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William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American writer and pediatrician, developed in his poetry a lucid, vital style that reproduced the characteristic rhythms of American speech.

William Carlos Williams's major work, Paterson (1946-1958, published entire 1963), a five-volume impressionistic poem, is an attempt to define the duties of the poet in the context of the American environment. Its appearance firmly established him as a major poet, and his work became greatly influential on the new generation of American poets.

Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1883, in Rutherford, N.J. He was educated in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his medical degree in 1906 from Pennsylvania, where he met poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. After interning for two years in New York hospitals and studying pediatrics at the University of Leipzig, Williams began practicing pediatrics in Rutherford in 1910. He continued his medical career for more than 40 years, writing in his spare time. That his profession allowed little time for study and writing probably accounts for both the unevenness of much of his verse and the naiveté of his poetic theory. He died in Rutherford on March 4, 1963.

Development of the Poet

The lifelong tension in Williams between a romantic poetic sensibility and a confused modernist poetic theory was largely the result of the conflict between the two major influences in his development: his loyalty to Ezra Pound and his devotion to his mother. Pound had actually launched him as a poet in 1912, when he arranged for publication of six poems in the English Poetry Review and wrote an encouraging and affectionate introduction to his friend's verse. Williams acknowledged the influence of Pound's teachings (which he never fully understood) in I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). Here Williams wrote, "Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D." The Tempers (1913), Williams's first commercially published volume, was accepted by the publisher primarily through Pound's influence. Kora in Hell (1920) was partly inspired by a book Pound had left in Williams's house.

But if it was Pound who shaped Williams's ideas about poetry, it was his mother who shaped the man himself and the verse he actually created. As a result, he consistently uttered contradictory statements and often appeared to deny the poetry written out of his deepest self. If Pound represented "realism" and "science," authority and discipline, and the conscious will, Williams's mother stood for romance, freedom and impulse, and the unconscious springs of the creative miracle itself. A Spanish Jew, Williams's mother seemed out of place in industrial New Jersey. The feelings Williams held for her are evident in his statements in I Wanted to Write a Poem about her "ordeal" as a woman and a foreigner, about her interest in art, which became, as he says, his own, and about his feeling that she was a "mythical" figure, a heroic "poetic ideal."

The conflict between the influences of Pound and his mother affected Williams all his life and finally resolved itself into the artistic problem of how to write essentially "romantic" poetry while professing an antiromantic, behavioristic theory of poetics. The conflict came violently to the surface twice in Williams's career. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922, should have been an occasion for rejoicing for Williams, as it was for Pound, because Eliot's masterpiece exemplified the characteristics Pound and Williams had been demanding of contemporary poetry.

Yet for Williams the poem was clearly a shattering experience. Eliot's poem seemed to him, reflecting on it years later in I Want to Write a Poem, a "great catastrophe to our letters," a work of genius which by its very brilliance seemed to make unnecessary his own groping experiments in developing a distinctively American poetry written in a native idiom. Overawed by the stylistic brilliance and the learning of Eliot's poem, yet profoundly unsympathetic to its description of modern culture as a "waste land," Williams felt defeated in his effort to create a new sort of poetry rooted in common experience in a specific locality, his "Paterson."

The second trauma involved the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Pound's Pisan Cantos in 1948 while Pound was under indictment for treason for making broadcasts during World War II for the Italian Fascist dictator, Mussolini. Williams's inability to accept an appointment to the chair of poetry at the Library of Congress, because of a stroke, just at the time when Eliot and the other fellows of the Library were voting to grant the prize to Pound, and the resulting congressional controversy over the award, exacerbated Williams's difficulty in reconciling his sincere patriotism with his affection for Pound. His deferred appointment was attacked in Congress as a strengthening of the un-American Ezra Pound "clique" among the fellows; the attacks delayed Williams's recovery. As his wife later wrote, "Coming after the stroke, it was too much; it set him back tragically, kept him from poetry and communication with the world for years."

In many respects Williams's Autobiography (1951) was a form of therapy, for within it he was able to exorcise many of his frustrations and resentments. In the end, the shock and painful self-examination resulting from the affair had a salutary effect on his work; his chief poems after this period, Journey to Love (1955), "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," and Paterson, Book V (1958), are the most self-assured and fully achieved of his career. He was freed from an excessive dependence on Pound's example, and his mother's influence became increasingly dominant. He did not live to complete the book he planned about her, but his projected Paterson, Book VI clearly revealed the essentially romantic sensibility she had nurtured.

