William Carlos Williams

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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.

Kathleen Woodward

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[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...

(This entire section contains 4700 words.)

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[from his medical practice]. Three years later he publishedThe Desert Music and Other Poems, a transition volume marked on the one hand by energy, confidence, and curiosity in the "local" and on the other by an almost desperate confusion in the face of an exhausted and weak old age. Of these two extremes, marked by "The Desert Music" and "For Eleanor and Bill Monahan," "The Desert Music" came first. (pp. 133-34)

Written in the manner of the first four books of Paterson, it deals with essentially the same problem but accomplishes what they never could—it glorifies the city…. "Desert Music" is not a poem of reminiscence, or an agony of descent, or of memory, as some have read it, but a poem of action and characteristic Williams shoulder-to-shoulder contact with a living culture, the local, the real.

Why was this possible in Juárez and El Paso and not in Paterson, New Jersey? All these cities are stamped by poverty. But in the south Williams discovers a culture which is full of color, music, and a people who are alive, vital, and vibrant. The reason: these people are the descendants, the survivors, of the Aztec culture which Williams rapturously idealized and which, he had more than once mused, could have been "the pure American addition to world culture." Latins, Spanish Indians, Mexicans, displaced white Americans—what is most important is that these people have not divorced the soul from the body. As we see even in "Desert Music," Williams believed that it is from the association of the body and the soul—even a perverse association—that a healing and glorifying poetry of the city is born. (p. 134)

"The Desert Music" is Williams' strongest affirmation of both his power as a poet and the power of poetry as a "music of survival." Sadly, it is also his last muscular, masculine poem and as such would appear the appropriate sequel to Paterson IV, a better Paterson V than the poem itself. For Williams, the poem had always been the locus of the body and mind (or the imagination, as Williams often calls it), and this is achieved, with vigor, in "Desert Music." The triumph is all the more moving because Williams was struggling against physical odds; the constant fear is that the mind will be weakened also. Moreover, necessarily the relationship between the body and the mind (and it was always an intimate connection for Williams) must change, and thus we may not be surprised to see that after "Desert Music," Williams' notion of what a poem is also changes; the mind now lives first and foremost in words, not the body. (p. 135)

If Williams' notion of poetry changes with age and physical infirmity, we might also observe that so do his poetic mode and his poetic line…. The fertile profusion of rhythms, the open form, the voices of everyday speech of "Desert Music"—all contract to the meditative religious chant of the not-so variable foot in "For Eleanor and Bill Monahan." In this strange poem Williams confesses to an anguish, weakness, loss of potency, and confusion about his sexual identity…. (p. 136)

[In Journey to Love, published a scant year later, the] extremes of mood of the previous volume have disappeared, and in their place we find a calm persistence and pervading tone of reminiscence. Overshadowed by the world of memory, the world of particulars shrinks to an occasional window sparrow, a bus station drunk, or a look in his son's eyes. But by and large, "the hollows of the eyes," as he says in "Shadows," "are unpeopled." All no longer depends on the celebrated red wheelbarrow and its white chickens for, as he puts it in the major, and by far the longest, poem of the book, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" …:

    Approaching death,
                 as we think, the death of love,
                                no distinction
    any more suffices to differentiate
                 the particulars
                                of place and condition
    with which we have been long

The outlines are blurred, he says; they cannot help him know what he must know about his own death if it is to be "real." It is, in other words, not place, not particulars, which can give him either peace or meaning. Although too simple a formulation, we might say that his creed has become in a very real sense no longer the famous tenet "no ideas but in things" but the opposite—"no things but in ideas." (p. 137)

["Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"] has moments of lyric fineness and compression, but for the most part it is strung together on the loose and unconvincing principle of the Autobiography: one incident yields to another; Williams writes to keep on writing. Just as we do not learn in his Autobiography what the "hidden core" of his life is (and we suspect that perhaps he did not know either), in "Asphodel" we do not see how his absolution is won. He opens the poem asking for forgiveness from his wife (the symbol of their love, the asphodel, he writes in a touching phrase, has a "moral order"); he presents himself alternately as anguished and self-vaunting, and he closes the poem asserting that she has indeed forgiven him…. We want to agree, with some relief, but it is difficult to see the poetic means by which this forgiveness is gotten. I do not wish to beat an old man's poem to death, but "Asphodel" raises a serious poetic problem. The long poem was not Williams' strength, nor was, it must be admitted, prose. To achieve a basic transformation of feeling is perhaps a dramatic art which he did not possess….

