Books and Arts; Book Review;William Carlos Williams, American poet;On the outside looking in;
“Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams. By Herbert Leibowitz.
To his patients in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams was just the local boy who had become their local doctor. And yet, as he made house calls, administered vaccinations or listened to their complaints, he heard not just what they said, but how they said it. A doctor but also a poet, Williams spent his life trying to capture the “infinite variety” of American speech, and to use it to create a uniquely American form of poetic verse.
It was not an easy task. As Herbert Leibowitz's new biography shows, Williams remained on the periphery of 20th-century literature as he spent a lifetime in the “grey-brown landscapes” of suburbia. He was disgruntled, with a severe dislike of many of his fellow poets, especially T.S. Eliot (Williams was both admiring and disdainful of “The Waste Land”), but his poems are now held up as some of the most daring examples of modern American poetry, and he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1963.
During his lifetime, however, Williams was “lil Bill” to his bigger, more successful friend Ezra Pound, who laughed at his insistence on staying in Rutherford. The son of immigrants who never naturalised, Williams's dedication to America did not flag, though it was a country that often disappointed him. Peopling his poems with “nurses and prostitutes, policemen and religious fanatics, farmers and fish peddlers, drunkards…blues singers and barbers”, Williams wanted to pin down the whole messy country with his short, punchy lines of poetry. Sometimes he succeeded, as when he describes the euphoric crowds at a baseball game, or when he catches a glimpse of “A big young bareheaded woman/in an apron” on the pavement, bending down to remove a nail from her shoe. With the eyes of a doctor, he recorded the quotidian and the overlooked. He coined the maxim “no ideas but in things”. To his critics, the saying exposed him as an anti-intellectual, or as a poet who could only create “American speech barking at song.”
Mr Leibowitz, a New York literary editor, is keen to defend Williams against these charges, and focuses instead on the radical aspects of Williams's work. Banned in 1952 from being poetry consultant to the Library of Congress for his left-leaning views, Williams wrote poems in which the Rosenbergs appeared next to Geoffrey Chaucer. As a young doctor just starting out, he had mainly served the Italian, Greek and Polish communities around Rutherford, or attended to bruised prostitutes or addicts at the French Hospital of New York. As an elderly man with a respected practice, he still preferred the company of the socially marginalised: “I have known the unsuccessful, [and think them] far better persons than their more lucky brothers”.
However, in emphasising this side of Williams Mr Leibowitz skates over the less palatable aspects of his subject's character. A serial philanderer who publicly described his wife as “no Venus de Milo”, his poetry is occasionally voyeuristic and antagonistic towards women: “What I got out of women/was difficult/to assess.” Bitter from his lack of success in America or abroad, and obsessed with what he saw as the “European virus” in poetry, the Williams of this biography is not easy company. His poems, composed of short lines like “be a song—made of/particulars”, often resist Mr Leibowitz's lengthy analysis. Just as he preferred the quiet meadowlands around Rutherford to the glamour of literary New York, so too Williams manages to evade his biographer's gaze. Like a figure in one of his poems, he remains on the sidelines, looking in.