Issue 2:1 | Featured Artist | Jeffery Beam


A Poetic Voyage through Nature to the Secret Heart of Things

(Jeffery Beam presented this lecture/reading to the Department of English, Trinity College, University of Toronto, October 15, 1991)


by Jeffery Beam





There is a song inside me

It is white and bright

like a boat at its moorings

It is black and sad

and will not break

I will not give it to the Puritans


There is a song inside me

What a color it has

I have its color

Violet violet

Black and sad

How witchly I will sing it



I want to speak to you today about the influence of the American poet William Carlos Williams on my work and the relationship to Nature, in particular, that plays an important part in both Williams's poetry and my own. 


Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963.  Although he was virtually unknown during most of his life, by the end of it he had been recognized by many as an American original, winning the National Book Award in 1950, the Bollingen Award in 1953, and the Pulitzer Prize the year he died.  His first book was published in 1909.  Williams's work has remained in print since his death, but it has only been in the last thirty or so years that one could say that his work has entered into the mainstream.  Its discernible in contemporary poetic forms, but not so in the approach to content.  His reputation among poets in the United States and England is quite strong, although I would hesitate to say that his direct influence is widespread.  At last, in 1981 a major biography was published.

            I first heard of Williams in my college freshman literature class in 1971 and found his work craftsmanlike, but not arresting.  At that time I had immersed myself in the Symbolists and Surrealists, and writers such as William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, and Syliva Plath.  The mysticism of Rimbaud, Yeats, Blake, Whitman, and Dickinson was gathering strength in me.  Soon I was to occupy myself with Robert Bly and the idea of the deep image developed through his work with European and South American writers, particularly Spanish surrealism.  Luckily those influences, I believe, gave me the tools to approach Williams when I finally found myself before his work again years later.

            I don't remember exactly when I came upon him again, although I remember in particular being taken by this poem, "The Widow's Lament in Springtime":


Sorrow is my own yard

where the new grass

flames as it has flamed

often before but not

with the cold fire

that closes round me this year.

Thirtyfive years

I lived with my husband.

The plumtree is white today

with masses of flowers.

Masses of flowers

load the cherry branches

and color some bushes

yellow and some red

but the grief in my heart

is stronger than they

for though they were my joy

formerly, today I notice them

and turn away forgetting.

Today my son told me

that in the meadows,

at the edge of the heavy woods

in the distance, he saw

trees of white flowers.

I feel that I would like

to go there

and fall into those flowers

and sink into the marsh near them.


            Williams refuses to get caught up in honey-coated sentiments.  Instead, the wifes grief is delicately but urgently placed in the wet march, the heavy woods, the masses of flowers calling to her at the woods edge. This is no mere indulgent sadness, no hallmark moment.  Williams reveals death and loss incarnate in nature, in the wifes pungent, sweet-scented loss that wipes out the joy.  The flowers become frighteningly seductive.  Yet we feel that her impulse to be subsumed by the natural world is her salvation.  The new grass and its flames, the yellow and red of the flowering tress in her own yard are overpowered by the white trees at the edge of the woods. Nature answers her feelings with the purity of the flowers and the healing waters of the marsh.  Her grief, the drag towards self-destruction, is not lessened but transformed into a spiritual surrender. Here was a poem which celebrated in a daring, compassionate, yet unsentimental way, the beauty of sorrow and loss, the anguish of the Self abandoned, and the protective womb of Mother Earth.

After experiencing the poem, my childhood spent wandering through the woods and fields, and the simplicity of my grandmother's flower garden, where I passed many hours, came back to me in a rush.  Here was a poet who had found what I had been looking for: the natural world as a sanctuary for the soul.  This poem of mine was written about the time Williams's work became so important to me.  It is nothing like Williams's poetry, but I find in this poem a prophecy of what was to come to me through association with his understanding of the natural world:




