Louis Simpson: William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams

by Louis Simpson

The poetry of William Carlos Williams is hardly known in Australia, yet of all American poets who have written in this century he is the most influential — not among critics, for many have never accepted him — but among young poets and readers of poetry. As Williams is unknown by the general reader, I shall lay out for you some of the general facts of his life before I discuss his ideas and his writing.

He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883 of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother. Unlike Pound and Eliot who came of a long line of American ancestors, Williams felt he was an outsider and that he had to affirm his citizenship. All his life he would be preoccupied with what it meant to be an American and all his life he would be in revolt against the English culture to which his father was attached. Williams’ father, though he had lived in America, never became an American citizen but remained British.

The family travelled to Europe when Williams was a boy. He attended schools in Switzerland and in France, but completed his high school education at Horace Mann, in New York. One day, while training for track he strained his heart and was never again able to take part in athletics. Then he went to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied medicine. There he met the poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle.

Though Williams had begun to write poetry, he did not think he could make a living that way and he liked to be with people, he liked the human contact. He had written a long epic poem imitative of Keats’ ‘Endymion’, and he was keeping a notebook in which he wrote in the manner of Whitman. But when he showed the Keats imitation to a

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professor of English the professor told him he might be a poet in about twenty years. That was too long to wait. For the sake of security and to be sure that any writing he did would be free of commercial pressure he became a doctor.

Williams remained a doctor all his life and he lived all his life in Rutherford where he had been born, except for brief excursions to Europe. He married a woman named Florence Hermann in 1912 and remained married to her all his life. They had two sons, one of whom became a doctor, the other a business man.

Williams’ first book of poems was privately printed in 1913; from that time on he came in contact with other poets and for the rest of his life he would have two careers: one at his office or the hospital, the other in New York where he met poets and painters — he was a friend of the painters Sheeler and Demuth with whose paintings his work has clear affinities. Williams published books of poems throughout the 1920s. In the 1930s he turned increasingly to writing prose, that is, novels and short stories. He was not, however, a popular writer. In fact, it was not until the 1950s that he became generally recognized as an important American poet. He was then adopted as an ancestor by Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, though he repudiated the connection.

In 1951 Williams suffered a stroke and retired from medical practice. His poems were republished in collected editions and in 1958 he brought his long poem Paterson to a conclusion; he wrote new poems which people said were his best. An autobiography, a collection of letters, a collection of plays, two collections of reminiscences — one recognizes the signs of a career drawing to a close. Williams died in Rutherford on 4 March 1963.

It is not a dramatic life. Williams is the antithesis of a poet such as Dylan Thomas whose life and personality compete for interest with his art. Williams was domestic; though he had affairs with other women, he held on to his marriage. He practised medicine conscientiously though he frequently complained that it kept him away from writing. He was not reconciled to his life but it was preferable to any alternative. He was critical, for example, of Pound and Eliot who had uprooted themselves and gone to Europe. Speaking of such people, Williams says, ‘In every case, they have forgotten or not known that the experience of native local contacts which they take with them is the only thing that can give that differentiated quality of presentation to their work which first enriches their new sphere and then later alone might carry them far as creative artists in the continental hurly-burly. Pound ran to Europe in a

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Photo of Louis Simpson
Photo of Louis Simpson

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Photo of William Carlos Williams
Photo of William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams

Louis Simpson

hurry; it is understandable; but he had not sufficient ground to stand on for more than perhaps two years, he stayed fifteen …’

In the 1920s, when Williams by his own choice found himself living in Rutherford while Pound and Eliot were enjoying the cultural flesh-pots of London or Paris or Rapallo, he developed a theory of localism. He was not the only one to do so: John Dewey, in an essay in The Dial had said that the American novel was failing because it lacked a structure of manners and that manners were a product of the interaction of characters and social environment. Hermann Keyserling, also writing in the 1920s, attributed the lack of soul in America to the immigrants’ having cut themselves off from their roots. However, said Keyserling, the pressure on immigrants to standardize their minds would turn them into localists, this was absolutely necessary for the development of an indigenous culture. ‘Culture’, said Keyserling, ‘is always a daughter of spirit, married to earth.’

It is not easy to understand what locality meant to Williams and many of his admirers have gone wrong on this point. Williams did not mean that you had to write about your own particular Rutherford and nothing else. He was not so provincial. It must be admitted, however, that some of his remarks would lead you to think so, for Williams was, at times, a hasty writer, especially when he was writing prose. But when he became aware that this narrow construction might be put upon his words he repudiated it decisively, ‘I’m no more sentimental about America’, he wrote to Pound, ‘than Li Po was about China. I know as well as you do that there’s nothing sacred about any land but I also know that there’s no taboo effective against any land.’

