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William Carlos Williams and His Problems

ISSUE:  Summer 1976
William Carlos Williams: Poet From Jersey. By Reed Whittemore. Houghton Mifflin. $10.95. The Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. By Rod Townley. Cornell. $11.50. William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America. By Robert Coles. Rutgers. $8.50.

WE are now far enough past the early stages of the “modernist” movement in American poetry and art to observe its motives and contours in relation to other phenomena. Instructed by Hugh Kenner’s brilliant study The Pound Era and his more recent Home-made World, we can appreciate now as never before the desperate auto-didacticism of those who ended babbling of Social Credit or mooning about the Variable Foot. The effect of these three new books about Williams is to reveal him as psychologically more complex than we may have suspected, but intellectually more simple.

A fact crucial to Williams’s intellectual career is that he never went to college at all, proceeding directly from the Horace Mann School in New York to the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. Of “liberal education” he had the minimum, although he had a lot of technical learning. As “Evans,” the naive American abroad in A Voyage to Pagany (1928), he designates himself “a great zero,” and in his Auto-biography (1951) he registers his dismay when The Waste Land appeared and showed what a learned poet could do with a fully possessed historical past. Of himself and his local modernist colleagues he says, “Literary allusions, save in very attenuated form, were unknown to us. Few had the necessary reading,” The Williams who quit Latin after one term in high school was not likely to be illuminated by the Waste Land footnote directing him to consult “Aeneid, I, 726.”

As a self-made American artist consciously isolated from Europe and from history, Williams is an archetype, and it is both the pathos and the bravery of his predicament that the poet Reed Whittemore delineates in his touching and quietly funny biography. The book is touching because Whittemore the poet has entered Williams’s troubled soul sympathetically, but it is funny because Whittemore the critic has applied the scalpel of irony to Williams’s occasionally grandiose formulas and theories, to his fancied “enormous America-saving obligations,” and to his instinct for martyrdom at the hands of the Philistines. Whittemore reveals a Williams closer to a figure like the “culture”-drunk Sinclair Lewis than we may have perceived. And closer to someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald as well. As Whittemore writes, “Underneath the common man, the kindly tough-guy doctor, he was one of the most determined of that American species, the self-made man, knowing that he had begun as nothing, as an outsider with his nose pressed against the window, but believing in his inexhaustible Americanness that he could be something, in fact anything that he wanted if he just kept at it,” Like the 138-pound Fitzgerald breaking his heart on the practice football field at Princeton, or the over-age Zelda pursuing her hopeless ballet career in Paris, Williams did doggedly keep at it during the long lonely nights, typewriting up in the attic of the, respectable house in Rutherford, N. J. , expressing himself in the improvisations of “automatic writing” or as the village sage angrily instructing his townspeople in the rudiments of the new perception.

Whittemore reveals Williams as a divided soul, “a Puritan on odd days, a libertine on even.” He liked to think of himself as a dissenter, a loner, a “solo sensibility”; but at the same time he needed his theories to be validated by society, and he was cast down if the outside world ignored or disagreed with him. He was capable of rude belligerence and seemed to require, like Pound, a fantasy of “the enemy”—conceived variously as defenders of the iambic-pentameter line and university adherents to traditional forms of literary culture— to get him moving artistically. Yet he was shy, mild, sensitive. In the twenties and thirties he split himself between Rutherford (medical practice, family life) and New York (“art,” little magazines, bohemianism). He was the first of his line to be born in America, and as Whittemore sensitively understands, his Americanness was really as frail as his desire to “locate” was intense. Regarded by the Rutherford Philistines as the author of “those shitty verses,” to New York artistic circles he sometimes seemed an envious outsider, an angry “doctor-hick.” Sensing that he had no real home, he struggled to achieve an environment for himself by passionately embracing the local particulars, if only the weeds along the borders of “the sick society of Northern New Jersey.” The two terms of Whittemore’s sub-title—Poet and Jersey—seem designed as a sardonic oxymoron, laconically implying the problems encountered by the romantic sensibility set down in a hortus siccus. While yet an intern in both medicine and poetry, trying to get his bearings in both, “he commuted daily,” as Whittemore says, “from tough guy to Keats.”

