Subjectivity, Objectivity, and the Différance Between:
Recognizing the universal through particulars in William Carlos Williams’ “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”
In a 1987 essay titled “Embodying the Universal: Williams’ “Choral: The Pink Church,” Donald W. Markos examines the Platonic implications of William Carlos Williams way of embodying the universal through particulars. He concludes with a challenge for future writers, that “Perhaps one goal for future studies of Williams will be to sort out two different strands of idealism—a subjective idealism which holds the mind to be the total arbiter of what the external world signifies, and an objective idealism which respects an objective order in things, the foundation of the universal” (31). I will argue that Williams would have found ridiculous the idea of such a binary stratification between subject and object, indeed, that what most interested Williams was the interconnection and inseparability of the two. Neither do I agree with J. Hillis Miller’s view, which Markos was responding to, that for Williams “space (object) and the mind (subject) are identical” (Markos 21, my additions in parentheses). What was important for Williams was not the necessity of deciding between subjectivist and objectivist aesthetics, or of fusing them so as to make the distinctions unrecognizable, but creating a poetry which shuttles between the two. Subject interprets object, object affects subject’s interpretation, and so on.
This play of meaning can be viewed through the lens of Jacques Derrida’s différance. Derrida used this term in his effort to show the primacy of writing over speech. Différance, as Christopher Norris explains in his introductory text Deconstruction, is a term that resists being reduced to a single meaning, since the anomalous spelling creates a sense of the word which “remains suspended between the two French verbs ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’, both of which contribute to its textual force but neither of which can fully capture its meaning” (Norris 31-32). This relates to writing because interpretation in even its smallest sense, as in looking at two different colors and recognizing one as red and one as blue, relies on a recognition that is tied up in the idea that each is recognizable because its meaning is made through a deferral of other possible meanings. In other words, we know that blue is blue and red is red, not because of any self-present or metaphysical presence within blue or red, but because blue is different from red. Blue is not red, nor is it any other color we might think of. The sense of blue comes to us through the deferral of all other possible significations we could give it. We might even go so far as to say that all other possible signification is contained in that one term since without the other terms, the first could not exist.
In the same way, Williams’ sense of the objective and subjective are involved in a play of difference and deferral. Each depends on the presence of the other, and the most importance is placed on the space, or différance, between them, as opposed to assigning a stable meaning to each. We will see, in examining Williams’ “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” how this space is exposed, and how this dynamic relationship between subject and object serves the complex mode through which the local embodies the universal. Before moving on to the poem, however, I want to look at the subject/object binary in philosophical terms in order to set up a framework from which to view the poem.
Returning to Markos’ idea of two distinct types of idealism, it becomes very difficult to take sides, since strong arguments can be made for either one. Different subjects will interpret a single object, say a basketball, quite differently, even given their best attempts at objectivity. The first type of idealism, in which the mind is the arbiter of signification, might be supported by a listing of those different views of that single object. On the other hand, who could argue against the singular state of the object itself? This particular ball was made through a particular process with particular materials, that very process and those very materials, and no others. So the ball is the ball that it is, and no other ball, an “objective” object, which supports the second strand of idealism, in which there is an objective order to things. The problem now is that we can see support for both a purely subjective and a purely objective view of the world. Can they coexist? Must they? In the example of the ball, the subject could not write (interpret) the ball if the ball were not there. At the same time, the ball could not be signified as a ball if the subject were not there to write it. This suggests a dependence between the two- subject and object remain distinct (against Miller’s view of them as identical) yet neither can be privileged over the other (against Markos’ challenge to choose one or the other).