You who come from the Answerer

let it be known the wheel in the sky burns for you

and I in my clipped wings

am the child you lost in the desert

While I was gone

my feet unblessed walked

and now

the gentleness of crows

grace is upon them

Where I have come to

the fire in the hearth exits from stones

every small thing listens with new eyes

the house's dark corners notice the light

sorrow sits nowhere


            I believe that Williams follows the tradition which assures us that the particular is the cradle of the cosmos.  Williams's version of this vision is certainly characterized by the dogged pragmatism and straightforwardness of the American spirit, but an open reader, a reader with the cosmos in his or her hand, can recognize the universe in the flowers, animals, and humanity of his poems.  French poet, Francis Ponge, reminds us, "The function of poetry is to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle."  I needed Williams's practicality as a balance to my own tendency toward vague and airy images. This poem is extracted from Williams's book-length poem Paterson":


Without invention nothing is well spaced,

unless the mind change, unless

the stars are new measured, according

to their relative positions, the

line will not change, the necessity

will not matriculate:  unless there is

a new mind there cannot be a new

line, the old will go on

repeating itself with recurring

deadliness:  without invention

nothing lies under the witch-hazel

bush, the alder does not grow from among

the hummocks margining the all

but spent channels of the old swale,

the small foot-prints

of mice under the overhanging

tufts of the bunch-grass will not

appear:  without invention the line

will never again take on its ancient

divisions when the word, a supple word,

lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.


Williams suffers at the hands of his slight poem about a wheelbarrow, rainwater, and some chickens (The Red Wheelbarrow).  The poem is Williams at his most precise, perhaps, but also at his least imaginative.  His dictum "no idea but in things" has been taken out of context what was given as a poetic truth has been taken as a hard and fast rule.  Here is Williams's poem in which the phrase first appears:


Let the snake wait under

his weed

and the writing

be of words, slow and quick, sharp

to strike, quiet to wait,



-- through metaphor to reconcile

the people and the stones.

Compose.  (No ideas

but in things)  Invent!

Saxifrage is my flower that splits

the rocks.


            In a 1987 article in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Pinsky points out the parenthetical phrase, and its surrounding one word sentences, "Compose." and "Invent!".  Pinsky observes that the emphasis of Williams's poem "is on motion and energy, not depiction."  The common misreading of the phrase, focusing on "things," has contributed to the perfectly constructed "notation of observed details," swarming in the pages of American poetry magazines today.

            In his poem, "A Sort of a Song", Williams doesn't negate the importance of metaphor and imagination.  Blake reminds us in his "Proverbs of Hell":  "To create a little flower is the labour of ages."  Williams's poetry attempts to discover the secret heart of things through the poetic act.  Williams says: "The objective of art is to reveal." A brilliant phrase from another poem extends that objective: "Of the pursuit of beauty, and the husk that remains."

            Poet, Denise Levertov, responding to poet Robert Creeley in the early 1960's, revised his comments on form by saying, "Form is never more than a revelation of content."...(Creeley had used the word "extension")..."We need a poetry not, of direct statement,"  she continues, "but of direct evocation, a poetry of hieroglyphics, of embodiment, incarnation."

            I find, and I believe Williams found, in Nature what psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck called Gott-natur - "the poem as a field of action between the human faculties," where one senses, what Robert Bly calls the "interdependence of all things alive" and brings these faculties inside a work of art.  I think that is what Levertov means by "hieroglyph, embodiment, incarnation."  In this poem of my own, "Vase of Dried Poppies and Dock", I attempt to relate the historical image of these plants with the untamed form of their presence in the vase, and the resulting emotive state the inter-relationship elicits in me.  I grow the poppies, which is the opium poppy, in my garden.  Dock is a plant brought over by British colonists as a salad green and medicinal herb.  Now it is a common weed in North American fields and roadsides.  Both have interesting forms and are used frequently in dried flower arrangements: 


The wildness of it

is what's so circumspect.


That, at any moment

the pure dullness of


its colorlessness,

and the wildness of


its form

might break


ranks and show



what it had been:

red opium and


rank weed,

cow pasture and


foreign lands,

a history of civilization


in raw color.

Uninhibited now


by that,

it fills the vase


and my eyes,

declarative and





as a newborn



            The Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, believed a force named duende is needed to synthesize the interdependence of word and world, spirit and physicality.  Lorca announces that "All that has dark sounds has duende....The a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept....The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action....[it] is in fact the spirit of the earth....The duende likes the edges of things."  Perhaps the duende, then, is what attracts me in a poem the sense that the spirit of the earth surging up through the feet acts to reveal the secret heart of the thing experienced.

