“Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
By Herbert Leibowitz
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $40)
William Carlos Williams, among the most aggressively American poets since Walt Whitman, was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883, to a Puerto Rican mother and an English father, neither of whom bothered to become American citizens after their transplantation from the Caribbean to the poisonous industrial marshes west of Manhattan. During his childhood, Bill Williams, whose exotic middle name came from an uncle who practiced medicine in Mayagüez, learned Spanish as his first language and heard French spoken at home, along with his mother’s always hesitant English. Williams was sufficiently assimilated during his long career—he died in his bed in Rutherford in 1963—that Randall Jarrell called him the “America of Poets,” and this is the theme of Herbert Leibowitz’s new biography. Williams wrote about American subjects in American English in homemade American stanzas, and didn’t give a damn about those hoary Old World conventions of meter and rhyme. But his xenophobic friend Ezra Pound, who could smell an alien across a continent or two, was closer to the mark when he called Williams “a blooming foreigner,” and told him that “America interests you as something EXOTIC.”
Williams’s most self-consciously American poems often have some easily overlooked touch of the exotic. His signature poem seems at first glance a snapshot of folksy Americana glimpsed, according to Williams, in the yard of a black man in Rutherford.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The splayed words dangle down like a Calder mobile. But it is all inspired by haiku, of course. The word “glazed,” evocative of Japanese lacquer and pottery, gives it away. The slightly arch and alienating effect of dividing “wheel barrow” and “rain water” recalls a pronunciation drill. Now, repeat after me: “rain,” “water,” “rainwater.”
Williams’s mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, was the pampered daughter of a slaveholding family of French and Sephardic origin; as a child she had listened to the New Orleans-born virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk play his Creole compositions on the piano in her living room. She studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1870s, winning prizes for her dutiful academic compositions. Marooned in Rutherford, a village of five thousand inhabitants, Elena, as she was known, predictably despised the “gross” and “dreadful” culture of the United States. Late in her long life, Elena, who died in 1949 at the age of 102, could still be counted on to strike a defiant pose among the extended family at 9 Ridge Road, as Williams recalled in his Autobiography:
She was almost blind with cataracts, but when I called on her, the room anticipating what was to take place, was intently listening.... Taking her time she delivered, in French, a speech from Corneille ending in the famous curse. Rome enfin que je hais! which left us speechless. All her contempt and even hatred that we had earned in this benighted country through the years was contained in that anathema.
Williams’s father, a perfume salesman, remained an enigma to his two sons. He spent a year in Argentina extending the brand of “Florida Water” while Bill and his younger brother, Edgar, were farmed out to a school in Switzerland. “Literary and even bookish,” as Leibowitz describes him, William George Williams paid for the publication of his older son’s first chapbook of poems in 1909, but doubted their quality. Soon after his father died in 1918, Williams had a nightmare:
I saw him coming down a peculiar flight of exposed steps, steps I have since identified as those before the dais of Pontius Pilate in some well-known painting. But this was in a New York office building, Pop’s office. He was bare-headed and had some business letters in his hand on which he was concentrating as he descended. I noticed him and with joy cried out, “Pop! So, you’re not dead!” But he only looked up at me over his right shoulder and commented severely, “You know all that poetry you’re writing. Well, it’s no good.”
Both sons were drawn to the arts, but chose respectable professions to please their father. Ed was trained as an architect, won the Prix de Rome, and later designed the Donnell Library across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bill became a doctor while maintaining, during his education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, friendships with the aspiring local poets Ezra Pound and H.D. He returned to Rutherford to open a practice as a pediatrician and an obstetrician, writing poems at night.
Leibowitz is convinced, like many commentators before him, that the practice of medicine made Williams a more sympathetic interpreter of humanity. “He brings to bear the same empathic curiosity and indignation that Chekhov brought to the beaten-down peasants he cared for,” he writes. Williams’s empathy, in Leibowitz’s view, was particularly engaged in his obstetric work: “As a doctor who delivered babies, Williams knew women intimately.” All of this may be true in Williams’s case, though it is to be doubted that doctors are on the whole more empathetic than lawyers or insurance salesmen.
BOTH BROTHERS IN their twenties pursued the same Rutherford belle, Charlotte Herman, who had studied piano at the Leipzig Conservatory. When she turned him down, Bill proposed to her eighteen-year-old younger sister, Florence (“Floss”). While Williams traveled to Germany to study new methods in pediatrics, Floss weighed his proposal. When she accepted, he got cold feet; and a few months after the marriage, he tried to engineer an affair with another woman. For Leibowitz, this early vacillation marks the beginning of a disturbing pattern of infidelity and subsequent pleas for forgiveness, symbolically expressed, perhaps, in his famous poem “This Is Just to Say” (“I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox.... Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold.”).