Although Williams thought of himself as a "realist," in reaction against what Pound had called the "messy, blurry, sentimentalistic" 19th century, he was actually a sort of modern Walt Whitman. Under Pound's tutelage he had denigrated Whitman, only to reverse himself later when postwar critics demonstrated that it was neither naive to approve Whitman nor unflattering to be said to resemble him. Williams never seemed to realize that Pound himself was much more indebted to Whitman than he ever cared to admit. Over a lifetime of contradictory writing and lecturing, Williams revealed little understanding of Leaves of Grass, and it is likely that he read it only superficially.

It was typical of Williams's critical innocence that in the 1940s and 1950s he vehemently continued to expound the modernist poetics first elaborated by Eliot and Pound a generation earlier, seemingly unaware that these theories had long since ceased to be revolutionary and were, in fact, the essence of the academic New Criticism he scorned. Unwittingly, Williams theoretically agreed with the very critics who slighted his work for its romanticism.

Williams's Works

As always, there was a tremendous gap between what Williams intended—"autotelic," "pure," aristocratic poetry exhibiting primarily metrical expertness—and what he actually wrote—Whitmanesque poetry celebrating the native and the local that affirmed the beauty and meaning of the commonplace in American democracy. Williams's best work, from Al Que Quiere (1917) on, was characterized by a tension between romantic feeling and the concern to confront the brute facts of reality.

"Gulls," one of the best early poems, suggests that the harshness of the gulls' cries makes a better hymn than those sung in the churches, which outrage "true music." "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital," which Williams intended as a pure imagist poem, actually concludes with the supposedly "neutral" poet affirming the possibility of life even in the urban wasteland. The workmen in "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper" are not machines that react to stimuli but artists who shape and create their own ends.

When Williams tried to "think out" poetry in terms of the imagist theory of the separation between the artist and his material, he usually failed. His greatest poems, such as the late "A Unison," resemble the opposite sort of response, wherein the poem itself becomes a religious celebration of the union of man, nature, life, and reality in the Emersonian tradition.

Wallace Stevens's insightful Preface to Williams's Collected Poems (1934), calling him a "romantic," deeply offended the poet, who thought he had been writing "scientific" poetry like his idol, Pound. Yet Stevens's assessment of the real sensibility behind the poetry was penetrating: "He is a romantic poet. This will horrify him. Yet the proof is everywhere." Williams indeed was so horrified that he never allowed the Preface to be reprinted. Randall Jarrell's Introduction to Williams's Selected Poems (1949) is still the best short criticism of the poet's work. Ignoring Williams's often contradictory and confused opinions, Jarrell pinpointed the central qualities of the best poems, "their generosity and sympathy, their moral and human attractiveness."

Williams's major work, Paterson, begins at the head-waters of the Passaic River in the past and proceeds downstream, both geographically and temporally. Book IV, which takes place at the currently polluted mouth of the river, seems an exception to the affirmations of most of his work. But he was committed to using the actual facts of his locale and refused to ignore the decline and degeneration, the blight and perversion that characterized contemporary Paterson. The measure of his commitment to affirmation, however, can be marked in Book V and the unfinished Book VI of the poem, in which he strove to correct Book IV's impression of despair and denial. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," one of his last and finest poems, seems completely free of irrelevant imagist baggage; in it Williams stands firm as a prophet of creative personality.

Other volumes of verse by Williams are Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Earlier Poems (1951), and Desert Music (1954). His essays include the reinterpretations of American history in In the American Grain (1925), Selected Essays (1954), and I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). His plays include A Dream of Love (1948) and Many Loves (1950). He also wrote novels: A Voyage to Pagany (1928); a triology concerning an American immigrant family, White Mule (1937); In the Money (1940); and The Build-up (1952). The William Carlos Williams Reader (1966) brings together whole poems and excerpts from his most important prose.

