This Is Just to Say: On William Carlos Williams

This Is Just to Say: On William Carlos Williams

This Is Just to Say: On William Carlos Williams

A new biography shortchanges the poetic achievement of 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.

* * *

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
probably Japanese
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?

The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave in 1861, was often condescended to by polemical modernists, but the widely distributed anthology was in fact instrumental in turning both Victorian and modernist taste away from the discursive verbosity of narrative poems to the compressed intensity of the lyric. The first edition contained no Victorian poems, retrograde or otherwise, but every edition contained many of the greatest lyric poems in the English language—poems by Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Gray, Blake, Keats and many more. The proposition that Williams’s early efforts could fit snugly into this company would have seemed ludicrous to Williams, but for Leibowitz, all that matters is that Williams’s early poems are (like poems by Shakespeare or Keats) metered and rhymed.

What truly matters is that the early poems (unlike poems by Shakespeare or Keats) are ineptly metered and rhymed. In the quatrain I’ve quoted from Williams’s Poems, the problem is not that the lines are cast in iambic pentameter as such, and neither is the sonic deadness due inevitably to the archaic diction or the syntactical inversions (“clings all forms about”); great poems might deploy all these strategies. The problem is that every line is end-stopped, the relentless coincidence between syntax and line making the rhymes feel predictable, the rhythms repetitive, the inversions forced. Audible here is none of the sophisticated interplay between syntax and line that distinguishes virtually any poem by Shakespeare or Keats and would also come to distinguish poems like “The World Contracted to a Recognizable Image.”

In one rogue moment Leibowitz does maintain that Williams was not a “sworn enemy” of meter and rhyme; in another he asserts that Williams was “no fan of free verse” (I suspect he means that Williams objected to lazily written free verse). But in any case Leibowitz’s entire discussion of Williams’s poetic development is based on the polemical notion that a legitimately modern poem must reject received forms. By this logic, Williams didn’t need to learn how to hear what was truly happening in the sentences of Shakespeare and Keats; he needed to throw off the shackles of meter and rhyme, emerging instantly as William Carlos Williams. But no amount of looking at paintings by Duchamp and Kandinsky at the Armory Show could transform anyone from the author of a sentence like “there enters no thing scatheless from the womb” to the author of a sentence like “I clung to it as a fly.” Long years devoted to reading Shakespeare and Keats would enable that transformation, however, and to maintain that any early poem by Williams “could easily be mistaken for a Tennyson poem (if the bumpy lines were smoothed out)” is to substitute polemic for discernment. Tennyson had, like the mature Williams, one of the finest ears of any poet in our language.

* * *

It is difficult to get the news about Williams’s poetic development from “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” for two reasons. The first is that Leibowitz is not at ease with the nuances of poetic language. Describing the phrase “bounded/into the air,” he says “bounded” mimes the act of leaping into the air because the word is trochaic (that is, because the first of its two syllables receives more stress: BOUND-ed). But do the trochaic words “awful” or “cupcake” mime the act of leaping? Why should a trochaic word inevitably do that? Pretending to describe the sound of the words, Leibowitz is really falling back on their meaning. He says that the phrase “into the air” is “so gossamer-like that the reader feels the dancer suspended in a weightless state,” but what precisely makes some words more gossamer-like than others? Is the word “air” more like gossamer than the word “ass”?

The second reason Williams’s artistic development is occluded in “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” is that, while maintaining that the biography of a poet must discuss poems in detail, Leibowitz seems finally more interested in Williams’s sexual escapades than in his prosody. At the conclusion of a chapter called “Adventures in the Skin Trade,” Leibowitz recalls how he once visited Williams’s son, William Eric Williams, who until he died in 1995 lived in the house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey, where his parents had lived and his father had practiced medicine. When William Eric opened the door, his first words to Leibowitz were, “If you’re a bloodhound come to sniff out my father’s affairs, well, there weren’t any.” There were affairs. But in defense of William Eric Williams I must say that I, too, visited him at 
9 Ridge Road. He was courtly in an old-world way that made me imagine that his behavior resembled his father’s. He showed me his father’s consulting rooms, which he (also a physician) had used as well. We talked about the poems. He said nothing about his father’s sex life one way or another.