Every marriage is inscrutable. What is striking about the Williams marriage is its longevity and vitality. John Berryman addressed Williams in The Dream Songs: “you had so many girls your life/was a triumph and you loved your one wife.” Leibowitz takes the opposite view, regarding Williams, with his “matinee idol’s handsome face,” as a selfish oaf and Floss as a victim. His view of the marriage extends to his interpretation of individual poems. When Williams writes upbeat poems about sex, such as “Arrival” (“And yet one arrives somehow, finds himself loosening the hooks of/her dress/in a strange bedroom”), Leibowitz assumes they must be about other women. When Williams is more measured, disappointed, or cruel, Leibowitz is convinced that he must be writing about Floss.
The oblique “A Portrait in Greys,” from Williams’s early collection Al Que Quiere!, in 1917, exudes, according to Leibowitz, “a rancid smell of marital misery.”
Will it never be possible
to separate you from your greyness?
Must you be always sinking backward
into your grey-brown landscapes—and trees
always in the distance, always against
a grey sky?
The poem, with its Whistlerian title, ends with a puzzling image:
I see myself
standing upon your shoulders touching
a grey, broken sky—
but you, weighted down with me,
yet gripping my ankles,—move laboriously on,
where it is level and undisturbed by colors.
Leibowitz assumes that the poem is straight autobiography: Floss is “the good, grey wife” and Williams “mounts [her] like a rider on a beast of burden ... their relationship is a grim burlesque of marital joy or sexual fulfillment.”
But if the poem is really a portrait of a marriage, surely this physically challenging engagement, reminiscent of contortions from Pilobolus, is more ambiguous than Leibowitz suggests. Isn’t it possible that the poem has nothing to say about the Williams marriage, and portrays instead an internal struggle, perhaps Williams’s everyday burdened self wrestling with the claims of the imagination? In a recent analysis, Julio Marzán argues that the two selves in the poem reflect Williams’s divided national identity: “The Anglo American Bill stands on the shoulders of the Spanish American Carlos,” while “Grey” alludes to the Spanish painter—a particular favorite of Williams’s—Juan Gris.
One doubts, in any case, whether Williams could have found a better match. Floss understood his frustrations and brought a sturdy, supportive sense of humor to their sometimes stormy life together. “I have more tolerance of your temperament than most women would have,” she told him candidly. In his late, great love poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams expressed his gratitude for his long and durable marriage.
It has been
for you and me
as one who watches a storm
come in over the water.
We have stood
from year to year
before the spectacle of our lives
with joined hands.
Leibowitz, in his prosecutorial way, has persuaded himself that this lovely poem, much admired by poets as diverse as Adrienne Rich and Randall Jarrell, is pocked with insincerity and lies. The passage about watching the storm together is “like the logo for an insurance company,” its verse “hackneyed” and its content “insipid.” The poem was read aloud at Williams’s funeral. The insincerity was apparently not evident to the many poets and friends who attended.
"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” with its title drawn from “Asphodel,” is both a detailed biography and an ambitious work of literary criticism that covers all of Williams’s key works as well as many of his more obscure productions. Leibowitz thinks that Williams was a bold and careless experimentalist who managed to achieve satisfying poems fairly often. The poems he most admires are those in which Williams combines incisive writing with an embracing and easily apprehended humanism. “He seldom romanticized those considered marginal in American society,” Leibowitz maintains; “he knew their strengths and weaknesses from intimate contact with their woes, physical and emotional, as he knew the inequities of an unacknowledged class system that left the poor living in squalid slums and scrambling to survive.”
Williams’s early poems were crude and derivative. Unlike the precocious Pound, he was slow to identify a form or an idiom that expressed the “urgent” thing he wanted to say. Leibowitz thinks his long apprenticeship ended only in his mid-thirties. Encounters with the paintings of Picasso, Gris, and other Modernists confirmed his conviction that a kindred audacity was called for in poetry. It is easy to see how visits to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, where paintings and sculptures of simple objects could be made to yield a world—“No ideas but in things,” as Williams famously put it—might encourage an experiment like the red wheelbarrow, a “readymade” reminiscent of Duchamp’s urinal.