Further Reading

Williams's Autobiography appeared in 1951, and his Selected Letters was published in 1957. See also John Malcolm Brinnin, William Carlos Williams (1963). Specialized studies include Linda Welsheimer Wagner, The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1964) and The Prose of William Carlos Williams (1970); J. Hillis Miller, ed., William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966); and Joel Conarroe, William Carlos Williams' "Paterson": Language and Landscape (1970). There are sections on Williams in Randall jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968). □

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Williams, William Carlos

William Carlos Williams, 1883–1963, American poet and physician, b. Rutherford, N.J., educated in Geneva, Switzerland, Univ. of Pennsylvania (M.D., 1906), and Univ. of Leipzig, where he studied pediatrics. He is regarded as one of the most important and original American poets of the 20th cent. Williams began his medical practice in 1910 in Rutherford and was a physician for more than 40 years. His early poetry shows the influences of the various poetic trends of the time—from metaphorical imagism in Poems (1909) and The Tempers (1913) to free-verse expressionism in Al Que Quiere! (1917), Kora in Hell (1920), and Sour Grapes (1921). Williams observed American life closely, expressed anger at injustice, and recorded his impressions in a lucid, vital style. He developed a verse that is close to the idiom of speech, revealing a fidelity to ordinary things seen and heard. Later volumes of his poetry include Collected Poems (1934), Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Earlier Poems (1951), Journey to Love (1955), Pictures from Brueghel, and Other Poems (1963; Pulitzer Prize), and a five-volume, impressionistic, philosophical poem, Paterson (1946–58), in which he uses the experience of life in an American city to voice his feelings on the duty of the poet. His essays include those in In the American Grain (1925), Selected Essays (1954), and Embodiment of Knowledge (1974). Among his other works are a collection of short stories, Make Light of It (1950); plays, including A Dream of Love (1948) and Many Loves (1950); and the novels A Voyage to Pagany (1928), a three-volume chronicle of an immigrant family in America, White Mule (1937), In the Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952). His autobiography appeared in 1951 and his Selected Letters was published in 1957.

See biographies by R. Coles (1975) and P. Mariani (1981); studies by J. E. Breslin (1970), S. Tapscott (1984), S. Cushman (1985), A. Fisher-Wirth (1989), W. Berry (2011), and H. A. Leibowitz (2011).

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Williams, William Carlos

Williams, William Carlos (1883–1963) US poet. His deceptively simple style incorporates colloquial American. Williams' early work shows the influence of imagism. His most monumental achievement was Paterson (1946–58), a five-volume epic of American life as seen in the microcosm of a New Jersey city. His Pictures from Brueghel (1962) won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and his Collected Poems appeared in 1986–88.

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Williams, William Carlos

WILLIAMS, William Carlos

Nationality: American. Born: Rutherford, New Jersey, 17 September 1883. Education: Elementary school in Rutherford, 1889-96; Chateau de Lancy, near Geneva, Switzerland, and Lycée Condorcet, Paris, 1897-99; Horace Mann High School, New York, 1899-1902; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1902-06, M.D. 1906; intern at hospitals in New York City, 1906-08; postgraduate work in pediatrics, University of Leipzig, 1908-09. Family: Married Florence Herman in 1912; two sons. Career: Practiced medicine in Rutherford, 1910 until he retired in the mid-1950s; editor, Others, 1919; editor, with Robert McAlmon, Contact, 1920-23; editor, Contact: An American Quarterly, 1931-33; appointed consultant in poetry, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1952, but did not serve. Awards: Loines award, 1948; National Book award, 1950; Bollingen prize, 1952; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1956; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1958; American Academy gold medal, 1963; Pulitzer prize, 1963. LL.D.: State University of New York, Buffalo, 1956; Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, New Jersey, 1959; Litt.D.: Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1948; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1948; University of Pennsylvania, 1952. Member: American Academy. Died: 4 March 1963.

Publications

Collections

The Williams Reader, edited by M. L. Rosenthal. 1966.

Selected Poems, edited by Charles Tomlinson. 1976.

Collected Poems, edited by A. Walton Litz and ChristopherMacGowan. 2 vols., 1987-88.

Short Stories

A Novelette and Other Prose 1921-1931. 1932.

The Knife of the Times and Other Stories. 1932.

Life along the Passaic River. 1938.

Make Light of It: Collected Stories. 1950.

The Farmers' Daughters: The Collected Stories. 1961.

Novels

A Voyage to Pagany. 1928.

Trilogy:

White Mule. 1937.

In the Money. 1940.

The Build-Up. 1952.

