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Essays

The Small, Amazing Book: William Carlos Williams

An autobiographical essay

In high school, I was as suspicious of poetry as the next American teen-ager, but during my senior year something happened that turned what had been suspect or irrelevant into the thing that seemed truest in the world. I began to feel the greatest meaning, an ineffable rightness, in certain sets of words on a page. Poems.

e. e. cummings was part of it. He had a way of sharpening words as I'd never seen or felt them sharpened. He was unconventional; you could see that from his typography. He was emotional, and not ashamed of it. He was harsh in his judgment of "this busy monster, manunkind." He was good at making fun of conventional, unimaginative people, and this appealed to my growing sense of alienation--also to my budding sense that I was somehow special--a precarious thing, an illusion, but in a way, real nonetheless. The ego trying to find an identity. There's something real about that.

My English teacher that year, Jon Rossman, put some interesting poems and poetic prose in front of us, and I began to see him as the keeper of important secret knowledge. Where did he get these things from--these magical texts? At graduation he gave me a gift, a copy of Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, and he inscribed it, "I hope these poems will bring you pleasure and stimulation and some insight into the varieties of love." I was moved by this gift, this gesture. Books of poems, that you would actually buy? Inscriptions? It was new to me. And those poems from the Japanese had a simplicity and brevity and a way of saying something that seemed... incomplete, and yet at the same time, final, mysteriously profound. I can see now that Mr. Rossman was giving me a lot of credit in thinking that such a gift wouldn't be lost on me. It was one of those teacher-acts that the student always remembers.

By the time I went to college I had a copy of Howl. Ginsberg's language was overwhelming, charismatic, vastly emotional, outdoing even cummings in outpouring. I loved the soulful meditations "Sunflower Sutra" and "A Supermarket in California"--and that might have been the first time I heard the name Walt Whitman, or at least that I took note seriously of it. "America.../ Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb" went to the heart of things in some weird, cathartic way. So did, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." Who were the best minds? Later I decided that the minds Ginsberg was thinking of weren't actually the best, but at the time I figured he must know. Allen Ginsberg was out there, extreme, saying something big with passion. The size of Howl in its City Lights pocket format was part of its appeal, I think. It was a David of a book--David and Goliath, Ginsberg and Moloch. There was a lot of learning, hard work, and courage behind Howl that I wasn't fully conscious of, but in a half-conscious way I sensed they were there, and they seemed admirable, something to strive for.

But it wasn't Howl that had the greatest effect on me, nor the longest lasting. That was another small book: The Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. I'm not sure how I first heard of Williams, whether it was through the Introduction he'd written for Howl, or maybe Mr. Rossman gave us some of his poems to read. In any case, somewhere in that time when poetry and art were bursting into my consciousness like suns, the name William Carlos Williams became part of my vocabulary, and I soon got hold of his book, Selected Poems.

I think Williams' poems struck me from the beginning as a revelation of how really satisfactory, unpretentious poetry might be written. It had cummings' sharpness, but without the stylistic eccentricities, and I liked the plainness of it. Williams was more concrete, more located in specific places; he seemed grounded in a way that cummings didn't. This wasn't like traditional poetry either. Williams' poems had a lyrical quality, but with more freedom and naturalness. Images meant more to me than prosody, and Williams' images were crystal clear.

It wasn't just images and free verse that I was (unconsciously) looking for. I sensed in him, in his poems, some kind of balance, and something that felt like sanity. Call me conservative, but I think that even at a young age I was more interested in sanity than madness. I was drawn to clarity. I only took LSD once, and I didn't particularly like it. I wanted to get high, but at the same time I wanted to keep my altered states of consciousness natural, so Ginsberg wasn't really my man.

I think I sensed in Williams a strategy for staying sane and staying alive. Is poetry a risky place to look for that kind of information? Maybe. I was just beginning to become aware of poetry's extensive association with alcoholism, mental breakdown, depression, personal disaster, and suicide. In any case, Williams seemed to offer something else. Not moral instruction, but nonetheless a kind of manual. I felt wildness and impulsiveness in Williams, but he seemed to know how to manage them--some kind of synthesis. (Did I think of it in those terms at the time? No--that's a thought projected back.) Now, after reading Williams for more than forty years, he still seems to me both a great maker of free verse, and a reliable friend. If I've survived, it's a good deal due to him.

