson had opined that Keynesian economists ignore the long-term consequences of their doctrine because Keynes himself was a childless homosexual with no concern for the future. Keynes was married to a ballerina, Ferguson sneered, and he probably spent his evenings with her in conversation about poetry.

Ferguson had been talking that way about Keynes, in conversation and in print, for at least twenty years.

But twenty years ago there were few blogs and no Twitter, and attitudes toward homosexuality were different. Facing real damage to his reputation as of 2013, Ferguson apologized. “As those who know me and my work are well aware,” he wrote, “I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.”

The full text of Ferguson’s statement of detestation is longer, but nowhere does it mention anything about the evenings that Lord Keynes spent with his Lydia and his copy of The Golden Treasury. Perhaps it should have, though. So here you are, Professor Ferguson, absolutely free: a statement about poetry from book 1 of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” a poem by the heterosexual American poet William Carlos Williams.

“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” is a poem about old age, written in old age. By the time Williams wrote it, a stroke had damaged the muscles of his eyes and left him unable to track long lines of verse. So he invented a new verse form, one whose rhythm was adapted to the constraints of a line stepped down the page. It was a new verbal architecture, meant to endure into the long term.

And Niall, you can bank on it.

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.

Click to enlarge.

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

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,