Poetry

Poems. 1909.

The Tempers. 1913.

Al Que Quiere! 1917.

Kora in Hell: Improvisations. 1920.

Sour Grapes. 1921.

Spring and All. 1923.

Go Go. 1923.

The Cod Head. 1932.

Collected Poems, 1921-1931. 1934.

An Early Martyr and Other Poems. 1935.

Adam & Eve & the City. 1936.

The Complete Collected Poems 1906-1938. 1938.

The Broken Span. 1941.

The Wedge. 1944.

Paterson, Book One. 1946; Book Two, 1948; Book Three, 1949;Book Four, 1951; Book Five, 1958; Books I-V, 1963.

The Clouds. 1948.

The Pink Church. 1949.

Selected Poems. 1949.

The Collected Later Poems. 1950; revised edition, 1963.

The Collected Earlier Poems. 1951.

The Desert Music and Other Poems. 1954.

Journey to Love. 1955.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. 1962.

Penguin Modern Poets 9, with Denise Levertov and KennethRexroth. 1967.

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems. 1994. Early Poems. 1997.

Plays

Betry Putnam (produced 1910).

A Dream of Love (produced 1949). 1948.

Many Loves (produced 1958). In Many Loves and Other Plays, 1961.

Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays (includes A Dream of Love; Tituba's Children; The First President, music by Theodore Harris; The Cure). 1961.

Other

The Great American Novel. 1923.

In the American Grain. 1925.

The Autobiography. 1951.

Williams' Poetry Talked About, with Eli Siegel. 1952; revised edition, edited by Martha Baird and Ellen Reiss, as The Williams-Siegel Documentary, 1970, 1974.

Selected Essays. 1954.

John Marin, with others. 1956.

Selected Letters, edited by John C. Thirlwall. 1957.

I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet, edited by Edith Heal. 1958.

Yes, Mrs. Williams: A Personal Record of My Mother. 1959.

Imaginations: Collected Early Prose, edited by Webster Schott. 1970.

A Beginning on the Short Story (lecture). 1974.

The Embodiment of Knowledge, edited by Ron Loewinsohn. 1974.

Interviews with Williams: Speaking Straight Ahead, edited by Linda W. Wagner. 1976.

A Recognizable Image: Williams on Art and Artists, edited by Bram Dijkstra. 1978.

Something to Say: Williams on Younger Poets, edited by James E.B. Breslin. 1985.

Williams and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by HughWitemeyer. 1990.

William Carlos Williams: Two Letters to René Taupin. 1993.

The Last Word: Letters between Marcia Nardi and William Carlos Williams. 1994.

Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. 1996.

William Carlos Williams and Charles Tomlinson: A Transatlantic Connection. 1998.

Translator, Last Nights of Paris, by Philippe Soupault. 1929.

Translator, with others, Jean sans terre/Landless John, by YvanGoll. 1944.

Translator, with Raquel Hélène Williams, The Dog and the Fever, by Francisco de Quevedo. 1954.

*

Bibliography:

A Bibliography of Williams by Emily Wallace Mitchell, 1968; Williams: A Reference Guide by Linda W. Wagner, 1978.

Critical Studies:

