I’m not much on modern poetry — to be fair, I’m a reluctant reader of poetry altogether, mea culpa, mea culpa — so I almost skipped over a link from @incunabula noting that a student from Oxford (as in, ‘Oxford College, Emory University,’ not ‘the University of Oxford’) had discovered an unpublished manuscript in the Beinecke Library at Yale. No disrespect to the beloved physician/poet, but most contemporary poetry just drifts past my ear in a mist of imprecision. So why would I be motivated to read a rough draft of a poem whose final form would, probably, not interest me much?
Well, in the first instance, I do like undiscovered-manuscript stories, and doubly so when it’s a student discovering what professors, archivists, and librarians had hitherto overlooked. Then, it turns out that it’s not a poem that Williams noted down on his prescription pad (honestly, is there a more on-the-nose gesture?), but a series of reflections on truth, poetry, science, and so on — the ‘two cultures’ topos. I am, in case it weren’t obvious to someone who would come to this web page at all, fascinated by the relations among various discourses of truth, and Williams being both a physician and a poet, I thought his observations might strike a spark in my own imagination, or at least provide grist for my critical authorial mill.
As it turns out, a curious reader has to do some work to get at what WCW wrote on that pad. The blogged announcement by Audrey Ruan appears in the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities blog (edited, to my delight, by the estimable Brandy Schillace, whose Twitter feed I follow with avid interest.The announcement itself doesn’t reveal much about what Williams actually wrote, though, and being an incorrigibly persnickety reader, I want details.
So for those playing at home, here’s a link to a PDF of the prescription pad itself, alongside Ruan’s current transcription — and here’s my through-compiled version of Williams’s notes (my notes in square brackets, supplying some words that Ruan omits or altering her choices. Readers should note that — whether because of inaccurate transcription of opaque handwriting (Ruan’s college paper refers to ‘ornamental cursive,’ but it’s just plain old mid-twentieth century American cursive handwriting, although perhaps careless enough to reinforce the old saw about doctors’ scrawl) or because of rushed composition — the notes are frankly incoherent at some points.
The use of poetry is to vivify the singularly sterile fields of philosophy & science.
It is that without which these two anatomies do not attain to perfection, which is understanding. Thus it is a force not dependent on a binary [hearing?] but is recognized before where by the poet transmitted transcended the principle which makes understanding flexible & complete — inclusive the imagination where science & philos stop dead. Both can be understood to exist within a man on earth. The imagination cannot so be understood. Poetry is that force not to be captured.
So, to go on, it is that force which revivifies common living. Brushing aside the dead clichés we [ ] word & letting up interest. This is not operative in everybody reading poems. But if one [Ruan gives ‘all’] man of power gets what the poem enforces — it will deep down all through the porous strata!
This is a force not an amusement.
Thus a poet is just a transmission agent, correcting his age—.
This work does not go by tradition nor convention but by [WCW has written ‘by by,’ but I incline to take that as a hasty slip of the hand] the present action of a force in the impedimenta of his locality — as whatever he sees.
Poetry is that which one may say of a community, What it lacks is poetry, that is new life & is fogged — lost its way.
This does not mean a man stuff — great evidence that are man who is copper, a connection with this excellent Science.
So it is of use to the individual mind permits self respect & a sigle through philosophy, & science which makes individuals subdued & robs [ ] them of dignity — principles.
So [ ] [ ] feel compelled to make remarks about another life — one way in the [ ] disbelief or belief being here the science.
Poetry is perfection.
I’m going to revisit this for the next couple of days, and if you spot an enhancement or a correction to the trasncription, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be mulling over what attains clarity in these words, to see whether Williams fits into my argument about texts and interpretations, or about the role of imagination in interpretation. For now, though, it’s here for you to see.