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The New World of William Carlos Williams

Today it would be hard to find a reader of poetry who would not acknowledge William Carlos Williams as one of the major American modernists, a peer of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound. His place in anthologies and on college reading lists is secure. Possibly no modern American poem is more widely known than Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” that tiny epiphany:

Lisa Larsen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
William Carlos Williams at his house in Rutherford, New Jersey, 1954
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This is not Williams’s best or most important poem, but it does illustrate some crucial aspects of his art. In his Autobiography (1951), Williams explains that his goal as a writer is to capture the “immediacy” of experience: “It is an identifiable thing, and its characteristic, its chief character is that it is sure, all of a piece and, as I have said, instant and perfect: it comes, it is there, and it vanishes. But I have seen it, clearly. I have seen it.” This is just what he does with the wheelbarrow, the rainwater, and the chickens: trivial in themselves, their sheer uninsistent presence strikes the reader as somehow disclosing the very essence of being. Williams himself, not given to making high claims for his own work, considered this poem “quite perfect”: “the sight impressed me as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.”

What makes the poem work perfectly is, first, the artistry behind Williams’s apparent artlessness. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” like a number of Williams’s poems (but far from all), could easily be rewritten as prose. Yet the way Williams lays out the words on the page is central to the poem’s meaning. Each couplet starts out narrow and then gets even narrower, with only a single word in the second line; the effect is a measured, haiku-like bareness. And then Williams takes care to break each couplet across a compound word (“wheel/barrow,” “rain/water”) or adjectival phrase (“white/chickens”), disrupting the flow of the language and forcing a hitch or stumble in the reader’s attention.

Most important of all, however, is the wager with the reader introduced in the first line. If you don’t understand why “so much depends” on this quotidian scene, Williams is not going to tell you. As a result, the reader’s ability to intuit the poet’s meaning becomes a kind of test of spiritual fineness, a conspiracy of meaning. If you look at the lingua franca of American poetry today—a colloquial free verse focused on visual description and meaningful anecdote—it seems clear that Williams is the twentieth-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do, and how much it does not need to do.

Why is it, then, that almost fifty years after his death, the reputation of William Carlos Williams still seems to be haunted by a ghost of uncertainty? You don’t have to read far in “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” Herbert Leibowitz’s assiduous new commentary on Williams’s “life and works,” before you hear its moans. “During his lifetime Williams had the pleasure of becoming a beloved figure,” writes Leibowitz, the founder and longtime editor of the journal Parnassus. But

voices of dissent rang out from the choir loft, basically rehearsing the accusations that he lacked the rudiments of technique or an understanding of form, that he was a sentimentalist and a shallow thinker, and, most damaging of all, that his quest for a uniquely American poem grounded in speech was a foolish enterprise, doomed to fail.

In the poet Wendell Berry’s The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, a brief personal tribute to a writer Berry counts as a major influence, the same undermining voices are invoked: “I would hear, sometimes from older writers I admired, judgments such as ‘I love Bill Williams, but he has no mind,’” Berry writes. “Late into the drafting of this book I still felt the need to begin by defending him,” before realizing that “defense was not necessary.”

The spectral doubter who is being summoned in these passages, however, is not really Yvor Winters or Donald Davie or any of the other critics who found Williams a simpleton. In their defensiveness, their acute sensitivity to criticism and dismissal, Leibowitz and Berry are channeling the voice of the poet himself. Leibowitz makes this clear in his study, which is not a full biography—Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981) remains the standard treatment—but a close reading of the work with reference to major themes in Williams’s life.

One of those themes is Williams’s sense of inferiority and self-doubt. “Let the successful carry off their blue ribbons; I have known the unsuccessful, far better persons than their more lucky brothers,” he says in the Autobiography; but this was a case of protesting too much. More revealing is the letter, quoted by Leibowitz, that Williams sent to his son, William Eric, when the latter asked for a copy of his latest book:

You say you’d like to see my book of poems. What the hell? Let ‘em go. They are things I wrote because to maintain myself in a world much of which I didn’t love I had to fight to keep myself as I wanted to be. The poems are me, in much of the faulty perspective in which I have existed in my own sight—and nothing to copy, not even for anyone even to admire.

