UNLIKE HIS FRIEND Ezra Pound who shook the dust of the States off his shoes and went to live in Europe -- he called America a "half savage country" -- William Carlos Williams stayed at home in New Jersey and tried to teach the savages. He urged them to find a language and "measure" for American poetry that would enable Americans to express the life of this continent, instead of some colonial version borrowed from the English. Very few understood what he was driving at. Professors and critics preferred the traditional sounds of English verse. His neighbors in Rutherford thought him a good physician, but eccentric with his poetry-writing. The people whose babies he delivered and whose wounds he staunched had no ear for poetry, the thread of it running through the language they used. It was up to him to pick it out and show it to the world.
He married and settled down. Other writers went to Europe and were exposed to the newest ideas. So Williams made a virtue of necessity and developed a theory that poetry had to be rooted in local culture. In the early 1920s he joined with Others, a magazine that published Alfred Kreymborg, Maxwell Bodenheim, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, and T. S. Eliot. A few years later Williams was associated with Robert McAlmon in publishing Contact. In the 1930s Williams began to have a following: the Objectivist poets, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Reznikoff looked to him as a master. Still, no commercial magazine would publish a poem by Williams, no publisher print one of his books unless he offered to bear part of the cost himself.
In 1938 James Laughlin undertook to publish Williams -- in fact, Laughlin said he was founding New Directions in order to publish Williams. But still Williams did not receive the recognition he deserved until the 1960s when a new generation of poets filled the scene, among them Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Synder, Denise Levertov, and David Ignatow. Williams died in 1963; since that time his fame and influence have spread. His ideas about poetry are the cliches of poetry-writing workshops in those strongholds of tradition, the universities. I wonder what Williams would think of this were he alive.
Williams' life, in its devotion to poetry and refusal to compromise, is a model for poets. It deserves to be researched thoroughly and have all the parts put in order so that we may understand them. Paul Mariani has done the job -- I doubt that there will be a more thorough and reliable biography of Williams in our time. For this we must be thankful -- and thankful, too, that we didn't have to do it ourselves. There are so many facts, so many incidents and conversations! Mariani has followed the usual method of American biographers: he has put everything in so as not to risk leaving anything out. For example, he tells us that when Williams was in Rome, the typewriter he had rented fell apart and he had to get another. And that Williams' wife, Floss, thought Maxwell Bodenheim a better novelist than Hemingway. Facts such as these stretch the biography to its inordinate length, nearly 900 pages.
Still, we should be grateful and not bite the hand that feeds us. The general reader may find somewhere in this mass the facts about Williams he needs to know. Mariani has written for the general reader rather than the specialist. This being so, it is curious that the book has no bibliography -- the reader is not encouraged to discover that many of the same ideas have appeared in books by critics such as James Guimond and Hugh Kenner who wrote far better prose.
The most important idea any writer about Williams has to explain is his idea of "locality" or "contract." He believed that writers must understand their local culture, the local "field of action," and then they might begin to understand what in fact a Picasso or de Gourmont was holding out to America. Otherwise there was the danger of borrowing the wrong things, like the wholehearted acceptance of dadaism.
This has been taken by many of Williams' followers to mean simply writing about yourself and your immediate surroundings. But Williams denied this emphatically. He did not mean limiting oneself to a particular place, but writing out of experience, which would include place but was certainly not limited to this. The language of poetry would be intimately related to the language men used, not some language taught by the university. Poetry, however, wasn't speech -- described in Paterson as the inchoate roar of the river going over the falls -- it was a sound within it.
Williams' second idea was a corrective to experience which, as he knew, did not of itself make poems. He discovered that art was not representation but "a new and separate existence." Imagination created a new object. This led him for a while to think of words being used as nonrepresentational painters were using paint, for its own properties, without reference to the world outside. He wanted poetry to be just an arrangement of things seen and heard. The arrangement would rouse a new emotion in the reader, the reality of the work of art, not the things seen and heard.