            The late American author, Edward Dahlberg, believed: "If the language of the author does not smell of the mountains, the forest ash, or the rude hearth, the poem is wicked.  There is no good verse that does not make the reader stronger in intellect, and which does not give him legs and arms he did not have before."  Here is a poem I wrote in which I hope the duende breathes its dynamic winds.  The title is taken from William Blake and was inspired by his attempts to explain the presence of evil in the world.  The poem is called "Marriage of Heaven & Hell" and focuses on the image of Pandora's box:


Pandora, the box smokes.  No common form

mentioned by its shape.

I cannot shift my eye far from its glare.

I sense neither sound nor glimpses of desired hue.

Black the brilliant shadows sleek.

Before night falls nothing will quiet me.

Devils.  I break from you my private trembling.

When I walk my shadow I will attach to me.

No formless box opens to clamp shut

unless the shutting figures me its Light-giver.

I illuminate and turn Spirit

upon itself.  A healed wing.

So, I stand suddenly embracing you.

Where swarm bees imperishable.

From all blackness I gather myself.


            Is there something different about you now?  Do you feel new arms and legs?  How does one make contact with the duende?  Yeats asks how in his preface to the verse play "The Shadowy Waters":


How shall I name you, immortal, mild, proud shadows?

I only know that all we know comes from you,

And that you come from Eden on flying feet.

Is Eden far away, or do you hide

From human thought, as hares and mice and coneys

That run before the reaping-hook and lie

In the last ridge of the barley?  Do our woods

And winds and ponds cover more quiet woods,

More shining winds, more star-glimmering ponds?

Is Eden out of time and out of space?

And do you gather about us when pale light

Shining on water and fallen among leaves,

And winds blowing from flowers, and whirr of feathers

And the green quiet, have uplifted the heart?


            Williams, I think, made contact with Yeats's proud shadows through his medical practice.  He was a country doctor for almost fifty years.  I have glimpsed those shadows in the garden, and through an ongoing personal struggle between spirituality and sexuality.  The duende, you see, is the same force as Dylan Thomas's "green fuse that drives the flower."  Does this make sense?  In many ways we are in the presence of the suffering which Buddhists believe is an essential part of earthly life.  The identification of the duende with the processes of life living, dying, procreation, and personal transformation is why I believe a poem is heard with the whole body, and not just with the intellect.  The German poet, Rilke, perhaps the greatest of all modern poets, found the duende under the tutelage of the sculptor Rodin who taught him to look at things until the secret heart revealed itself in them.  In this poem, "The Way In", Rilke describes the contemplative process which Thomas Merton defines as "interior emptiness," where one belongs to, Merton says, "the mysterious realm of what one 'is',  or rather 'who' one is."  This is a Bly translation of Rilke's poem:


Whoever you are: some evening take a step

out of your house, which you know so well.

Enormous space is near, your house lies where it begins,

whoever you are.

Your eyes find it hard to tear themselves

from the sloping threshold, but with your eyes

slowly, slowly, lift one black tree

up, so it stands against the sky: skinny, alone.

With that you have made the world.  The world is immense

and like a word that is still growing in the silence.

In the same moment that your will grasps it,

your eyes, feeling its subtlety, will leave it.....


            To root oneself in the particular, to "make it new" as Ezra Pound entreats us to do, is "to lift one black tree up", to regard the inexpressible through careful observation of the material world.  The duende can make its appearance anywhere.  The world reveals the essential imaginative ground of reality.  Of Eternity.  Mies van der Rohe once said, "God lives in the details." 


            Listen for the duende in these two poems in which birds figure.  The first is Williamss; the second is mine:




fortunate man it is not too late

the woodthrush

flies into my garden


before the snow

he looks at me silent without



his dappled breast reflecting

tragic winter

thoughts my love my own




Not that he intends

                                                            to be seen

No                    not that

But instead

from the lonely cliff of his heart

an untame song becomes

a generous valve

                                    within the cherry branches


Whether the chipmunk

looks up

                                    from her rocky grove

                        or I

                                    with bucket and sweet greed


                                                in picking

                                                                        the red globes


It doesn't matter


The song itself

The only


The song


            Poetry, for me, is an act of gnosticism and as we inhabit the 21st century partakes of a mysticism of a new kind.  Ecstasy must be present in a poem.  Bly says a poem must be "nervous and alert," more interested in the reader and the listener than itself.  The poet's task is to materialize the spiritual, to make it tangible.  Poetry characterized by, as Denise Levertov describes it, "documentary realism, egotism, externalism, and lack of imagination, is bound to be banal and mediocre.  Poems must tell of things seen or done, but if they lack what she defines as a "focus of...energetic, compassionate, questioning spirit," then they have no life.  In this poem of mine based on an etching by Albrecht Durer, the fifteenth century printmaker, the heart of Saint Jerome is revealed in his monastery cell:




