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Blake Leland (Atlanta)

Spring and All: The Mirror Phase and a Modernist Imagination

Spring and All: The Mirror Phase and a Modernist Imagination
This essay applies a psychoanalytic framework to William Carlos Williams’ critical mid-life attempt, in Spring and All, to express to himself and for himself his own urgent notion of poetic Imagination. The essay proposes that the qualities Williams attributes to genuine manifestations of the poetic Imagination have their psychical foundations in the mirror phase of primary narcissism. Poem XXII, also known as "The Red Wheelbarrow," is presented as the exemplary case.

In 1923 William Carlos Williams made Spring and All, an urgent, often turgid, volume in which that good New Jersey obstetrician, struggling to accomplish his own rebirth, found a way of doing poetry that would free him and his work from what seemed to him the mechanical repetitions of a played-out tradition. As a record of Williams’ impulse to "make it new," Spring and All is simply one of many Modernist manifestos announcing a salutary demolition, with renaissance to follow. Unlike so many of the others, Williams does not announce an "-ism." Spring and All must be partly a response to events in a public world, but its often confused and broken prose does not make for convincing polemic. It does, however, indicate a sense of profound crisis, a genuine urgency.

It is generally agreed that that crisis was precipitated by his encounter with the work of his friend Marianne Moore and the publication and reception of T.S.Eliot’s "The Waste Land." While Williams was publishing poems like "Tract," energetic plagiary (to use his term) in the tradition of Whitman, Moore was publishing unique artifacts like "The Monkeys," and "Those Various Scalpels." By his own admission Williams found Moore’s work puzzling, but felt too that she was "of all American writers most constantly a poet" because "her work is invariably from the source from which poetry starts" (Williams 1971: 145).

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That source is a kind of intention, a willful "‘something’" that Williams recognizes but doesn’t quite name (Williams 1971: 144). He knows what to call "The Waste Land," however. It is "'literature'" (Williams 1971: 169), and it is opposed to the imagination, the one force that can "refine…clarify…intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live"( Williams 1971: 89).) Literature does not see spring as "THE BEGINNING" in which "THE WORLD IS NEW" (Williams 1971: 94-95); it sees only a kind of plagiary: "April is the cruelest month…" It sees tradition absorbing the individual talent.

I polled my colleagues, asking what was their favorite poem of spring, or what was the first bit of poetry that they associated with spring. E.E. Cummings was popular. Williams was mentioned, and Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Housman. I thought it odd at first that some of the poems from earlier in the English anthology were missing. No one nominated "The Cuckoo Song" or the first verse of "Alison," and only one person mentioned the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. But perhaps it wasn’t so odd. For us the most recent poetic springtime was in fact the blossoming of Modernism, and even when the subject of the poem isn’t spring itself the work of those poets seems somehow akin to spring. Still, the line that was cited most often in my little poll was the one spoken by the nameless corpse, reluctant to be reborn, at the beginning of "The Waste Land." Williams was right to be anxious about Eliot’s influence.

The question I put to my colleagues I put to myself as well. The sequence of my associations went like this: poems of spring, Spring and All, then "…reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes and small trees…", then, vividly, poem number XXII (also called "The Red Wheelbarrow"):

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens (Williams 1971: 138)

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No blossoms, no singing birds, no slim young trees, but it seems nevertheless an essential poem of spring. More than eighty years after it was first written, and more than thirty-five years since I first read it, it is, like spring, still startling, uncanny, beautiful. For me what is especially striking about this poem is the nearly hallucinatory visual impression it evokes; I don’t mean the arrangement of letters or words on the space of the page (although surely that contributes to its effect), but a vision of the scene. It hasn’t always done so. I vaguely recall being baffled by it the first few times I read it. I wanted to know what depended upon that wheelbarrow; I thought that must be the point of the poem. I found, however, that I was unable to produce a convincing answer to that question; it seemed to me that everything or not much at all depended on the red wheelbarrow. So I focused on its redness, the whiteness of the chickens, the glazing water, all those strong appeals to vision. This enabled me to disentangle the poem from my desire to make some sort of discursive sense of it, and once I had given up on the idea of being able to say what it meant, it became a vivid luminous presence in my imagination.

