Reading a Poem the Ignatian Way: William Carlos Williams’ “Shadows”

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Reading a poem is a lot like praying in the Ignatian tradition. St. Ignatius encountered God through his imagination, and the poem requires the reader’s imagination to complete its meaning. One of my favorite aspects of the Ignatian tradition is the focus on the “composition of place” in prayer, where we place ourselves in a scene, typically from Scripture, and use all of the senses to come to a place of encounter with God. I want to propose that reading a poem is like this, and can be a place of encounter with God, especially if we approach it with our senses and imagination, as we would with a contemplative prayer.

I grew up in New Jersey, and, lately, I have been absorbing myself in poetry written by people who also grew up in the Garden State. One of the most well-known poets from New Jersey is William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Living almost the entirety of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams was committed to his place and to its people (this is something that the writer, activist and poet Wendell Berry admires). Not only was he a successful poet and part of the modernist and imagist movements, but Williams was also a physician. He practiced as a family doctor for his community and apparently delivered over 3,000 babies.

Williams’ most famous poems probably include “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say,” but I want to read section two of his poem “Shadows” as an example of reading contemplatively, as Ignatius would. Using the “three-part line” that he invented as part of his experimentation with poetic form, this section of the poem reads:

Ripped from the concept of our lives
                  and from all concept
                                  somehow, and plainly,
the sun will come up
                  each morning
                                  and sink again.
So that we experience
                  violently
                                  every day
two worlds
                  one of which we share with the
                  rose in bloom
                                  and one,
by far the greater,
                  with the past,
                                 the world of memory,
the silly world of history,
                  the world
                                 of the imagination.
Which leaves only the beasts and trees,
                  crystals
                                 with their refractive
                                 surfaces
and rotting things
                  to stir our wonder.
                                 Save for the little
central hole
                  of the eye itself
                                  into which
we dare not stare too hard
                  or we are lost.
                                  The instant
trivial as it is
                  is all we have
                                  unless—unless
things the imagination feeds upon,
                  the scent of the rose,
                                  startle us anew.

This poem directly addresses imagination and has something to say to the reader about it. Beginning with the sense of sight, we might notice that in the poem, the first concrete thing we “see” is the sun. This makes sense, since it is the first thing to rise each morning. Perhaps this will become important to the poem later. Next, the poem’s speaker offers us a rose to consider and “two worlds.” There are other abstract things — memory, history. But then there are beasts and trees and crystals. There is the eye; so, sight is important here. The rose returns at the end.

“Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a glass vase,” Daniel Seghers, SJ, public domain

If we engage the sense of hearing and read the poem out loud, we might hear words repeated. The words “world” and “imagination” get repeated the most. There are lines with alliteration and lines with internal rhyme, such as “we dare not stare too hard.” The poem creates its own rhythm and music.  As far as the sense of smell goes, we finish the poem with the scent of the rose, but earlier there are “rotting things” mentioned.

As we read again a third time, we consider what our senses have shown to us and try to begin making meaning. The poem starts by saying, even if we are ripped from all concept of our lives, and all concepts, the sun still rises each day and then “sinks again.” This should remind us that every day, we a part of what is happening now in the present — the “rose in bloom” — and simultaneously, we share in what is timeless — memory, history, imagination. It is the “rotting things” and “beasts and trees” that should “stir our wonder.” The things we find in the present, in other words, help us enter into the timeless world.

“The instant/ trivial as it is/ is all we have,” unless we allow it to bring us into that other “far greater” world outside of time. The rose in bloom is just a rose in bloom, the speaker says, “unless/ things the imagination feeds upon,/ the scent of the rose,/ startle us anew.” How Ignatian! God is present in all things, and if we do not activate our awareness to this mystery, we miss it. The present moment may seem trivial and mundane, but it is also these very moments that bring us into a deeper and wider sense of existence.

Williams’ poem meditates on imagination itself, but all art — especially poetry, I would contest — can be read with the senses and imagination as a way to bring us into a deeper awareness of reality, both the visible and invisible sacramental reality of the world God has created.