There is a jar

buried beneath the cloister

with five words I have

kept in my pocket

all my life


solitude and wisdom

light and virtue and

a shadow of pain with thick lips

drinking from a cup


Once                in the gardens

I watched a sparrow

carry a blue silence

to the mountains


It was a rosy sorrow

I caught there

an underground rolling

of pure water

life's ever-





How the sunlight

sweetens the room

all I own written in the very boards

what I have given away

what comes to me


The mangled flesh

of fish

in a basket

A weaving staccato

watering my soul


The almond

a taste I will never forget


beautifully simple


            The act of reciting, hearing, or reading a poem is a sacred one.  As with any sacred act,  the experience is made numinous, filled with the presence of divinity,  by the whole body.  A poem does not describe the world alone, but as Rilke says: "If a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe, something the angels serve that very day upon that matchless spot."  Such solitary regard, which can be experienced in the garden, for instance, allows the object of the artist's vision to reveal itself as it truly is.

            This next poem by Williams is characterized by the generosity and radical perception common to his late work a tenacious effort to reconcile Love, Darkness, Disintegration, and Becoming.  "The Yellow Flower" exemplifies what I have been saying.  As Williams responds to the mustard flower outside his window, one can sense the activity of invention the new mind and new line he calls forth in "Paterson".  The poem is earthy and rooted, yet culminates in a symbolic unity worthy of the western tradition of mystical flowers:


What shall I say, because talk I must?

                        That I have found a cure

                                                for the sick?

I have found no cure

                        for the sick       .

                                                but this crooked flower

which only to look upon

                        all men

                                                are cured.  This

is that flower

                        for which all men

                                                sing secretly their hymns

of praise.  This

                        is that sacred



Can this be so?

                        A flower so crooked

                                                and obscure?  It is

a mustard flower

                        and not a mustard flower,

                                                a single spray

topping the deformed stem

                        of fleshy leaves

                                                in this freezing weather

under glass.


An ungainly flower and

                        an unnatural one,

                                                in this climate;  what

can be the reason

                        that it has picked me out

                                                to hold me, openmouthed,

rooted before this window

                        in the cold,

                                                my will

drained from me

                        so that I have only eyes

                                                for these yellow,

twisted petals   .           ?


That the sight,

                        though strange to me,

                                                must be a common one,

is clear:  there are such flowers

                        with such leaves

                                                native to some climate

which they can call

                        their own.


But why the torture

                        and the escape through

                                                the flower?  It is

as if Michelangelo

                        had conceived the subject

                                                of his Slaves from this

-- or might have done so.

                        And did he not make

                                                the marble bloom?  I

am sad

                        as he was sad

                                                in his heroic mood.

But also

                        I have eyes

                                                that are made to see and if

they see ruin for myself

                        and all that I hold

                                                dear, they see


                        through the eyes

                                                and through the lips

and tongue the power

                        to free myself

                                                and speak of it, as

Michelangelo through his hands

            `           had the same, if greater,



Which leaves, to account for,

                        the tortured bodies


the slaves themselves


                                                the tortured body of my flower

which is not a mustard flower at all

                        but some unrecognized

                                                and unearthly flower

for me to naturalize

                        and acclimate

                                                and choose it for my own.


            In "The Yellow Flower," written after Williams's first stroke, he allows the common mustard to serve as a symbol, a hieroglyph, of his psyche, his physical condition, and his impulse as a poet to praise.  Williams makes the mustard flower, a flower so humble, simple and useful, into the celestial flower of self-revelation and spiritual uplift. Eyes / that are made to see and if / they see ruin for myself / and all that I hold / dear, they see / also the power /  to free myself / and speak of it.  He has given the mustard flower the same authenticity as Michelangelo gave his slaves.

