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William Carlos Williams, 1883–1963

William Carlos Williams; drawing by David Levine

William Carlos Williams, poet and physician. Trained to crises of sickness and parturition that often came at odd hours. An ebullient man, sorely vexed in his last years, and now at rest. But he had this exceptional good luck: that his appeal as a person survives in his work. To read his books is to find him warmly there, everywhere you turn.

In some respects, the physician and the poet might be viewed as opposites, as they certainly were at least in the sense that time spent on his patients was necessarily time denied to the writing of poetry. But that’s a superficial view. In essence, this man was an imaginative physician and a nosological poet. His great humaneness was equally present in both roles, which contributed essentially to the development of each other.

There is no thing that with a twist of the imagination cannot be something else,” he said in an early work, whereby he could both use flowers as an image of lovely womanhood and speak of pathology as a “flower garden.” The principle made for great mobility, for constant transformations that might affect a writer in late years somewhat like trying to run a hundred yards in ten seconds flat. At the same time, such shiftiness in the new country of the poet’s mind allowed for imaginal deflections that could be at once secretive and expressive. Also (except that the simile fails to bring out the strongly personal aspect of the work) his “objectivism” was like inquiring into baseball not in terms of the rule book, but rather by noting the motions and designs which the players in some one particular game might make with reference to the trajectories of a sphere that, sometimes thrown, sometimes struck, took various courses across a demarcated field. Such constant attempts to see things afresh, as “facts,” gave him plenty to do. For he proceeded circumstantially, without intellectualistic shortcuts—and with the combined conscientiousness of both disciplines, as man of medicine and medicine man.

An anecdote might help indicate what I have in mind about Williams. (For present purposes, I think, we should refer to him thus, though the usage does greatly misrepresent my personal attitude.) Some years after Williams had retired from his practice as a physician, and ailments had begun to cripple him, we were walking slowly on a beach in Florida. A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.

I thought to myself (though not then clearly enough to say so): “And here I’ve learned one more thing about Williams’ doctrine of ‘contact.’ ” It concerned the “tactus eruditus,” and I quote words that he had tossed, as a line all by itself, into a somewhat rough-and-tumble outburst, “This is My Platform,” he had written in the twenties.

Some forty years earlier, when I had first haggled with him about this slogan (which is as basic to an understanding of him as the statement of poetic policy he makes several times in his writings, “No ideas but in things”), the talk of “contact” had seemed most of all to imply that an interest in local writing and language should replace my absorption in Thomas Mann’s German and André Gide’s French. Next, it suggested a cult of “Amurricanism” just at the time when many young writers, copying Pound and Eliot, were on the way to self-exile in Europe while more were soon to follow. (I mistakenly thought that I was to be one of them.) Further, it seemed to imply the problematical proposition that one should live in a small town like Rutherford rather than in the very heart of Babylon (or in some area that, if not central to the grass roots of the nation, was at least close to the ragweed).

But over the years, as Williams persisted unstoppably in his ways, the nature of his writings gradually made it clear that the implications of “contact” and its particular kind of “antipoetry” were quite different, and went much deeper. I feel sure that, whatever may be our uncertainties about the accidents of his doctrine, its essence resides in the kind of physicality imposed upon his poetry by the nature of his work as a physician. Thus, as with the incident of the dog, my understanding of his slogan took a notable step forward when, some time after giving up his practice, he said explosively that he missed the opportunity to get his hands on things (and he made gestures to do with the delivering of a child). However, my thesis is not made any easier by the fact that, while including Aaron Burr among his band because Burr felt the need “to touch, to hear, to see, to smell, to taste” (thus being “intact” in the ways of contact), at the same time Williams disapproved of Franklin, “the face on the penny stamp,” and complained with regard to Franklin’s perpetual tinkering: “To want to touch, not to wish anything to remain clean, aloof—comes always of a kind of timidity, from fear.”