Nothing if not a consistently restless and courageous man, who perhaps overextended himself, Williams could not rest with the unchallenging sweetness of "Asphodel." In 1958 Paterson V was published. Acclaimed a masterpiece—and that it surely is—Book V does, as few tire of pointing out, affirm-the-triumph-of-the-imagination-over-death-and-old-age. But, Paterson V, as this paean might lead one to expect, is not just a variation on the theme of "Asphodel." This is his most complex meditative poem, and as a poem "du Vieux Sage" it differs radically from all others he had written. (p. 139)

A self-appointed creator of American culture, Williams understood his mission when he conceived Paterson in its four books as that of making the American city real, of bringing into being an articulate whole…. By 1958 however, he had shifted from the provincial in the American grain to the Western universal in European art. If before his object was to make the American city real, in Book V his object is to make art real. Accordingly, in Book V the overlying allegorical structure—the poet as city—is flatly dropped. Williams is no longer a heavily populated Paterson wanting to give voice to his thoughts, the people. Rather he is a private person who has little to do with the noise of the city and all to do with the quiet of a museum. In Book V the tone is no longer predominantly that of aggressive pursuit of the city's geography, its workers, books, and Sunday afternoons. Instead it is meditative, reminiscent, and largely lyrical. The flat and jagged edge of prose has almost entirely disappeared, and with it has disappeared the concern with American history. The American Indian is replaced by the huntsman and unicorn of medieval legend. The lower class, scarred, "cheap" black woman ("Beautiful Thing") is displaced by the aristocratic maiden of the French tapestries. Tradition, in short, supersedes, or at least surrounds, individual (local) talent.

What does this radical shift of priorities mean? It means for Williams failure in the attempt to make the local universal. It means failure in the attempt to realize in the American city a sustaining culture. It means, to use one of the dominant metaphors of the first four books, divorce from the city. Moreover it means an acceptance of the long-familiar and long-rejected position of Pound and Eliot—that the tradition of other cultures can give sustenance where our own wasteland cannot…. [The] two examples of art which he focuses on [are] the fifteenth-century French tapestries housed at New York City's Cloisters and Peter Breughel's Nativity. This is what Williams chose, not, as one might have expected from his American background, native American sources for his myths, or twentieth-century American painters and photographers … for his art. In Book V it is as though he had never written his brilliant, precocious, and passionate book In the American Grain. It is as though he could no longer write a "Desert Music."

This being understood, the fruitful approach, in other words, is not to struggle with reconciling the unexpected ground of Book V with the rest of Williams' work, but to come to terms with the very significant differences which exist. And the suspicion inevitably occurs. Was Williams running off to the peripheries, as he had accused Pound and Eliot of doing? Would it be fair to characterize him as a "subtle conformist," as he himself had once characterized Eliot? Would it be accurate to say that in Book V Williams chooses caviar, not bread; that he reveals a taste for the exquisite which he had more than once associated with Pound? It seems fair to say he does.

The basic opposition set up in the whole of Paterson thus can be defined as the conflict between culture (American) and art, or alternatively put, the city and the museum. The two, it is clear, cannot be reconciled; neither can contain meaningfully or for long the other. Just why this is so has much to do with Williams' concept of the city and his notion of culture. Consider Paterson itself. The first four books are built on the almost mystical and twin belief that man is defined by the city which he has built and lives in, and that the city itself is a living organism defined not only by its parts (its people) but also by its relationship to its surrounding landscape as well…. There is an interpenetration between the city and water and land, an identification between city and a new kind of man. More importantly, the city is a work of art, a moral entity. (pp. 140-42)

Before Book V, Williams (unlike Eliot and Pound, for whom the literary tradition exists in space, not time) held to an historical view of art. In this context, then, it is clear that the library, the museum, acts to keep the poet from the city. And it is the city which for Williams is the object of the poem….

