The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
The 1938 catalog for the New Directions Publishing Company, a fledgling operation launched by James Laughlin, announced the forthcoming publication of The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. It is fitting that fifty years later, Laughlin—now recognized as a visionary pioneer in American publishing—has presented the second volume of the collected poems of a man who has been gradually acknowledged as one of America’s greatest poets during the years New Directions issued his work. As recently as 1950, the revised edition of an 843-page anthology called A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, English and American carried ten poems by its editor, Oscar Williams, and only two by William Carlos Williams, while Time identified him as “a New Jersey pediatrician who versifies between cases.” This sort of ignorance was offset by acute observations by fellow poets such as David Ignatow, who spoke for many others when he said, “Without him, American poetry was impoverished for me.” By 1983, Paul Mariani could claim in a critical biography that he was “the single most important American poet of the twentieth century.” While Mariani’s opinion is hardly a majority view, it suggests the importance of the second volume of what New Directions describes as “a complete and authoritative record of the development and achievement of one of America’s major poets.” This edition includes not only those poems published in other...
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The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Sharing the long-standing American obsession with “unmediated” experience, William Carlos Williams struggled throughout his career with and against the idea of a modernist poetic tradition. Williams most certainly wrote in a modernist matrix; the problems he considers and his interest in technical experimentation connect him on a general level with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H. D., and Langston Hughes. His third published collection, Spring and All (1923), for example, opens with a standard modernist complaint concerning the aesthetic insensitivity of the mass audience. Setting himself apart from Eliot and Pound, both of whom had achieved a higher degree of early success, Williams indirectly repudiates their densely allusive style, which frequently juxtaposed American experiences with “Old World” or “classical” materials. Williams first denounces the “constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world” and then proceeds with a blistering attack on “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism” who “led yesterday and wish to hold their sway a while longer. It is not difficult to understand their mood. They have their great weapons to hand: ’science,’ ’philosophy,’ and most dangerous of all ’art.’” From the beginning, then, Williams presented himself as a kind of populist “antimodernist”: a radical, pragmatic, skeptical, intensely American individual.
(The entire section is 1965 words.)