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Best known as a poet, William Carlos Williams was an accomplished writer in many genres. He produced twenty-three volumes of poetry, five collections of short fiction, six novels, seven books of nonfiction, five plays, and four translations. His work, in all genres, is characterized by a direct treatment of reality, creating an artistry of immediacy and freshness. Williams was also a doctor in continuous practice for four decades.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Physician and the Poet
William Carlos Williams was born and lived his entire life in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father, William George Williams, was English by birth and remained a British citizen his entire life, even though he left England at age five. Williams’s mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb (called Elena by her family), born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was partly French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish. An exotic and romantic personality, she exerted a strong influence on her son, as did his paternal grand-mother, Emily Dickinson Wellcome. As a youth, Williams was passionately devoted to sports, especially track, until, at age sixteen, he began to suffer from an ailment diagnosed as adolescent heart strain. He then channeled his abundant energy into literature. From 1902 to 1906, Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended the poet, Ezra Pound. After his internship in New York hospitals, he pursued two professions— medicine and writing—with equal vigor. Much to his satisfaction, he found that these two careers complemented, rather than contradicted, one another: in his Autobiography (1951), Williams insists, ”As a writer, I have been a physician, and as a physician a writer.”
While Ezra Pound and a small group of English and American poets in London met informally, and plotted the first steps of a new literary trend they christened, Imagism, Pound’s old school friend, William Carlos Williams, remained at home, practicing obstetrics in Rutherford, New Jersey, but listening intensely to the news from abroad, Pound regularly reported to him in his letters. Although Imagism, under Pound’s direction, lasted but a few short, intense years, the style became the unique property of Williams, who exploited its every potential and possessed it so thoroughly in his work of the next four decades, that today the abbreviated lyric is nearly indistinguishable from his name.
Williams also passionately pursed a purely American mode of verse to distinguish him from Pound and his cohorts, who accepted the European verse tradition and made it the basis of their work. Williams’s quest may have arisen from his own troubled sense of identity: the son of a British father who never changed his citizenship, and a Puerto Rican mother with whom he was rarely close. Imagism attracted Williams because of its shift of emphasis from idea to image in the poem. Pound and Williams both were opponents of hazily suggestive language for poetry, but Williams saw in Imagism an opportunity to reclaim verse language as a vehicle of direct comment on American life. He saw the free verse method—which rejected conventional rhyme, rhythm, and metric schemes—as a way of expressing this sense of freedom, evident in his most famous poem, ”The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923).
Williams’s long use of the sketchy Imagist poetic may have no other cause than that he found it suitable to his imagination. It may also have been a matter of necessity, since after marrying Flossie Herman in 1912, and beginning his medical practice in earnest, Williams had little free time in which to write. He thought of himself as first a writer, only second as a provider and family man. In Autobiography he records how he would often pull up his typewriter between patients and dash out a poem, quite often in its first and only draft. The very brevity of the lyric, in other words, expressed the condition of the poet’s harried life, as much as it staked out his unique position on the making of poetry.
Williams paid a price for his unchanging mode of poetry. After having a number of slight texts published, including the privately printed Poems of 1909, his first book, the more mature work of Al Que Quiere! (1917), the bold improvisatory sequence Kora in Hell (1920), Sour Grapes (1921), and his best early book, Springand All (1923), he fell into obscurity and had only one other work of poetry, Go Go (1923), published during the rest of the decade.
Sketches in Prose
In the 1930s, Williams expanded his literary repertoire to include short stories, publishing the collections The Knife of the Times and Other Stories (1932) and Life Along the Passaic River (1938). He seems to have turned to fiction, at this point, because of the consistent discouragement he met with in his attempts to be recognized as a poet. In his frustration, he found the short story to be a more direct vehicle for his ideas and emotions. Williams’s short stories are not traditional in form, but are sketches or fragments of his experience and imagination that begin and end on impulse. Many of these stories are autobiographical, having to do with a doctor-narrator and his patients. His characters are revealed objectively by their responses to their immediate environment, and are raised to the level of individuals in the midst of depraved insensitivity. Often designed as casual, spontaneous conversations in which Williams is a participant, his stories evolve from nascent speech patterns, or what he calls ”the American idiom,” a narrative technique that heightens the intensity and immediacy of his short fiction.
Williams published The Knife of the Times and Other Stories in 1932, at the darkest moment of the Great Depression. Williams’s stories dramatize the fortitude and perseverance of his characters in spite of the oppression (”the knife”) of the times. Most of these stories (only one of which was first published in a periodical) illustrate the power of love and identity as forms of survival. One of the first reviews of this publication praises these stories for their ”clinical calm” and ”even-colored tone.”
Williams claimed that Life Along the Passaic River was a continuation of the stories in The Knife of the Times and Other Stories. He admitted, however, that he was a more mature writer at this stage, seldom needing to revise his work. Among these stories are some of Williams’s most incisive social comments. His autobiographical narrator becomes even more deeply involved in the lives of the people he knows along the banks of the Passaic. With passionate authenticity, Williams writes about their hopes, their fears, their weaknesses, their strengths, shifting the point of view from tough to tender, and from indifferent to sympathetic.
The most frequently anthologized of Williams’s stories is ”The Use of Force” (1933), which dramatizes a struggle between life and death, or more specifically, between control and loss of control. In this story, the doctor-narrator is called upon to diagnose the problem of a child with a fever; but the child, Mathilda, refuses to let the doctor look at her throat. A strong sense of distrust between doctor and child at the beginning of the story sets the scene for the different levels of conflict that take place.