Is this an instance of what Williams is trying to get at in the prose and poetry of Spring and All—the power of the imagination "To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we all live…" (Williams 1971: 89)? I do think my response to his poem is the sort of thing he is gesturing at in his theory, although it has only a fraction of the urgent intensity, the “force,” that fractured Williams' prose and produced his sixteen-word masterpiece. What is the nature of that force? What is the imagination? We have come to think of it, after the Romantics, as something more than a faculty for manipulating representations of the objective world. In its most profound operations, when imagination becomes Imagination, we think of it as a power causing objective and subjective realities to interpenetrate, revealing some deep unity. Certainly the theory that Williams struggles to set out in Spring and All is of this kind. So too, in its way, is the theory I am about to adduce.

It is based on a psychoanalytic myth, a theoretical just-so story with a French inflection. It does not tell us how the elephant got its trunk or the leopard its spots, but rather how the "I" comes to be. It is not easy to think what one might have been before one was, and even more difficult to say or write it. Freud adapted a phrase from the poet Romain Rolland – an "oceanic" feeling – to indicate the boundless, undefined quality of our infant experience before the Ego comes to be (Freud 1989: 11). But Freud was not especially interested in dwelling on this phase of our existence; he claimed to find no vestige of it in himself and so found it difficult and pointless to imagine it.

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The element of Rolland's image that Freud focused on was the notion of limitlessness as a mark of our early experience of egolessness, of non-differentiation of self from world. But an oceanic feeling must be a rhythmic feeling as well, a feeling of waves and of tides, of flows of energy rolling through the body. Julia Kristeva is especially interested in this aspect of infant experience; she emphasizes the fact that we are all, at first, a kind of physically and psychically chaotic space (borrowing a term from Plato, she calls it the semiotic chora) criss-crossed by rhythmic pulsations of energy and movements of the body. She puts it this way:

discrete quantities of energy move through the body of the subject who is not yet constituted as such and, in the course of his development, they are arranged according to the various constraints imposed on this body ... by family and social structures. In this way the drives, which are 'energy' charges as well as 'psychical' marks, articulate ... a non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated. (Kristeva 1984: 25)

The imagery here is not especially oceanic ("marks, articulate") but rather seems to imply a kind of cryptic, unreadable system of signification. Kristeva insists, however, that the chora is not such a system. Although the process of imposing on the infant body a human persona will require it to learn and to accept any number of such systems, and those systems will attempt to inform and control the energies of choric activity, choric energies remain fundamentally heterogeneous to any and all signifying systems (the totality of which we call, with Jaques Lacan, the Symbolic order). As Kristeva writes:

The chora is not yet a position that represents something for someone (i.e., it is not a sign); nor is it a position that represents someone for another position (i.e., it is not yet a signifier either) … Neither model nor copy, the chora precedes and underlies figuration and thus specularization, and is analogous only to vocal and kinetic rhythm. (Kristeva 1984: 26)

Although the chora is "not yet" sign or signifier, it will eventually come to be tangled up in symbolic systems of signification. The decisive moment in that development Lacan calls the Mirror-Stage when, between six and eighteen months, we become fascinated by our reflections. Gazing into the mirror, still unable to control fully our bodily energies and impulses, we imagine our own unity by identifying with that visionary figure dancing in the glass. It appears before us like a messenger from another world—a world more compact, more brilliant, in which everything arranges itself in relation to our image and offers itself up instantaneously to our glance.

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Lacan calls this looking-glass world the Imaginary. It is here that we first discover the I, the Ego, which is the first sign, for the image in the mirror supplies a totalizing signified for the driving, energetic impulses of the chora, now become signifiers. In the Imaginary moment we apprehend a primitive and ideal sign: primitive because here signified and signifier first come into being across the divide of their difference; ideal because in the light of primary narcissism they appear to coalesce, effacing their difference. This first sign, this Ego, is ideal too in the most fundamental sense, for the pristine I is of the eye—a seen and seeing thing.1

But the visionary moment of narcissistic bliss is unstable. That sign, that I, rising out of the dialectic of signified and signifier, of image and rhythm, is still subject to what Kristeva calls the "truth" of the signifier: "separability, otherness, death" (Kristeva 1986: 236). We might also call this the "truth" of castration. In order to defer that truth (although every deferral is an affirmation) we are compelled to abandon the narcissistic dream of perfect sufficiency and to accept the sovereign claims of the Symbolic: the paternal Law, the paternal language, and the patriarchal orders they encode.