In 1912 the Titanic sank. Harriet Monroe founded Poetry. Williams married Flossie. The Imagist Manifesto appeared, and “the word “modern” was in the wind.” That year Williams broke away from his early Georgian efforts and published one of the first poems identifiable as his own, the one about “the coroner’s merry little children”: they are in clover because “Kind heaven fills their little paunches!” Williams had discovered that anything could enter a “poem,” just the way Van Gogh had discovered in the 1880’s that anything, old shoes, for example, could enter a painting. He was now on his way, propelled by enthusiasm for cubism, for Ducharnp and Kandinsky, and for Stieglitz and Man Ray. The modern style was to be “the broken style”: the imagination was to be put back to work making new unities from new fragmentations. It was to be, indeed, nothing short of a revolution in consciousness. But as Whittemore observes, “WCW was having trouble locating the revolution and coming to grips with it as a public event. He didn’t even know where it was. Sometimes he put it on one side of the Hudson, sometimes on the other. But though he was confused . . .he had the solace that the confusion was built into the revolution as a whole. It was a revolution in seclusion, an anomaly.” The enemy was puritanism, and the Puritans were “bad because they were not lonely wanderer souls like WCW in his attic,” writing “spontaneously.” In his attic Williams indulged “the persecution thoughts so common to American writerdom,” persuading himself that “good writing wouldn’t sell, ever—wouldn’t sell because they didn’t want it to.” But at least his prickly individualism secured him against the grosser perversions associated with the literary collectivism of the thirties, and as his passions began to calm he meditated Paterson, his very American lyric-epic adding the technique of “collage” to the tradition received from Whitman and Hart Crane. Late in life came invitations to read and explain at the hated universities—he accepted them all—and honors from a bemused Establishment. Disciples gathered: Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Cid Corman, Robert Creeley. Whittemore is perhaps a bit too satiric in his treatment of their messianic obscurantism, their absurd theories of Projective Verse, their zeal over the Variable Foot. “What WCW, Olson, and Creeley . . .had in common,” he says, “was a conviction that the intuited forms and cadences of verse that they reached for could be talked about most learnedly, elevated to a science. If the three of them had been born in the Middle Ages they would all have been astrologers, and if in the modern world they had not been in poetry but over where science was supposed to be, they would have been the inventors of perpetual-motion machines or devices to extract soybeans from sea water.” For Williams the problem remained: how to reconcile two irreconcilables, spontaneity and art. Perhaps he came close to reconciling the two in the triadic stanza of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” his late lyric celebration of a lifetime’s stormy love with Flossie.

As some of my quotations may have suggested, Whittemore’s book can be a trifle off-putting. His irony is sometimes too facile and merely stylistic, his style sometimes informal and groovy to the point of affectation. But the reader who perseveres will feel finally that the book works, that it does convey a lifelike—that is, a touching—portrait of the artist as American. But it is really less a biography than a critical inquiry into the theoretical shakiness of modernist aesthetics,

The disjunctions in Williams’s psyche perceived by Whittemore are common in late-romantic careers committed to an ideal of “authenticity” or entirely honest self-expression. What is necessarily at war is the ideal of perfect sincerity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the rhetorical imperative, the requirement that original objective correlatives of idea and emotion be so devised and arranged that the reader reacts the way the artist designs. A telling example of Williams’s confusion between artistic wish and artistic accomplishment is the end of Paterson IV, where the man, after playing with a dog on a beach, resumes his clothes, picks

some beach plums from a low bush and
sampled one of them, spitting the seed out,
then headed inland, followed by the dog