It wasn’t a geographical location that he was after, but location in experience, the experience of the writer. The movement is from the particular to the general. As Williams writes at the beginning of Paterson, ‘To make a start out of particulars and make them general’. Williams wanted to arrive at general meanings, perhaps even a universal meaning, but to do so he must begin from where he was, not from where some Englishman or Frenchman had stood three hundred years ago. What kind of universal would it be if, when you got there, you found your own particular experiences missing? This is the crux of his quarrel with Eliot; all his life Williams felt that he was opposing Eliot. His remarks about The Waste Land are well known: how, just as things were beginning to move in American poetry, when Americans were finding a language for their poetry, Eliot’s Waste Land exploded and wiped out their world. Eliot had sent American poetry back to the

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William Carlos Williams

Louis Simpson

classroom. It was embittering to Williams personally to see the triumph that Eliot had in his generation. Eliot carried American readers off with him to the poetry of Europe, and then into the Anglican Church. Williams felt that but for Eliot the success would have gone to the kind of poetry based in experience, the poetry of an American language, that he himself was writing.

Perhaps it was because Eliot’s success made him believe that his own poetry had failed that Williams, in the 1930s, gave most of his energy to writing prose. The poems he did write during those years are not happy. Williams said that he was using words as paint, and this is all very well, we can see the point he was trying to make, but one cannot help feeling, that after a brave and free beginning, the Williams of the 1930s is rather dry. The poem, he said, was ‘an object’, and out of this was born the Objectivist school of Zukofsky, Oppen and other poets of the 1930s. Words would be used for their inherent properties as sounds and movements, for anything but the general ideas that they might convey. General ideas would be left to Eliot and his acolytes.

It is interesting to compare the two big volumes of Williams’ poems, the Collected Earlier Poems and the Collected Later Poems. I should point out, however, that the Collected Later Poems does not contain Williams’ last poems, the poems of Desert Music, Journey to Love, and Pictures from Brueghel. The Collected Earlier Poems is full of life observed with feeling, the Collected Later Poems too often read like academic exercises, the academy being one that Williams has imposed on himself with his ambition to use words only as paint. Here is an early poem by Williams:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

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William Carlos Williams

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This poem is a good test for readers of poetry. I’ve seen it happen again and again: students who are particularly proud of their knowledge of English poetry will reject the poem by Williams immediately, — ‘Why, that’s not poetry, anyone could do that’. The answer, of course, would be to ask them to try. Here is Williams’ own comment on the poem: ‘It’s curious how a thing of this sort which is really just a passing gesture actually took place just as it says here. My wife being out, I left a note for her just that way and she replied very beautifully. Unfortunately, I’ve lost it. I think what she wrote was quite as good as this — a little more complex, but quite as good. Perhaps the virtue of this is its simplicity.’ Well, let’s have it, then:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The interviewer asked Williams what it was about this that made it a poem. ‘In the first place’, Williams replied, ‘it was metrically regular.’ The interviewer remarked that the poem went against the preconceived

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Louis Simpson

idea of poetry because it was the kind of thing that almost anybody might say. ‘Yes’, Williams said, ‘because no one believes that poetry can exist in his own life.’

Surely this is the secret of Williams — he shows us that poetry can exist in our own lives. This is why he has been so great an influence upon young Americans, he has reclaimed their lives, however seemingly dull they may be, for poetry. He is like Chekhov and like Wordsworth, writers who concentrate on the ordinary objects about them, who charge ordinary life with excitement. Do you know the poem Matthew Arnold wrote when Wordsworth died? He said that within recent memory several great poets had died, Goethe and Byron among them, but none would be missed so much as Wordsworth, for Wordsworth had been a healing power. Others had been astonishing, had amazed the public, but Wordsworth had enabled them to feel again. This is what Williams in his early poems was able to do. As I have said, in the work of the middle period from the beginning of the 1930s to the 1940s — a period in Williams’ career that coincides interestingly with the Depression — he turned to prose and in his poems seemed bound and constricted by a theory of impersonal creation. The poems he then produced seemed lacking in affect. There is a kind of puritan perversity in Williams’ insistence during this period of thinking of poems as objects, words as paint. Take the following poem for example, titled ‘Christmas 1950’, I think it’s a fair choice as Williams chose it to end the later poems with:

The stores
by the lynx-eyed

offer their

they originated

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William Carlos Williams

in Germany.
bloom so

very easy
to take care of

In spring
can put them

and they’ll
there also.

Now a poet could learn something from this poem about line-breaks, but it is not an engaging piece of work. There’s no affect in it, it comes off the top of the head.