We arrive then at the end of this just-so story with a speaking subject whose utterance may have a rather complex archeology. On its surface, it will probably conform to the rules of a Symbolic order designed to assert a firm, sure, socially sanctioned subordination of signifier to signified in order to produce some recognizable meaning, and to repress an apprehension of the uncanny otherness that splits the foundations of language and of the self. Beneath this Symbolic surface we may encounter fragments of the lost and shining domain of the Imaginary, the domain of the first best sign, the sign that places its beholder (for it becomes what it beholds) at the narcissistic center of a visionary cosmos. Further down, beneath the elaborate order of the Symbolic surface and the fragmentary brilliance of the Imaginary stratum, we find ourselves (or, rather, lose ourselves) in traces of choric activity—sound before sense, action without agency, expression before subjectivity, "vocal and kinetic rhythm."

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Williams’ own "Danse Russe" provides a of map of the territory:

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household? (Williams 1968: 5)

The poem begins by suspending patriarchal order. The speaker’s wife is sleeping, so he is not a husband. The baby is sleeping, so he is not a father. Kathleen is sleeping, so he is not an employer. Immediately then an insistently visual image presents itself, accompanied by the poem’s most densely musical arrangement of sounds. Then the syntax breaks down as this Imagist moment, this fragment of serene chinoiserie, somehow discombobulates the Symbolic order. The break, however, enables the speaker to begin again, and now the silken veil lifts and we see what really matters: a naked poet celebrating his isolation—his loneness, his oneness—singing and dancing and admiring himself in the mirror.

"Danse Russe" presents the mirror as the stage upon which the "happy genius" sings himself and celebrates himself. Conveniently, it serves to demonstrate (or at least to suggest) the relevance of the psychological scheme presented above. But is it a work of imagination in the sense that Williams proposes in Spring and All?

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Perhaps not. Its subjunctive irony is too clever, too self-protective. It’s an interesting poem, but it doesn’t give the feeling of breaking through to a world made new by the imagination. Like Diaghilev’s Russian dance it has a certain violent energy, but coyness blunts its force.

Allen Dunn, in his fine essay on Spring and All ("Williams’s Liberating Need"), emphasizes the necessary violence of the imagination in Williams’ formulations: violence directed against "… the authority of both external cultural ideologies and internal self-prohibitions … which give his poetic identity its repressive coherence" (Dunn 1989: 51). It is a violence that opposes Symbolic order, although Dunn doesn’t put it that way. He proposes that the source of this violence is erotic, "an elemental desire or need which subverts preconceived notions of worth by asserting the libidinal primacy of the moment" (Dunn 1989: 51). Since we are both engaged in psychoanalytic readings of Williams’ theory of imagination, I am obviously in agreement with his proposition. But I would like to suggest that for Williams the most profound and powerful flows of libido are narcissistic. The imagination is, as Williams says, a "force," but it is a force that draws him back towards the narcissistic moment, the moment before the mirror, the Imaginary moment. Regressions of this sort often evoke visions of apocalypse. As Freud points out in his analysis of Dr. Schreber, end of the world fantasies are likely to arise as libido returns towards its first object, the pristine I (Freud 1977: 173). And so Williams writes at the beginning of Spring and All: "The imagination, intoxicated by prohibitions, rises to drunken heights to destroy the world. Let it rage, let it kill" (Williams 1971: 91).

What is left after this wild party? Well, it is spring, and the rain has just stopped, and there’s a red wheelbarrow… But before we stand transfixed before that scene again, let’s follow the logic of Williams’ theory a little longer:

The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words. Its unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence. (Williams 1971: 120)

He does not mean that the imagination generates sentences; he means, rather, something similar to Pound’s "make it new," or to Stevens’ injunction to see the sun with an "ignorant eye" and "not [to] use the rotted names" (Stevens 1982: 380, 183). He means, I think, something like "the imagination makes words new," or "the imagination makes words as if for the first time." And these words are powerfully iconic; that is, they seem somehow to have escaped the limits of mere signification.

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They are not simply arbitrary and conventional signs; they seem to be themselves real things. It is as if the imagination were able to repair the split within the sign, or the self, that is the very condition of its flawed existence. It is as if the imagination were able somehow to recreate for us the founding moment of the first sign, before the seeing I had fallen into the knowledge of the signifier’s truth – separability, otherness, death.

