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Why I love: William Carlos Williams (on his birthday)

Today is the birthday of William Carlos Williams. I love so many of his poems and his ideas about poetry and art (as I’ve read and understood them) that I wish I could sit and talk with him. His wife, Flossy, said he loved talking to people, and he didn’t live too far from here, so maybe he wouldn’t mind. His work and his career as a writer seem to embody so much of what I value in art: a desire to shape the way you see the world around you through creativity, but always grounded in an appreciation of the ordinary, the every day. His writing and his thoughts on the writers of his time are full of generosity, sincerity, and a constant questioning examination of life and art.

Williams was born on this day in 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father was English but raised in the Dominican Republic, and his mother was from Puerto Rico, and they spoke Spanish to each other and to Williams when he was very young. I wonder if this shaped the way he heard language, particularly American english. Maybe he could hear its cadences and rhythms as a foreigner would, disconnected from the meaning of the words, which is an idea that has always fascinated me. He studied medicine but he loved literature and art and poetry, and always found people he could discuss those things with–notably Ezra Pound and HD, two poets I admire for different reasons, in different ways.

He became a family doctor in Paterson, NJ–doctor by day, poet by night. I like the idea of a person having a sort of regular day job, and having the rest of their life be the outlet for their creative energy. I believe that it’s both grounding and elevating. I believe that working with people and serving people is inspiring, and that anything you do, creatively, benefits from the sort of warmth of understanding you achieve when you feed a person or ring up their groceries or tend to their sick children. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that artists are a refined class unto themselves, with supersensitive souls and delicate constitutions. Serving people as a profession seems to make one’s art more honest, warm, and resonant. Williams’ poetry is infused with such a deep sense of humanity, in all of it’s frailty and strength, that it becomes both most relatable and most remarkable.

“I was determined to use the material I knew,” Williams would say. And as a doctor this was in the lives, worries, joys, and bodily trials of the citizens of Rutherford New Jersey. He would write snatches of poetry on his prescription blanks, “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” The subject of his poetry was “the whole knowable world about me.”

Williams believed that poetry was important – necessary, even – to understand the chaos of life, and I’d agree that some form of creative outlet (as an artist or as an appreciator of art) is essential for a life well-lived. He chose as his subjects the ordinary and the everyday, the regular people whom he encountered as he moved through life. His language celebrates the rhythms of real speech, of American english, as he heard it all around him, spoken by people who were so close to the cadences and patterns of their words that they almost didn’t notice them. He was an innovator, not only in championing this entirely new, fresh form of American poetry, but also in introducing a variable foot and a triadic line break, based on his observations of the sound of the world around him – of his world.

He was generous – he was a mentor to many younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg (also a Jersey boy!). He stressed the importance of the local – of appreciating and understanding your home and the ways that it shaped you – but he was not provincial. He studied and travelled abroad, and was fascinated by new ideas and new forms of art. I admire poetry that seems simple, effortless and formless, but which is revealed, upon closer examination to be carefully, lovingly crafted, with attention to every small detail. Often the simplest and sparest art is the most difficult to create and understand.

I love the picture of Williams that I conjure as I read about him and read his poetry. He seemed a passionate, creative, questioning, warm and generous spirit. I love the fact that, in an era during which many artists thought of themselves as a superior, supersensitive class, he spoke about “common” people, and not in a deprecating, patronizing fashion, but as such a person himself, sharing his voice and his observations. (“After some years of varied experience with the bodies of the rich and the poor a man finds little to distinguish between them, bulks them as one and bases his working judgements on other matters.”) His poems are spare and beautiful – frequently he describes a moment using images (not ideas but things) and odd particular details that convey far more meaning and emotion because we make the connections for ourselves.

And, finally, dear to my heart, the frustration of a loquacious mute. To quote his friend Pound, “what is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking?” To quote William Carlos Williams, “Do we not see that we are inarticulate? That is what defeats us. It is our inability to communicate to another how we are locked within ourselves, unable to say the simplest thing of importance to one another, any of us, even the most valuable, that makes our lives like those of a litter of kittens in a wood-pile.” 

1 reply »

  1. I need to read more about William Carlos Williams. I read some of his poetry years ago and really enjoyed it but it didn’t realize he has such a fascinating background. Thanks for this post. It is funny how so many doctors have this whole hidden creative side. Neurologist tell us that math, music and medicine come from the same side of the brain.

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