Williams by Vivienne Koch, 1950; Williams: A Critical Study by John Malcolm Brinnin, 1963; The Poems of Williams, 1964, and The Prose of Williams, 1970, both by Linda W. Wagner; The Poetic World of Williams by Alan Ostrom, 1966; Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by J. Hillis Miller, 1966; An Approach to Paterson by Walter Scott Peterson, 1967; The Music of Survival by Sherman Paul, 1968; Williams' Paterson: Language and Landscape by Joel Connarroe, 1970; Williams: An American Artist by James E.B. Breslin, 1970; Williams: The American Background by Mike Weaver, 1971; A Companion to Williams's Paterson by Benjamin Sankey, 1971; Williams: The Later Poems by Jerome Mazzaro, 1973; The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of Williams by Joseph N. Riddel, 1974; Williams by Kenneth Burke and Emily H. Wallace, 1974; Williams: The Knack of Survival in America by Robert Coles, 1975; Williams: Poet from Jersey by Reed Whittemore, 1975; Williams: The Poet and His Critics, 1975, and Williams: A New World Naked, 1981, both by Paul L. Mariani; The Early Poetry of Williams by Rod Townley, 1976; Williams and the American Scene 1920-1940 by Dickran Tashjian, 1978; Williams's Paterson: A Critical Reappraisal by Margaret Glynne Lloyd, 1980; Williams: The Critical Heritage edited by Charles Doyle, 1980, and Williams and the American Poem by Doyle, 1982; Williams and the Painters 1909-1923 by William Marling, 1982; Williams: Man and Poet by Carroll F. Terrell, 1983; Williams: A Poet in the American Theatre by David A. Fedo, 1983; Ezra Pound and Williams edited by Daniel Hoffman, 1983; Williams and Romantic Idealism by Carl Rapp, 1984; The Visual Text of Williams by Henry M. Sayre, 1984; American Beauty: Williams and the Modernist Whitman by Stephen Tapscott, 1984; The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of Stevens and Williams by David Walker, 1984; Williams and the Meanings of Measure by Stephen Cushman, 1985; A Poetry of Presence: The Writing of Williams by Bernard Duffey, 1986; Williams and the Maternal Muse by Kerry Driscoll, 1987; Virgin and Whore: The Image of Women in the Poetry of Williams by Audrey T. Rodgers, 1987; The Early Politics and Poetics of Williams by David Frail, 1987; The Early Prose of Williams, 1917-1925 by Geoffrey H. Movius, 1987; Williams: The Art, and Literary Tradition by Peter Schmidt, 1988; Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Nature by Ann W. Fisher-Wirth, 1989; Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction by Robert F. Gish, 1989; Modernism, Medicine, and William Carlos Williams by T. Hugh Crawford, 1993; In Search of a New Form: William Carlos Williams by K. Soundravalli, 1993; William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture by Brian A. Bremen, 1993; Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams by Donald W. Markos, 1994; The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams by Julio Marzán, 1994; The Writings of William Carlos Williams: Publicity for the Self by Daniel Morris, 1995; Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams by Zhaoming Oian, 1995; Guide to the Poetry of William Carlos Williams by Kelli A. Larson, 1995; Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Helen Deese, 1995; The Lost Works of William Carlos Williams: The Volumes of Collected Poetry as Lyrical Sequences by Robert J. Cirasa, 1995; Remembering William Carlos Williams by James Laughlin, 1995; Approaching Authority: Transpersonal Gestures in the Poetry of Yeats, Eliot, and Williams by Anthony Flinn, 1997; The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory by John Lowney, 1997.

* * *

William Carlos Williams is best known as a modern American poet. His achievement as a novelist and writer of short fiction have too been recognized. He was also a doctor who specialized in pediatric medicine. As a physician his education and his vocation reflected his abilities as a scientist, his outlook of life growing out of the assumptions of the scientific method. He remained dedicated to the medical profession throughout his life.

His short stories, in particular, evidence the ways in which he reconciled the concerns of medicine, its motive toward healing, its empathy for the sick—its wonderment in the presence of the mysteries of life and death. His passion to write drove him to scribble down ideas for poems and stories between appointments with patients. A clinical notation was likely to be either preceded or followed by an artistic insight, a line of poetry, a character profile—science and art blending. In more than one instance his patients became the characters of his stories, as individuals or as composites.

His compassion for humanity and its predicaments led him into the politics of class and of economics and ethnicity. Generally his sympathies came down on the side of the lower classes, the proletariat. As a physician and an artist he was himself a member of the privileged, upper-middle class. He was for a time drawn quite strongly to Europe and the ostensibly higher levels of culture and especially the Anglo-European impulses and traditions. But his devotion to things American, American cities, American art, American people, the egalitarian and democratic premises of government, the melting-pot of diverse immigrants combined to provide his subject in his stories, his poems, and in his masterpiece of revisionist history, In the American Grain.

Williams's short stories bespeak all of these scientific, aesthetic, sociological, and political concerns and his democratic, albeit bohemian, leftist leanings. His style and his facility with metaphor combine with the austerity and objectivity of scientific description to form a special kind of imagistic, objectivist, and minimalist prose.

