ROBERT von HALLBERG
Everyone knows the remark by Williams that if canvases were less cumbersome, he might have been a painter rather than a poet. Williams earnestly believed that more than any other art painting held the power to change modern culture. One of his many criticisms of his friend Ezra Pound was that the expatriate "missed the major impact of his age" largely because of his insensitivity to painting…. Bram Dijkstra has assembled a fine volume of Williams's writings on art [William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists], including essays on Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Stieglitz, Bosch, John Marin, Brancusi, and others…. Many of these essays concern American artists, which is just what would be expected from the champion of the American Idiom and the Local. However, the truth is … that Williams pretended to greater naiveté than he possessed. His taste in painting was distinctly European; this was the taste of his generation. (pp. 500-01)
As an art critic, Williams's ability was limited. The essays in this volume are not extraordinary for what they say about particular painters or paintings…. [Rather, the] most important essays in this book—"Art and Politics: The Editorship of Blast" (1933), "Revolutions Revalued: The Attack on Credit Monopoly from a Cultural Viewpoint" (1936), "Woman as Operator" (1948), and "The Portrait: Emmanuel Romano" (1966)—are focused on issues that go way beyond the techniques of particular painters.
One of Williams's more striking claims here concerns representation in art. One might expect this enthusiast of experimental painting to discount representational painting, but as early as 1928 he claimed that the cubist wish to escape representation was wrong-headed: "all painting is representation and cannot be anything else."… [He also argued] that "of all paintings the portrait is the most complex, and the most satisfying."… These essays show that very early Williams's taste in painting took a conservative turn.The emphasis on representation makes sense from various angles—not least from his sense of the function of art. He was not merely a realist: "… it is the degree of understanding about, and not situations themselves, which is of prime importance…."… The artist should provide not just a representation but "clarity of mind."… To some extent, an artist is limited by the Zeitgeist to that understanding which exists, if only potentially, in his or her world. But sometimes there is the potential for great change, and "Revolutions are not won by violence alone but by the accuracy of the thought back of them."… Williams understood art in somewhat utilitarian terms: "A 'good' poem is good as it might be successfully used in the organization of an entire social, political, economic [pattern] of its day—or reorganization."… He was an experimental poet—no one can question that—but his ideas about the proper subject and function of art, and about the role of the artist were conservative and commonsensical; they are the notions that are frequently designated as "reasonable." (pp. 501-02)
Robert von Hallberg, "A Recognizable Image: 'William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1980 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 52, No. 3, November, 1980, pp. 500-02.
[T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens] are the two poets in the American Modern tradition one would least expect Williams to honor. Yet honor them he does and, in fact, he could be said to join their ranks. For in the seven years between the publication of the fourth and fifth books of Paterson, between 1951 and 1958, Williams and his poetry underwent a profound change.
In 1951 Williams suffered his first stroke and was forced to retire [from his medical practice]. Three years later he published The Desert Music and Other Poems , a transition volume marked on the one hand by energy, confidence, and curiosity in the "local" and on the...
(The entire section is 6,698 words.)