But Williams was unable to make the city the province of Book V, the only book he left untitled, but which we might dedicate to the care and preservation of the museum. Paterson, that swill hole of democracy, was beyond saving. It could never be transformed into a Tenochtitlan, Williams' early vision of what the ideal American city had once been but could never be again. (p. 143)

Montezuma is the personification of the New World, not Prufrock, says Williams in his Prologue to Kora in Hell. Because Montezuma's Tenochtitlan, unlike the industrial Paterson, understood, and understood consummately, that culture is not a thing, but an act, not this or that isolated product of the artist but the entire process of adjusting to local conditions, of creating a community, a city, the process in fact of the first four books of Paterson, where emphasis is on the poet walking, talking, on art in the making as a way of life. (p. 144)

The implication is this: in a perfectly realized culture such as that of Tenochtitlan, art is so flawlessly integrated in the city that it disappears as a separate entity…. But just as Tenochtitlan collapsed …, so Paterson scarcely had a chance to develop a culture of its own. The "local" was exploited by such federal money-makers as Hamilton and sabotaged by the imposition of a culture purchased from without. And as cities in the United States grew and museums were built by robber barons to assuage their guilt, Williams argues, the spirit of local community progressively disintegrated. Williams believed, in other words, that in the United States there was historically a pernicious relationship between the rise of the city and the founding of its traditional complement, the museum, which in this case housed an imported, not an indigenous culture. And the corrupting nexus between the city and the museum was wealth.

Thus if Williams' purpose in Paterson was to make the local universal, to roll up the particulars into a whole, this is one reason why he ultimately failed. Historically he saw that the cards were stacked against him. For his poetics do not include the romantic belief of beholding the world in a grain of sand. The intervening term in his often-repeated tenet "The local is the universal" is culture, an indigenous culture, and the process is an historical one: Local yields CULTURE yields universal. But an authentic, articulate culture could not be raised from the grounds of Paterson, polluted as they were by the industry-saturated Passaic. The city could not be made real.

So in Paterson V Williams came as close as he ever did to joining other Moderns in building a personal system—call it a mythology—to replace what had been lost in the course of the Nietzschean nineteenth century and the industrially polluted twentieth century. If he did not create a full-blown Yeatsian system, he did propose a kind of utopia to replace his lost Atlantis, the lost city of Tenochtitlan. What was missing in Paterson was the splendid element of social harmony and beauty found in Tenochtitlan or even in the vital music of Juárez, Tenochtitlan corrupted. What was missing was the union between the pure and the real, a union impossible either to find or create in one-dimensional mid-century America. What was missing, in short, was the visionary, for certainly there was more than an abundance of the "real." And the visionary was to be found, Williams concluded, only in art—in, for example, Breughel's painting of the nativity.

But Williams had his own sacred tenet. It was not an Eliotic union of the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost he wished. Nor the Poundian process based upon the teachings of Confucius and resulting in the building of the city of Dioce "now in the mind indestructible." Nor simple Stevensian contact with the real, something he had had all his life. (pp. 144-45)

[In Paterson V Williams] abandons the historical world of Paterson for the timeless world of the imagination, which exists outside of it: the museum. Accordingly, his utopia is not a social construct but a personal image: the unicorn.

The union of opposites, the figure from mythology, the alchemical image of the uroboros—this is a strategy completely new to Williams, a class of images totally new to his poetry. If we understand his lifelong poetics as originating from the dictum "no ideas but in things" and read the late poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" as a reversal of this, we see exactly how unprecedented this final stage of his development is. Neither "thing" nor "idea," the unicorn belongs to the realm of the imaginary. Granted, Williams had to locate another solution when he found that in Paterson the city could not be made real…. But why did Williams move beyond or reject the "solution," the peace and contentment, he discovered in "Asphodel"? The central images of whore, virgin, and unicorn suggest an answer. (p. 146)

Of all the major American poets since Whitman, Williams is without question the most sexual of our major poets. (p. 147)

