Tuesday, September 17, 2013

ModPo 2013 #6 Choice and Desire: On Williams' "Smell!"

Nose illustration from

Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

by William Carlos Williams

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?


I like how there are two layers in the poem: the literal nose and the "boney" appendage that seems to lead some men. Both are preoccupied with indiscriminate desire, both do not filter.

But I'd like to dwell on the chiding tone of Williams. In the video discussion, it treated as a false chiding. It is actually an expression of delight in the base experience. It is a guilty complicity with the "nose." And here, of course, is the connection to Whitman who celebrates the lowest, the cheapest, the closest to natural experience.

And, here, too, I bring up the theme of choice. For while the persona (through his nose) is delighting in and celebrating the smell of souring flowers, festering pulp and rank odors, he does call out the "you" and the "I" as separate. He is complicit, yes, maybe indulgent. But he does distinguish one from the other.

I like that he asks and does not merely state. While the answer could easily be "yes" to every question at the end of the poem, I remember that it is for someone to answer. The nose cannot help what it smells but it is the man who acts upon it. I am reminded, through this poem, that I am not beholden to my "nose." While desire is uncontrollable, choice is not.

The poem is a celebration of what is natural, what is innate in any creature of nature. But the division between the persona and the nose (even if the persona is highly sympathetic to the nose), by the very fact that the persona addresses the nose as separate, is also a marker between indiscriminate desire and choice.

I don't know if I'm over-reading! All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the poem.

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