William Carlos Williams, like Wallace Stevens, had a successful professional career outside of poetry, in Williams's case as a small-town physician in Rutherford, New Jersey. The two were also both members of the Others group centered around New York City at the time of the First World War, and remained lifelong if intermittent correspondents and generally respected each other's work. But whereas recognition and awards began to come Stevens's way from the 1940s, Williams had to wait until the 1950s for similar attention. But in that decade, with some of his books having been out of print for years, he became a major influence upon younger poets looking for alternatives to the tenets of formalist verse and New Criticism. Williams's range of correspondents became extensive, and visiting the by then largely housebound Williams in Rutherford became in effect an act of pilgrimage in the mid- to late 1950s for such poets as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley.
The central ideas of imagism had a major impact upon Williams's poetry around 1914, and his work explored for the next five decades some of the implications of its principles in ways that had not interested Pound or its other original practitioners. This interest marks another major contrast with Stevens. Whereas Stevens was interested in the role of the mind and of codes of language in the interpretation and articulation of the world beyond the self, for Williams such pre-existing constructs only obscured what should be the poet's attempt at a direct encounter with the world of objects. Thus a frequent metaphor in Williams's work is that of the body (rather than the mind), and such terms as "contact" and "rooted" are central. The call for "No ideas but in things," as he put it in his long poem Paterson, had its roots in the imagists' "direct treatment of the thing." But Williams's poetry is far more than the pictorial vignettes by which he is too often represented in anthologies, or the anti-intellectual gesture that "no ideas but in things" might imply. As Denise Levertov felt the need to point out more than once in writing of Williams, the phrase did not mean "no ideas."
This poet who demanded that poetry record the "local" as a necessary first step to presenting the "universal" was born, lived his life in, and died in Rutherford. Williams's father had left his native England at the age of 5, but on his commercial travels in Central and South America kept "a British passport / always in his pocket," as Williams puts it in "Adam," a poem about his father. Williams's mother was born in Puerto Rico, and Williams raised this English/Spanish division to a mythic level in his work. Although the pattern was complicated in various ways, males, English heritage, and formalism together represented to Williams what America, to fulfill its literary and cultural promise, needed to resist; while women, Latin (and Native American) heritage, and a freedom often portrayed as sexual license represented liberation and possible fulfillment of that potential.
While an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine from 1902 to 1906, Williams met and formed lifelong friendships with Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and the American modernist painter Charles Demuth. Williams's poems at this time were largely watery imitations of Keats and Whitman, while his first book, the self-financed Poems of 1909, contains verse modeled on the genteel Romanticism of such writers as Bliss Carman and Arthur Davison Ficke. (Williams never reprinted these poems in his collected volumes.) Pound, now in London, as was H.D., responded to the book's derivative poems frankly, and sent the "out of touch" Williams the first of what would over the years be many reading lists (Williams, sometimes exasperated with them, reproduces an example in Paterson). Williams visited Pound in London in 1910, following six months of studying pediatrics in Leipzig, and Pound continued to keep Williams informed about the latest movements and journals in London. This international source, coupled with Williams's associations with Poetry and The Little Review in Chicago, and (again through an introduction by Pound) with Alfred Kreymborg and the Others group in New York, meant that Williams, although now established as a doctor in a provincial town, could keep abreast of the central movements in modernist poetry and art. In 1912 Williams married Florence Herman, the "Flossie" of a number of his poems, whose childhood figures centrally in his 1937 novel White Mule. (Williams's publications in addition to poetry include not only four novels, but also short stories, essays, improvisatory prose, plays, and even an opera libretto.)
Williams's poems in the years immediately following his 1909 volume on the whole followed in the wake of developments in Pound's work, although Williams's "Hic Jacet" from his 1913 volume The Tempers prefigures his poetry's later use of his medical experience and concrete, observed detail. Williams's mature style is more evident in his next volume, Al Que Quiere! (1917), and is fully developed in Sour Grapes (1921) and in what many consider his finest book, Spring and All (1923).