Imagination overcomes the sign’s internal otherness by asserting its own otherness from the law of the Symbolic. When, as Williams puts it, the imagination gives created forms actual existence:

This separates
Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images. …It is not a conscious recording of the day’s experiences "freshly and with the appearance of reality" – This sort of thing is seriously [detrimental?] to the development of any ability in a man, it fastens him down, makes him a – It destroys, makes nature an accessory to the particular theory he is following, it blinds him to his world, – (Williams 1971: 120)

Writing that has not been freed by the imagination binds, blinds, destroys the writer. His word and his world are tangled up in the paternal law that threatens his castration, proclaims his insufficiency, and demands his obedience to a long tradition of "apt similes and pretty thoughts." But the writer of imagination separates himself from the chains of ordinary signification, and doing that he frees not only his word, but the world as well. No longer blind, he gazes upon "A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him (as it most certainly is) with which he has bitter and delicious relations2 and from which he is independent – moving at will from one thing to another – as he pleases, unbound – complete" (Williams 1971: 121).3

At just this point in his essay (if we may call it that) Williams explicitly attacks the image of art as a mirror held up to nature, and does so just when I want to claim that, having somehow freed word and world and poet, the imagination makes possible a return to, or towards, the Mirror Stage. There are, however, mirrors and mirrors; the aphoristic mirror of art evoked by Williams produces only a "sham nature," a superficial copy, an empty repetition. The moment before the mirror of the Imaginary is, however, not a repetition, not a sham – it is the origin, when the self appears as something new, unique, separate, "independent – moving at will from one thing to another – … unbound – complete" (Williams 1971: 121).

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For Williams, the imagination enables a profound, Imaginary mirroring in which poet, poem, and world reflect each other not as a series of repetitions, a system of signs, but as all equally possessing and so mirroring for each other "the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves" (Williams 1971: 121).

I feel something like that when I read "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens (Williams 1971: 138)

Why? As I indicated before, it has to do with the way the poem does and does not make sense. It is a sentence. It obeys in a superficial way the Symbolic law, but mocks it by refusing to say what it is that depends upon the wheelbarrow. Like a koan, it seems designed to engage and frustrate the system of signs we use to obscure and manage what is real. The emphatic enjambment and "mobile-like arrangement" of the words upon the page re-enforce this effect (Stevens qtd. in Kenner 1989: 59). Williams does not spend much time discussing technique in Spring and All; he is more interested in the notion of the imagination as a force or a place or a power. But whatever can be communicated of that force manifests itself in actual poems as technique. I cannot say whether the technical subtlety and power of the poem was consciously calculated, but it is, for me, effective. By minimizing the poem’s Symbolic determination (while keeping it from nonsense) the image – rain-glazed red wheelbarrow, white chicken – rises up in my imagination with unusual vividness. Earlier in this essay I wrote that the poem evokes a "nearly hallucinatory visual impression." I think I should emphasize the word "nearly." If the image had indeed the autonomy of a true hallucination, if it accomplished a regression towards the Imaginary that complete, then the poem would be inducing a full-blown psychosis. It doesn’t do that, but it does, as it were, turn the mind’s eye in that direction, and that, for me, helps to produce an image with a quality bordering on "independent existence."

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If, for Williams, the imagination has the power to free the poet, the poem, and the world, affirming for each their profound, independent reality, then how is that power rooted in narcissism? His concept of imagination seems in fact to be a force that must destroy just such a relation to the world or to the word. Yet the sort of narcissistic reflection that imagination destroys is that of a kind of fallen image; it is an image undermined by an apprehension of its illusory nature; it is a sign caught up in an endless system of similar signs. But we must conceive with Williams the Imaginary moment before the mirror as occurring in an unfallen place, in a once-upon-a-time moment in which nothing felt more true or real. To insist that everything else partakes of a similarly intense sense of realness is an affirmation and a guarantee that we do too. "The Red Wheelbarrow" does not give back to us a superficial image of ourselves. By refusing to do that it aims rather to mirror that sense of unique, profound, essential, ineffable being that (despite every declaration of its illusory nature) makes us feel real. I think it works pretty well.

