‘The painters have paid too much attention to the ism and not enough to the painting,’ William Carlos Williams wrote in 1928. Something similar could be said about Williams’s own critics: since his death in 1963, attention to his theories and to his life has been getting in the way of his poems. With Williams, more than the usual number of isms and caricatures need to be cleared away. There is, for example, Williams the spontaneous man who wrote by the seat of his pants, the grandfather (for good or ill) of the Beats; Williams the comical minimalist, who proved that a note on the fridge could be read as a poem; Williams the Modernist, a foil for experimental painters, or for his difficult friend Ezra Pound. More recently, we have had Williams the avant-garde sentinel, dislocating sense and meaning in the manner of Gertrude Stein, and Williams the multiculturalist, pitting his Spanish-Caribbean heritage against a Eurocentric world. Williams the doctor-poet proved that words can heal; Williams the literary nationalist declared in 1957: ‘I don’t speak English but the American idiom.’ All these Williamses exist; all of them are to some extent distractions, robbing many subtle poems of the attention they deserve. ‘It isn’t what the poet says that counts,’ Williams wrote in 1944, ‘but what he makes.’ The reissue of this meticulously edited two-volume Collected (first published in 1986 and 1988) offers another chance to see what he made.
Born in 1883, Williams grew up in northern New Jersey, speaking Spanish at home and ‘the American idiom’ everywhere else. His businessman father, of English descent, grew up in St Thomas in the Virgin Islands; his mother, a frustrated painter, came from Puerto Rico. After high school in Switzerland and New York City, Williams took a degree in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Hilda Doolittle (later H.D.) and Pound. In 1912, after a difficult two-year courtship, he married the shy and practical Florence (Flossie) Herman. During the same years he established a medical practice in his home town of Rutherford; he was also writing bad Keatsian verse, some of it printed in Poems (1909). Spurred by Pound and contemporary visual art, he began to form his poetic style during the 1910s; soon he was mixing with Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Alfred Kreymborg, Alfred Stieglitz and other Modernist artists and writers in Manhattan. His local practice thrived (he later specialised in paediatrics), but still he found time during the next few decades to produce a vast body of work: poems, short poems, short fiction, novels, plays, essays and manifestos, along with a range of unclassifiable prose.
Despite his reliance on small or fugitive publishers, Williams won coterie acclaim by the end of the 1920s, and after World War Two, with much wider support from critics and trade publishers, he became a pre-eminent influence on all sorts of American writers: the young Allen Ginsberg paid him homage and copied his style, while Robert Lowell, for example, looked to Williams for a freer, more democratic manner than his rivals could offer. Though he remains an acquired taste in Britain, Williams’s position in American poetry, at least, seems assured.
That position rests, above all else, on one achievement. Between 1914 and 1923 Williams invented an entirely new way of making and hearing verse lines. He was able to do without conventional metres, rhymes and stanzas because he had made his own tools. Chief among these was enjambment, in all its kinds and degrees: phrases and clauses splay, leap or crawl across line and stanza breaks, in deliberate violation of natural pauses and syntactic boundaries. Some poems play frequently enjambed lines against end-stopped stanzas; others build up successively stronger enjambments in order to emphasise one big stop. Williams’s readers learn to attend to other devices too: the new or repeated stress patterns in each line; line lengths, and changes in them; punctuation, of which Williams became an unrecognised master; and the modulations of speed and emphasis which accompany changes in syntactic direction.
‘To a Poor Old Woman’ shows how Williams’s line breaks work: the woman is ‘munching a plum on/the street,’ and holds a bag of plums in her other hand:
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
They taste good to her (you might not like them); they taste good (not merely adequate); she tastes them, taking them into her body rather than merely contemplating them. Williams then offers further sensory evidence:
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
Just outside the frame of the plum lies the women’s poverty, the whole social world, for which each bite offers its small solace; against that world, Williams’s poem promises a sympathy, and a sensory immediacy, which other kinds of poetry may lack.
