“SOMETHING URGENT I HAVE TO SAY TO YOU”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
By Herbert Leibowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, $40.
By Paul Christensen | It’s not often that a chapter of cultural history can be said to have begun with a handshake, but in one extraordinary instance, in 1902, it did when Ezra Pound C1905 G1906, then 16 and a first-year undergraduate at Penn, called upon William Carlos Williams M1906 Hon’52, two years older and a med student also at Penn, to talk about poetry [“Moderns in the Quad,” April 1998]. Their friendship soon grew to include two other principals of early American Modernism, Hilda Doolittle and Marianne Moore, both students at nearby Bryn Mawr College. Modernism’s other American roots were at Harvard, where Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings were students, but not at the same time.
All four Pennsylvania poets shared a belief that poetry should have more to do with the visual world than with the murky psychological interiors of late Victorian and Edwardian verse. It would take them a while to figure out how to write the new imagistic poem, but Pound quickly staked out his subject matter as Europe, later Japan and China, while Williams made Rutherford, New Jersey, where he had grown up and would live the rest of his life, his frame of reference. H.D. took off for London to write about Greek mythology and Moore stayed home to capture the real toads in “imaginary gardens.” So began the tumultuous, erratic evolution of Modern poetry, with its sweep of medieval troubadour poetry, Greek and Asian literature, and the precise evocations of spring coming up out of the hard brown earth of the New Jersey hinterlands.
The biographer of Williams must confront the fact that Williams helped to shape the American poem more than any other poet in the 20th century, including Eliot, and to figure out exactly how he did it. Williams is a key to 20th-century American speech, and the subjectivity that lies behind it. His “invisibility” as the man in a car passing a housewife, the silent onlooker, the listener on the park bench, enabled him to move among ordinary lives and to confront them directly as a family doctor. The language, both in his prose and in poetry, is meaty, spare, at times chaotic or wandering, but always somewhere on the money, tracking the nuances of local speech and reaction as no other poet has done. His writing belongs in some larger sense with the paintings of Edward Hopper, the photography of Stieglitz and Weegee, the strains of folk and popular music weaving through Gershwin, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copeland.
Herb Leibowitz’s new biography makes every effort to stalk down the elusive genius of this poet and to decode the mysteries of his technique. But even in his opening chapter, an overview of Williams’ life, something is missing—there is no focus on the quality of writing, but rather a desire to unlock the poetry through its half-hidden references to his private life, his occasional infidelities, his insecurity, his torments as an unacknowledged poet, the long foreground of books that were neglected or panned. All of these factors may help to define the personality of the poet, but they do not explain how he came to capture the elusive voice of the American on paper, and became the central voice of American poetry thereafter.
Hardly a lit mag in the country is without traces or full-blown imitations of Williams’ sinuous, delicate movement down the page, but few poets have fully mastered what he did. There’s the crux. What precisely did he capture that he could reproduce almost at will from Spring and All (1931) to his final poems in Pictures from Brueghel (1962)?
Leibowitz has little to say on this subject, instead refighting old battles over the “New Criticism’s” concentration on the mechanical elements of poetic form to the exclusion of biography, current politics, or social context. This biography puts psychology squarely at the center of its method. But the result often sounds more like old-fashioned moralizing over Williams’ occasional infidelities, both real and imagined, than clues to the poems. And the poems Leibowitz vets for signs of guilt or remorse are more often than not lesser works.
Leibowtiz can be a gifted interpreter; his readings of major poems are first-rate, and his long look at Williams’ prose, especially In the American Grain and the trilogy of novels about his wife Floss’s family, the Stechers, uncovers preoccupations that have eluded other critics and biographers. Williams’ scrutiny of puritanism and its strains in modern life does in fact have much to do with the weight of his own family’s moral pressures on Williams’ childhood; he does reach into American history for clues to his own identity and frustrating inhibition.
But in reading the Williams’ opus from this perspective, Leibowitz may be getting readings that are more Romantic than Modernist. The revolution set in motion by Pound and Williams rejected psychology in favor of visual perception, with the expectation that order was to be found in the patterns and encrypted meanings of nature’s own processes. Hence the attention to a red wheelbarrow, not because it suggests something of the poet’s own nature but because it unifies the colors and textures around it—white chickens, the silvery glaze of rain water, red paint, a combination of colors that can be found in almost any national flag or detergent box and which was fundamental to the sense of order that Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky described in his influential book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), which laid out the very sort of phenomenological principles that American Modernists were reaching for in poetry.
Leibowitz has written a Romantic biography of a Modernist poet, and the result is a frustrating mismatch of critical principles and opposing esthetic purposes. The psychology applied falls far short of explaining the genius of Williams, who mastered one of the most elusive phenomena of the 20th century: American speech and how it records the world around it.
Paul Christensen Gr’75 is the author, most recently, of Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence, and The Human Condition, a book of poems.