William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams; drawing by David Levine

The current admiration for the “interdisciplinary” is probably no more permanent than any other educational whim, but it has led to a certain ridiculous appropriation of the arts. I think of things like a foundation-funded course where first the kids learn what a biologist can tell them about “Nature and Man,” and then what an ecologist can tell them, ditto, and then what Wordsworth, etc. Nobody spoiled the game by suggesting to the kids that Wordsworth wasn’t telling them about Nature, he was telling them about Wordsworth. And there the whole enterprise founders. It doesn’t founder in the sciences, whose working interdisciplinary teams were observed (by “humanists”) and taken as models; it may not so founder in the social sciences (which have, however, fewer common languages than the natural sciences); but it can and must founder whenever the arts are involved, and for good reason: however much art may make reference to a variety of subjects, its importance is fundamentally nonreferential.

Most “interdisciplinary” commentary on art sins by using the arts for information-retrieval, with a few bows in the direction of something it calls “technique.” (Music, except for opera, resists such use, but the other arts are fair game.) Information-retrieval varies, of course, according to the “discipline” the retriever comes from. Historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers can all return from the same novel carrying different bones. The bones bear odd and hardly accidental resemblances to the retrievers. Whether they bear any resemblance to the novel or its author (or tell us anything valuable about either) is a matter for pained reflection.

The retriever in the case in point, Robert Coles’s lectures on William Carlos Williams’s stories and trilogy, is a psychoanalyst; the art-object is fiction that is honorable and decent, but not major; and the attractions of the art-object for the retriever making his interdisciplinary foray are multiple. First, identification: Williams was a writing doctor, Coles is a writing doctor. Second, specialization: Williams was a pediatrician, Coles too works with children. Third, method: Williams was an old-fashioned house-call doctor, Coles also makes “house-calls” on his children in crisis, and thinks analysts should see their patients in situ. Fourth, polemical cause: Williams was angered by social conditions in industrial New Jersey, and Coles deplores the social conditions by which children are brutalized. Fifth, a defiant pragmatism: Williams was no theorist of medicine or research physician, Coles is antipathetic to theory that does not descend to the lived life. Sixth, “understanding”—but perhaps the list should stop there.

Coles’s attachment to Williams is real enough: he wrote an undergraduate thesis on Paterson, met and corresponded later with the poet, talked to him about the prose, even confided to Williams that he would some day like to write or talk about the fiction.

He said he hoped I would…because by then few people were paying much attention to either people like those in the Passaic stories or to people like the Stechers. He added “I mean novelists are ignoring them; the sociologists and psychologists have taken over. At least someone cares.”

It is true that Williams cared about the people in his family and in his practice, and also true that he believed in the documentary function of art. But Williams, of all people, knew how feeble a genre the documentary is unless done in the self-immolation and self-absorption of art: whole pages of Paterson are taken up by pieces of documentary record about the city, some statistical, some journalistic, some factual, some ceremonious, some lumberingly jocose—and they are all dead, examples of failed language. In none of them—searched out by Williams in old newspapers, histories, WPA reports—does Paterson live. And Williams knew it. To write about the people in the Passaic valley was of no use; to make a replica of them, however, could be of use: “not until I have made of it a replica / will my sins be forgiven,” says the poet in Paterson, and tells us what he means. A replica is to be like “the images of arms and knees / hung on nails,” the ex votos in wax in the Catholic chapel. One does not look at the votive arms and knees in wax to learn biology; one does not read stories to learn the sociology of the immigrant rise, or, as Coles calls it, “the knack of survival in America.”

Coles, though with ritual gestures of praise for Williams’s “sensitivity” and “ambiguity,” is using Williams for various covert crusades of his own, setting himself (by implication) and Williams up as defenders of the mute forgotten folk ignored by intellectuals in the ivory tower and shrinks in the air-conditioned office. Here is Coles on Hegel:

[Kierkegaard] asked that question [“How do I live a life?”] in the course of taking to task Hegel, the philosopher who aimed unashamedly to come up with an answer, a formulation, an analysis, a prognostication, a theory to fit everyone and take care of everything—except for one matter: how does one get along from day to day.

