William Carlos Williams
I’m not sure whether William Carlos Williams was more responsible for me becoming a poet than for me becoming a doctor. But he had a huge influence on my life, both as a physician and as a writer.
Williams was born, incredibly, in 1883. Is it really possible to think of him as a Victorian and not a contemporary? As an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism, he was also a pediatrician and general practitioner, earning his MD from the University of Pennsylvania. Williams said that he “worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician”. Maybe so, but he excelled at both.
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey to an English father and a Puerto Rican mother. He attended the Lycée Condorcet in Paris as a young man, but returned to America to attend Horace Mann High School in New York City, and began his medical studies in 1902.
He married a woman called Florence Herman in 1912 (after his first proposal to her older sister was refused). After they bought and moved into a house in Rutherford, New Jersey, he shortly afterward published his first book of serious poems, The Tempers.
His day job was always that of a doctor. But once his poems gained attention, Williams embarked on a full literary career as well. Short stories, poems, plays, novels, critical essays, an autobiography, translations and correspondence. He wrote at night and spent weekends in New York City with friends—writers and artists like the avant-garde painters Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and the poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.
In 1915 Williams began to be associated with a group of New York artists and writers known as “The Others.” Founded by the poet Alfred Kreymborg and by Man Ray, this group included Walter Conrad Arensberg, Wallace Stevens, and Mina Loy. These involvements familiarized Williams with Dada, which may explain the unexpectedness and innovation of his earlier, more Surrealist poems. Certainly The Others made Williams a key member of the early modernist movement in America.
Why was Williams important? Aside from the quality of his work, that is. The answer to that question may lie in his directness , his simplicity, his locality. In his modernist epic collage of place, Paterson, he gave an account not of the otherworldly pre-Rapaelite scenes or grand historical clashes beloved by Victorians, but of the history, people, and essence of Paterson, New Jersey. He famously summarized his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things”, and famously advised poets to chuck traditional poetic forms and arcane literary allusions, and see the world as it is. Marianne Moore, wrote that Williams had used “plain American which cats and dogs can read,” and meant that as a compliment. Williams disliked Pound’s and, especially, T. S. Eliot’s incessant allusions to foreign languages and Classical sources, as in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams drew his themes from what he called “the local.”
Williams was a good father to his poetic children, not only to his biological ones. He had a significant influence on poets of the Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain school, and the New York School. He personally mentored Theodore Roethke, and Charles Olson. Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, two other poets associated with Black Mountain, also studied under Williams. One of Williams’s most dynamic relationships as a mentor was with fellow New Jersey native Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg claimed that Williams essentially freed his poetic voice, and Williams included several of Ginsberg’s letters in Paterson, stating that one of them helped inspire the fifth section of that work. Williams also wrote introductions to two of Ginsberg’s books, including Howl.
After suffering a heart attack in 1948, Williams’ health began to decline, and after 1949 a series of strokes led to treatment for clinical depression in a psychiatric hospital during 1953. He died ten years later, on March 4, 1963, and was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. He had anticipated it, perhaps, in a poem called Tract that he had written years earlier. It’s one of my favorites:
“No wreathes please-
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes – a few books perhaps –
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople –
something will be found – anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.
“… Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly –
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What – from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us – it will be money
in your pockets.
I think you are ready”