Where I live, mustard is used as a living winter mulch. In early spring acres and acres are luminous with its yellow, easily shattered, flowers.  I oftentimes see groups of black women moving slowly through the fields picking, as they call it, "salat."  They always make me think of this poem, and reflect on freedom, self-determination, and the utilitarian become transcendent.

A few years ago I used to suffer from severe depression in the Winter and was unable to believe on a psychic level that the life-force could be resurrected after the coldness of Winter.  Surely this was a fear of Death, and the Duende.  I looked to poetry then as a way of working through to an understanding of the seasonal cycle and of the immobility it was causing in me.  My chapbook Midwinter Fires was an attempt to embody that process, to incarnate it, into my life.  I wanted to write a sequence using the idea of the Great Goddess and Her son, the dying and resurrecting god Dionysus, Christ, Osiris to create a male poem of positive masculine energy and transformative power.  The sequence is an intermingling of Celtic, Roman British, and early Christian British mythology.  The central figure is Dionysus.  The settings are the festivals of harvest and planting the plant world.  The poem begins in Winter and closes with the resurrection of Spring.  I don't have time to read the entire sequence but let me read the three middle poems where I seek solace in the natural world.  The blazing evergreen in the end is what we are after, where the transformation of the life force in the berry takes on the light of Heaven.


In this poem, "Winter Dusk" the life force goes underground:


Faint heliotrope shadows

                                                            on the slopes

Halos of slanted light

                        slight like young


            Shapely gods

                                    two young men

            fingering near the oaks

Nubian ears

                        long enough

            to capture the sheer




As Spring arrives the deciduous energy begins its work:




Green clusters on the vine

Such a well-fruited handsome bush

                        of lush



With my forefinger

I rub the new bud



And finally the promise of the evergreen which carried me through the Winter:





            of blue


the air transfigures


A crown

            of thorny



The sun does not die

                        The earth tapers

                                    then savors

                                                            its shine

In the wood's gloom

                        a blazing



            I  urge you to seek out those poems which, and those poets who, regard the world in a state of Grace, and join their voices to poet Peyton Houston's when he says, "The storm in the heart of the flower is also the hurricane of God's whisper."  I want to close with three of my own poems.  The first, "Credo", is an attempt in poetry to condense what I have said today.  In the second, "Walking on Apples", I "lift one black tree up".  In the third, "John the Baptist", Saint John becomes a symbol of the poet in the world, caught between the shining nets of glory in the Heavens, and the earth with its "husk that remains."  What, I hope, takes place in each poem is the opening of a conduit between the secret heart which the duende helps to reveal, and the numinous light behind the everyday:




Now, when I talk

it is not just to say

this or


But it is to say

what is between.


Over there,

under the sycamore,

runs the argumentative


The blue eye

of southern spring.


Over there, the

whistle of chickadee

and blue



Here swings

the rightful cadence

of the blues.

The melancholic

swarm of words,

thick with dribble, and



To my own self

be true.


To say what is


the periwinkle,

the chickadee.






You think you know how it will be

smooth and crunchy unlike

a brain

Without ecstasy and with

much derision

the dull

thuds dropping

round you in the tall

grass                            The bees




an odor of lemon

from the dying bellies

A narrow track trampled

in the grass

leading to the woods

up which nightly

a solitary small beast comes

to take with hunger

and no greed

the rounded vapors left by wasp

and beetle





The one who comes from above

Is over all

He who is earthly

Belongs to the earth

And speaks to the earth


Gospel of John

(Kalmia Bittleson, translator)


In Andrea del Sarto's painting of Saint John,

the voice crying from the wilderness

is soft and pliant, wreathed by

ivy in the hair - a natural halo.

John's a rugged youth,

splendidly smooth and hard,

draped royally in holy red and brown.

One finger and thumb

from the right hand

point heavenward and to the humble,

thin cross of sticks he carries

for a staff. 

Already the fire of Grace

illuminates his face.  And the coarse

curls surround him wildly,

umbrous and jungled.

Why does he, then, look down if

not to gaze at earth's lovely darkness

and the water's clear rinse?

For as he points upward, looking

down, the whole story

is told.

The light shining in the darkness, and

the darkness

which cannot hold.