William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923)
After an unintentionally long hiatus, our Sunday Science Poem is back. April is National Poetry Month, and this month we’ll read the poetry of the American physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).
“In physics, irreversibility and dissipation were interpreted as degradation, while among natural scientists biological evolution, which is obviously an irreversible* process, was associated with increasing complexity… Today scientists realize that dissipative systems constitute a very large and important class of natural systems.” (Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity (1989), p. 50-51
Nicolis and Prigogine argue that we should no longer take the simple, regular, and stable motions of classical mechanics as the essence of our macroscopic physical world. Rather, we live in “a world of instabilities and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing variety and richness of the forms and structure we see in nature around us.” Nature is characterized by spontaneously organizing structures.
In his poem “Spring and All”, Williams describes the reemergence of biological forms at the end of winter’s barrenness. Winter is characterized by a lack of form with words like “mottled”, “waste”, “fallen”, and “scattering”, while the colors are reddish, brown, or purplish – no green anywhere.
Against the waste and cold wind, living forms slowly appear, naked and uncertain at first, but they soon take on more “defined” shapes: a “stiff curl”, the “outline of leaf”, until these newly self-organized living things make their entrance with “stark dignity” as they “begin to awaken.”
* Irreversible in the physics sense
Spring and All By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines— Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches— They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind— Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined— It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance—Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken
“Spring and All,” William Carlos Williams. Selected Poems, ed. Charles Tomlinson (New York: New Directions, 1985), originally published in Spring and All, (Contact Publishing, 1923)
Find more thoughts about Williams’ “Spring and All” at the University of Illinois Modern American Poetry site.
Read more poetry at the Finch and Pea.
Video Credit: Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction by Hiroshi Kori via YouTube