The Sweetest Dream That Labor Knows: Williams and Frost


The poetry of William Carlos Williams and the poetry of Robert Frost are more similar, in spirit and practice, than conventional ideas about them might convey.

As examples of what I mean, here are two poems about work. Mowing and roofing, in these poems, have implications for the work of writing, but in both poems the physical labor itself is also respected, in attentive detail. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows,” says Frost, summarizing one element in American modernism: attention to the hard edges and exact textures of reality, in reaction against a merely dreamy or idealized, poetic vision. “It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,/ Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf.”

Williams, too, writes with an “earnest love.” If “anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak,” then a beautiful, deadpan sentence about eight foot strips of copper, beaten lengthwise at right angles, can dance across two stanzas.

“It was a time,” says Williams in I Wanted to Write a Poem, “when I was working hard for order, searching for a form for the stanzas, making them little units, regular, orderly. The poem “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is really telling about my struggle with verse.”

Like Marianne Moore writing about “The Master Tailor” with his “invisibly executed pockets” and “buttons of ocean pearl—no two alike,” these poets look at the tools and materials of work with implicit attention to the craft of verse. Frost’s unconventionally rhymed sonnet and Williams’ neat triads, both, are means toward a goal of lucid attention to materials and tools. Both poems listen to what the work whispers. Both take up the material and run an eye along it, while ruminating, both, with a feel for American idiom.


Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.



There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.


Epigrams and Images

ImageEpigram 2
Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound (by Wyndham Lewis),
and Walter Savage Landor’s grave in Florence

     Music has authority. Actual music can immediately make us feel sad or martial, sexy or calm, funereal or playful. The figurative “music” of a poem has a similar authority.
     For this month’s Forum I’ll use that proposition to bring together two drastically different genres, old and newer: the traditional two-line rhymed epigram and the Modernist one-image poem.
     The epigram in English, with Latin models such as Martial, aims to be terse and pointed: fit to be incised in stone. Emily Dickinson’s 1534 is among the most terse of all, (if it is not a fragment):

Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—

     An example I have thought about for years is by Walter Savage Landor:

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.

     At first attracted by how the poem refreshes one of the oldest clichés— that time flies— I later noticed that the poem exemplifies physical, bodily patterns: three times at the beginning, teeth on lower lip for the “v” or “f”; three times at the end, pursed lips. The couplet rhyme is only part of the musical authority or coherence.
     An ancient form. Yet I find a similar authority in one of the great, central examples of Modernism, a poem that has survived countless milkings in thousands of classrooms, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

     Any reader’s reflexive groan at this ultra familiar example— Imagism and all of that— may be quelled by thinking about the couplet. (Pound admired Landor, incidentally.) The repeated vowel in “crowd” and “bough” makes a kind of couplet. The consonant that begins “faces” is in distinction from the plosive “b” and “p” sounds in “apparition,” “petals,” “black,” and “bough.” And so forth.
     In technical ways, this conventional instance of Modernism sets an attractive, maybe useful example of making old things new: Pound using knowledge he demonstrates more directly in early poems like his pretty “Ballatetta,” which ends, preposterously yet engagingly:

                      no gossamer is spun
So delicate as she is, when the sun
Drives the clear emeralds from the bended grasses
Lest they should parch too swiftly, where she passes.

Listen to Robert Pinsky read Dickinson, Landor, and Pound.