At issue here is not that Leibowitz discusses Williams’s sex life; it is a potent aspect of the biography, and it is sometimes reflected crucially in the poems—poems which, when it comes to women’s bodies, careen between startling sensitivity and boyish vulgarity. Famously, Williams confessed the affairs to his wife when he thought he was dying, only to live for many more years—years in which his wife was doomed to take care of his failing body. Leibowitz tells this story several times over the course of his biography, relishing the details. So when he asks, “Was Floss merely a drab, if competent, suburban wife and mother?” the question answers itself. And when he attempts to account for the triadic, stepped-down line in which Williams wrote some of his most beautiful later poems—

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
   like a buttercup
      upon its branching stem—

—the results fall well outside the bounds of any credible discussion of prosody: the poems “sprawled and skittered,” says Leibowitz, “as if having to apologize to 
his wife, Floss, for his infidelities gave Williams a bad case of the jitters.”

Writing as a champion of Williams’s modernism, Leibowitz is nonetheless as uncomfortable with more experimental poems—more jittery poems—as he is with metrical poems. Describing Kora in Hell (1920), an influential collection of prose poems that was modeled on Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Leibowitz says that “Williams peters out or grumpily shifts gears, and the sentences jostle each other violently, breaking down and stranding the reader in a no-man’s-land.” The book succeeds, he goes on, when “the paragraphs ‘remain of a piece from one end to the other,’ crossing the bar line, as in medieval music.”

The resort to metaphor here is obfuscating. What exactly does it mean to say that language crosses a bar line? Of what would the bar line consist? The same discomfort with highly disjunctive writing is evinced in the metaphors to which Leibowitz resorts to describe Spring and All (1923), a simultaneously serious and wacky conglomeration of poetry and prose that is arguably Williams’s first masterpiece: “Reading this remarkable, if uneven, work is like walking through an artist’s studio where paintings hang on the walls, some in a complete and polished state, others in a rough and sketchy one.” But the suggestion that parts of Spring and All are unfinished allows Leibowitz to sidestep any real discussion of the book’s challenging structure. Though he references the critic Marjorie Perloff’s meticulous account of that structure, he ultimately rejects her argument as unconvincing and the work itself as incoherent.

* * *

Leibowitz has obviously been reading Williams for many years; his devotion to the work and the life feels deeply motivated. But throughout “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” he is oddly willing to go it alone, sometimes leaving himself high and dry, as if he felt that the greatest tribute would be to mimic Williams’s defensiveness rather than embracing Williams’s considerable learnedness, learnedness that one has only to read a work like Spring and All to appreciate. The result is that Leibowitz sometimes threatens to diminish Williams’s reputation through his very devotion, refusing to extend an ear even to writers who were Williams’s friends. Stevens, who stuck with the pentameter until he died, is in this regard perhaps the hardest sell, and Leibowitz cannot disguise his distaste not only for Stevens but also for Marianne Moore (“sex did not appear to be a factor in her creativity”) and George Oppen, whose verse he calls “flat and pallid.”

But the twentieth century is over, Williams has been dead a long time, and one need no longer drink the modernist Kool-Aid in order to be devoted to one or another modernist poet. The terms so often brought to poetry since the advent of modernism (experimental, traditional, innovative, conservative) are not completely useless, because every great poem is innovative, its language eternally fresh in counterintuitive ways, and also traditional, conversant with a wide range of poems that precede it. But the terms become useless when they offer a quick-fix paradigm, getting in the way of the act of listening closely to the language of poetry—to the turns of diction, rhythm and syntax in which the most profound innovation takes place. If one is truly deaf to the music of Tennyson, then one can’t be expected to listen carefully to the music of Williams or anyone else.

Finally, what is most frustrating about “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” is that Leibowitz seems to know that this is the case—despite his numerous statements to the contrary. In his final chapter, the polemical defensiveness suddenly falls away, and Leibowitz maintains without fanfare that “despite its vigorous reforms, modernism had not swept away the prosodic foundations of verse,” since, “after all, poets in all periods have searched for ways to avoid a thumping regularity that coarsens or dulls the ear instead of ravishing it.” If Leibowitz had begun by embracing these observations openly, emphasizing Williams’s capacious hunger for poetry over his defensiveness, he would have written a very different book.

For if anything, time spent reading Williams will open one’s ears to Tennyson—or Stevens or Moore. It’s difficult to find another poet who began with so little and so quickly achieved so much, and the fourteen years separating Poems from Spring and All do not represent the rise of modernism, one kind of verse superseding another; they represent one poet’s extraordinary devotion to the language of poetry. The fruit of that devotion, poems boldly imagined yet exquisitely made, feels as arresting today as it did almost a hundred years ago:

one day in Paradise
a Gipsy

to see the blandness

of the leaves—
so many

so lascivious
and still

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