The aural toolkit developed by Williams was ideally suited to poems concerned with motion: cars, trains, pedestrians, runners, fire engines, gulls, robins, swallows, ‘tideless waves thundering slantwise against/ strong embankments’, a sheet of cardboard in the wind, a ‘bargeman raking sand/upon his barge’ – all these move through Williams’s poems in ways his lines make vivid. The same aural tools made it possible for him to represent perception itself. Many poets notice bits of the world, but Williams’s technique allowed him to show how we notice things, how fast, through what details, and in what order. Stanzas follow the movement of eye and mind from road to roadside, through ‘leafless white birches’ to a munitions plant, or to the ‘beauty,/at the swamp’s centre: the/dead-end highway, abandoned/ when the new bridge went in’. Williams’s most powerful lines show, in ‘Spring Strains’ for example, how an observer might scan a young tree:
tense blue-grey twigs
slenderly anchoring them down, drawing them in –
two blue-grey birds chasing
a third struggle in circles, angles,
swift convergings to a point that bursts instantly!
His rhythmic faculties drive anthology-pieces like ‘The Dance’, whose dactyls skip happily over its line breaks:
In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies
Poems like ‘The Dance’, or ‘To a Poor Old Woman’, train the reader to hear subtler effects. ‘Flowers by the Sea’ appeared in three versions between 1930 and 1935 – here is the last, and best:
When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s
edge, unseen, the salt ocean
lifts its form – chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone
but colour and the movement – or the shape
perhaps – of restlessness, whereas
the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem
The one-sentence poem opens with temporal progress – when the ocean lifts, chicory and daisies seem – but ends with logical contrast: flowers seem restless whereas the sea sways peacefully. The grammatical surprise evokes the approach and retreat of the sea it depicts.
In a poem of 1948 Williams called himself ‘a writer, at one time hipped on/painting’; elsewhere he remembered finding ‘my mother’s discarded oil colours in the attic. I might easily have become a painter.’ Instead he surrounded himself with painters, especially during the 1910s and 1920s, finding allies among the American moderns – Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley. Williams’s poems can be classified as kinds of painting: landscape, seascape, ‘genre poems’ (in the sense of ‘genre painting’), still life, domestic interiors, street scenes, portraits, even abstractions. ‘Young Sycamore’, as Bram Dijkstra has shown, describes Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph Spring Showers: the poem’s attenuated lines follow the tree from its wet pavement ‘into the air’,
dividing and waning
young branches on
all sides –
hung with cocoons –
till nothing is left of it
hornlike at the top
Williams treats his single sentence as if it became the young tree’s trunk, ‘sending out’ bits of detail as it strains toward its ‘eccentric’ end.
‘What Williams sees, he sees in a flash,’ his friend Kenneth Burke remarked in 1922, calling him ‘the master of the glimpse’: Williams mastered not only the flash and the glimpse but their aural equivalents, the bit of dialogue or monologue which, arranged as verse, illuminates not a scene but a speech and its speaker. ‘I’ve met a hell of a lot more of all kinds of people than you’ll ever get your eyes on,’ Williams said reproachfully to Pound in 1938, ‘and I’ve known them inside and out in ways you’ll never know.’ Medicine offered him access of a sort that few major poets have had to different registers of speech and kinds of life: he used what he learned, and what he overheard, in striking short stories and in remarkable talk-based poems. ‘Portrait of a Woman in Bed’ devotes two pages to a patient’s speech and gestures – the gap between stanzas mimes the gap between her sick body and her energetic mind:
There’s my things
drying in the corner:
that blue skirt
joined to the grey shirt –
I’m sick of trouble!
Lift the covers
if you want me
and you’ll see
the rest of my clothes –
‘I have moved chaotically about refusing or rejecting most things,’ Williams says of himself in the major book-length sequence Spring and All (1923). Even then, however – and more so later on – his merits came just as much from his use of material most other poets tossed out: the everyday speech of Rutherford and Passaic, the weeds, the bare trees, the police sergeant’s wife, ‘grocers or taxidrivers/white and coloured’. Wallace Stevens (an acquaintance and admirer) explained in his perceptive preface to Williams’s 1931 Collected that his procedures joined ‘the sentimental and the anti-poetic’. Other reviewers picked up Stevens’s coinage, and Williams reacted angrily, more than once: ‘they speak,/euphemistically, of the anti-poetic!/ Garbage. Half the world ignored.’ The aesthetic attention he demanded that we give to the landscapes of poverty – to factories, attics, weeds, broken glass – could not be separated from the moral demands made by these landscapes. ‘The Forgotten City’ recalls a drive through a ‘curious and industrious’ working-class neighbourhood, and ends by asking:
How did they get
cut off this way from representation in our
newspapers and other means of publicity
when so near the metropolis, so closely
surrounded by the familiar and the famous?