This diffidence never left him: when he was preparing his last book for the press, Leibowitz writes, Williams grew so anguished that he “tore the manuscript to pieces and dumped them in the trash.” His wife had to fish out the fragments and mail them to his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, “who put them together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Laughlin referred to Williams, one of his most prized authors, as “a non-cutaneous man.” So are most poets, perhaps, but not many have had to contend with the degree of neglect and condescension that plagued Williams throughout his career. Spring and All, the 1923 collection that included three of his masterpieces—“By the road to the contagious hospital,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and “To Elsie”—was published by a small press in an edition of 324 copies, “most of which went unsold.” A collection of stories called The Knife of the Times appeared in 1932; a doctor friend of Williams’s later found a hundred of them being sold by a hawker on the Atlantic City boardwalk for 15 cents apiece.

The size of Williams’s readership was not dramatically smaller, however, than those of other modernist poets. T.S. Eliot’s early print runs were comparable. The difference was that Eliot reached the poetic tastemakers of Britain and America and brought them completely under his spell, while Williams—though he published in the avant-garde magazines and knew the advanced poets and painters—could never quite make the sale. Wallace Stevens considered his work “anti-poetry,” while H.D. found him “commonplace, common and banal.” A review of his Complete Collected Poems, in 1938, declared, “One cannot feel that he is an important poet, and one knows that he is not an insignificant one.”

The most painful experience of insecurity, Leibowitz shows, came in 1924, when Williams and his wife left Rutherford, New Jersey, for a trip to Paris, then the world capital of modernism. The whole time, Williams was certain he was being scorned by people like Ezra Pound and H.D., his old acquaintances from the University of Pennsylvania, and he reacted with preemptive anger. “I ground my teeth out of resentment,” he wrote, “though I acknowledge their privilege to step on my face if they could.” Invited to a premiere, Williams deliberately wore a ratty tuxedo: “It was intended as a gesture of contempt and received just that.” Told that the writer Valéry Larbaud wanted to meet him, he responded self-abasingly, “Who is this man Larbaud who has so little pride that he wishes to talk with me?”

But the major focus of Williams’s resentment and insecurity was undoubtedly Eliot. A chapter of Williams’s Autobiography is titled “The Waste Land,” but it contains only one paragraph about Eliot’s poem: “Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot’s genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him.” Williams, who went directly from high school to medical school, was put at a disadvantage by Eliot’s show of erudition. With American avant-garde writers generally, Williams claims, “literary allusions…were unknown to us. Few had the necessary reading.” Late in life, he confessed in an interview that he was “insanely jealous” of Eliot, “who was much more cultured than I was.” (Rather movingly, Leibowitz writes that Williams, invited to share a stage with Eliot’s admirer Allen Tate, “armed himself against possible attack by reading George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prosody, vowing not to be humiliated or viewed as an ignoramus.”)

Predictably, Williams’s self-defense took the form of asserting that Eliot’s allusiveness, formalism, and cultural pessimism were academic, effete, and generally un-American. Eliot “was giving up America,” Williams complained. More colorfully, he wrote Pound, “Maybe I’m wrong, but I distrust that bastard more than any writer I know in the world today,” comparing his work to “moles on a pig’s belly instead of tits.” For younger American poets, Williams complained, “Eliot takes the place of the realizable actual.” In his lonely opposition to Pound, Eliot, and company, Williams had need of the courage he described in “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!

Constructions like “realizable actual” and “toward which you lend” are examples of the awkwardness to which Williams is prone, especially when he is dealing in abstractions or trying to sound elevated or fancy. In a hugely admiring essay in Poetry and the Age, Randall Jarrell observed that Williams “is an intellectual in neither the good nor the bad sense of the word.” This was not a handicap to Williams’s poetry, but it did leave him vulnerable in an age when poetic experimentation was hedged around with theories, schools, and doctrines. Most of these were bogus, and compared to Williams, Pound can appear as more a literary confidence man than a great thinker, but a confidence man is at least confident.

What Williams offered instead was his own devotion to the “realizable actual.” As Leibowitz puts it, “Fenollosa is of less importance to Williams than fennel.” Plants, in fact, were the subject of some of Williams’s best poems, because they lend themselves so well to visual articulation: plants have no history, no psychology, and in Williams’s hands at least, no symbolic meaning. “The rose is obsolete,” begins Williams’s poem “The Rose”—obsolete as a symbol, that is, just as Gertrude Stein insisted when she wrote, “rose is a rose is a rose.” The challenge is to bring it up to date, which Williams does in this poem by subjecting it to Cubist refraction:

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