Many of Williams’s best poems of the early 1920s, including “To Elsie” (“The pure products of America/go crazy”), “At the Ball Game,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” are often reprinted in isolation. In their original setting, they formed part of Williams’s remarkable book Spring and All, a hybrid of prose and verse first published in 1923 and recently re-released by New Directions. It is exhilarating to read the little book straight through today. What Williams set out to do in Spring and All was to make a clean break with all that had gone before in poetry in English. In this regard he wanted to emulate his hero, Poe, who had managed to “sweep all worthless chaff aside ... to clear the GROUND.” Clearing the ground meant getting rid of traditional “handcuffs of ‘art’” such as rhyme and meter and capital letters at the beginning of verses. But it also meant discarding the exhausted subjects long accepted as “poetic”: beauty, humanity, romantic love, and all the other emotions recollected in tranquility.
On the first page of Spring and All, Williams anticipated resistance:
What do they mean when they say: “I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply. There is nothing appealing in what you say but on the contrary the poems are positively repellent. They are heartless, cruel, they make fun of humanity.... Rhyme you may perhaps take away but rhythm! why there is none in your work whatever. Is this what you call poetry?.... Poetry that used to go hand in hand with life, poetry that interpreted our deepest promptings, poetry that inspired, that led us forward to new discoveries, new depths of tolerance, new heights of exaltation. You moderns! it is the death of poetry that you are accomplishing.”
The passage resembles a moment early in Philosophical Investigations, when Wittgenstein anticipates objections to his own work in “clearing the ground” of a moribund philosophical language:
Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.
The poet and the philosopher acknowledge the destructive energy of their revolutionary books, both of which are assembled of fragments, aphorisms, and jarring juxtapositions. The positive work is to gain access to a realm that Williams calls the “Imagination” and Wittgenstein the “language of everyday.” Philosophy, says Wittgenstein, “leaves everything as it is.” And Williams, in commenting on his red wheelbarrow, also leaves things as they are: “The same things exist, but in a different condition when energized by the imagination.”
Precisely how the imagination could energize things not ordinarily considered poetic is the subject of the wonderful poem from Spring and All that begins “By the road to the contagious hospital.” Here are three key stanzas:
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.
One can see what Robert Lowell meant in praising Williams’s “dashing rightness with words.” Only Whitman could rival that arresting sequence of adjectives beginning with “reddish.” The spatial and auditory leap from “leafless” to “lifeless” is particularly deft. Paul Mariani used the phrase “new world naked” for the subtitle of his own biography of Williams.
THE APPROACH OF spring and the drama of entering the New World naked are given a historical setting in In the American Grain, Williams’s pendant work in prose of the 1920s, which Leibowitz considers Williams’s masterpiece. The argument of this luminous book, strung across idiosyncratic essays on historical figures from Red Eric and Columbus to Poe and Lincoln, is that America offered imaginative possibilities to the Old World visitors that they mainly muffed. “For the problem of the New World was, as every new comer soon found out, an awkward one, on all sides the same: how to replace from the wild land that which, at home, they had scarcely known the Old World meant to them.” American history, in Williams’s view, had been written by the small-minded victors, oblivious to the visionary challenges of the wilderness. “We are deceived by history,” he wrote in his revisionist tribute to Aaron Burr. “America had a great spirit given to freedom but it was a mean, narrow, provincial place; it was NOT the great liberty-loving country, not at all.” Williams sets himself the task of rescuing from oblivion the big-hearted explorers and writers who met the challenge of America through spiritual expansion rather than diminution.
The remarkable chapter on “The Destruction of Tenochtitlan,” with its surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Cortés, gave Williams an opportunity to indulge his Hispanic roots. His evocation of the ancient city of the Aztecs, in its celebration of violence and beauty, rivals D.H. Lawrence, who greatly admired the whole book. “Here it was that the tribe’s deep feeling for a reality that stems back into the permanence of remote origins had its firm hold. It was the earthward thrust of their logic; blood and earth; the realization of their primal and continuous identity with the ground itself, where everything is fixed in darkness.” In counterbalance to this Blut und Boden ponderousness, Williams imagines a city built with a spirit “light, it may be, as feathers,” in which “Half land and half water the streets were navigated by canoes and bridged at the intersections by structures of great timbers over which ten horses could go abreast.” It is as though Calvino were inventing yet another invisible city, of feathers and water, for the fatal encounter of Cortés and the brilliant Montezuma.
It is the great theme of assimilation that Williams sounds in the later chapters of In the American Grain. The Puritans assimilated themselves to the conditions of the New World like a parasite rather than a lover. “One had not expected that this seed of England would come to impersonate, and to marry, the very primitive itself; to creep into the very intestines of the settlers and turn them against themselves, to befoul the New World.” The Puritans are the copyists, the replicants, like the imitative poets Williams excoriated in Spring and All.