Everything about that small book seemed right. This was the first New Directions edition (1963). Later the selection was expanded, and the book's physical size enlarged. In its original four by seven inch edition, it seemed beautifully compact. Actually it contained a lot of poetry, 140 pages worth, but its small size seemed right for the spare, sharp poems it contained.

The Introduction by Randall Jarrell was another first encounter--not just with Jarrell, but with literary criticism. I was impressed that someone wrote with so much feeling about poetry. Jarrell's tone was something I hadn't heard before. While he seemed to be claiming to be the enemy of all things pompous and bookish, he referred to poets and writers left and right, as if he couldn't help himself. He was bristling with opinion, very superior and sure of himself. He even seemed a little condescending to Williams. By the end of the essay I was relieved that Williams had survived Jarrell's scrutiny and all his certainty about good, bad, and mediocre poems. I wasn't sure I liked Jarrell, but on the other hand he said things that seemed true, his language was vivid, and he put across the idea that poetry was something worth being combative about. Randall Jarrell was the first to make it clear to me that writing about poetry (and what I soon learned was called "literary criticism") could be a creative act.

The cover of the book was important, with its picture of Williams. I think that was one of the first photos that made me aware of the distinctive beauty of black and white photography. As for the man himself, Williams looked a little stern--if he was a high school teacher, he would have been one of the old, tough ones--but I liked him immediately. He was lean, a little bird-like. He wore a casual shirt, open at the neck, and a straw hat with upturned brim--a great-looking hat--to me it looked old fashioned and unconventional at the same time, just as the man wearing it looked both grandfatherly and artistic. Behind glasses with clear plastic frames, his eyes gazed intensely at something unseen. Those were the eyes that looked at things--shards of glass, an immaculate sun-lit white bed, men working with strips of copper, a young woman standing in front of her house in her night-dress. And there was the strong-ridged nose that he had addressed a poem to:

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! What will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed....
To me, the sharp-eyed old guy in the straw hat looked self-possessed, fierce, and benevolent. He looked exactly like the man who would write that poem about his nose, and the other poems that were in that book.

What was in those poems that spoke to my young self? Memory is imperfect, but I can make some guesses. I'm sure that one thing was the presence of the physical--the mundane, solid things of this world. It's a commonplace about Williams, and probably the first thing that hits you when you read him: he's keyed to the physical world; he's so good at noticing. I soon learned that Williams was associated with literary movements, Imagism and Objectivism, but he always seemed autonomous, a movement all by himself. His photographic eye was crisp, and nothing was beneath his attention.

What would it be like to see the world in the way that Williams saw it, with such clarity and precision? It would be a new way of seeing and of being. He reminds us what good fortune it is to be able to see--and to taste, smell, hear, and touch. You might as well find satisfaction in ordinary objects, sensations, and pleasures, because who knows if you'll find it anywhere else. That seemed to be Williams' attitude--a philosophy and practice of which he was my first example.

I noticed that Williams often wrote about plants. He was more interested in flowers than I was, but I could sense in his descriptions some fundamental vitality and urgency. About this same time I discovered Dylan Thomas and "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower." Williams' lines weren't as high-powered as that one, but they had great vitality, evident in poems again and again. He had a poem about trees that I liked a lot. Famous for his objective detail, Williams didn't mind violating that principle now and then, and he let the trees be both emotional and judgmental:

The trees--being trees
thrash and scream
guffaw and curse--
wholly abandoned
damning the race of men--
Christ, the bastards
haven't even sense enough
to stay out in the rain--
In the expanded edition of Selected Poems, there's a bad misprint in that last line, the word "in" having been replaced with "of," turning the meaning inside out. Williams was one for staying out in the rain. His trees and weeds were full of life; his flowers were vital, not flowery at all. I felt the same charge later in the green word-play of Hopkins, but it was Williams who first made me feel in poetry "the freshness deep down things."

