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:
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:
The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air—The edge
cuts without cutting
meets—nothing—renews itself in metal or porcelain—
This poem is a reminder that modernist painters meant as much to Williams as poets. He described his visit to the Armory Show in 1913 as a “fabulous moment,” and he was highly susceptible to what one of his poems calls “Romance Moderne.” The title, Leibowitz writes,
reflects the romance of modernism for a poet not yet in possession of a singular or varied style and uncertain how to obtain one. Everywhere he looked, painters, poets, novelists, and composers were overthrowing tradition, which surely sanctioned his own experiments, however ragged they might be. So he flirted with Imagism, Dadaism, and surrealism.
The will to experiment sinks some of Williams’s poems into pretentious or random improvisations, and it is one of the strengths of Leibowitz’s book that he is ready to acknowledge when his subject failed. (Of one sequence, The Descent of Winter, he writes, “One reads these improvisations with a furrowed brow, puzzled by the poor writing, which verges on self-parody.”) But Williams’s fascination with the painters’ new ways of seeing was indispensable in the evolution of his spare yet evocative descriptive style. The bravura demonstration of this comes in “The Crimson Cyclamen,” an elegy for his friend the painter Charles Demuth, which must be one of the most sustained acts of attention in poetry:
The stem’s pink flanges,
stand to the frail edge,
through the pink and downy
mesh—as the round stem
is pink also—cranking
to penciled lines
If plants and animals, in poems like “The Horse” and “The Sea-Elephant,” allowed Williams to summon what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “inscape,” his approach to people and places was necessarily more complicated. Another dimension of the “realizable actual,” for Williams, was the local, which for him meant Rutherford, New Jersey, the suburb where he was born and where he spent his entire adult life, in a house at 9 Ridge Road. After training as a doctor in New York City, Williams returned to Rutherford as a general practitioner serving a largely poor and immigrant population—a hard, unglamorous, and unremunerative form of doctoring, and a morally exemplary one.
To Wendell Berry, whose life has been spent in the very different environs of rural Kentucky, Williams’s intense rootedness in place is a major part of his example and legacy. He praises “Williams’ lifelong effort to come to terms with, to imagine, and to be of use to his native and chosen place.” This “local adaptation,” as Berry calls it, has more than literary implications: in the course of the book, it becomes an ecological, economic, and political creed.
Fundamental to this interpretation of Williams is the idea that he and his poetry benefited from being so closely tied to Rutherford. “As a part of the necessary conversation of a local culture,” Berry writes, “poetry becomes more urgently important than it can ever be as a high-cultural or academic specialty.” Leibowitz picks up on the same theme when he writes about Williams’s funeral in 1963: “The chapel was filled with family and friends and a large crowd of townspeople…. By that turnout, his devotion to the local was honored and vindicated.”
But it was the doctor that the people of Rutherford came to honor, not the poet, whom neither they nor practically anyone else had read. To this extent, Berry’s image of Williams as a poet of community is a fiction, as he partly acknowledges: “His audience of first choice were his neighbors, to whom he sometimes spoke directly in his poems, regardless of whether or not they were listening.” The tone Williams used in that hypothetical address could be good-natured hectoring, as in the early poem “Tract”:
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.
But to read Williams’s poems about Rutherford—and his long poem Paterson, in which he explores a nearby New Jersey town—is not to get the sense of a man happily rooted in the local, participating meaningfully in his community. On the contrary, it would be easy to tell a different story about Williams, in which his immersion in an ugly provincial town chafed constantly against his sensibility and spirit. Writing to Pound the expatriate, Williams proudly defended his localism: “What I see before me in my work needs no special companionship or food other than that which is before it.” But writing to Louis Zukofsky, one of a number of younger poets he would mentor and encourage, Williams sounds a different note: “The delicacy of flavor each one of us possesses to some degree is lost here. It is in us, we use it as it were squirting an atomizer of perfume out the window to stop the stenches of the stock yard.”