After this interdisciplinary side glance into philosophy, we might come across this one into literary criticism, on the value, in art, of the ” ‘stream of consciousness’ technique,” as Coles calls it:


[Williams] won’t devote pages to Joe’s reveries; they are always responsive to the speech of others, to an event…and, as a result, they are far more “true to life” and penetrating than an extended “stream of consciousness” technique can permit.

If we wonder at this sudden hostility to the ” ‘stream of consciousness’ technique,” we immediately see its source, which is not literary at all but psychoanalytic. Coles denies the credibility of the narrative psychoanalytic model; rather, he predicates invisible “conversations” between analyst and narrating patient.

I believe that in the name of “depth” the “stream-of-consciousness” novelistic technique offers a distorted, even false, entry into the human mind at work. True, it seems to provide a literary parallel to the analysand’s five-day-a-week experience; associations and more associations—with the analyst (and in the case of the novel, the reader or literary critic) left to interpret what has been said spontaneously. But how spontaneously [sic] are the associations of even a patient whose analyst is avowedly “neutral” and more or less silent most of the time? Psychiatrists ought to know…how much they influence what their patients choose to talk about…. We don’t carry on with ourselves extended monologues; nor do we, even with the doctor, offer a soliloquy…. We are constantly engaged in conversations….

None of this, of course, has the slightest relevance to Proust or Joyce, or to those many other writers who do indeed, whatever Coles thinks, carry on with themselves “extended monologues” whether in diaries or poems.

Coles is equally embarrassing when he tries to imagine literary creation; he “feels” Williams at work, for instance, “trying hard with his prose to contrive plots, develop believable and interesting characters, keep our interest in the dramatic action he presents, portray a whole range of social habits and customs.” Of the waywardness of creation we see no sign in this portrait of the artist as honest journeyman. Coles also offers us the layman’s view of the physician versus the poet: “the physician…attends people, hence is all caught up in the rhythms of their life, and the poet…stands back and tries to condense, make things more pointed and suggestive.” It is the “hence” that begs a thousand questions here, and Coles in his literary effort is full of such hedgings, the most ludicrous one the sublimely insolent “naturally” in the following literary judgment:

[Williams] wants to roam more freely than a strictly psychological novel would allow…. It was a desire and inclination which may have cost him, as a novelist, the attribution of “great.” One thinks of Joyce’s or Proust’s single-minded dedication to a particular viewpoint—accompanied, naturally, by genuine vision and the craftsman’s skill.

Rather, one thinks, speechless, that such commentary should be outlawed. “A particular viewpoint”? Joyce? Accompanied? Naturally? “Genuine” vision?

Of what possible use can literary commentary like this, from someone who comes from another “discipline,” be to the advancement of knowledge? And how much has such a commentator understood of the discipline he is adventuring into? (Whether you think of it here as literature, or as the ways that have been slowly and respectfully and lovingly invented to think about literature, makes no difference.)

Coles is using the art of literature to criticize certain aspects of his own discipline with which he is impatient. The theory and practice of psychoanalysis evolved together, but Coles, with his social emphasis, is irritated by the (often tedious) minutiae of reported data, and equally irritated by the (necessary) abstraction of scientific generalization. Or at least so it seems, as he claims Williams’s stories to be teachers equal to, or maybe superior to, discursive work. “By the time we come across the sentence ‘But now the baby began to rebel,’ we need no lectures from Melanie Klein to the effect that a newborn baby has various ‘attitudes.’ ” Or: “Williams observes: ‘And the baby slept while about its head a drama that was its future had begun.’ Whole books on ‘child development’ have said less.”

But of course any field (whether of “child development” or any other) needs its own discursive and analytic works, and fiction is no substitute for them. Nor is being a mother a substitute. Life is life. Art is art. Information is information. Scientific analysis is scientific analysis. But for Coles, it would seem that art is life, art is information, art is analysis, and it is all based on going out there and meeting people:


A good deal has been written by psychiatrists about “the psychology of leadership”…. But what of our business leaders?… Why the lack of analysis of such “leadership” by our psychiatrists—not always unwilling to take on for “analysis” individuals they have little or no direct access to?