It was a useful theory, but like all theories not absolutely tenable. In practice it amounted to reducing metaphors and similes, those mainstays of traditional verse, to a minimum. What happens then, however, is that the poem itself becomes a metaphor. Instead of being distracted by comparisons as we read, we are distracted afterwards.I suppose there is a gain: we think about the work of art, then we think about its relation to the world, rather than flying continually from one to the other and seeing neither clearly.
Williams' poetry makes statements -- all writing does. The difference is that in a poem by Williams the message is delayed so that we may enter into the experience of the poem. Consider these lines from the poem that begins, "By the road to the contagious hospital."
Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined...
But now the stark dignity of entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they grip down and begin to awaken These are children being born -- but first we had to see the trees and bushes along the road. We have been compelled to give our attention to these objects -- the movement of the verse, being unpredictable, compels us to pay attention. Later we arrive at what the poem has to "say." But first we have had, presumably, a new, entirely poetic experience.
When Williams spoke about the making of poems he spoke with authority. On oter topics he could utter impulsive and rash opinions. His isolation and his sense of being excluded by a literary establishment made him frustrated and angry. Mariani tells us that he wanted to "destroy Freud." He fulminated against T. S. Eliot because Eliot "floated between three worlds: France, England, and America, at home in none of them." Thus Williams reduced his theory of "locality" to the demand that writers stay in one place. In some moods Williams could sound like the know-nothing provincial his critics said he was.
I had hoped that this would be one book on Williams that would not try to raise him by putting Eliott down, but Mariani finds Williams' Spring and All, a book of poetry, "more important as a seminal text" than Eliot's The Sacred Wood, a book of essays. But suppose we compare Eliot's poetry with Williams'. Was Spring and All more seminal than "Prufrock"? More important than The Waste Land? And what is the use of these comparisons?
Some recent critics have said that Williams was anti-Semitic. Mariani denies this, arguing that some of Williams' best friends were Jews. But at least one of these friends, Zukofsky, thought that Williams was anti-Semitic -- he told me so himself. According to Mariani, Williams' derogatory remarks about Jews -- he used words such as "kike" -- were not anti-Semitism but part of the "popular racial myths of his time." Exactly. "Popular racial myths" are what racism consists of.
The biography picks up steam with Williams' later years, as the old man did himself. Williams was 63 when he began publishing Paterson, which he intended as his magnum opus. Mariani brings all his powers of documentation to bear, explaining how Paterson was conceived, structured, and written. He provides many of the references we need in order to understand Williams' intention. But is Paterson a great poem in fact? I do not think that many can have read it with pleasure. Teachers and critics put a high premium on poetry that has to be explained, but readers may think that if a narrative poem is muddy and unclear, and the themes have to be explained, it has fallen short as narrative and idea.
The poetry Williams wrote after Paterson is one of the legendary late flowerings, like the poems Yeats and Hardy wrote in old age. He was still pursuing an "American measure." Did he ever find it? Was there a unit of rhythm in the American language that was unlike the meters of traditional English verse? Since Americans speak English, as do Australians and the inhabitants of Trinidad and Calcutta, with local variations, it seems unlikely that we shall ever find the measure Williams sought that will be uniquely American. What he did find, in fact, was the sound of a man thinking -- that is, a way of writing, a conversational style, that would allow him to express his thoughts with an appearance of spontaneity and ease. It is not the sound of speech -- no poetry is -- and it cannot be measured. The accents and pauses fell where he chose, at the moment, to place them. This cannot be made into a rule for other poets, even if we were so foolish as to want to do so. It is up to every American poet to find his own measure, his own voice. This is what Williams teaches us, as Whitman before him.
His best poems, the splendid last poems of Pictures from Brueghel are this, the sound of a voice -- a poetic voice, selected out of words people used in conversation and also in writing. It is the sound of a man thinking aloud. His best friend, Pound, after making an ass of himself had fallen silent. Robert McAlmon was dead, the rest either dead or silent. He continued writing poems because he had no one to talk to, and they were the best he had ever written.