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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.