Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 2014 American Literature Association Conference, taking place May 22-25. I will be presenting this paper on a panel organized by the William Carlos Williams society, titled, “William Carlos Williams: The Poet-Doctor as Environmentalist.” The panel will be taking place 11:10-12:30 on May 23.
Apocalypse on Repeat: William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and the Nuclear Imagination
Long out of print after their initial publication in 1923, the prose sections of Spring and All offer remarkable critical avenues for discussing William Carlos Williams’s environmentalism. Serving as both a frame for some of his more well-known poetry and a theoretical engagement with the volume’s central concern—the imagination—the prose of Spring and All cannot help but strike a contemporary reader with its anticipation of the post-apocalyptic and eco-disaster narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To begin the aesthetic work of poetic composition, Spring and All enacts total destruction followed by material repetition in order to allow Williams to formulate an imagination distinct from a romantic apocalyptic, a formulation essential for the development of his ecopoetics. The imagination in Spring and All is a material force. It is vibrant, organic, and radioactive. It is scientific and geological, and it is concerned with atomic physics well before the atom was split. This paper will argue that Spring and All articulates what I have called elsewhere a nuclear imagination. Drawing upon current reconsiderations of modernism’s relationship to atomic technology and my own conversations with J. Hillis Miller about Williams’s poetry and romanticism, I will suggest that Williams, through embracing this destructive, recursive, ironic, nuclear imagination, abandons an eschatology that could in any way be positive, even as something to be gone “beyond.” In this way, reconsidering Spring and All opens up a space for the contemporary environmental imagination that is neither apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic, but rather thoroughly material and ecological.