William Carlos Williams

Mark Kerstetter’s sketch of William Carlos Williams, based on Irving Wellcome’s photo

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) earned a living as a physician in the days when being a doctor did not make a man rich. By his own account he saw a million and a half patients and delivered two thousand babies. But while driving in his car en route to treat the sick or in his office late at night, he performed another job: working out how to integrate all that he saw and felt and thought into a poetic language that was true to reality and to himself, a poetry that synthesized all of the dimensions of his life and milieu into a simple clear language that did not mirror that life, but paralleled it with an equal life of its own. In doing so he defined the modern in twentieth century American poetry. To be exact: he defined it and demonstrated it. Books like Paterson and Spring and All combine autobiography, art and social criticism, textual collage, and Williams’ own celebrated form of poetry.

Paterson was one of the books that most fired my imagination when I began reading voraciously in my early twenties. Here was an endlessly fascinating pattern for a book. And Williams was one of the first subjects I wrote about when I began blogging. His aesthetic and his way of living the artist’s life inaugurated The Bricoleur blog, defining, for me, the image of an artist’s life. Here is what I wrote about him:

I see him driving in his Model A Ford, his medicine bag jangling in the seat beside him, a notebook in his lap and a pencil stuck over his ear. He rushes into the world and the world speaks to him in countless voices. He passes a pack mule and three goats tethered in a field; a child’s hand is being guided by her father to the coarse hair of one of the goats, while a farmer in overalls pats the mule’s behind. He passes a sign for gas and Coca Cola beside which a young man pumps fuel into a car where a girl sits staring bored at her bright red fingernails. The road rushes under him, his eyes are open to everything. The sky, scored by a single black crow, threatens rain. He has packed his umbrella. But it is not the umbrella he thinks about, nor the young couple, nor even the child with the goats or the farmer with the mule. No, on the day that I see him he is thinking about something else entirely, he is thinking about the cave paintings in the Pyrenees.

The model that Williams set is far from the worst a contemporary artist can adopt. If she makes no money from her art and works another job, she can look to Williams for inspiration. It’s a matter of mastering one’s moments. On the job whenever possible, the artist is mindful of her real work. If writing she composes in imagination, jotting notes when chance permits. If painting she holds the image in imagination like a seed, or plans out technical issues. Being an artist, her eyes and ears are open at all times, and she is ever ready to mold in imagination the material the world offers. And then, when the moment comes, whenever it comes, she seizes it completely. Step by step, moment by moment, her art will be made. Williams was a full-time doctor who wrote forty-nine books, books that paralleled his life with an equal life of their own. It is a worthy example to follow.

If I feel like reminding myself of the model set by Dr. Williams, it is because life never gets any easier, and there’s never any good reason to write another poem. Oh I know, Williams wrote that every day people die for lack of what poetry contains. But he knew they die for millions of other reasons as well. And they die for lack of a soft touch or a kind word. Poetry can’t do anything about any of that. It’s fascinating to think about, isn’t it, that a doctor said that? Williams wrote in A Novelette that art could “liberate from the defects of science” and there can be no doubt that it was necessary for his life. Because we have to, that’s why we write another poem. Because we soak life up like a sponge and have to ring it back out in forms molded by the imagination. We do this, Williams says, because it is our way of being, it’s natural. It’s one of the best parts of Spring and All:

Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images… This sort of thing…. destroys, makes nature an accessory….

On the contrary,

the work of the imagination [is] not “like” anything but transfused with the same forces which transfuse the earth…. Nature…. is opposed to art but apposed to it…. the mistake…. is to have believed that the reflection of nature is nature. It is not. It is only a sham nature, a “lie.”…. Shakespeare holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature’s composition with his own…. He himself become “nature”—continuing “its” marvels….

This is something everyone eventually got hip to, and then it became codified when Jackson Pollock, asked if he worked from nature, said, “I am nature.”

I love everything about Spring and All: a description of an aesthetic (and in some sense a justification for it), a working model for the imagination, a brilliant personal notebook set with equally brilliant poems. And it has one of the most startling openings in literature. OMG, Williams says, WE ARE AT THE BEGINNING! A new batch of 17 year olds every season, nothing to be done about that. Better role with it.

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4 Responses to William Carlos Williams

  1. Williams is near the top of my list of favorite poets. Your sketch is amazing…you’ve brought him to life. Wonderful post, Mark.

  2. Good, for once here is a post I can follow. And understand. I am so glad you reminded me how much pleasure I can get from reading WCW’s poetry. As an ‘American’ poet I find him mainly in anthologies but each time I leaf through a collection which contains one of his works I stop and read and savour and marvel. He is truly among the Great. You have also told me about the man behind the poetry which, I admit, I have not bothered to find out for myself.

    Perhaps I will have to find the books you mention. “had I but time enough and world” – (sorry, Andrew Marvel)

    Your sketch is excellent, Mark.

  3. hedgewitch says:

    Enjoyed this, Mark. Took me several days to have the space in my mind for all of it. And there are some really good points here. Writing/art in whatever raw state it exists before it is birthed, doesn’t go away somewhere while other more immediate things happen, and it doesn’t come through artifice, as the first quote says, by filing away nifty thoughts to try to make them into something they are not, but it can make use of artifice, and of everything because it’s in everything, like smoke in the air–it does all kinds of things to our bodies, but we can’t catch it or see it–we just reflect it as it becomes part of us. I had not known that WCW was a working doctor–same little shock as finding out Stevens was a CEO at Harftford Insurance. What, no beret? Thanks for a clear clean bunch of ideas. Always a pleasure to get a gift like that.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    I found a facsimile edition of Spring and All while down in the City and, thinking of you and your love for this book, snapped it up for a read. Interesting how the doctor poet and the lawyer poet were each, in their own way, working on the same aesthetic “thing.” In Stevens’ words: ”The poem is the cry of its occasion,/Part of the res itself and not about it.” I love this line of yours, too: “his eyes are open to everything.” Words to live by.

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