The first book of Paterson was published in 1946. At several points in his writing of Paterson Williams expressed doubts as to what he was doing, whether it were a poem at all or a failure. I don’t intend to explore the question here, but for devotees of William Carlos Williams, which Williams himself never was, Paterson is a hugely successful epic poem, an exploration of American language, the portrait of a city or a man. There is as much confusion in the critics’ minds as to what Paterson is about as there was in Williams’. I’m quite certain that Paterson is not a successful poem as a whole, there are stretches of very good writing in it but Williams commits the error of following life. Going against his own theory of poetry, he insists on following historical fact; he prints tables of statistics and tells us many things, but never why we should be interested in this particular part of the earth’s surface. Williams himself once remarked on the fatuity of Shakespeare’s line about art, in which art is described as ‘holding a mirror up to

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Nature’. Williams pointed out that the job of the artist is not to hold a mirror up to nature, which would be redundant, it is to learn from nature how to be creative. Nature teaches us to be ourselves, the thing created in art is different from the thing created in nature. But in Paterson Williams relapsed into mere naturalism. Perhaps it was the influence of the good film documentaries that were made in the thirties, or his own work on a WPA Writers’ Project in which he studied the history of the region. Whatever the reason, he produced a poem that meanders to no point, with good stretches, as I’ve said, but no convincing structure. Williams’ devotees have said that the very lack of structure is what is great about Paterson. They would like to make Williams one of the artists of chance, being to poetry what John Cage is to music. But Williams disliked chance, his whole life as man and artist was to attempt to give structure to experience. Beginning with particulars does not mean surrendering to them but transforming them into a significant shape.

Or suppose we read Paterson just for its language; one can indeed find passages in it that show Williams’ fine ear for speech, the rhythm of American phrases. But writing that has nothing to recommend it but a style cannot be important. Even Wordsworth in The Prelude had more to do than this, he was describing the growth of a poet’s mind. If Paterson is about a search for a language of poetry then it is like a snake swallowing its own tail. It is too concerned with itself to be able to move or to move us.

This is the place to say that, on this point of language, most people’s idea of Williams is wrong. It is commonly said that Williams wrote as he talked or as other people talked. Allen Ginsberg tells how he went to hear Williams read his poems at the Museum of Modern Art, and when Williams read his poem ‘The Clouds’ he left the last sentence unfinished, he just trailed off the way people do when they are speaking. This, says Ginsberg, was a revelation to him. It completely destroyed his world of academic bullshit. Williams, says Ginsberg, wrote the way that he talked, that was the secret of his style. I remember that when I first read this description by Ginsberg I accepted it automatically, it explained the revolution in American poetry in the late 1950s, a revolution led by Ginsberg himself. The new poets, that is, the Beats, were writing just as they talked, there was no more division between their lives and their art. This may be true of Ginsberg but looking at Williams’ poems I see now that it is obviously not true of Williams. Here are the lines that Ginsberg heard Williams read at the Museum:

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William Carlos Williams

              The clouds remain
— the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds
or dormant, a caligraphy of scaly dragons and bright moths,
of straining thought, bulbous or smooth,
ornate, the flesh itself (in which
the poet foretells his own death); convoluted, lunging upon
a pismire, a conflagration, a…

The sentence is unfinished but is this the language of speech? Neither Williams nor anyone else used words like these in conversation. What Williams’ poetry consists of is a selection of language, the language, if you like, that is used by men. In any case, it is definitely a selection. Williams’ tone is that of a man thinking, his thoughts may incorporate phrases and fragments of conversation, but to say that Williams wrote as he talked is a misrepresentation and accounts for the dreary disjunctive writing that has been committed in the name of Williams since the early 1960s. Williams himself repudiated poets who wrote just as they talked: ‘Their trouble’, he said, ‘was an inability to make themselves think.’

The energy with which Williams returned to poetry in his later years may be attributable to the stroke. He was disabled and growing old, it was now or never, and he wrote. We may speculate about his life but there is no need to speculate about the nature of the poetry. It was the fruit of a long life of artistic self-discipline. The tools were there and all that was necessary was to get that incubus Paterson out of the way. Writing poetry according to a plan was the antithesis of Williams’ idea of poetry. With the failure of Paterson he was free to write as he pleased. In these last poems there was a regeneration, the work is permeated with the feeling that had been present in Williams’ early poems, but only in flashes, and dispersed in the prose. This feeling takes its origin from his sympathy with the common man and this, it may be apposite to say here, is what Williams has in common with Whitman, not the writing of free verse or any other kind of technique. Williams, I’m sorry to say, did not appreciate Whitman as a writer of verse. He thought that Whitman’s writing was disordered and diffuse, without art. Than which Williams could not have been more mistaken, as I’m sure that those of you who listened to Galway Kinnell speaking yesterday on Whitman will agree.

