This Is Just to Say: On William Carlos Williams
The International Exhibition of Modern Art, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, opened in New York City’s Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue on February 15, 1913. The exhibition, which quickly became known as the Armory Show, presented the work of more than 300 modern painters and sculptors, and like the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it galvanized the art world by attracting as much outrage as approbation. “That’s not art!” shouted Theodore Roosevelt. Not only painters but American writers and musicians were delighted by this home-grown eruption of modernist scandal, and Herbert Leibowitz maintains in his new biography of William Carlos Williams, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams, that the Armory Show was a watershed in Williams’s career, an event that transformed a backwoods imitator of Keats into a great American poet.
But there’s a problem here. “Bill did not attend the first Armory Show,” remembered Williams’s wife, Floss, “though he always insisted he did.” Williams did claim in his autobiography, published in 1951, that he’d attended, but he was in fact remembering a later exhibition; having spent his life championing the idea of American art, he needed to imagine himself participating in what had became a highly symbolic moment in the history of American modernism. Sharing that need, Leibowitz doesn’t mention Floss Williams’s memory, eager to perpetuate a well-known but misleading tale, one that skews our sense of Williams’s career toward equally misleading notions of what constitutes innovation not only in recent American poetry but in the history of poetry at large.
This lapse is not an isolated event in Leibowitz’s book. The last major biography of Williams, Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, published in 1981, is filled with enthusiasm for its subject but so weighed down with biographical minutiae that the book becomes difficult to read. Leibowitz has set out to compose a more streamlined account of the life (“If William Carlos Williams was a sometime womanizer,” he asks ominously, “does it matter how many women he took to bed?”), while also insisting that the biography of a writer must include substantial accounts of the writing itself (“Without his poems and letters, [Hart] Crane is just another tormented alcoholic”). Today, Williams’s achievement as a writer ought to feel as assured or as controversial as Byron’s or Tennyson’s, but Leibowitz has inherited a good dose of Williams’s defensiveness, and, as his discussion of the Armory Show suggests, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” relies heavily on Williams’s retrospective comments about the life and work, often leaving the more interestingly conflicted historical record untouched.
“And America?” asked Ezra Pound of his good friend Williams, “What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place?” William George Williams, the poet’s father, never renounced his British citizenship. As a child, he had sailed with his mother from England first to New York City and then, after she remarried, to the Caribbean, where they ultimately settled in Puerto Plata, a port city in the Dominican Republic. After William George married the daughter of a Dutch businessman, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, who had grown up in Puerto Rico and studied painting in Paris, he moved the family to Rutherford, New Jersey. There, the young William Carlos grew up speaking English and Spanish, and he was sent along with his brother, Edgar, to the Horace Mann School in Manhattan; for a year, while their father was traveling on business in South America, the boys attended an international school in Switzerland. Williams would send his own sons to this school, the Château de Lancy, thirty years later.
No other American modernist poet—not Pound, not Wallace Stevens, not T.S. Eliot—was so worldly by the age of 18. No other American writer’s declaration that “Europe is nothing to us” is so self-dramatizing. As Pound understood, Williams nurtured a first-generation American’s obsession with the idea of an indigenously American art; and in contrast to Eliot, whose family had lived in Massachusetts for centuries, Williams needed to acquire the New World, not escape it. Andrew Eliot, who arrived in Salem around 1670, hanged witches.
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Williams skipped college, enrolling directly in the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school in 1902, and it was there that he met Pound, along with Hilda Doolittle, who would become the poet known as H.D. when Pound showcased her poems in the various Imagist manifestoes and anthologies that flourished in London around 1913. As a student, Williams was already as devoted to poetry as he was to medicine, and he would be influenced crucially by Imagism’s emphasis on directness and concreteness in poetic language. One might even argue that, while Imagism was a passing phase for Pound, it was for Williams a religion, a set of principles around which he would spin startling variations for the rest of his life.
“The World Contracted to a Recognizable Image” appeared in Williams’s last book, Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1962:
at the small end of an illness
there was a picture
which filled my eye
an idiotic picture
except it was all I recognized
the wall lived for me in that picture
I clung to it as a fly
Apparent here, in miniature, are all of Williams’s strengths. While the language of the poem records the visible world meticulously, the poem is not so much about the world as about the act of vision. The lack of punctuation feels disorienting, but the first four lines divide the syntax into easily digestible grammatical units (“there was a picture”), allowing us to participate viscerally in the act of the language making sense: a simple sentence emerges, much as the Japanese print came into focus as the ailing poet opens his eyes. The second quatrain begins by extending that sentence with an apposition (“an idiotic picture”), but then the sentence stops short at the end of the second line, interrupted by two startlingly terse one-line sentences—“the wall lived for me in that picture/I clung to it as a fly”—sentences in which the poet suddenly describes not the world but himself. There is no fly in the world of this poem: the fly is a metaphor for the mind, and we hear it buzzing relentlessly in the poem’s exquisitely calibrated dance of syntax and line.
Williams’s great gift to future poets is his prosody, but he worked long and hard to hear the immense sonic possibilities that even the simplest sentences afforded him. In 1909, just before leaving for another extended stay in Europe, where he studied pediatrics in Leipzig and hung out in London with Pound, Williams published at his own expense his first book of poems, called simply Poems. Not one of its sentences sounds anything like the mature Williams, who refused ever to reprint the volume.
There enters no thing scatheless from the womb;
But imperfection clings all forms about.
Nor leaf, nor flower, nor pod, nor seeding plume,
But some regard shall find, than this, less stout.
Writing about lines like these, Leibowitz maintains that Williams’s earliest efforts were “derivative, mawkish, and written as a retrograde Victorian lyric that would have fit snugly into Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.” What exactly does he mean?