William Carlos Williams: 'No ideas but in things'

Neil Browne

If the gap between creature and organism is too wide, the creature dies. The words are John Dewey’s, and distill his argument that all life is inextricable from its environment, a premise that also is fundamental to Neil Browne’s current research project.

“Further, human perception of this integral relationship can spark the onset of aesthetic experience,” Browne wrote in summarizing his essay in progress, “John Dewey, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov and the Ecology of the Everyday.” Browne is a Research Fellow and faculty member in the Department of English at OSU’s Cascades Campus. His book, The World in Which We Occur: John Dewey, Pragmatist Ecology, and American Ecological Writing of the Twentieth Century, was published this fall by the University of Alabama Press.
The book, according to one commentator, provides “the first sophisticated theoretical grounding for the field of ecocriticism, and more particularly will help to rescue the genre of nature writing from charges of sentimentality and naiveté.”

The current essay, said Browne, “will extend the work I have done on the relationship between Dewey’s philosophy and environmental thought and art. While the book investigates work, primarily nature writing, that is often explicitly about the natural environment and ecological issues and questions, I plant to extend my inquiry to encompass American poetry and its complex relation to the environment.”

“Environment” is a key word in the discussion. Browne is shifting the focus from consideration of nature as it has come to be understood in the United States—as a place either rural in character or void of human influence—to nature as it is manifest in urban areas and everyday life.
Williams, a pediatrician, wrote in his autobiography, “That is the poet’s business. Not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.” Dewey said the same thing in different words: “The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds.”

In Browne’s view, “Dewey and Williams help us to understand ourselves as inextricably involved in the ecology of everyday life, in what Dewey calls an ‘existential matrix.’ In fact, for Dewey, all art seems to originate in this existential matrix of the everyday. . . I argue that to come back into awareness of all that is around us—even of the aesthetic potential in the sidewalks, buildings, and parks of our cities and towns—can lead to a profound understanding of the ecology of our everyday lives, of our intricate involvement in the physical world. ”

Among the young poets that Williams encouraged was Denise Levertov. In the second part of his essay, Browne will investigate “not only the ways in which Levertov, too, embraces an ecological poetics but also the ways her poetry reflects a change in the culture during and following the Vietnam War, and following the national coming to consciousness of the environmental crisis during the 1960s.”

In her collection of environmentally focused poems, The Life Around Us, Levertov wrote, “In these few decades of the twentieth century it has become ever clearer to all thinking people that although we humans are part of nature ourselves, we have become, in multifarious ways, an increasingly destructive element within it, shaking and breaking the ‘great web’—perhaps irremediably.”

One of Browne’s important research resources is the lively correspondence between Williams and Levertov.

“Together, Dewey, Williams, and Levertov can help us better understand the philosophy, poetics, and ecology of our own lives in towns, subdivisions, and cities.”