In his Autobiography, Williams makes clear that part of what inspired him to become a writer was anger: “To write, like Shakespeare! and besides I wanted to tell people, to tell ‘em off, plenty. There would be a bitter pleasure in that, bitter because I instinctively knew no one much would listen.” Many of his portraits of Rutherford are written in a spirit of bleak realism that goes beyond satire to despair, as in “Morning”:
—and walk about
absorbed among stray dogs and sparrows,
pigeons wheeling overhead, their
or shawled and jug in hand
beside a concrete wall down which,
from a loose water-pipe, a stain descends,
the wall descending also, holding up
a garden—On its side the pattern of
the boards that made the forms is still
discernible.—to the oil-streaked
When Williams goes on from this vision of industrial wreckage to write, “Spirit of place rise from these ashes,” it is by no means certain whether he’s summoning an angel or a shabby demon.
If Rutherford provoked ambiguous feelings in its son, so too did America. America, being American, the American language, are constant refrains in Williams’s work and in Leibowitz’s book. To Jarrell, Williams was “the America of poets.” Yet Pound mischievously reminded Williams that his claim to Americanness could be called tenuous:
And America? What the h—l do you a blooming foreigner know about the place…. You’ve never been west of Upper Darby…. My dear boy you have never felt the woop of the PEEraries. You have never seen the projecting and protuberant Mts. of the Sierra Nevada. WOT can you know of the country?
Calling Williams a “foreigner” was pressing an especially sensitive button. The poet’s father, William George Williams, was an Englishman who had lived in Latin America, where he met the poet’s mother Elena, a native of Puerto Rico. Spanish, not English, was the language spoken in Williams’s childhood home. In fact, Williams kept up his interest in Spanish-language literature throughout his life: a new book, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959, collects his translations of Spanish and Latin American poets.
It makes sense that a first-generation immigrant should be obsessed with encompassing and defining the spirit of America. Yet that spirit, in Williams’s work, is frequently ugly, unhappy, and degenerate. He sees it at a baseball game in the crowd of spectators: “it is alive, venomous//it smiles grimly/its words cut.” He sees it in “The Raper of Passenack,” where he channels the rape victim’s voice: “No one who is not diseased could be/so insanely cruel.” Most famously, he sees it in Elsie, the mentally impaired maid who inspired one of his great poems, “To Elsie” (the one that begins, “The pure products of America/go crazy”):
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us…
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
going by fields of goldenrod…
Williams never stopped suffering from the difference between the America he lived in and the one his imagination strained after. This may account for his reluctance to be compared to Walt Whitman—another free-verse poet who made America his subject. “Poets like Whitman and Williams have about them something more valuable than any faultlessness: a wonderful largeness, a quantitative and qualitative generosity,” wrote Jarrell. But Leibowitz points out that “Williams sometimes sounded petulant when forced to acknowledge Whitman…bristling at the accusation that the torch of Whitman’s free verse had been passed on to him.” Leibowitz suggests that this was because Whitman, too, had a small readership; but the reason surely goes much deeper than that, to the heart of Williams’s literary identity. A believer in the evidence of the senses, both by medical training and by poetic conviction, he could not dismiss as easily as Whitman the gulf between what he saw of America and what he wanted from it.
That gulf is the subject of Williams’s In the American Grain (1925), one of the most passionately disappointed books ever written about America. In his prose portraits of famous figures from American history—Columbus and Cortés down to Aaron Burr and Edgar Allan Poe—Williams is always drawn to failures, and to the failure of great men to find sustenance in America. All these portraits read like self-portraits, especially when Williams writes about Poe, the first American poet:
He was the first to realize that the hard, sardonic, truculent mass of the New World, hot, angry—was, in fact, not a thing to paint over, to smear, to destroy—for it WOULD not be destroyed, it was too powerful.
And what he says about Poe’s work is considerably more true of his own:
Disarmed, in his poetry the place itself comes through. This is the New World. It is this that it does…as if we walked upon a cushion of light pressed thin beneath our feet, that insulates, satirises—while we lash ourselves up and down in a fury of impotence.