That is the snapshot Williams provides in the poem. But what he thinks he has transmitted in this scene of heading inland he makes clear in the Autobiography: ” In the end the man rises from the sea where the river appears to have lost its identity and accompanied by his faithful bitch . . .turns inland toward Camden where Walt Whitman, much traduced, lived the latter years of his life and died.” But the reader of the poem gets no Camden, no Whitman. The details he needs are not vouchsafed. To the reader, the “inland” embraces everything between Cape May and Port Newark, and the man might as well be heading for Lakewood as for Camden. But Williams has no doubts that he has transmitted what he has in mind. An old-fashioned way of diagnosing what has gone wrong is to say that he has neglected rhetoric, and that neglect haunts much later poetry inspired by Williams, poetry like Charles Olson’s, for example, where the subjective never attains the form of the publicly available.

Self-division is also at the center of the uncertain young Williams whose “wrongly directed apprenticeship” to Keats and Georgian Beauty is brightly explored by Rod Townley. He has done valuable research in Williams’s papers, and his critical study is informed everywhere by the sensitivity of a young poet and the psychological accuracy and tact of a good scholar who understands people. Scrutinizing early Williams, Townley observes that “it is not always easy to tell when Williams is being ingenuous and when he is being devious.” He was capable of being both almost simultaneously. Innocence belonged to “poetry”; experience, to the medical practice. Held between these “conflicting vectors,” as Townley nicely calls them, Williams struggled to educe beauty from the squalors of “the great industrial desert” (i. e., Northern New Jersey), finally bursting through to his own kind of lyric notations of freshly observed “situational perversities”— the gaiety of the coroner’s children, for example, or the avidity of the sparrows (he has learned by painful experience to abjure nightingales) pecking amidst scattered horse dung. Like Whittemore, Townley positions Williams within a context, though a context perhaps more prepossessing than that supplied by Whittemore: “The implicit advice in these poems [in Spring and All ] is to be one of those on whom, in James’ phrase, “nothing is lost. ” Williams’ work suggests a variant of the American obsession to possess the environment, to wrest from it its secrets and powers.” Throughout, Townley is more respectful than Whittemore of Williams the aesthetic theorist, but he is equally acute at discerning the pitiful uncertainties faced by the American artist who aspires to proceed as if history, especially literary and mythic history, can be repealed by strength of will.

It is an irony worth noting that Williams seems to succeed better in prose fiction than in the long poem: in such fictions as the stories in Life along the Passaic River (1938) and the trilogy of novels White Mule (1937), In the Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952) he has no literary theory to argue and his means are not self-consciously struggling with the past. A monitory T. S. Eliot is not hovering about, nor a Pound ready to patronize. The result is narrative responsive at every point to the vivid particulars of daily life as experienced by bright “ordinary” people. Williams was a gifted over-hearer, and his dialogue is at once true and delightful. The unpretentious narrative prose is transparent: with delight the reader passes right through to touch the flesh and blood of down-and-out patients and their wry physician, and to live with the immigrant Stecher family, advancing in one generation from poverty to affluence and finally to fake culture. It is these brilliant stories and novels that Robert Coles has set himself to recommend in the three public lectures he has gathered into a regrettably diffuse, moralistic, and sentimental little book which tends to confuse people with literary constructs and too often prefers the method of plot summary to analysis. Coles seems to be trying to say that fiction can “study” people more accurately than “social science,” but that is hardly news, and his immersion in the assumptions of the therapeutic and welfare culture tends to fog his vision and emasculate his prose. But for all its rambling his book has the merit of recalling the reader constantly to Williams’s successful encounters with the American local concrete. Shown a cast of Cocteau’s hands in Paris, Williams registers in his Autobiography the way he responded: “His hands are narrow through the palm, with fingers of extreme slenderness such as I can recall seeing elsewhere only upon the wrists of a tall Negress, captain of one of our local high-school basketball teams.” That—especially “upon the wrists of”—is quintessential Williams, triumphantly if only for a moment free of all his problems, and writing like an angel.


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