This inability to come to a solid resting place for meaning is related to différance. Subject and object differ while they continue to defer meaning onto one another. We will see this play of subject and object in Williams’ poem shortly, but first a brief discussion of the relationship of the local to the universal. In the case of our ball, which was made in a specific place and is visible in a specific space as we look at it, the ball has locality. Often in the writing of Williams, it is through local, particular, or specific details, that he manages to connect his experience to our own, even if his distinct sensual experience isn't the same as ours. When people talk about a universal truth or emotion, they are generally talking about something which is thought to be the same for all people. In the sense of sameness, it would seem that unless there is an agreed upon set of particulars that signify or constitute a universal, the universal cannot exist, except in the most vague, abstract terms. This is certainly not the definition of universal meant by Williams, who wrote “The natural corrective is the salutary mutation in the expression of all truths, the continual change without which no symbol remains permanent. It must change, it must reappear in another form to remain permanent” (Markos 23). The key to understanding Williams’ conception of the universal, then, is change. Instead of a fixed set of particulars (local details), the signifiers for a given universal are fluid. We tend to demand great things of universals, and perhaps this way of looking at them is the only way to preserve their impact. As Markos puts it, “Williams’ focus on particulars is a way through to the universal, bypassing—as far as possible—stale, conventional conceptions of what the universal is.”
In an essay titled “Regional Particulars and Universal Statement in Southern Writing,” Albert Murray writes about the way his own stories convey a universal sense of humanity through the local: “it is precisely by processing the raw materials of my Southern experience into universal esthetic statement that I am most likely to come to terms with my humanity as such” (3). He goes on to write that those regional particulars “must be processed into artistic statement, stylized into significance”(3). I can’t help but feel that Williams does something similar with his poetry, as when, in “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” he processes a description of his mother’s grief into an intimate statement of universal human grief.
Williams’ poems create an interesting relationship between subject and object and embody of the universal in the local. The subject present in many of Williams’ poems, whether the implied viewer in “Flowers by the Sea,” the singular speaker confessing in “This is Just to Say,” the wistful grandfather in “Suzy” or the unashamed dancer, nude before the mirror in “Danse Russe,” is a subject mired in the materiality of his world. Certainly we see Williams as an individual with a distinct body and voice, but it is not the sort of voice which views itself as its own source of knowledge and creativity. This is not the mind as “total arbiter of what the world signifies,” nor is it a subject separate from or singularly focused on the foundational aspects of the objects it examines. It is a subject who appears at times as object, and who gives us a local world so vibrant that we do, indeed, arrive there. Williams succeeds in invoking the inverse of his statement “From me where I stand to them where they stand in their here and now—where I cannot be—I do in spite of that arrive! through their work which complements my own, each sensually local” (Collins 282). In this way, particulars have become universal.
“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” is written in the voice of a grieving widow. Given other poems in which Williams writes about his own life and his relationship with his mother (“The Horse Show”), it is impossible not to draw the connection that Williams must be taking on the persona of his mother in this poem. Regardless of who the woman is, she is at once the subject and the object of the poem, since to take on the presence of another is, in a sense, to objectify her. From the beginning, the subject/object binary is complicated. Moving on to the title, there is an attempt made to distance the subject, the widow, from a state of singular subjecthood. The poem could have been simply titled “The Widow,” but instead we are given “The Widow’s Lament,” so the poem is now about the object which issues from her, and not only that, but the lament is temporally placed, in springtime. This localization and distancing serves to blur the distinction between subject and object, while at the same time preserving each in a paratactic arrangement of the widow with her lament.
Next we move on to the sensual objects of the poem, the grass, plumtree, flowers, cherry branches, bushes, meadows, woods, and marsh. These are the most concrete parts of the poem; they are all either living objects we could touch or distinct places we could go to. The interesting thing is that they are interpreted by a subject, in a double sense, since the widow is looking at them through the lens of her sorrow, while Williams is writing them through his perceptions of how his mother sees them. Again, this brings subject and object into relationship, preserving the presence of each but emphasizing the back and forth motion between the two. When Williams writes
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 turned away forgetting
we see the branches heavy with blossom but we are aware of their weight as it relates to the weight of the widow’s grief. We are aware that she formerly felt joy at the appearance of these spring tokens but now she has forgotten that joy. Her perception of these objects, which are presented as the same objects which were present in past springtimes, has changed. This recalls Kay Harel’s proposition that “again is an oxymoron.” In a sense, the widow is not seeing these spring flowers again, she is seeing them for the first time because of her new circumstances.
