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 collections but also many uncollected poems, arranged chronologically, which had been previously available only in the magazines where they originally appeared. This is a book designed for a wide audience.
Readers who wish to learn about the life of an author understandably recoil from scholarly studies in which poems are surrounded with arcane references, minutiae, and jargon. Christopher MacGowan, who coedited the first volume of Williams’ poems (which included his writing prior to 1939), has avoided the forbidding qualities of academic journals in this collection. This second volume includes all the work Williams did until he stopped writing in 1962, the year before his death, with the exception of the Paterson sequence, which will make up a third book. MacGowan’s intention (and surely Laughlin’s as well) has been to gather and organize a great mass of relevant material so as to present not only the poems but also a lucid, detailed account of a poetic life.
MacGowan’s approach is clearly expressed in the preface and in the first appendix, in which he addresses the reader to explain the decisions he has made. The tone he chooses establishes a feeling of cordiality, so that an invitation is extended rather than a lecture threatened. As MacGowan explains how he determined the location within Williams’ work of a poem first published many years after it was written, the logic of his argument is sufficient to satisfy the scholar’s demand for precision as well as the amateur’s concern for clarity. The authority that MacGowan earns enables him to offer interpretive comments about the circumstances of a particular poem’s origins when speculation is required. His explanations of references within the poems that are not immediately apparent are directive and economical. By the time MacGowan explains the principle behind editorial adjustments (“I have corrected a number of verbal, spacing and lineation errors”), he has already satisfied questions about his capability in this crucial task by his discussion of less important decisions. The overall effect of his explanations is to suggest that he has the sensitivity to the poetry required for an accurate interpretation of Williams’ wishes in matters of editing, as well as the degree of accuracy demanded to organize material from many sources. When he uses the language of the technician—for example, “the printers included a square bracketed catchword at the bottom of the page keyed”—he further supports the impression that he is at home with every aspect of his material.
Backing up all of his decisions is the thoroughness and care that is the foundation of all solid scholarship. MacGowan demonstrates his mastery of the details of Williams’ publishing history in many instances, such as his comment that one of Williams’ editors failed to send him page proofs of The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), and although Williams prepared “a page full of changes and corrections to be incorporated into subsequent prints,” errors continued until the present edition. This kind of information substantiates MacGowan’s actions, while at the same time indicating how flaws occur in the publishing process even when well-intentioned professionals are involved. In another instance, MacGowan relates how Williams, after suffering a series of strokes, threw a set of galleys into the garbage in frustration at his physical limitations. In addition to accounting for further editorial...
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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.
This was an elaborate persona: as complex, sincere, and deceptive as the personae of Walt Whitman, Williams’ most obvious ancestor; Hughes, the contemporary who (without acknowledgment on either side) did the most to realize Williams’ theoretical project; or Allen Ginsberg, the most visible of his problematic descendants. The first volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams provides an excellent opportunity for reconsidering the early stages of Williams’ career, which are frequently overshadowed by his more influential later work, particularly Paterson (1946-1958). With the exception of a few juvenile poems explicitly repudiated by the poet, this exquisitely produced and expertly edited volume contains all the poetry Williams published prior to 1940. Editors A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan have done an exemplary job in creating a text which is at once academically sound and highly readable. Their notes, placed unobtrusively at the back of the volume, provide full textual histories and incorporate many of Williams’ previously unavailable comments on individual poems.
Examining the circumstances of Williams’ emergence helps clarify his attitude toward and position in the American modernist tradition he so deeply distrusted. Like most young American poets during the first two decades of the century, Williams felt a deep dissatisfaction with available models. In The Tempers (1913) and Al Que Quiere! (1917), Williams explores various styles, most notably those of Robert Browning and the Elizabethan lyricists, without notable success. Williams was already practicing medicine in Rutherford, New Jersey (a profession he would pursue throughout his life), and his early struggles to find an authentic voice coincided with the emergence of Eliot and Pound as major voices associated with “Imagism” and “Vorticism,” the latter an early attempt to codify the approach to tradition which would characterize the most influential strain of Anglo-American modernism. By the time Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, Williams had already declared his aesthetic independence. Throughout the 1920’s, he would develop an alternative American modernism incorporating a desire for unmediated perception, an awareness of the impact of observer on event, an embrace of the American vernacular experience, and a style which was at once sparse and multigeneric.
Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady,” a satiric revision of Pound’s “Portrait d’une femme,” specifically rejects the reliance on allusion which had assumed a central aesthetic significance for modernism as early as 1917 when Pound began to publish the first Cantos. Williams treats allusion as a form of mediation, part of the problem rather than a possible solution to the aesthetic difficulties of the modern poet. “Portrait of a Lady” opens by self-consciously avoiding the use of simile, which for Williams implied the distancing of experience: “Your thighs are appletrees/ whose blossoms touch the sky” (emphasis added). The remainder of the poem amounts to an aggressive engagement with, and repudiation of, the Pound-Eliot strain of allusive modernism. Williams presents a sequence of questions—“Which...
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