Against the “diminutive desires” of the Puritans, Williams juxtaposed big-hearted dreamers such as Cortés and Columbus, Burr and Daniel Boone, who were, he believed, transformed and enlarged in their encounter with wildness. If there was assimilation to be done, it was to become “like an Indian”:
Boone’s genius was to recognize the difficulty as neither material nor political but one purely moral and aesthetic. Filled with the wild beauty of the New World to overbrimming so long as he had what he desired, to bathe in, to explore always more deeply, to see, to feel, to touch—his instincts were contented. Sensing a limitless fortune which daring could make his own, he sought only with primal lust to grow close to it, to understand it and to be part of its mysterious movements—like an Indian. And among all the colonists, like an Indian, the ecstasy of complete possession of the new country was his alone. In Kentucky he would stand, a lineal descendant of Columbus on the beach at Santo Domingo, walking up and down with eager eyes.
The language here, in its uninhibited expansion, is remarkably close to the concluding passage of The Great Gatsby, another masterpiece published in 1925, in which Fitzgerald evokes that first encounter with the New World: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
FOR SOME READERS, the culmination of Williams’s experiments with mixed forms and American themes came in the multi-part long poem Paterson, which he struggled with throughout the 1940s. Paterson is both the industrial city on the Passaic Falls, where Williams often worked in the hospital, and a vaguely autobiographical character called Mr. Paterson (“a man is a city”). Leibowitz decries the “sprawl and prolixity” of the poem while singling out for praise Williams’s close attention to the hopeful origins of the city and the conditions of the urban poor, who
fall back among cheap pictures,
filled silk, cardboard shoes, bad
windows that will not open,
Lowell wrote that Paterson was “Whitman’s America, grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganized by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation.” Today the craggy epics of Modernism—Crane’s The Bridge, Pound’s Cantos, Williams’s Paterson—have some of the strange charm and dated ambition of the great New York skyscrapers. One marvels at them without quite being able to live comfortably in them.
Only during the 1950s did Williams begin, partly through the admiration of younger poets such as Lowell and Jarrell, to acquire the prizes and other kinds of public notice that had eluded him. By then, it was almost too late for him to enjoy them. Incapacitated by strokes in 1951 and 1952, he typed his poems with a single finger. The poetry that resulted was some of his very best, the three remarkable books of his late period: Pictures from Brueghel, Desert Music, and Journey to Love. It was during this period that Williams, after confessing to various infidelities, wrote some of his most moving love poems, including “The Ivy Crown,” another attempt to get at what mature and enduring love might consist of. “Romance,” he wrote, “has no part of it.”
At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
to make roses
stand before thorns.
love is cruel
and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.
But we are older ...
In these poems, he perfected his segmented three-part line. As Leibowitz puts it, “tercets, a kind of speech therapy, allowed him to move slowly and tentatively, and to catch his breath before leading the train of thought down another flight of stairs.”
“Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” many years in the making, is a more bellicose book than it needs to be, with many polemical pages on biography directed at various straw men. “Strong hostility was generated in many quarters to biographers.” It seems late in the day to have to justify biography. One wishes that the book were more tautly written. Williams, Leibowitz notes, “labored many years to weed out the poeticisms that overran his own early work.” Leibowitz might have done some weeding of his own. Customers at a speakeasy are referred to as “lovers of Bacchus.” Williams behaves “like a gallant beau writing billets doux to his inamorata.” Gossip “seemed to have just come out of the oven, so hot and aromatic was it.” When Pound annoyed him, Williams “would erupt like Vesuvius and scorch his friend with invective or joke teasingly.”
Leibowitz’s book does help to frame the question of where Williams stands now. The development of American poetry in the twentieth century is inconceivable without him. He is the inventor of much of the poetry one sees in print: free verse in which the line breaks are given special emotive and visual attention, and emotion is carried by the observation of carefully selected concrete things, with minimal commentary. He is often invoked with affection, as Whitman is, but more remembered for his kindly and self-effacing poems than for his fiercer and more experimental work. Leibowitz’s wide-ranging, opinionated, and sometimes scattershot book will help remind readers what an immensely complicated writer Williams was.
Early and late, Williams held the conviction that poetry was, in his friend Kenneth Burke’s phrase, “equipment for living,” a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life. The American ground was wild and new, a place where a blooming foreigner needed all the help he could get. Poems were as essential to a full life as physical health or the love of men and women. “Look at/what passes for the new,” Williams wrote in “Asphodel”:
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
To get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.