Between these volumes of poetry Williams published his Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), with a prologue that declared his separation from the international modernist style being developed by Pound and the now London-based Eliot. In this essay, central to an understanding of Williams's poetry, he took issue with Eliot, Pound, H.D., and Wallace Stevens, arguing that
American poetry needed to get back to beginnings - which for Williams meant a pictorial emphasis, fragmented and loosely associative verse forms, and local subject matter. The prose improvisations were written spontaneously each night, according to Williams's account, as he returned home exhausted during the influenza epidemic of 1917-18. They illustrate for Williams the "more flexible, jagged" patterns of form and syntax that could counter the habitual associations of thought hindering the promise of a nativist poetics, and stopping Americans from seeing the unique landscape in front of their eyes.
Williams's sense of embattled isolation was reinforced by the exodus of the European artists to Paris following the end of the war, and their being followed by many American writers and artists. Among those leaving was Robert McAlmon, with whom Williams had edited the journal Contact following the demise of Others. However, Williams's hostility to Europe and the expatriate movement was not a one-dimensional response. His 1928 novel A Voyage to Pagany, based upon his 1924 trip to Paris, Rome, and Vienna, reveals the challenge and fascination that Europe held for him. And he was obliged to rely upon expatriate publication for his poetry volumes in the 1920s. Among these, Spring and All contains many of his most frequently anthologized poems, although in the original volume they are surrounded by pages of thematically related, manifesto-like prose.
In the early 1930s Williams was associated with the objectivist movement, which also included Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff. Objectivism was in effect a development of imagism's insistence upon precision and concrete presentation, but with more emphasis upon the formal construction of the poem. Williams had no regular publisher in this period, and his books came out in small, special editions, until James Laughlin founded New Directions at the end of the decade and committed the press to publishing the work of both Williams and Pound. At the same time Williams began to struggle with the formal problems of his long poem Paterson, and an initial experiment, his manuscript "Detail & Parody for the poem Paterson," although unpublished as a whole, was the source of many of his published poems in these years.
Williams finally settled on a collage-like form for Paterson that included, along with the poetry, such prose documents as extracts from histories, letters from friends and from readers of the poem (including letters from Pound and the then unknown Allen Ginsberg), leaflets, transcribed speech, and extracts from newspapers. Sometimes these items were reproduced verbatim, sometimes they were edited by Williams, and occasionally he made them up. Williams originally conceived of the poem as having four books, and they appeared separately from 1946 to 1951, but a fifth book appeared in
1958, while fragments of a sixth were found among his papers at his death. The New Jersey city that is the poem's focus has a long and rich history, from its early settlement, to its heyday as a silk and manufacturing center in the second half of the nineteenth century, to its economic decline following a pivotal textile workers' strike in 1913 - all of which Williams brings into the work. The poem also incorporates episodes from the history of the famous Paterson Falls that provided the water power driving the industry, and that was itself a well-known tourist attraction. The Falls serve as an example of the single-minded exploitation of landscape that the poem decries, and the roar of its crashing waters becomes the foundation of the poem's attempt to discover and articulate a language rooted in the native landscape.
With the publication of the first four books of Paterson Williams's poetry began to receive more attention, including a National Book Award in 1950. Between 1949 and 1951 Williams's publications included two volumes of Paterson, his Selected Poems, two volumes of collected poetry, his Autobiography, and a book of short stories. Unhappy with the marketing of his books by New Directions, Williams shifted to commercial publisher Random House in 1950 (he returned to New Directions by the end of the decade). But in 1951 he suffered the first of a number of debilitating strokes and had to retire from his medical practice. He was unable to take up an appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, initially because of health problems and then because of questions raised about his political leanings, particularly in the 1930s. The poems in his next two volumes, The Desert Music and Journey to Love, are poems of memory and reflection, written in a long triadic line that Williams argued in a number of essays at the time allowed for recording the voice of "the American idiom." These poems are at once more conventional and more accessible than Williams's earlier style and contributed to his widening readership. After Paterson V, Williams's final volume of poems Pictures from Brueghel appeared in 1962. A measure of his late recognition as a major poet is the posthumous award for this volume in 1963 of his first, and only, Pulitzer Prize.
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