[Throughout] the first four books of Paterson Williams [presents] a model of a healthy sexual being who falters only once or twice, and that is Paterson (Williams) himself. There is no need to detail this since each and every page could stand as document. (p. 150)

If Eliot could reach [the] peak of ineffable experience, a point where all time is stopped, only through the rhythms of abstract language, Williams can reach it only through the body, through sex, through the union of male with female. Suspended beyond the world, beyond the need for language and the desire for speech, Williams discovers in this silence that the giants of the past live again. (p. 152)

If the Williams of Paterson I-IV, a man in his mid-sixties, were to be described, one would characterize him as a lusty old man. If one of the questions he asked himself was

              Doctor, do you believe in
              "the people," the Democracy? Do
              you still believe—in this
              swill-hole of corrupt cities?
              Do you, Doctor? Now?…

the answer he gave throughout those four books was, on balance, yes…. Yes, in short, because Williams in Paterson I-IV had a sexual hold on life.

But if we were to ask this same question of the Williams of Paterson V, we would have to answer no, he does not still believe in that swill-hole, now he wants to "avoid / the irreverent." Whereas in Book II he had enjoined himself to "Be reconciled, poet, with your world, it is / the only truth!," now he insists upon embracing other less tangible worlds, other centuries. And if we were to characterize him now it would be as the wise old man reminiscent of the elder Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, a calm figure who seeks to preserve and hand on tradition. (pp. 152-53)

Why this change? Because the link between the body and the mind, sex and the text, had been snapped. And with the loss of touch, Williams lost his American background. He says as much in I Wanted to Write a Poem, published the very year Paterson V was published:

Paterson V must be written, is being written…. Why must it be written? Paterson IV ends with the protagonist breaking through the bushes, identifying himself with the land, with America. He finally will die but it can't be categorically stated that death ends anything. When you're through with sex, with ambition, what can an old man create? Art, of course, a piece of art that will go beyond him into the lives of young people, the people who haven't had time to create. The old man meets the young people and lives on.

                                        (pp. 153-54)

For some readers Williams is now triumphant, "less bound by his locality and his immediate present"; he now is free "from time and place." But when had Williams ever desired this? I read the passage this way: in old age, his old age, writes Williams, the mind attempts to rebel from the body, the rock which represents the poem. And it is a rebellion nearly successful because the body is almost completely passive, but fortunately a physical sign will occasionally restore himself to himself. The very problem, in other words, is that his mind is no longer stirred by actual contact, by touch, by sex, but only by experience once removed—memory. The problem is a collapse of his world. The flesh of the female, the one indispensable element in his way of being in and with the world, has been removed. (pp. 154-55)

What he desires is desire itself. What he wants is a vision. "The dream / is in pursuit!" he says, and although he is here referring to the making of an artist, the lines sum up his need as well. He needs a new goal—and he defines it as the element of splendor. Or, to read the situation somewhat differently, he needs to be pursued. No longer able to possess, no longer active as he was in Paterson I-IV, now he wants to be possessed…. To be possessed by dreams, by art, that is his desire. Desire, we might say, is in Book V (dis)placed in art. The calm he experiences, we might say, is not so much a finding of a balance he had never had, but a way of achieving a dynamic equilibrium he had once had with the world and lost. Since neither of his two models of perfection—that of Tenochtitlan on the social level, or that of the still point on the sexual level—are possible, he creates a substitute: the imaginary.

Williams thus moves from the "hot" society of Paterson I-IV where meaningful human exchange is defined for him in sexual terms (if not for the other characters) to the "cold" society of Paterson V, inhabited by himself, a few letter writers, a few works of art, and a few, only a few, memories (Williams is not given to much nostalgia here), and initially empty of the Woman he must create in order to create a role for himself.