Joy and grief, especially when linked to spring and death, might be thought of as universals. What Williams does, in linking those universals to the particulars of the blossoms, bushes, and branches, is to embody them. The particulars have become steps along the road to “bypassing . . . stale, conventional conceptions of what the universal is.” The widow’s joy and grief are not vague abstractions, but lived experience in this case, lived through the widow’s experience of certain objects. The interplay of subject and object have been crucial in arriving at this sense of an embodied universal. The particulars offered have provided the spark of energy that preserves the impact of universals such as joy and grief, or as Markos puts it, “Each manifestation of the universal in a particular involves elements of difference or novelty” (23).
In the section that follows, in which the son enters the poem, grief is embodied even more intensely. The widow listens to her son tell her about a place he saw, and the description illicits an expression of desire from the widow. From
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
we move to the widow’s grief-stricken desire:
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
She does not say “I feel heartbroken,” or “I am dying of grief,” but the expression of grief is there in the particulars, in a universally understandable way. As readers, through the particulars, we have arrived there. These are not simply particulars of sensual objects. They are the telling of the situation, the implicating of a complex set of circumstances that lead to this expression of grief. That it is her son describing what he saw to her is a key distancing. That she would like to fall into the flowers her son describes is fascinating. The effects of perception are multilayered. The widow’s perception of her son’s description of his perception are what have given her this way of expressing her desire to die. She does not only mirror what her son has told her in this desire, but adds her own piece. She also wants to sink into the marsh near the flowered trees. The marsh perhaps comes from her own memory or imagination of the place, since her son, as she states it, did not mention a marsh in his description. Subject and object are not one here, but they are not absolutely distinct. They shift and play in a place where any assumptions of solidity in the differences between them have been destabilized.
“Writing, for Derrida, is the ‘free play’ or element of undecidability within every system of communication” (Norris 28, my italics). It might thus appear easy to apply Derrida’s sense of writing as interpretation to Williams’ work as a whole, since différance seems to fit so well with the way subject and object are presented in the poems. This, however, becomes problematic when it is taken into account that Markos sees Platonic implications in Williams’ embodiment of the universal by the local. He quotes Williams from the Prologue to Kora in Hell in support of Williams Platonic views. “Much more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question” (Markos 30). In this quote there are echoes of Plato’s preference for the form, or idea, of a thing, over the thing itself. “Inimitable particles of dissimilarity” do seem to hint at a foundational view of the object, an idea that things can be reduced to their forms, and that those forms are stable foundations for thought. However, I do think Williams choice of the word “particle” is interesting in this case. A particle is in itself a thing, and a particle of air or dirt or plumblossom or anything, might be seen as a small particular of that thing, not necessarily the form of it. And the keen power Williams refers to, which at first might seem to refer to a godly, universal power of knowledge, might ultimately be nothing more than the very power of writing, or différance, that Derrida would bring to the forefront decades later.
As we have seen, Williams neither ascribes to a subjectivist aesthetics, in which the subject is its own source of truth, nor can it be said that the subject’s interpretive powers are separate from the object. And neither do subject and object fuse into a single realm. Instead, a free play between subject and object, through a series of particulars, serves to embody universals, making Williams’ poetry appealing to a wide audience even though so much of what he writes is rooted in the local. To sum it up in Williams’ own words, “the artist does exactly what every eye must do with life, fix the particular with the universality of his own personality” (Williams 17). Différance may be seen as one way Williams sought to accomplish “some approximate co-extension with the universe” (Miller 16-17). Williams, naturally, thought this was “possible by aid of the imagination” (ibid). And how could the imagination function without difference and deferral, or différance?
 Writing in its Derridean sense is extremely difficult to define, since, as Norris writes, “The deconstructive leverage supplied by a term like writing depends on its resistance to any kind of settled or definitive meaning” (Norris 31). Thus, the simplification of the term to interpretation may prove useful in the study this paper proposes, but is by no means intended as a definitive explication of the term. [Back to text]
Markos, Donald W. “Embodying the Universal: Williams’
Murray, Albert. “Regional Particulars and Universal Statement in Southern Writing”. Callaloo. 0.38 (1989): 3-6.
Williams, William Carlos.
“Prose from ‘Spring and All’”. William Carlos
Williams: A collection of critical essays. Miller, J. Hillis
Carlos. “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” The William Carlos Williams Reader. Ed. M.S.