His subjects, broadly, take on the categories of "doctor" stories and stories of the urban poor and the disadvantaged. His allegiance to American speech, to what he touted as the "American Idiom," celebrates the cadences and the vitality of the speech, of utterances such as are found emanating "out of the mouths of Polish mothers." His popularity in the 1960s as an anti-Puritan free thinker, free lover, and spontaneous writer is somewhat diminished today, among feminist readers in particular, in that his tone and personae seem paternalistic and condescending. His precise attitude toward women—as a man and as an author—remains fascinating in an era of gender analysis and "political correctness." He loved women, to be sure; just how well he loved them as narrator, physician, and person remains rather problematic. Many of his stories, however, are used in courses in medical ethics in the training of physicians.

Williams's collected stories include The Knife of the Times and Other Stories, Life along the Passaic River, Make Light of It, and The Farmers' Daughters. Several of his stories, such as "The Use of Force," "Jean Beicke," and "The Girl with a Pimply Face," are frequently anthologized. All of his published stories, some 50, are rewarding at both casual and more critical levels. "The Knife of the Times," "The Colored Girls of Passenack—Old and New," and "Old Doc Rivers" are especially worthy.

"Knife" deals with a long-repressed expression of lesbian love by Ethel for her friend Maura. Maura reciprocates, and the "knife" of repression and social conformity cuts through to new awareness and sensuality. "Colored Girls" represents Williams's one autobiographical recording of his enduring attraction to black women, and he writes about the five or so who gave physical form to his youthful and adult yearnings. "Doc Rivers" offers a case study of the sins and abuses (sex, drugs, violence) of a prominent physician—from the heights of acclaim to the skids of defamation. "Jean Beicke" is an account of the love and care extended by a physician and nurses to a deformed infant. Jean dies; the vivid description of the autopsy performed on her underscores the deep pathos of the neglect and abandonment that was her inheritance—of the poor like her. Particularly in this story, Williams's softer, more directly stated elegiac regard for humanity comes through. In "Pimply Face" a physician, called to attend the baby of an impoverished family, is taken with the adolescent sister, her blemished face, her life. His prescription goes beyond acne to advice about returning to school.

Williams believed that the short story allowed him a medium for "nailing down a single conviction." His stories, individually and collectively, reveal just how deeply he commiserated with and celebrated humankind. He knew his patients and his characters virtually inside and out—anatomically and psychologically—and he declared them "rare presences" all.

—Robert Franklin Gish

See the essay on "The Use of Force."

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Williams, William Carlos

WILLIAMS, William Carlos

(b. 17 September 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey; d. 4 March 1963 in Rutherford, New Jersey), author and physician whose lifelong commitment to poetic innovation and the creation of a uniquely American form had a major influence on the direction of poetry in the 1960s, at which time he began to be acknowledged as one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century.

Williams, whose poetry candidly represented the multiculturalism of America, came from a richly diverse background. His father, William George Williams, was a New York businessman, born in Britain, who grew up in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands. His mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, was from Puerto Rico and of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry. Williams and his younger brother, Edgar, were raised speaking Spanish and French as well as English. He attended school in Rutherford until 1897, when he was sent to Switzerland and Paris to study until 1899. He graduated from Horace Mann High School in New York City in 1902. Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School from 1902 to 1906. There he received his M.D. and also developed crucial friendships with poets Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and painter Charles Demuth. Williams studied medicine, but his heart was equally devoted to literature. He published his first collection, Poems, in 1909.

After completing internships at hospitals in New York and an advanced study of pediatrics in Leipzig, Germany, Williams returned to Rutherford in 1910 and opened the practice where he treated local, working-class patients for the rest of his career. On 12 December 1912 he married Florence "Flossie" Herman; they had two sons. The Williams family settled into the house at 9 Ridge Road (now an official state monument) where they remained, and where Williams practiced medicine, for the rest of their lives. Williams developed his own unique brand of American modernism, writing poetry, fiction, essays, plays, and sketches whose true importance would only achieve recognition near the end of his life.

By the 1960s Williams had reached the end of his career. A series of debilitating strokes and other medical problems from the preceding decade left him with the use of only one hand, unable to read, and limited speech and mobility. He retired from medical practice in March 1951, after his first stroke, but continued to write until his death. While Williams's health in the 1960s was in rapid decline, he nonetheless became a vital influence on the writers and writing of the decade.

