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Seeing Red: Williams, Sojun, Stevens

Home » Campus News Latest » Lines of Thinking » Seeing Red: Williams, Sojun, Stevens

by | Feb 11, 2021

Poems of observation, poems that hang like paintings, poems by another insurance executive-poet, poems by another Buddhist monk, and poems that help us see red—these are what I delight in sending to you on a snow-blown afternoon from Yellow Springs. As a bonus, I can tell you that despite the cold, a gorgeously colored pileated woodpecker is at work on the redbud tree outside the kitchen window at this very moment.

Williams Carlos William was a Puerto-Rican American who worked his career as a brilliant poet around his day job as a family physician. I appreciated learning that he has a slight Antioch connection through the Horace Mann High School, a place where he began his studies of poetry and decided to pursue medicine. The latter decision led him to the University of Pennsylvania and a subsequent friendship with Ezra Pound and a leading role in modernist poetry. His piece about a wheelbarrow of a certain color dazzles the heart.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Ikkyū Sojun, a.k.a. Crazy Cloud, was a 15th-century Zen monk from Kyoto. His iconoclastic beliefs and practices led him to reject, among other things, the rigid hierarchy of the Buddhist temple and Japanese political system of his day. A fabled trickster always seeming to outwit the authorities has made him a favorite among young people in Japan.

Just as compact as William’s painting is Sojun’s four-line poem:

Void in Form

When just as they are,
White dewdrops gather
On scarlet maple leaves,
Regard the scarlet beads!

Wallace Stevens (1879 -1955) has been recognized and celebrated as the leading American poet of the first half of the 20th century. Also considered a modernist (he and Williams were friends), the depth of his work, including essays and plays, shaped the contemporary literary and arts genre of the day. After studying Literature at Harvard, he pursued a brief career in journalism and then studied law in New York. That took him into a lengthy and successful occupation as an insurance executive. However, poetry, literature and art happily thrived in his division of labors and passions. (By the way, Ted Kooser, mentioned in the November 2020 Lines of Thinking, was the other insurance executive whose double life has included masterful poetics).

Every time I read “Study of Two Pears,” I find myself drawn to make similar observations but never managing to resist eating the pears first.

Study of Two Pears
Opusculum paegadogom.
The pears are not viols,
nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

In the way they are modeled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

And here is a bonus poem of mine (always works in progress), an homage to the artist Ellsworth Kelly, a kindred creative spirit to the other three poets mentioned.


One day, age five, he spotted a redstart
and followed where it took him:

Into a mother’s gift, The Birds of America
with its boscage of water colors, hand painted engravings;

and from there, to other chasings after,
undiluted, pure color and simple observed line,

abstractions mostly in paint and ink—pencil
drawn natural objects, untinged except by tint of paper—

rendered clean of brush lines or printer’s roller.
Flat geometries floating free, bursting in emotive fullness

Sky bound and concentrated, unstrung and (yet) connected,
in field and consciousness, invisibly soaring

above receding ground and sea, signaling back joyfully
to himself and that tiny warbler.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.