In Book V he finds himself turning to tradition for models, or at least inspiration…. (pp. 155-56)

Until Book V … Williams had been concerned with one side only, the real. Now confronted with death (which on one level was very certainly the death of desire) Williams needed a living fiction. The triumph of his imagination was this: not to invest a few past masterpieces with life by showing just how concrete they were, but to work with traditional image clusters in a way unknown to him before and create from them a new language of the self within which he could survive. If before his was an unmediated vision, now he found it necessary to devise a system, or at the very least, assert a belief to stand between himself and both the world he could no longer touch and approaching death. (p. 157)

Thus from out of his long-held theory of the sexual origin of the text (whether it be a poem or a person, a city or a culture), in Paterson V Williams turns to the corollary that art is both male and female and constructs an imaginary set to mediate between a diminished life and a coming death. From this point, theoretically he can re-member, re-turn, re-awaken. Now his world can come round again: "The (self) direction has been changed." Although trapped, penned-up, and penned-in, he can face the "aging body," for he lives in a safe and secret world of symbols which "rolls back into the past."… (pp. 159-60)

In the fifth book of Paterson then, the poem becomes for Williams a personal instrument in a way that it had never been before. As late as 1950 he had defined the poem as having a social function…. But in Paterson V the poem becomes first and foremost a means of personal salvation, not a vehicle for raising an American culture. (p. 160)

New spaces, new places—this is just what Williams makes in Book V. But the form this memory takes is not so much the memories of his own past—for these are few and fleeting as he himself admits. Nor I would suggest, is it the larger field of the unconscious, although the unicorn and uroboros are indeed what we have come to call archetypal symbols. Rather this "memory" is that of Western consciousness objectified in European art from which Williams borrows a goal (the inclusion of the element of "splendor," I have called it) and adopts, adapts a set of images for his own use…. [This] strategy sounds curiously like what Williams had accused Pound and Eliot of in Book I…. And it is. But Williams' understanding of what Pound and Eliot were doing was meager. If we compare the Williams of Paterson V with the Pound of the Pisan Cantos, the Eliot of the Four Quartets, and the Stevens of The Rock, we understand just how much his poem suffers in comparison. (pp. 160-61)

[The] impulse of the long, meditative poem among these American poets is to find what will suffice in old age, or, as in the case of Eliot, what can be projected for an old age. And as a form it is impressive, primarily because its successes are hard won over a long period of poetic practice, but also because the emphasis is on process and becoming. Process: this by now has become a commonplace of criticism, but we must not let familiarity harden us to what should remain fresh. The meditative poem has a hidden dramatic form, and for this reason, insights can be revealed which are persuasive, moments can "occur" which are similar to Joycean epiphanies.

In Paterson V this is missing. For if Williams intended to adopt the meditative mode of the Stevens of The Rock and the Eliot of the Four Quartets, as indeed his allusions suggest and his age required, it is clear that he either did not understand it or his long life in poetry had not prepared him for an entirely new way of writing. Certainly the meditative mode was new to him…. Nor did "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" provide him with experience in the strategy of the meditative poem (no matter how much we wish to be genuinely, not sentimentally, moved by it), being as it is a rather flaccid amble down an associational memory lane…. But Paterson V falls into none of these categories. Williams drops the structural methods of the narrative and association and substitutes—what? What is the process by which he would win the discovery of the uroboros, symbol of integrations, wholeness? Although the reader can point to an Eliotic question in section one of Paterson V and an Eliotic assertion in section three, it is much more difficult to locate an underlying dramatic or rhetorical logic which allows Williams to make this affirmation. The truth is this—that Williams does not so much experience as assert. His purpose was dramatic, but he could not escape the tyranny of the object. In Paterson V he continued his old habit of description: he chose a brilliantly defined object—the tapestry which weaves the narrative of the unicorn—for his symbol, not something ineffable, irreducible to an object, such as Eliot's notion of the still point.

In I Wanted to Write a Poem Williams said that those people who had accused him of writing antipoetry had prophesied that "when I have suffered … I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age." It would not be too outrageous to suggest that this is indeed just what he does in Paterson V—that he decorates a substitute world with unicorns and flowers and a grim reaper and serpents gripping their tales in their mouths as though they were so many paintings to be hung on the wall of the text. There is something, in other words, curiously unconvincing about Paterson V…. Williams, cut off from his lifelong concept of himself, divorced from the ground (the sexual) and thus divorced from his native culture (the American grain), sought himself outside himself, never reaching a still point from which he could include the universe. This was his failure, but his courage was also in this: the infirmities of age demanded that he do what he had not done before, and confronting those weaknesses, he invented something new. (pp. 161-63)

Kathleen Woodward, "William Carlos Williams and 'Paterson V': Tradition and the Individual Talent," in her At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (copyright © 1980 by the Ohio State University Press; all rights reserved), Ohio State University Press, 1980, pp. 133-65 [the first excerpt of Williams's work used here was originally published in his Pictures from Brueghel (copyright © 1955 by William Carlos Williams; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1955; the second and third excerpts were originally published in his Paterson (copyright 1949 by William Carlos Williams; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1949].