Left politics flowered in Williams’s poems even before the 1930s. He admired Soviet Communism, early on, because it seemed to express the ideal of human equality: at the same time he refused to take orders, asking in ‘The Men’ (1928) ‘Wherein is Moscow’s dignity/more than Passaic’s dignity?’ (He wrote poems and essays, too, for liberal causes: Al Smith’s 1928 Presidential campaign, aid for Republican Spain, monetary reform.)
Williams loved declarations and slogans about what he meant to do and why. At the same time, he was too attentive to his own procedures to remain happy with the explanations he offered, and so his poems, his essays, and even his autobiographical writings kept amending and unfolding his earlier statements. His familiar, repeated tag phrase ‘no ideas but in things’ means that statements grow from, and report back to, local particulars. ‘The Poet and His Poems’ (1939) strings together several slogans until it arrives at this:
be a song – made of
a gentian – something
scissors, a lady’s
eyes – the particulars
of a song waking
upon a bed of sound.
Surprise, specificity, ordinariness, new aural shapes, a bit of household detritus: such a verse-manifesto portrays much of what Williams tried to do. It attempts, too, to show order emerging from a neglected realm – the emergence, not the final synthesis. ‘I’ve always had the feeling that good things happen to me in March,’ Williams once remarked, in one of many marginalia reproduced in the editors’ notes. He loves to depict, or predict, or invoke advents and startings-out – the coming of spring, sex, flower-buds, parturition. Enjoying beginnings, distrusting conventional sequence, Williams loves to interrupt himself, to have the pleasure of beginning again. These interruptions also show his (angry or melancholic) sense that no completion, no fruition, can satisfy the hopes that beginnings stir in him. His social conscience and his desire to depict new births merged in brilliant emblematic poems about small, scrappy flowering things, from the famous first poem of Spring and All (‘By the road to the contagious hospital’) to the 1935 lyric ‘To Be Hungry Is to Be Great’:
The small yellow grass-onion,
spring’s first green, precursor
to Manhattan’s pavements, when
plucked as it comes, in bunches
washed, split and fried in
a pan, though inclined to be
a little slimy, if well cooked
and served hot on rye bread
is to beer a perfect appetiser –
and the best part
of it is they grow everywhere.
Enacting the early appearance of a common plant, spreading from choppy initial lineation into a cleanly wrought last phrase, the poem affirms the equal dignity of persons – and shares a cheap, useful recipe.
Williams’s moments of frustration or despair (and there are a lot of them) are moments of spring baffled or held back, of failed birth, of winter prolonged. Such moments control the masterfully disorienting 1928 sequence The Descent of Winter, written on shipboard, and focused on self-doubt in middle age:
There are no perfect waves –
Your writings are a sea
full of misspellings and
faulty sentences. Level. Troubled . . .
This is the sadness of the sea –
waves like words, all broken –
a sameness of lifting and falling mood.
A 1944 poem (later expanded) finds figures for Williams’s frustrations in ‘The Clouds’, whose ‘tragic outlines’ resemble
the bodies of horses, mindfilling – but
visible! against the invisible; actual against
the imagined and the concocted;
unspoiled by hands
and unshaped also by them but caressed by
moving among them, not that that propels
the eyes from under, while it blinds:
– upon whose backs the dead ride, high!
undirtied by the putridity we fasten upon them –
South to north, for this moment distinct
into the no-knowledge of their nameless destiny.
Clouds excite him partly because they perpetually assume new shapes. At the same time they suit his bleaker moods, when he feels that human consciousness spoils what it encounters, so that something can stay ‘undeformed’ only if it is as yet unformed.