It is entirely understandable that Coles’s theory of “access” should be advocated by an analyst of children, since the disturbances of children are so often caused by conditions against which children are powerless. The one-to-one model developed for adult analysis inevitably needs supplementing in child analysis—supplementing by family therapy, by social intervention. However, in taking Williams as a prop to bolster his theories of art, psychiatric practice, and social attitudes, Coles is simply transforming literature into a vehicle for his own propaganda. Coles misapprehends, as do other “interdisciplinary” users of literature for their own ends, the many functions of art—functions of pleasure, vicarious experience, imaginative reconciliation, fantasy, escape, and so on. He thinks that if you are poor you want to read about the poor—and, at that, about the poor as described by the middle-class writer:

Long before I wrote [these] lectures I started suggesting a reading of some of Dr. Williams’s stories to some of the youths I know who live in…towns or sections of Boston not all that far from the so-called “inner city”; and it has been extraordinarily helpful for me to hear the responses—frank, pointed, insistent comments from young men and women who have never gone to college, who work in factories or stores or offices, who struggle hard to get by, but who share with the people Dr. Williams treated and watched so closely moral dilemmas….

Coles may not intend his sentimental and patronizing effect here, but it is one with the literary judgment expressed. The poor want mostly escape from the consciousness of their condition; they want, as Williams saw, the opiate of the masses that the evangelist in Paterson offers them, a vision of solace and freedom from the material. The evangelist is the failed poet; but the poet, if he succeeds, offers that same loosening of material bonds. But the interdisciplinarian, who thinks that the mimetic function of art is all it has to offer, presents to his “frank,” “extraordinarily helpful” “youths” not the best literature he knows, not even the best literature of Williams (surely the lyrics), but the literature of the doctor mingling with the disadvantaged patients, the Robert Coles literature. It is all disheartening, however well meant.

It is not much more heartening to look through Reed Whittemore’s new biography of Williams, revealingly subtitled “Poet from Jersey.” This tough-guy stance is inherited from Williams himself, who had all the pugnacity of the autodidact. (Williams was not in any ordinary sense “broadly-educated,” as Coles says he was: he went right from high school to medical school, and was mostly self-educated in somewhat cranky ways, with the influential and erratic help of Pound.) Whittemore, probably from some uneasy feeling that Williams would laugh in his grave at any too ceremonious treatment of himself, writes like someone trying to “shoot the breeze”—the archaic phrase conveys the cracker-barrel flavor—and the result, unhappily, is far more cumbersome than ordinary self-effacing effacing prose would be.

The Americans were not as strong in the roots,…some of them having not even taken English Lit. at college. There had been Walt Whitman and his long loose lines in America. There had also been Emily Dickinson and her odd staggers.

So the literary history goes in this book (except when it gets dutiful and long and we hear too much about Pound). The literary theory also tries to be winsomely “light” (and Steinlike in reiterativeness):

Simplicities. Except that old shoes and apples are not simple. And even if they were simple, and even if it were imagist principle (as it is not) to render only the simple, there would still be nothing simple in carrying the shoes and apples through to art: The skill is of course a great skill that is needed to give the shoes their shoeness and the apples their appleness, but there is something beyond that and it is mystery though it is not pretentious mystery, it is not Eleusinian, not Orphic. It is the mystery of the emanations of old shoes and wrinkled apples. The shoes and the apples are charged with an energy beyond their thinginess.

And finally, the personal history is equally light on sober retelling and strong on slang. The book wants to be entertaining, but to what audience? Williams’s life, though long, was an outwardly placid one, like Stevens’s—the life of a busy professional man who wrote in his spare time. And since there is no way to retell the bulk of a doctor’s life, repetitive in itself year after year, Whittemore is deprived of that resource; and since Williams’s inner life is a rather mysterious one, not conspicuously present even in the Autobiography or Selected Letters, Whittemore has no rich vein of psychological material to explore. Encounters with people, travels in Europe, connections with magazines, a brush with the communist witch-hunt, ill-health, and death—it is not much to hang a biography on, and the book suffers on that account.

