For me, April always has been the true herald of spring. In the two states I’ve called home for the longest, April brings warmer weather that steadily undoes March’s cold whipping winds. And if March yields daffodils, April calls trees to bud and prompts the grass to show a little more green. April, then, brings colorful company to the lonesome brightness of March’s yellow beauties. (I wonder whether the daffodils welcome such companionship, or do they warily regard it as competition?)
April also has another meaning: since 1996, it has been designated as National Poetry Month.
In honor of springtime and National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a poem by William Carlos Williams that I particularly enjoy: “Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital].” It’s a short poem, so I suggest that you give it a quick read. At the very least, scroll down to vote in a quick poll: who is your favorite poet?
“Spring and All” describes early spring: it doesn’t focus on April’s color but rather on the recently-thawed, slick-muddy-brown of March. The first stanza anchors us on a “road to the contagious hospital.” A “cold wind” from the “northeast” blows down from a bluish sky “mottled by clouds.” On either side of the road, the outstretched ground reveals a “waste of broad, muddy fields/ brown with dried weeds.”
Upon closer inspection, however, the empty fields slowly are being taken over by the emerging, inchoate color of “purplish” “bushes,” “grass,” and “the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf.”
Life is peeping out–but into what kind of world? The environment is quite harsh, and not just because of it’s drabness, but because of its inability to protect the very life it has spawned. Indeed, as of yet, spring is “sluggish.” Significantly, the newly emerging buds and tender stalks have no choice but to carry forth, as a “profound change/ has come upon them.” Growth thus is an imperative, and so is survival: “rooted,” life “grip[s] down and begin[s] to awaken.”
In addition to the poem’s haunting portrait of early spring’s rawness, I like its strange, immediate invocation of “the contagious hospital.” Memories of reading this piece during my doctoral qualifying exam preparations (so long ago) are still fresh because of this image. I remember thinking: how does the “contagious hospital”–a seeming non sequitur–shape the poem’s overall message? It has to mean something. (In fact, this is what literary scholars always assume: in a text, all details (or 96% of them) are significant, and the author’s intent regarding their meaning usually doesn’t matter very much at all.)
As I waded deeper into my exam material, I became more attuned to the medical imagery which appeared in the texts I was reading (American literature from the Civil War to the Cold War), and I found that I had more questions than the existing scholarship could answer. I parlayed this interest in the literary representation of physical disease (and its treatments) into a dissertation project, which I’m in the process of completing. Though my dissertation work and teaching, I’ve developed an awareness of a field called the medical humanities, which interestingly, is being taken up with great fervor by medical practitioners themselves.
In my first inaugural post about the medical humanities and what it means to me (and my work), I’ll offer some insight on the medical imagery in “Spring and All,” which includes not only the “contagious hospital,” but also references to childbirth. In discussing how these images shape the poem’s main themes, I’ll also touch on William Carlos Williams’ “day job” as a medical doctor: in what ways did these experience influence his treatment of birth, survival, and growth in “Spring and All”? The University of Illinois maintains a wonderful online repository of literary criticism (and also information on literary history and various author’s biographies), and time permitting, I may respond to some scholarly, published interpretations of “Spring and All” in my reading of the poem’s medical imagery.
I hope to get started on this post soon! In the meantime, I want to know: who’s your favorite poet?