The point is this: For Williams any natural or poetic concern with the body as a sexual object was reinforced and notably modified by a professional concern with the body as a suffering or diseased object. (Think how many of his stories testify to his sympathetic yet picturesquely entertaining encounters with wide areas of both physical and social morbidity.) The same relation to the human animal in terms of bodily disabilities led him to a kind of democracy quite unlike Whitman’s, despite the obvious influence of Whitman upon him. “After some years of varied experience with the bodies of the rich and the poor a man finds little to distinguish between them, bulks them as one and bases his working judgments on other matters.” (In any case, the political editorializing in Whitman’s come-one-come-all attitude had lost its meaning, other than as a pleasant sentiment, in proportion as Congress erected legal barriers to the flow of immigrants by a quota system.)

The same stress upon the all-importance of the bodily element accounts also for the many cruel references to subsidence that are scattered through The Collected Later Poems. (We shall later get to the earlier, more athletic stages.) Consider “The Night Rider,” for instance, that begins, “scoured like a conch/ or the moon’s shell/ I ride from my love/ through the damp night,” and ends: “the pulse a remembered pulse/ of full-tide gone.” The theme naturally lends itself to other kinds of imagery: “The old horse dies slow”; the portrait of an old goat, “listless in its assured sanctity”; a time of drought (“The Words Lying Idle”); the tree, stretched on the garage roof, after a hurricane; homage to the woodpecker, “stabbing there with a barbed tongue which succeeds”; apostrophizing the self, “why do you try/ so hard to be a man? You are/ a lover! Why adopt/ the reprehensible absurdities of/ an inferior attitude?”; with the mind like a tidal river, “the tide will/ change/ and rise again, maybe”; there is the theme of “The Thoughtful Lover” who finds that “today/ the particulars of poetry” require his “whole attention”; and of a “Bare Tree” he writes, “chop it down/ and use the wood/ against this biting cold.” In this group, certainly, would belong “The Injury,” an account of the poet lying in a hospital bed; he hears “an engine/ breathing—somewhere/ in the night:—soft coal, soft coal,/ soft coal”; in terms of the laboring engine’s sounds as he interprets them, he makes plans for the next phase, “the slow way…if you can find any way.” This expression of dispiritedness wells up so simply, so spontaneously, it is itself a poignantly beautiful instance of spirit. And for a happy and charming variation on such themes, there is “Spring is Here Again, Sir,” ending:

We lay, Floss and I, on
the grass together, in
the warm air a bird flew
into a bush, dipped our
hands in the running water—
cold, too cold; but found
it, to our satisfaction,
as in the past, still wet.

The sullen reference (already quoted) to using the “bare tree” as firewood reminds us that whereas in an early poem fires came “out of the bodies/ Of all men that walk with lust at heart,” in later poems the theme of fire could be modified by merging with connotations of the purgative. Thus, there is the ecstatic section to do with fire in Paterson. And his rightly well-known piece, “Burning the Christmas Greens,” interweaves this elation of the purgative with the color that is always the best of omens in Williams’ work. I have at times got courage from the thought that a poem of his, entitled “At Kenneth Burke’s Place,” has for its ending a reference to a greening apple, “smudged with/ a sooty life that clings, also,/ with the skin,” and despite a bit of rot “still good/ even unusual compared with the usual.”

But this moves us to a further step in his benignly nosological approach to the subject-matter of poetry. I refer to his interest in the sheer survival of things, so that he would record the quality of an ungainly apple from a gnarled old unpruned, unsprayed tree, “as if a taste long lost and regretted/ had in the end, finally, been brought to life again.” Thus it seems almost inevitable that he should get around to writing a long poem, “The Desert Music.” Along these lines, I have thought that an ideal subject for a poem by him would be a gallant description of weeds, wildflowers, bushes and low trees gradually carving out a livelihood for themselves in the slag piles around Scranton. This would be done without sentimentality. (Poems of his like that can’t be sentimental, for they say what’s actually there in front of him, as with his lines on the rat, surviving even infections deliberately imposed by the hellish ingenuity of man-made plagues, an animal “well/ suited to a world/ conditioned to such human ‘tropism/ for order’ at all cost.”) Here would belong his many poems that, by the very accuracy of their description, testify to his delight in scattered, improvised bits of beauty, as with things one can see during that most dismal of transitions, “Approach to a City” (tracks in dirty snow, “snow/ pencilled with the stubble of old/ weeds,” dried flowers in a bar-room window, while “The flags in the heavy/ air move against a leaden/ ground.” In such observations, he says, he can “refresh” himself. Cannot one easily see how his doctoring figured here, teaching him never to overlook “a mud/ livid with decay and life,” and where the doctor had found sheer life, challenging the poet to go a step further and spontaneously find it beautiful, as a theologian might have striven to find it good?