Williams knew his own limits, took the measure of his own frustrations, as well as any writer ever has. He kicked, too, against the limits imposed on him by bad luck with publishers: ‘excellence of any sort is a tree,’ The Descent of Winter continues: ‘when the leaves fall the tree is naked and the wind thrashes it till it howls it cannot get a book published it can only get poems into certain magazines.’ (Williams had trouble finding a reliable publisher until 1937, when James Laughlin’s fledgling New Directions made him one of its central authors.) Williams could be sensitive, too, about his apparent distaste, or incapacity, for step-by-step arguments: he called himself (in the 1948 poem ‘Russia’) ‘a poet, uninfluential, with no skill/ in polemics – my friends tell me I lack/ the intellect.’ Yet as a poet he displayed all the intellect he needed – one given to discoveries, short sharp explanations, single insights, intuitive correspondences and aphorism – ‘What’s wrong with American literature?/You ask me? How much do I get?’ His focus on sensory detail and spoken immediacy made it hard for him to carry off extended analysis (of politics or of anything else). Yet the same qualities suited him to political rant, nowhere more so than in ‘Impromptu: The Suckers’ (1927), a triumph of venom and sarcasm which blames all of America, himself included, for the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti:
Take it out in vile whiskey, take it out
in lifting your skirts to show your silken
crotches; it is this that is intended.
You are it. Your pleas will always be denied.
You too will always go up with the two guys,
scapegoats to save the Republic and
especially the State of Massachusetts. The
Governor says so and you ain’t supposed
to ask for details – . . .
It’s no use, you are Americans, just the dregs.
It’s all you deserve. You’ve got the cash,
what the hell do you care? You’ve got
nothing to lose. You are inheritors of a great
tradition. My country right or wrong!
Williams’s stand against inherited, restrictive forms, and his energetic, almost disorientingly large output have elicited comparisons with D.H. Lawrence; when Lawrence died, Williams wrote a substantial elegy. Like Lawrence, he liked to think of himself as breaking society’s rules, and like Lawrence, he could rely on unfortunate ideas about sexual difference: man as form, woman as matter; man as intellect, woman as feeling. ‘Some self-defence seems to rise out of a wom-an,’ he complained to one interviewer (a woman), ‘when a man tries to understand her.’
And yet Williams did try not just to understand sexual difference in general but (more fruitfully) to understand himself, and to hear the particular men and women he encountered. Sometimes, his poems of sexual love and lust simply give accurate portraits of his roving eye. He does better, though – as he seems to have realised – when he talks about lust, love or marriage more subtly, in terms of conversations, or flowers and plants. In ‘The Act’ (1948) he rewrites ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ as a conversation between a man and his wife:
There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me
in my hand.
Among the versions of Williams presented by his poems is a compact, lyric Williams who resembles Landor and Housman, a Williams on whom the American poet Robert Creeley has built his style. This is the Williams whose shortest poems are not radical fragments but classically compressed wholes. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, on which so much depends, is a famous example, but nobody seems to have noticed ‘The Hurricane’:
The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched, You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it.
Isn’t this tiny poem (among other things) a snapshot of Williams’s suburbs, an emblem for secularists, and a demonstration of how it sounds (curt, confident) to take disaster in one’s stride?
Any Collected makes readers consider not only a writer’s achievements, but his development. The pleasure in reading the first hundred pages or so of Williams’s lies in watching his style slowly come into being. Because there is so much apprentice work, and because his style finally made such a break with the past, it can be almost unnerving to track the transition – like watching a fish turn into a bird. Volume I skips Poems (1909) to begin with The Tempers (1913), in which Williams moved on from bad Keats to bad Blake, bad early Pound, bad troubadours-in-translation: ‘Now the little by-path/Which leadeth to love/Is again joyful with its many.’ The early long poem ‘The Wanderer’ has the 30-year-old Williams asking: ‘How shall I be a mirror to this modernity?’ A feminine presence provides a partial answer, leading him through a Whitmanesque city of strikes and wharves and citizens, ‘quartered beeves/And barrels and milk cans and crates of fruit!’
His earliest effective poems stick more or less to the dictates of Imagism, visualising short scenes and colourful objects, and sometimes paying comic tribute to Eastern precedents: ‘O my grey hairs!/You are truly white as plum blossoms.’ Sometimes, as in ‘Stillness’ (1916), Williams complains that these Imagist rules will not let him to do more:
Heavy white rooves
sloping west and east
under the fast darkening sky:
What have I to say to you
that you may whisper it to them
in the night?
