Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 13)
Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
One of the finest American poets of his generation, Williams was also a novelist, playwright, editor, essayist, and practicing physician. Rejecting the poetic style established by Eliot as overly academic, Williams sought a more natural poetic expression. He endeavored to replicate American speech forms and to capture the idiomatic cadence of both life and speech in America. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is his collection Paterson, a poetic depiction of urban America. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 9.)
[In the main], Doctor Williams' topics are American—crowds at the movies
with the closeness and
universality of sand,
turkey nests, mushrooms among the fir trees, mist rising from the duck pond, the ball game:
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
It is spring. Sunshine … dumped among factories
… down a red dirt path to four goats….
Essentially not a "repeater of things second-hand," Doctor Williams is in his manner of contemplating with new eyes, old things, shabby things, and other things, a poet. Metre he thinks of as an "essential of the work, one of its words." That which is to some imperceptible, is to him the "milligram of radium" that he values. He is rightly imaginative in not attempting to decide; or rather, in deciding not to attempt to say how wrong these readers are, who find his poems unbeautiful or "positively repellant."…
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The lack of celerity in [Williams'] process, the unfamiliarity with facile or with established solutions wd. account for the irritation his earlier prose, as I remember it, caused to sophisticated Britons. "How any man could go on talking about such things!" and so on. But the results of this sobriety of unhurried contemplation, when apparent in such a book as In the American Grain, equally account for the immediate appreciation of Williams by the small number of french critics whose culture is sufficiently wide to permit them to read any modern tongue save their own.
Here, at last, was an America treated with a seriousness and by a process comprehensible to an European.
One might say that Williams has but one fixed idea, as an author; i.e., he starts where an european wd. start if an european were about to write of America: sic: America is a subject of interest, one must inspect it, analyse it, and treat it as subject. There are plenty of people who think they "ought" to write "about" America. This is an wholly different kettle of fish. There are also numerous people who think that the given subject has an inherent interest simply because it is American and that this gives it ipso facto a dignity or value above all other possible subjects; Williams may even think he has, or may once have thought he had this angle of attack, but he hasn't.
After a number of years, and apropos of a given...
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["Paterson" is] epic in intent, if by "epic" one is willing to understand "the sustained handling of a society-enclosing subject matter." As such, "Paterson" is related to such poems as Pound's "Cantos," Eliot's "The Waste Land," and Crane's "The Bridge." If one may define traditional epic as "the celebration in narrative verse of great deeds performed by a single hero or set of heroes," this latter-day type of epic may be distinguished at once from the traditional by the fact that its development is not narrative but symphonic, and by the additional fact that time in this "modern" epic tends to become a continual present.
This modern epic is symphonic in its development because it does not tell a tale but, rather, orchestrates multiple themes of the human position…. [Its] subject is always in some sense what may be called "the racial memory"—the reflective conciousness in which past and future-anticipated blend at every moment with the present awareness of the poet-teller.
It may well be that in discarding so fundamental an attraction as narrative, these poems doom themselves to dullness. All of them can certainly be dull, and even impenetrable, at times. But partial failure does not preclude partial or even great success….
[The] action-hero [of the heroic epic] is too grand and too simple a figure to express the scope of our times. And straight narrative is too single a method for the...
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Having abandoned the borrowed nineteenth-century 'Composition' of his youth, Williams began with the 'Impression'. From 1913 to 1916 the portrait and the pastoral were his best media. If one were to turn for an analogy in painting for the poems in the collection Al Que Quiere, it would be to the Ashcan school of realism, in which the dignity of human life was rendered by impressionistic means. Williams' 'townspeople', although not products of the East Side slums, were similarly treated; for example, the old man who collects dog-lime from the gutter but whose walk is more majestic than that of the Episcopal minister. (p. 39)
The background of general revolt in art inspired … a sense of fellow-feeling in which Expressionist and Constructivist painters, the Blaue Reiter group and the Cubists, thought of themselves as one movement—the 'modern' movement. Williams, as it happened, was acquainted with a mixed group; mystical Cubists …, Dadaists …, and Expressionists…. In a period when he was producing improvisations, sedulously studying such a profoundly constructive, or 'synthetic', Cubist as Gris …, Williams' work was a composite plagiarism or generalised imitation of European innovations. While not being a painter himself he had joined the ranks of the painters who were poets 'on the side'; Abseitigen like Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Hans Arp, and Lajos Kassák.
The advantages in taking as...
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Williams was not, like Dickens or like Faulkner, an impersonator. But the habit of listening to voices extended to his own voice, so that he could write down the way he heard himself phrasing things:
It's all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should
be a song—made of
scissors, a lady's
You hear the staccato phrasing of a taut voice. You also hear things speech wouldn't know how to clarify: the auditory relationships … with the white space prolonging the tension after "should"; and "open" floating between "immediate," which it clarifies, and "scissors," which it specifies (the delay of the white space again withholding "scissors" till we've had time to take "open" with immediate"). "A lady's," similarly, seems to go with "scissors" till round the...
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Note the urgency and immediacy of the opening paragraph [of The Use of Force]: "They were new patients to me, all I had was the name, Olson. Please come down as soon as you can, my daughter is very sick." The two sentences might have been punctuated as four, but William Carlos Williams, anxious to get to his point, uses commas to keep us flowing with him. Here and throughout he omits quotation marks for the direct address, another device to convey urgency. From the first rushing sentences Williams comes on like the Ancient Mariner, grabbing our lapels to tell of the doctor's compulsion. At first we think we might have a classic rescued-from-death tale, since early on we read, "As it happens we had been having a number of cases of diphtheria in the school to which this child went during the month." The last two thirds of the story, though, is not about death but about the strange problem of getting to see the girl's throat. (p. 7)
There are two conflicts: one within the girl and the other within the doctor. The girl feels, I believe, that if evil is not discovered it does not exist. As long as we keep evil to ourselves, it is containable and controllable. When others discover our secret, we are no longer in control and all is lost. Thus, the little girl hid her sore throat for the same reason that some of us avoid a dentist who will find cavities in our teeth. We know we are acting unreasonably, but we don't go to the same...
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