Williams's particular contribution to contemporary poetry was the creation of a form that reflected the actual speech and experience of the people around him. His lifelong goal was to create, as Walt Whitman had done, a democratic poetry "in the American grain" (the title of Williams's collection of historical essays on great American figures). While Whitman developed a language of prophetic expansiveness, with a long verse line to match, Williams's poems were simple, spare, and restrained, frequently composed of very short, two-or three-line haiku-like stanzas. His most famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," is a classic example:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Williams's poetry abstains both from the drama of Whitman and from the intellectualizing of contemporary high modernists such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and instead abides by a principle of "objectivism" in which local things are treated with close attention and quiet respect. This poetic dictum is set forth with typical lucidity in Paterson, Williams's important, five-book poem of the American experience: "no ideas but in things."

While Williams was committed to forging a native tradition, he was far from provincial. Part of his attraction for writers of the 1960s was not only the homegrown values he promoted but also his ability to move between the worlds of the local and the international, the populist and the avant-garde. While he lived a humble rural life and focused his poetry on the local scene, he also remained constantly in touch with the latest developments in art in New York City and Europe. Like colleagues such as Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein, Williams was committed to the contemporary visual arts, and his writing was influenced by movements such as cubism and by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Henri Matisse. Williams's interest in the visual arts as an important complement to poetry was renewed in the 1960s by poets such as John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Barbara Guest of the so-called New York School of poets.

Williams was virtually ignored for most of his life in favor of supposedly more sophisticated writers such as T. S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land Williams called "the great catastrophe … which gave the poem back to the academics." By the 1960s, however, many young writers who also reacted strongly against the politics and impersonality of Pound and Eliot began looking to Williams as a poetic, intellectual, and moral role model. One poet who turned to Williams for advice and encouragement was another New Jersey native named Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg and Williams corresponded for years, and Williams eventually wrote a laudatory introduction for Ginsberg's groundbreaking book Howl (1956)—which became something of a 1960s poetic manifesto. This led to more contact with Beat writers and a famous visit by Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky to Williams's home. "Doc" Williams's influence and "paternity" extended far beyond the Beat writers, however, and throughout the last decades of his career he kept up correspondences, offering friendship and advice to other such important American writers as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Lowell, as well as Canadian poets such as Irving Layton and British poets such as Charles Tomlinson.

Williams continued to write throughout his last years, though his work slowed dramatically. His last poetry collection, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry posthumously in 1963. During his final years he edited and organized earlier unpublished work, including Yes, Mrs. Williams: A Personal Record of My Mother (1959); his collected short stories, The Farmers' Daughters (1961); and his collected plays, Many Loves and Other Plays (1961). Though his mobility was limited, he was able to attend productions of two of his plays in New York City, Many Loves (1959) and A Dream of Love (1961). He also kept up correspondence with, and received occasional visits from, many of his artistic contemporaries and younger protégés. Williams died peacefully at home in Rutherford and was buried at the local Hillside Cemetery.

Williams's importance to the poetry of the 1960s cannot be underestimated. His work helped provoke a major reassessment of what counted as appropriate poetic form, diction, and content. While Pound and Eliot succeeded in internationalizing American literature, many writers felt they did so at the expense of the American experience. Williams, on the other hand, created an American form of international standard. The outward simplicity of his work meant that it went unnoticed for many years. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s, when the values it tacitly promoted—casual openness, frankness, an honest appreciation for the here and now through close attention to its details—became the key values of the era, that his full achievement began to be appreciated.

The majority of Williams's manuscripts and letters are held by three libraries: the Beinecke Library, Yale University; the Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York at Buffalo; and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Library, University of Texas at Austin. Williams's Autobiography (1951) deals with both his careers as doctor and poet and with the crucial relationship between the two. Reed Whittemore wrote the first biography, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey (1975). This was followed by Paul L. Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981), a meticulously detailed eight-hundred-page biography. There are many important full-length critical studies of Williams's work, including James Breslin, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist (1970); Joseph N. Riddel, The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams (1974); Stephen Tapscott, American Beauty: William Carlos Williams and the Modernist Whitman (1984); and Peter Schmidt, William Carlos Williams, The Arts, and Literary Tradition (1988). Of particular interest for Williams's influence on postmodern poetry is John Lowney, The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory (1997). Bibliographical information can be found in Emily Mitchell Wallace, A Bibliography of William Carlos Williams (1968), and Linda W. Wagner, William Carlos Williams: A Reference Guide (1978).

Mark Silverberg

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