See, on this point, “The Hard Core of Beauty,” describing things on “the/ dead-end highway, abandoned/ when the new bridge went in finally.” Just stop for a while, go back over that line, ponder on each moment—and I’m sure you’ll agree that, whatever its cruel, spare sharpness, there’s something softly nostalgic like a voice heard through a mist. Within it there’s the thought that never left him, the beauty and cleanness of the river around the falls at Paterson, before its rape by the drastic combination of raw politics, raw technics and raw business. (In earlier years, he referred to the area as “the origin today of the vilest swillhole in christendom, the Passaic river.”) All the time the poet-doctor is pointing out, again and again, what survives, there is also the poignancy of what is lost. And in Paterson, along with the love, there is the tough, unanswerable, legalistio documentation of man’s brutal errors, and their costliness to man. As he put it in another book, “Poised against the Mayflower is the slave ship.” This too was contact. And he has done for that damned botched area just west of the Hudson (that hateful traffic-belching squandering of industrial power atop the tidal swamps) something quite incredible: he has made it poignantly songful. He went on singing, singing, singing, while the rivers and the soil and the air and the fires became progressively more polluted in the name of Progress, while more and more of the natural beauties were ripped apart, singing while each year there spread inexorably farther west a cancerous growth of haphazard real-estating that came to enclose his own fine old house in some measure of the general urban sprawl. When the sun rises behind “the moody/ water-loving giants of Manhattan,” eight miles to the east, they must cast their shadows for a time on the houses west of the Meadows. And in any case the troublous monsters at a distance, magical in the morning or evening mist, did unquestionably east their shadows on his work.

I have said that Williams was never “sentimental.” But I must say more on this point, in view of Wallace Stevens’ remark in his preface to Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931: ” ‘The Cod Head’ is a bit of pure sentimentalization; so is ‘The Bull.’ ” But, as you must expect of Stevens, the word is used in a quite alembicated sense, to name “what vitalizes Williams,” and to serve as a proper accompaniment to his “antipoetic” side. To see most quickly how the two motives work together, one needs but think of a gruffly beautiful line like “the moon is in/ the oak tree’s crotch.” Or “Little frogs/ with puffed out throats,/ singing in the slime.”

I meant that Williams’ typical use of imagery does not involve false or forced sentiment. If I correctly interpret Wallace Stevens’ “Nuances of a Theme by Williams” (in Harmonium), Stevens meant by sentiment any personal identification with an object, as distinct from an appreciation of it in its pure singularity, without reference to its possible imaginary role as a mirror of mankind.

In this sense, Williams is “sentimental.” For all his “objectivist” accuracy, Williams’ details are not in essence descriptions of things but portraits of personalities. Typically in his poems the eye (like a laying on of hands), by disguised rituals that are improvised constantly anew, inordinates us into the human nature of things.

As regards the two poems that Stevens specifically mentions, the ending of “The Cod Head” (“a severed cod-head between two/ green stones—lifting/ falling”) involves associations that might ultimately fit better with a title somehow combining “severed godhead” and “codpiece”—and something similar is obviously afoot at the end of the poem “The Bull”: “Milkless/ he nods the hair between his horns/ and eyes matted/ with hyacinthine curls.” As with Marianne Moore, Williams’ observations about animals or things are statements about notable traits in people. Along with their ostensible nature, the sympathetic reader gets this deeper dimension as a bonus, an earned increment. Let’s be specific. I shall quote a brief item that, if it doesn’t seem almost like nonsense, must seem like what it is, a marvel:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

Here is the account of a consummate moment in the motions of an unassuming cat, an alleycat, I like to think, that just happened to have a home—plus the inanity of the consummation, as hinted by the empty flowerpot. How differently a dog would have managed, barging in and doubtless bumping the flowerpot over! What trimness the poet brings to his representation of trimness! And in its perfectly comic study of perfection, it is so final, I could easily imagine it being used as the epilogue to something long and arduous. Inevitably, he called the lines just “Poem.”

