Songs Beyond the Human: On William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker, Paul Celan, and Ed Roberson


Some poets seem to want to get out of their own heads, as if to find their thinking somewhere other than the human brain. William Carlos Williams is one of these, and he proposes that we hear this other-than-human thinking as “A Sort of a Song”:

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things!) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rock. [1]

That Williams elects saxifrage (saxum = rock, frangere = to break) as his emblem implies that splitting and reconciliation are equal parts of the poet’s work. Is it only in pieces that the world can be rearranged? The song itself is a series of splits and connections, its sinuous syntax stretched across steep enjambments, the dash at its core both rupture and suture. Familiar words crack open to reveal their etymologies, as if they might think for themselves, as if linguistic history might remind us of the thinginess forgotten in words we tend now to use abstractly. By apposition, the poem links “reconcile” (to recombine elements that have been sundered), “compose” (to place things in relation to one another), and “invent” (both to create and, according to the OED, to “discover” or “come upon”) as the verbs proper to poetry. To “reconcile / the people and the stones” is to bring the human and the non-human back into sympathy, and the mode of reconciliation is “metaphor,” or “carrying over” one thing to another. Simply com-posing them in parallel, Williams compares “writing” to “the snake” in the first stanza, thus discovering the physical presence of the poetry he seeks. Instead of an instrument of disembodied reasoning, the poem suggests, writing might be a wakeful, animal responsiveness to one’s environment—an openness to the ideas held in things.

Rather than by syntactical torque or forceful splitting and joining, Lorine Niedecker’s verse often works by patient dilation, sometimes a kind of relaxation into the non-human world. Here’s a short poem from her 1967 sequence “Traces of Living Things”:

            on their heads

Thoughts on things
      fold unfold
            above the river beds [2]

The dispersed rhyme of “mergansers” with “fans / on their” is one of my all-time favorite sound effects in poetry. It’s a moment of perfect, seemingly effortless linguistic perception, the description of a species unfolding inevitably from the sounds of its name. Or is it, as the second stanza might suggest, the other way around—that the thought named by merganser, and the further thought that the duck might be an image of thought, breathe gently above the ducks’ own heads? The lightness of Niedecker’s touch, these lines and stanzas placed just so in slanted parallel, allows the poem to float in a figurative exchange of mind and environment. Reading it, I can feel my head opening to the world, almost dissolving into it, dreaming on a bed of sound.                    

How much more can be said about Paul Celan’s iconic poem “Fadensonnen”? The poem first appeared in his 1967 book Atemwende, then gave its title to his next book, published in 1968, and has since been read many times as a declaration, however attenuated, of Celan’s poetics:

über der grauschwarzen Ödnis.
Ein baum-
hoher Gedanke
greift sich den Lichtton: es sind
noch Lieder zu singen jenseits
der Menschen. [3]

above the grayblack waste.
A tree-
high thought
grips the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
the human.

I lack the perspective to comment usefully upon the broader commitments of Celan’s poetry, but read alongside Williams and Niedecker, this poem strikes me—grips me—as another attempt to think beyond (jenseits, or “on the other side” of) the human form, to perceive in another scale. Not a “brain-sized” but a “tree- / high thought,” doing its own thing, held by no head in particular. Celan’s poems of this period are full of strange breakages and peculiar compounds, as though he were trying to split the world and re-coordinate its parts in new, perhaps less human, configurations. Some translators render “der Menschen” as “mankind,” “humankind,” or “humanity,” but I prefer simply “the human,” which sounds a little more like “der Menschen” and manages to suggest the abstract generality of “humanity” while retaining the dimensions of an individual human body. So while we can read Celan as commenting on the persistence of poetry’s “singing” on the far side of a ruined civilization, we might also hear the poem as an act of listening for songs beyond or outside the human voice. What or how might a tree full of warblers think, for instance, in a gray spring woods thinly lit by filaments of song borrowed from the sun itself?

And how might it feel to be a blue whale feeling the water roll off its hundred feet of skin? In Ed Roberson’s 2021 poem “Wine-dark Sea,” the imagination rapidly traverses non-human feeling and human thinking, each couplet holding its own only for a moment before wheeling out of one scale into another:

The amount of water a blue whale must feel
along its skin from its nose to its tail

a hundred feet away    must fill
an Olympic size pool of thought.

The thought of a pool left in the rocks
by the receding tide holds my reflection. 

The second couplet translates the non-human vastness of the whale’s body and the water it moves through into decidedly human units of measurement. The ocean shrinks to a swimming pool, but as the pool turns into a metaphor for thinking, it stretches the human brain into relative hugeness. And before we can cross that pool, the simple reversal of a prepositional phrase transports us back to the literal ocean, or what remains of it when the tide goes out. The “reflection” is at once the poet’s face and his act of thinking—both recognized outside his head, held temporarily in a thin layer of salt water. And then:

The oceanic glaze of the planet paints all this
a hot minute on a hot rock

in a cold sky      cloud mists
of star     galaxies —

Inches from my fingertips  a cold drink
the thin slice of a spherical lime

wheels a glorious drunkenness.    Does the whale
feel the whole ocean, the planet   roll off it? [4]

The poem goes planetary (while its ceramic imagery retains the scale of human artifice and lightly implies the presence of another spinning wheel) and then galactic, even intergalactic, before coming back down to the intimacy of fingertips and the coolness of a gin and tonic—a very thin slice of life on the spherical Earth. The poem goes to my head, and I’m reeling in the imagined wake of multiple movements all happening right now: the Earth is still turning, and somewhere in its oceans, a blue whale rolls the water off its skin. My eye rotates across the page. To try to hold in my head life on this planet at this “hot minute”—so brief in the planet’s life, the planet’s life briefer still in the lives of galaxies—induces a sort of vertigo. How does a whale feel? And this is only half the poem—


[1] William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Vol. 2: 1939-1962. ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1988), 55.

[2] Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 246.

[3] Paul Celan, Selections. trans. and ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 98.

[4] Ed Roberson, Asked What Has Changed. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2021), 37.

Patrick Morrissey's third book of poems, Light Box, was published by Verge Books in 2023. His essays have appeared in Chicago Review, Harp & Altar, and Textual Practice. He teaches at the University of Chicago.