During the 1930s, Williams also published A Novelette and Other Prose (1932) and the first installment (White Mule, 1937) of what is known as the ”Stecher trilogy.” This particular novel represented Williams’s first real public success. During this period, he also published four new books of poetry, two collections of his poems, and his first play.
A Productive Period
The 1940s were especially productive for Williams: he continued the Stecher trilogy with In the Money: White Mule—Part II(1940); he wrote three plays; and in 1946, he began to produce, over a period of eight years, the epic poem he had prepared his whole life to write, Paterson. In addition, he wrote five new books of poems.
In 1948 Williams suffered the first in a series of heart attacks, which were accompanied by serious depression. However, he remained focused enough to publish two award-winning works the following year: Selected Poems and Paterson (Book Three). At this time, Williams was simultaneously working on a libretto for an opera, book four of Paterson, his autobiography, a novel, and an edition of his collected short stories. Make Light of It (1950) includes the stories collected in Williams’s first two volumes of short fiction and a third group of twenty-one stories, entitled ”Beer and Cold Cuts.”
After 1950 Williams entered a period of physical decline, though this did not restrict his productivity. In 1951 he published Paterson (Book Four), Autobiography, and The Collected Earlier Poems.
In 1952, though Williams completed the Stecher trilogy with The Build-Up, he suffered a serious depression and a heart attack, accompanied by a loss of speech. At this point, Williams retired from medicine and devoted the rest of his life to writing. Williams was invited to serve as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. The appointment was delayed by Williams’s health and then abandoned by the Library of Congress after a traumatic investigation into Williams’s political association with Ezra Pound. Pound was facing treason charges because of time he spent in Italy while the country was in conflict with the United States during World War II. This unfortunate episode was followed, in March 1953, by yet another heart attack and depression that sent Williams to a mental hospital until June.
In 1961 Williams published final collections of his stories, (The Farmers’ Daughters: The Collected Stories) and his plays, (Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays), and released his last book of poetry, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, the following year. He died on March 4, 1963.
In his brief tapestries of fiction and fact, Williams is searching for those characteristics that enable the human being to survive, the threads of human fortitude that make the difference between health and disease, life and death. Throughout his career he became intensely involved in his patients’ conditions, then worked, through his short fiction, to give those experiences meaning and significance. Williams reveals the psychological complexities of his characters with the detachment of a scientist, developing, in the process, a deep respect and concern for them that is aesthetically convincing. A work of art, says Williams, has the potential to save the world because it filters thoughts, observations, and perceptions through the imagination, thus creating an imaginative view of life that improves upon reality. In his attempt to come to terms with his surroundings, Williams created a body of tightly structured works that are poignant and vital to an understanding of human nature’s basic drive for survival.
Works in Literary Context
The artistic movement called modernism is essentially characterized by its fragmented, experimental approach to literature, music, and the visual arts. The movement reflected a shift away from previously held concepts of societal norms and attempts at capturing realism in the arts. Modern art and literature emerged from the development of urban, industrial, technological civilization in the early twentieth century. Experimentation was paramount to the modernists, who strived to annihilate anything they considered to be holding back human progress. The first wave of modernism began around 1910 and lasted into the 1940s. Among the original modernists were the poets T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.
The poetic doctrine of imagism grew out of the modernist movement. Imagist poets, such as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Williams, used vivid, precisely described visual images to bring their poems to life. They composed concise, clear verses, focused on a specific visual image. Early imagists rejected the romanticism and sentimentality of the Victorian poetry of the late nineteenth century. While the official movement only lasted a few years, its influence lasted many years, seeping into movements such as the objectivist poetry of the 1930s (which treated poems as objects) and the Beat poetry of the 1950s (which rejected traditional American values in favor of drug and sex experimentation and Eastern spirituality). Williams was a mentor to many younger poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, who became a leader of the San Francisco Renaissance, and Allen Ginsberg, the preeminent Beat poet.
Works in Critical Context
”The Red Wheelbarrow”
Of all his work, Williams’s brief poem ”The Red Wheelbarrow” has proven to be the most enduring and has achieved a legendary status among critics as an exemplar of the principles of imagism. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, two leading members of the New Criticism movement, suggest in their book, Understanding Poetry (1938), that ”The Red Wheelbarrow” was nothing less than ”a new vision of the ordinary.”
Williams’s sprawling series of epic poems, Paterson, is regarded as a masterpiece of long-form poetry. A 1953 assessment of the first book in the series by poet-critic Randall Jarrell lauded, ”There has never been a poem more American . . . if the next three books are as good as this one … the poem will be the best very long poem that any American has written.” Contemporary critics rate Paterson with equal awe. A 1995 edition of the series was greeted with wild applause. The Library Journal deemed the book ”a modernist classic” before stating that “Paterson is a nativist’s answer to the cosmopolitan Pound and Eliot.” In a more mixed review, Publisher’s Weekly concluded that ”Williams at his strongest is as good an American poet as there has been; still, it must be noted that not all of the five books of Paterson (plus fragments of a sixth) are up to that level.”
- Breslin, James E. William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
- Brinnin, John Malcolm. William Carlos Williams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.
- Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry. New York: Henry Holt, 1938.
- Guimond, James. The Art of William Carlos Williams: A Discovery and Possession of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968.
- Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age. New York: Knopf, 1953.
- Koch, Vivienne. William Carlos Williams. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1950.
- Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
- Whittemore, Reed William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
- Mottram, Eric. The Making of Paterson.” Stand 7 (1965): 17-34.
- Barnes & Noble.com. Paterson. Accessed December 8, 2008, from http://search.barnesandnoble.com/ Paterson/William-Carlos-Williams/e/ 9780811212984/?itm=5.
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