Finally, what about that which "precedes and underlies figuration and thus specularization, and is analogous only to vocal and kinetic rhythm" (Kristeva, 1984: 26)? What about the music of this poem? In Spring and All, Williams declares that he does "not believe that writing is music" (Williams 1971: 150). At any rate, he feels that the work’s musical elements are not as important as the imaginative liberation of "words…from the usual quality of [their] meaning by transposition into another medium, the imagination" (Williams 1971: 150). The words must still mean, as well as be, although with an unusual quality. The energy of imagination may be, ultimately, a choric energy carrying the poet along a vector of regression, but Williams does not wish to be driven back beyond "figuration" and "specularization." He does not want to abandon sense and image to plunge again into an ocean of pulsating nonsense. Other poets ("certain modern Russians" are his example) may find that possibility appealing, but for Williams the goal is not the semiotic chora, but the moment in front of the mirror—he imagines an Imaginary imagination.4

About "The Red Wheelbarrow" Hugh Kenner writes: "These are stanzas you can’t quite hear … They are stanzas to see, and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify" (Kenner 1989: 58). But of course we can hear them too. They do inflect the speaking voice, and the arrangements of letter and syllable make a subtle but perceptible music. It may not have been quite so subtle for Williams himself. He is reported to have once remarked that "The rhythm, though no more than a fragment, denotes a certain unquenchable exaltation" (Ellmann 1988: 318).

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Unquenchable exaltation? That seems to me more than this rhythm is capable of. Yet Williams doesn’t actually claim that it produces that condition; he says only that it denotes it. I think, perhaps, the poem’s rhythm denotes for Williams a fragmentary recovery of the "jubilant activity" Lacan describes as typical of the Imaginary moment when the chora’s inchoate rhythms find for the first time a form, an image, a meaning (Lacan 1977: 1). I suppose that the music of every poem signifies more profoundly for its maker than it ever will for its readers or hearers. In the end, the power of the imagination must be limited by the nature of the narcissistic structure that gives rise to it.

Meanwhile, SPRING, which has been approaching for several pages, is at last here. (Williams 1971: 98)

There it is, before and beyond all our poems—really there—making it possible for us to imagine poems, and selves, that might be as real as that red lacquered wheelbarrow, those white chickens.


Dunn, Allen (1989): "William’s liberating Need." Journal of Modern Literature XVI:1 Summer, 49-59.

Ellmann, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds (1988): The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund (1989): Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund (1977): "Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia." Three Case Histories. New York: Collier, 103-186.

Kenner, Hugh (1989): A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Kristeva, Julia (1984): Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Haller. New York: Columbia UP.

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Kristeva, Julia (1986): "The True-Real." The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Trans. Sean Hand. New York: Columbia UP, 214-37.

Lacan, Jaques (1977): "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Stevens, Wallace (1982): The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage.

Williams, William Carlos (1971): Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions, 158-227.

Williams, William Carlos (1968): Selected Poems (1912-1962). New York: New Directions.


1 The Mirror-Stage need not involve an actual experience with a mirror; Lacan offers as support for his proposition the fact that some birds need only see another bird of their species to achieve sexual maturation (Lacan 1977: 3). But the image of the child captivated by its mirrored reflection distills the structure of the Imaginary and rightly emphasizes its link to the experience of vision.

2 The phrase "bitter and delicious relations" seems to imply a kind of erotic affair, something passionate and mature. In the preceding sentence, however, the writer of imagination is freed to "taste" the world that he used to carry "like a bag of food" (Williams 1971: 121). The image complex here is in fact regressive – oral, not genital.

3 If the Symbolic is founded on the threat of castration/separation, then to separate from the Symbolic is somehow to deny castration by castrating the castrator. Obviously, this is not easy to do. In the course of attempting such a paradoxical denial one is likely to construct fetishes and, at the extreme, to experience psychotic hallucinations. I must leave it to the reader to decide just how fetishistic and/or hallucinatory "The Red Wheelbarrow" appears to be.

4 One might say that he imagines an Imagist imagination. This psychoanalysis of Williams’ notion of imagination in Spring and All is, I think, applicable (at least in part) to any work that could be called Imagist. Since we cannot call every work of imagination Imagist, it must be possible to conceive a notion of imagination that derives its force primarily from the Symbolic or from the level of the chora, but those are different essays.