The poems from about 1916 to 1921 show Williams gradually forging his flexible, energetically enjambed modes from the raw material of ordinary Modernist free verse. They reveal, too, a cluster of characteristic images, along with his yearning to show that he really appreciates them. Early spring, with its profusion of petals, buds, mud, weeds; automobiles; girls and women of all ages; ‘the houses/of the very poor,’ and the detritus around them: ‘old chicken wire, ashes’ – ‘No one/will believe this/of vast import to the nation.’
The last decade of poetic work – which begins in 1952, when he suffered his first stroke – raises its own questions. He stopped writing for almost a year and then introduced a new form, a three-step line characterised by what he called the ‘variable foot’. The poems that resulted were far more abstract, and more ruminative, than anything he had written before: this style must have seemed to Williams as a means of avoiding the excessive dependence on description, and on other people’s voices, which had marked his older work. Description and ventriloquism, though, were his strengths: without them, the late poems grew weakly sententious, or mushy (‘No defeat is made up entirely of defeat – since/the world it opens is always a place/formerly/unsuspected’), or artless in their honesty:
All women are fated similarly
and there is always
another, such as I,
who loves them,
loves all women, but
finds himself, touching them,
like other men,
(‘To Daphne and Virginia’)
Williams wrote that such essayistic poems gave him ‘the power/to free myself/and speak of it’, and some of them are thoughtful personal documents – one example is the long, tender love poem to his wife, ‘Asphodel, that Greeny Flower’. But none of these works achieves the force, the status as actions, or the verbal assurance, that marked Williams’s verse from the 1920s through the 1940s. His real powers returned in Pictures from Breughel (1962), whose short, halting poems – many based on paintings – sought ‘to re-establish/the image’, to ‘rekindle/the violet’. ‘The Chrysanthemum’, one of his last and best emblem poems, explains the awe it enacts:
how shall we tell
the bright petals
from the sun in the
crowding the branch
save that it yields
in its modesty
to that splendour?
This capacious body of work, and its complex publishing history, would be a headache for any editor. Many poems were published in several versions, sometimes decades apart; poems and parts of poems appeared with several titles. Many exist only in fugitive magazines, or in manuscript, or in letters; worse yet, from a textual editor’s standpoint, several Collected or Complete editions appeared in Williams’s lifetime – the later ones less carefully supervised by Williams himself. MacGowan and Litz’s edition provides evidence of their own diligence (and that of their American publishers, New Directions). They explain their textual choices fully, and add thorough explanatory notes, keeping their sources in clear view. (One source, remarkably, is John Thirlwall’s copy of Williams’s 1951 Collected, in which the poet himself made explanatory notes.)
The present collection rightly keeps the mixed poems-and-prose of Spring and All and The Descent of Winter together as books. It’s almost a shame that Williams’s experimental prose works aren’t here too – though they might have strained the first volume past its binding limit. The editors also include all Williams’s translations – this is the right choice, from a scholarly perspective, although non-academic readers can pretty much skip them. The current US edition adds one notable poem, ‘Peter Kipp to the High School’, published in the Rutherford High School magazine in 1921; the Carcanet edition omits it.
Williams spent more than twenty years planning and writing his book-length poem Paterson, a kaleidoscopic meditation on the New Jersey town of that name; its first four sections appeared between 1946 and 1951, with a fifth in 1958. Many of his critics focus on Paterson, and most readers admire at least Part One, with its succession of rivers, flowers, citizens and waterfalls:
And the air lying over the water
lifts the ripples, brother
to brother, touching as the mind touches
brings in the fields, hot and cold
parallel but never mingling, one that whirls
backward at the brink and curls invisibly
upward, fills the hollow, whirling,
an accompaniment –
Although it includes extracts published earlier, the final version of Paterson was understandably left out of Volume II of this Collected (MacGowan’s own 1992 edition of Paterson is, however, available separately). Despite this absence, Williams’s readers, present and future, owe much to MacGowan and Litz. Among other Modernist poets, only Yeats can now be read in a popular edition of anything like this textual thoroughness.