He was just as good with people as he was with plants--even better. There was a little of cummings' sense of superiority, but only a very little. In fact, he seemed to like and admire ordinary people, and to reach out to them. The truth is that many people find Williams difficult, his simplicity mystifying (I learned this after years of teaching), but he wasn't insincere when he said to his reader at the end of a poem--"All this--/was for you, old woman./ I wanted to write a poem/ that you would understand./ For what good is it to me/ if you can't understand it?" One of my favorites of all his poems is "The Catholic Bells," a poem about, not religion, but the deeper religion of being alive. Forget the higher purposes and explanations. What did Williams think about God? Well, he said, "O bells/ ring for the ringing!/ the beginning and the end/ of the ringing! Ring ring/ ring ring ring ring ring!/ Catholic bells--!" People going about their business, going to church, listening to bells, not doctrine or theology, was what seemed to interest and inspire Williams.

Part of the sanity that I sensed in Williams must have been in his attitude toward people. He might instruct his townspeople about how to conduct a funeral, but in general he seems to take them pretty much as they are. His poem about the crowd at a ballgame is great. I think of it sometimes when I'm sitting in the minor league ballpark in the small city near where I live, with a thousand other souls on a summer evening, with a beer, under the lights. I liked the fact that he was a doctor, practicing among ordinary people. "Complaint," about a house call in the middle of the night, is a key poem. Years later it occurred to me that my father had been born in Rutherford, Williams' hometown, and not only that, my grandparents were immigrants, having arrived from Sweden in 1911, and Williams' practice was largely among immigrants...so maybe he had presided at my father's birth! I've never tried to verify that, but I hope he did.

Some of the poems that struck me most deeply were the ones about love, marriage, and desire. "The Young Housewife" was easy to understand--at least on the first level, of beauty, looking, and longing.

At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband's house.
I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
Girls and their hidden breasts were all around me. I knew nothing about marriage when I first read Williams, but "Waiting" moved me immensely, with mysterious power.
When I am alone I am happy.
The air is cool. The sky is
flecked and splashed and wound
with color. The crimson phalloi
of the sassafras leaves
hang crowded before me
in shoals on the heavy branches.
When I reach my doorstep
I am greeted by
the happy shrieks of my children
and my heart sinks.
I am crushed.

Are not my children as dear to me
as falling leaves or
must one become stupid
to grow older?
It seems much as if Sorrow
had tripped up my heels.
Let us see, let us see!
What did I plan to say to her
when it should happen to me
as it has happened now?
"This Is Just to Say," Williams' best-known poem next to "The Red Wheelbarrow," was great because of its simplicity and its cold, sweet plums, but I must have also sensed its undercurrents of a world of meaning about relationships.

Just as moving were poems where Williams spoke of loneliness, solitude, and private ecstasy. "...if I in my north room/ dance naked, grotesquely/ before my mirror/ waving my shirt round my head/ and singing softly to myself:/ 'I am lonely, lonely./ I was born to be lonely,/ I am best so!...." These poems of Williams kept sailing into my heart like oracles.

There was Williams, out of the pages of this small, amazing book, saying, "These things/ astonish me beyond words," and "Well, you know how/ the young girls run giggling/ on Park Avenue after dark/ when they ought to be home in bed?/ Well,/ that's the way it is with me somehow," and "The young doctor is dancing with happiness/ in the sparkling wind, alone/ at the prow of the ferry!" and "Good Christ what is/ a poet--if any/ exists?/ a man/ whose words will/ bite/ their way/ home--being actual/ having the form/ of motion..." and "This is just to say."

I was born and grew up in New Jersey--northeast New Jersey, twelve miles from the George Washington Bridge, where the suburbs were conquering the earth, a couple of towns further out from Rutherford and Paterson. By the time I graduated from high school, 1965, the last scraps of wilderness and vestiges of agriculture were gone--destroyed, razed, sacrificed on the altar of housing developments and shopping centers in the name of economic growth or progress or the inevitable. Even as I went to the gigantic new malls in Paramus, the first of their kind, I knew there was something sick or ignoble about it all. Witnessing this process gave me a bad feeling about the way the world was going--but just as anxiety and alienation were setting in, something, someone, was rising out of the marshlands and small industrial cities nearby, right in the state of New Jersey--some manifestation of the life force, some intelligent life-form with penetrating eyes and sharp, articulate cries. Actually Williams had died a couple of years before, in 1963, but he was just arriving for me, in the nick of time, in that small, rich book I still read today, for the same and for different reasons: Selected Poems--William Carlos Williams.


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