Though it was only in spare time that Williams could write, he wrote, during his almost eighty years, a great deal, some of it only now being published. For the extortionate price of $18.75, New Directions offers us about 200 pages of badly edited essays by Williams, hitherto unpublished. (It is by no means certain that the editor, Ron Loewinsohn, can read Williams’s handwriting—or emend a typescript, if the error is the original typist’s—because there are many garbled passages. What, for instance, are we to make of the epigraph on page 131 which reads: ” ‘Chaque figure repose et s’apperie sur son ombre.’ Journal des Faux-Memoyiens.” I suppose it should be “s’appuie” and “Faux-monnayeurs,” but I have no idea, really, and the notes are silent on the whole epigraph.) These essays, some written in 1928-1930 and some earlier, do not add much to what we know of Williams’s aesthetic and educational theory. But they add another piece of evidence to our sense of Williams’s unrelenting tugging at what was true for him, which he mistakenly, if endearingly, took to be what was right and true for everybody.

What would have been the best sort of education for me? Williams asks himself, and generalizes his answer into a spate of universal recommendations mostly balefully hostile to what he lumped together as “Science and Philosophy.” Williams was always inimical to the discursive, receptive to the immediate; suspicious of the past (even the “classic” literature of the past) and devoted to the present. There is no task more arduous than inventing an authentic personal voice (hardly a dozen people do it per century in any given language) and this achievement is nowhere the explicit aim of education; but Williams wanted schools to teach first the authentic life and second the authentic voice—or maybe first the authentic voice and thereby the authentic life. Who is to say they should not? But who is to teach us how to do it? These first essays, written by Williams for his two sons, propose a knowledge subordinate to individual talent and purpose: as Williams puts it in an earlier form:

Here is the solution of the problem of education. If [the student] show a tendency, recognize it first then make this a unifying motive and cluster information as far-reaching as possible around it, putting forward strongly its antitheses also. Built strongly on the natural structure as on a solid foundation. But if he have no special aptitude or inclination, what shall he attack? What shall I attack? That which presents itself or anything. The thing next your hand.

The most valuable sort of knowledge is not the analytic, but the concrete as it is embodied in art:

Philosophy, history, are well enough but if you want to know anything actual about man, about a man, a woman, how they will act under all conditions—in love, after his head has been cut off, you go to poetry—to Dante, to Donne. This is knowledge.

A wonderfully quixotic tone. The world being various, however, there are other human beings who feel that their “real knowledge” comes from history, or philosophy, or physics, rather than from poetry; hence the diversity of higher education, which has forgotten, in its nervousness toward ignorance, that the only true education (as Williams tirelessly says here) is to know one thing well. Williams would jeer at “general education” and “distribution requirements.” The appeal of these essays lies in their vigorous reiteration of belief by an indignant polemicist for whom Shakespeare is the great educational text, for whom journalistic writing (which Williams dismisses in Shaw and Wells as writing “to put something over”) is anathema, for whom art “is not a dray horse carrying something for an alien purpose.” Over and over Williams restates his own nonreferential theory of art:

The province of letters is that realm of the intelligence in which words and their configurations are real and all ideas and facts with which they deal are secondary. It is the complement of all other realms of the intelligence which use language as secondary to the reality of their own materials—such as science, philosophy, history, religion, the legislative field. Hence in letters the prevalence of fiction and the predominance of poetry.

Hence…the predominance of poetry.” Of all forms of letters poetry is the least hospitable to the information-retrievers, and therefore mercifully safe from their commentaries. It is also the pure form of letters, the exemplar of the genre. Williams’s lyrics—slight, glancing, oblique, vivid, celebratory things—will not be offered to city “youths” by earnest interdisciplinarians. But they are Williams incarnate, full of “sight and praise,” not a “standing back” as Coles thinks but an entering-in, “all of form itself and motion; a sweet berry relished, a bird’s flight enjoyed.” Or so Williams defines poetry in one of these essays. The essays are splenetic and repetitive, choleric and impractical, but readers of the poems will find their poet recognizably here, and welcome this addition to the canon, while hoping for a lower priced and better edited version.

This Issue

November 13, 1975