Operation William Carlos Williams
For one column, The New Yorker's Book Bench became a lab bench. Last week, Jeannie Vanasco visited a Poetry Lab hosted by Cabinet magazine in which Princeton professors D. Graham Burnett and Jeff Dolven invited attendees to put on their lab coats, grab some alcohol (not the disinfecting kind) and operate on the work of William Carlos Williams to explore its inner-workings. Williams, of course, was a doctor himself who saw his medical practice and poetic practice as being intrinsically related: “As a writer, I have been a physician, and as a physician a writer.”
They pinned three of Williams’s poems to foam board and asked us to identify the major anatomic systems of “Daisy,” excise unhealthful growths from “The Storm,” and perform transplants on “May 1st Tomorrow.” Most of us used our tools—scalpels, clamps, forceps. One surgical team performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The team on the other end of my table told me they thought that “May 1st Tomorrow,” was really three patients: Siamese triplets with one heart. There are six iterations of the word “mind” in the poem, and one student had removed the sixth, which references “the male mind,” completely. “What do you want?” she said. “I’m a feminist poet.” She reported that they’d healed the patient.