Williams’ clearest statement of what he owed as a poet to his belief in, or instinctive liking for, the common man is to be found in an essay he

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wrote called ‘The Basis of Faith in Art’. It was first published in 1954 among his selected essays. ‘I go back to the people’, he says, ‘they are the origin of every bit of life that can possibly inhabit any structure, house, poem or novel of conceivable human interest. It doesn’t precisely come out of the tops of their heads like flowers but they represent in themselves the structure which art … Put it this way: If we don’t cling to the warmth which breathes into a house or a poem alike from human need … the whole matter has nothing to hold it together and becomes structurally weak so that it falls to pieces.’

Does this strike us as a vague prescription for writing lines of verse? I noticed a curious thing yesterday when Galway Kinnell was discussing Whitman’s writing of verse, that is, his lines. He (Galway) spent most of his time discussing Whitman’s quality of feeling. At one point, I recall, he himself remarked on this and proceeded to link it up saying that it was Whitman’s feeling that determined how he wrote his line. This, of course, is true and the same is true of Williams. To discuss the skill with which Pictures from Brueghel is written is to discuss the feeling that goes into the lines and makes them move in particular ways. It is ultimately to come down to the source of Williams’ feelings, with his contact with men and women and with faith in democracy and America. There was nothing naive, however, about Williams’ sympathies, he was a doctor and saw life in all its ugliness. But he saw it also in its passion and natural beauty.

I have said that his language is that of a man thinking, I would add that the rhythms and line-breaks are those of a man feeling. It is his urgency, his reaching out to others that makes his lines move as they do. The American measure that he was looking for consisted of his feeling of urgency moving in short lines, the line dividing usually into three parts. He called each part a variable foot, and this has been argued over, but no matter what he called it, each division had a unity of syllables that at the moment he felt. I have said Williams’ vocabulary and tone are not those of common speech but of meditation. It is equally true that the measure of Williams’ lines is not that of speech but of feeling, the feelings of a certain kind of man, eager to impart his thought — almost nervous about it, in fact. ‘Forget all rules’, he said, ‘forget ail restrictions, write for the pleasure of it. There’s a primitive profundity of the personality that must be touched, but’, he hastened to add, ‘once the writing is on paper it becomes an object. It has entered now a new field, that of intelligence.’

In Pictures from Brueghel we are aware that the personality of

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Williams has been released at last and, at the same time, the poems have the shape and solidity of objects. Consider the explosion of feeling in this poem ‘Iris’:

a burst of iris so that
come down for

we searched through the
rooms for

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea

startling us from among
those trumpeting

Or consider the following passage which accomplishes a more difficult thing, wringing poetry out of unbeautiful, intractable matter. ‘The thing’, said Williams, ‘that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose.’

In the lines I am about to read Williams accomplishes the seemingly impossible, making the full sweep from the kind of life we see around us to the life of art, bringing life over into art. The thing that appeals about this kind of writing is that there is no limit to the material. You may run out of nightingales and Grecian urns but you cannot run out of life. But it is not the material that makes it poetry, rather the method, and this comes of a disposition of the heart:

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                        Once at night
waiting at a station
            with a friend
                        a fast freight

thundered through
            kicking up the dust.
                        My friend,

a distinguished artist,
            turned with me
                        to protect his eyes:
That’s what we’d all like to be, Bill,
            he said. I smiled
                        knowing how deeply
he meant it. I saw another man
                        in the subway.
I was on my way uptown
            to a meeting.
                        He kept looking at me
and I at him:
            He had a worn knobbed stick
                        between his knees
            to keep off dogs,
                        a man of perhaps forty.
He wore a beard
            parted in the middle,
                        a black beard,
and a hat,
            a brown felt hat
                        lighter than
his skin. His eyes,
            which were intelligent,
                        were wide open
but evasive, mild.
            I was frankly curious
                        and looked at him
closely. He was slight of build
            but robust enough
                        had on

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William Carlos Williams

a double-breasted black coat
            and a vest
                        which showed at the neck
the edge of a heavy and very dirty
                        His trousers
were striped
            and a lively
                        reddish brown. His shoes
which were good
           if somewhat worn
                        had been recently polished
His brown socks
            were about his ankles.
                        In his breast pocket
he carried
            a gold fountain pen
                        and a mechanical
pencil. For some reason
            which I could not fathom
                        I was unable
to keep my eyes off him.
            A worn leather zipper case
                        bulging with its contents
lay between his ankles
            on the floor.
                        Then I remembered:
When my father was a young man —
            it came to me
                        from an old photograph —
he wore such a beard.
            This man
                        reminds me of my father.
I am looking
            into my father’s