Herbert Leibowitz

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With due allowance for Williams' infirmities, haste, and pleasure in writing it, the Autobiography is still a baffling performance. It seems to proceed by fits and starts, as if Williams kept losing interest or the pathway as he recreated his past…. Williams' narrative rambles along, stopping to admire the intense blue of monkshood here, the facade of Rheims Cathedral there, to retail a piece of gossip or a childhood escapade, or to insert excerpts from Charles Olson's essay on Projective Verse, a document he approved because it validated his own experiments with rescuing the poetic line from stodginess. Like young Bill in the swing, he rocks back and forth, back and forth, the captive of no single mood, indifferent to longueurs, appearing to admit all memories on equal footing and trusting to some invisible principle of coherence, or the reader's indulgence.

"It can't all be told," or "That's not it either," Williams will say with a shrug of his shoulders and pass abruptly to a new, unrelated point. After a number of these snappish exclamations, the reader begins to suspect that Williams is engaged in subtle self-censorship. If his wife Floss was the rock on which he built his life, as he says, why is she assigned only a cameo role in the Autobiography? If his brother Ed was the model for all of Williams' friendships with men, why does he disappear from the book after sharing in a few family crises and boyish games, and touring Rome with his brother as an architectural cicerone? Why are Williams' two sons scarcely mentioned? And why, at the place most autobiographers find abundant material to occupy their mature reflections, namely, their relations with mother and father, does Williams grow incommunicative?… For someone who staked so much of his poetic career on "the open, free assertion," Williams suppressed a central part of himself, and in resisting the disclosure of the most basic influences on him ironically slipped into "the falseness of the piecemeal" he elsewhere warns against.

Anyone seeking answers to the above questions soon finds the Autobiography a map of tricky equivocations and cul-de-sacs, as if put together by a whimsical or careless cartographer. Carelessness indeed was for Williams an entrenched mode of taking the world that immunized him from "malignant rigidities." (p. 35)

Readers looking for a magisterial summing up of his careers as doctor and poet are invariably disappointed by the slapdash style of the book. It is as though afraid of being nailed as an homme serieux, Williams decided to present himself as a man of normal sensuality with a proclivity for playful enthusiasms, peevish or racy opinions, and humorous anecdotes. The very look of the short paragraphs on the page testifies to a breathless running style … that betokens a refusal and terror of being pinned down…. [Williams believed] that so long as he conveyed the tug and vibration of feelings, objects, ideas, as the boy holding the taut kite senses the energy passing through his hands, the form would take care of itself. The perfect pitch of his random perceptions would serve immediate experience better than the fraudulent tonality of polished sequence which he tended to associate with the English poets. Thus Williams does not apologize when Part Three of the Autobiography unexpectedly deserts chronology and returns once more to the poet's childhood in Rutherford, though transposed to a minor key and marked by a slightly slower tempo. Whether Williams grew aware that the skeletal structure of the book was defective, or he simply needed the stimulus of a new beginning, he fell back on an old bit of involuntary guile: he would charm and improvise his way out of an awkward spot by playing the role of innocent. (pp. 35-6)

Williams' naiveté, allied to his peculiar vulnerability and durable sense of wonder, is a ruse that enables him to get literary business done. "Beati innocenti," the benediction he bestows on the past and on himself, is a formula Williams fashioned for survival, like his suburban practice in pediatrics and his stable marriage. It was most of all a cover for his slow and circuitous development as a poet, from the ornate maunderings of his early poems, the "clear hard images" of his transitional period, to his efforts in the twenties to imbue his poems with the "tactile qualities of words."…