Stevens’ point led us away from our main point. But in his own way he leads us back again, when he ends by observing that an alternative preface might have been written presenting Williams as “a kind of Diogenes of contemporary poetry.” Diogenes wrote when Greek culture was decidedly in a valetudinarian condition; and though neither poet nor medico, in his proverbial downrightness he could properly be taken to stand for Williams’ particular combination of the two.

There are many cases where Williams’ diagnostic eye, modified by an urge towards encouragement, becomes the sheerly appreciative eye. Cf. Stevens: “He writes of flowers exquisitely.” But it’s also a fact, for instance, that whenever Williams bears down on the description of a flower, connotations of love and lovely woman are there implicitly, and quite often explicitly. Thus, in Stevens’ sense, the poems are inherently “sentimentalized.” Whatever the gestures of haecceitas (the sense of an object in its sheer thisness), with Williams lyric utterance is essentially a flash of drama, a fragment of narrative, a bit of personal history mirrored as well in talk of a thing as in talk of a person.

And for this reason, given his initial medical slant, the tendency always is towards a matter of welfare. Dante said that the proper subjects for poetry are venus, virtus and salus. The “anti poetic” strain in Williams’ poetry gives us a medical variant of salus, nowhere more startlingly contrived than in this neat abruptness:

To

a child (a boy) bouncing
a ball (a blue ball)—

He bounces it (a toy racket
in his hand) and runs

and catches it (with his
left hand) six floors
straight down—
which is the old back yard

When the child, successfully clutching the ball, hits “the old back yard,” by God he is home.

Stevens’ use of imagery is more airy than Williams’, quite as the world of a part-time insurance man differs from the world of a part-time medical doctor, though each of these poets in his way is strongly aware of the appetites. That great “heavy” of Williams, “The Clouds,” is interesting in this regard. The deathy horses, in a “charge from south to north” while a writhing black flag “fights/ to be free,” are racing in a gigantic turmoil (something like a visual analogue of Wagner’s Valkyrs). It’s a vision of such death as goes with fire, famine, plague and slaughter. That’s how it starts. The second section is a kind of inventory, a quick sampling of the great dead, and done somewhat haphazardly, like glances at the scurrying clouds themselves. It brings the poet forcefully close to a vision of pure spirit despite himself: “The intellect leads, leads still! Beyond the clouds.” Part three is a “scherzo,” a kind of joke, grisly in this context, about a “holy man” who, while “riding/ the clouds of his belief” (that is, officiating at a service) had “turned and grinned” at him. And the final stanza gets torn into unfinished uncertainty, quite like “the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds.” It is a gorgeous poem, at times almost ferocious, and stopped abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, as with the boy who had conscientiously caught the ball.

Elsewhere Williams aims at less drastic kinds of spirit, the most puzzling or puzzled contrivance being perhaps at the end of the long late poem, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower.” To be sure, the flower is green, and that’s all to the good. But a few lines before the close we are informed, “Asphodel/ has no odor, save to the imagination.” Yet in an earlier poem we had been assured: “Time without/ odor is Time without me.” And one of Williams’ most amusing early poems was an itemized rebuke to his nose for the “ardors” of its smelling.

At this point, another personal anecdote occurs to me, for its bearing upon Williams’ character. On one occasion, when visiting us, he told me ruefully of misbehavior on his part (an incident that also falls under the head of “contact”). A little delegation of solemn admirers had come to pay him homage. Naturally, he was grateful to them. But as his poems overwhelmingly testify, he was also mercurial. And in the very midst of their solemnity at parting, since one of the little band happened to be a pretty young woman he gave her a frank, good-natured smack on the fanny. It was all part of the game, done on the spur of the moment, and it had seemed quite reasonable. It was the tactus eruditus in capricious relaxation. But his visitors were horrified, and he realized that he had spoiled the whole show. He confessed to me his gloom at such unruly ways. But is it not a simple scientific fact that the poet they had come to honor owed much of his charm to precisely such whimsicality as this? One might class it with another occasion when, in a talk at a girls’ school, he earnestly exhorted them, “You must learn to be a man.” Maybe some of them did—but all were furious. How were they to be reminded precisely then that he was also the man who has written: “Anyone who has seen 2,000 infants born as I have and pulled them one way or another into the world must know that man, as such, is doomed to disappear in not too many thousand years. He just can’t go on. No woman will stand for it. Why should she?”

