Robert Hass vs. William Carlos Williams, Language vs. Language

The point of a poem is to become wordless…—A. R. Ammons

Weeds often signal neglect, spontaneous testimony that someone hasn’t been attending to her garden. Robert Hass’s poem “Weed” has served that function for me. It’s offered a counter-example to my grand theories about language and weeds, that the word “weed” is always a lazily-named plant—a sign of language’s unrealized potential.  

Hass’s “Weed” shows me that I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to this fascinating linguistic territory. Here’s the poem. Hass begins by riffing on the name of this particular weed, the “horse-parsnip,” explaining that “Horse is Lorca’s word, fierce as wind, / or melancholy, gorgeous, Andalusian.” But this poetic and exotic reading is short lived: “parsnip is hopeless,” states Hass, and to associate these two words with the plant “is history / but conveys nothing.”

The poem contrasts this with Queen Anne’s lace, a name that not only “is history” but also uses that history to “convey” a description of the plant, with the white flowers being the “lace,” and their purple-pink centers being the blood from when Queen Anne pricked her finger while making the lace.

That it’s located in New Jersey suggests that this Queen Anne’s lace belongs to William Carlos Williams. In Williams’s poem, the plant serves an analogue for a woman’s body:

Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire…

In the context of Hass’s poem, I’d like suggest, the overt sexuality of Williams’s poem models a certain mode of language use, a kind of Edenic naming, where Adam named not only the animals, but also “woman”: “She shall be called Woman,” Adam explains, “because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). In other words, “She’s mine.”  For Adam (and for WCW, at least in this poem) names are a form of mastery and possession. So described, it’s hard not to read such naming as gendered and, frankly, sinister: a tool of domination.

But that’s not the sort of naming this poem is interested in. Hass suspends actually stating “horse-parsnip” until the very end of the poem. The poem reads like a riddle whose solution doesn’t much matter. This places “Weed” in similar territory as Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Trees”: language that neither names, nor points to something beyond words, but treats language as a weed, removing it from where it does not belong.

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