In Williams' life and art, the desire for intimacy and a need for distance fought long, exhausting skirmishes. This major rhythm, a key to understanding Williams' Autobiography, is the source of the book's appeal. It governs the repertoire of voices at his command, by turns sassy and earnest, confiding and aloof, flaunting the pugnacity of the tough guy and, more rarely, the surprised tenderness of the lover. Intimacy means to him contact, empathy, touch, sexual abandon, the temptation of infidelity and the dread of being carried away and losing his identity; distance means perspective, detachment, the correction of error, the husband, a kind of cosmopolitan knowingness and the ignominy of safety. Williams approves of both but can bear neither exclusively for more than a short time. His obsession with measure throughout his adult life had its roots in his psyche as well as in his prosody. (p. 36)

It is not far-fetched to view the swarm of memories in the autobiographer's mind as (to borrow a phrase from Paterson) "the whole din of fracturing thought" which somehow must be subdued into a healing music. Who but a doctor-poet, an expert in two kinds of anatomy, is best equipped to set the broken bones? Medicine provided Williams, as did the poem, "the excitement of the chase, the opportunity for exercise of precise talents, the occasion for batting down a rival to supersede him…." These aspects are ably served by the anecdotal humor of the Autobiography. Whether recording the tribulations of his working class patients, the rowdy, seamy, and inspiring routines of a hospital, or the professional politics and "untrustworthy self-seekers," the clinician and raconteur are blended in a humane, supple prose. (p. 42)

Though Williams announces in the last section of the Autobiography that "the practice of letters concerns the whole man no matter what the stylistic variants," does he follow his own good counsel? Apparently he believes that he does and that the study of medicine enabled him "to know what goes on in myself as well as others." (pp. 42-3)

If he is not being disingenuous, Williams is the one most gulled by illusion, for despite (or because of) the ebullience of his style, which skims lightly over events and is based on quick glimpses of objects and people, the psyche scarcely exists. The Autobiography contains only the most meager introspection; thinking … comes perilously close at times to mere scribbling. Perceptions bounce off each other like scattered particles of meaning…. The Autobiography, only lightly edited, thus resembles the clumsy montage of a home movie….

Finally, the structure of the Autobiography is built on continuity-in-discontinuity, its form choppy, indefinite, spontaneous.

Williams' strategy is to knock the reader off-balance. Sense impressions, ideas, lyrical moments of discovery, especially of trees, flowers, and animals, the rough and tumble of boyhood games caper across the page in rapid discursive sequences, much like Frank O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" method. Williams mistrusted the formality of the high style almost as much as he mistrusted ideological systems. His folksy idiom is therefore a prophylaxis against aesthetic preciosity….

The Autobiography strings together hundreds of experiences and facts. Memories jump through the hoop at the wave of a baton. Williams is, by turns, self-interested, selfless, cantankerous, likable, wily, direct, infantile, mature. But the parts do not add up to the whole man, just a blurred facsimile. The problem is that while Williams' breezy style suits his fickle moods and the romance of casual perception, it cannot pull them together to "gain 'profundity.'" What works for the relatively simple cellular structure of his imagistic poems and modest lyrics is inadequate for the complex physiology of an autobiography (or epic poem). "Rigorous invention," the imagination's transforming power, is for long stretches on holiday in the Autobiography. (p. 43)

Williams' artifice of choosing copiously from the outside in order to complement a thin inside is mirrored in his syntax. Attuned to "the inevitable flux of the seeing eye," as he put it in Spring and All, he deliberately keeps his sentences and paragraphs short, briskly declarative, commonsensical. Few subordinate clauses put in an appearance to enter demurrers or qualifications; ideas are modified or contradicted after an interval of several sentences or in a later paragraph. However heterogeneous the autobiographical material, Williams' syntax frequently forecloses complexity. The upshot is not concision but prosiness. (p. 44)

Herbert Leibowitz, "'You Can't Beat Innocence': The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams" (copyright © 1981 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Herbert Leibowitz), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, March-April, 1981, pp. 35-47.


Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 2)


Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 5)