I wish that, to commemorate Williams, some publisher would now reissue his Al Que Quiere, just as it was in the original 1917 edition. It shows with such winsomeness this quirky aspect of his genius. Consider the crazy “Danse Russe,” for instance, a poem delightfully alien to the pomposities that Eliot did so much to encourage; yet in their way the verse and prose of this “Diogenes” have been written into the very constitution of our country:

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
danse naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely.
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

Here also was first published the well-known “Tract,” his instructions to his “townspeople,” on “how to perform a funeral,” lines that were read by the minister, as a final goodbye, at the side of Williams’ own grave. That was exactly right. And at the end of the book there is a long poem (“The Wanderer, a Rococo Study”) which, though it was written before the poet had fully got his stride, and is a kind of romantic allegorizing that he would later outlaw, yet is in its way notable, particularly as a stage in Williams’ development. For after several preparatory steps which it would require too much space to detail here, it leads up to a ritualistic transformation involving an imaginary baptism in the waters of the “The Passaic, that filthy river.” These lines should be enough to indicate how the merger of poet and physician initially involved a somewhat magical process, thus:

Then the river began to enter my heart,
Eddying back cool and limpid
Into the crystal beginning of its days.
But with the rebound it leaped for- ward:
Muddy, then black and shrunken
Till I felt the utter depth of its rottenness
The vile breath of its degradation
And dropped down knowing this was me.

Here, surely, was the essential ritualistic step by which he began his “contact” with “anti-poetry”—and though often, in later years, he turned to the sheerly beautiful, even sheerly decorative, here we see the tubes and coils and sluices of the powerhouse. Or am I but tricked by the occasion into going back forty-plus years, and seeing him too much as I saw him then? Yet recall (in Journey to Love) that late poem, “The Sparrow,” dedicated to his father, “a poetic truth/ more than a natural one,” and thus a delightful contribution to the comedie humaine. As you follow the great variety of apercus that use as their point of departure this busy muttbird, his ways of congregation, his amours and family life, you heartily agree it’s “a pity/ there are not more oats eaten now-a-days.” Here is no less than Aesop singing.

In the course of doing this piece, I found among my notes a letter dated May 10, 1940. Presumably I had sent Williams some pages which he had read with his usual mixture of friendliness and resistance. He writes (enclosing a poem):

If I hadn’t been reading your essay and thinking my own thoughts against it—I shouldn’t have stepped on the word “prebirth” and so the poem (completely independent of the whole matter otherwise) might not have been written.

THEREFORE the poem belongs to you. I like it as well as anything I have written—

Then, after some other matters, he returns to the subject abruptly: “All I wanted, to do was to send you the poem.”

At the time I assumed that he meant the gift figuratively. But after inquiring of John Thirlwall, who has spent so much effort tracking down Williams’ scattered work, I think it possible that friendly Wm. C. Wms., strong man two-gun Bill, may have meant the gift literally, and I may possess the only copy of the poem. In any case, I append it here, since it is a lovely thing to end on. It has a kind of reversal which crops up somewhat mystically, every now and then, among his poems, and which is probably implicit in many other passages. In the light of such forms, when he writes “It is nearly pure luck that gets the mind turned inside out in a work of art,” we may take it that he had such reversals in mind:

CHERRY BLOSSOMS AT EVENING

In the prebirth of the evening
the blue cherry blossoms
on the blue tree
from this yellow, ended room—
press to the windows
inside shall be out
the clustered faces of the flowers
straining to look in
(Signed) William Carlos Williams-

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