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William Carlos Williams

1883-1963

Nationality: American New Entry : 03/01/1999

Place of Birth: Rutherford, New Jersey, United States

Genre(s): Poetry; Novels; Short Stories; Plays; Autobiography/Memoir; Philosophy; Letters; Essays; Songs/Lyrics and libretti

Award(s):

Dial Award, 1926, for distinguished service to American literature; Guarantors Prize from Poetry, 1931; LL.D. from University of Buffalo, 1946, and Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1959; Russell Loines Memorial Award for poetry from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1948; Litt.D. from Rutgers University, 1948, Bard College, 1948, and University of Pennsylvania, 1952; appointed to chair of poetry at Library of Congress, 1949 (appointment withdrawn, but subsequently renewed); National Book Award for poetry, 1950, for Selected Poems and Paterson, Book III; Bollingen Prize in poetry from Yale University Library, 1952; Levinson Prize, 1954, and Oscar Blumenthal Prize, 1955, both for poems published in Poetry; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1956; Brandeis University creative arts medal in poetry-fiction-nonfiction, 1957-58, in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished achievement; Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures From Brueghel and American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for poetry from National Institute of Arts and Letters, both 1963.

Table of Contents:

Personal Information

Career

Writings

Sidelights

Further Readings About the Author

Personal Information: Family: Born September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey, United States; died March 4, 1963, in Rutherford, New Jersey, United States; son of William George (in business) and Raquel Helene (Hoheb) Williams; married Florence Herman, December 12, 1912; children: William, Eric, Paul Herman. Education: University of Pennsylvania, M.D., 1906; postgraduate study at University of Leipzig, 1909- 10. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Institute of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets, Bergen County (New Jersey) Medical Association.

Career: Poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and physician. French Hospital and Nursery and Child’s Hospital, New York, New York, intern, 1906- 09; private medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey, 1910-51. University of Washington, Seattle, visiting professor of English, 1948.

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

POEMS

 (Under name William C. Williams) Poems, privately printed, 1909.

 The Tempers, Elkin Matthews, 1913.

 Al Que Quiere!, Four Seas, 1917.

 Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Four Seas, 1920, reprinted, Kraus Reprint, 1973 (also see below).

 Sour Grapes, Four Seas, 1921.

 Go Go, Monroe Wheeler, 1923.

 Spring and All, Contact Publishing, 1923, reprinted, Frontier Press, 1970 (also see below).

 The Cod Head, Harvest Press, 1932.

 Collected Poems, 1921-1931, preface by Wallace Stevens, Objectivist Press, 1934.

 An Early Martyr and Other Poems, Alcestis Press, 1935.

 Adam & Eve & The City, Alcestis Press, 1936.

 The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906- 1938, New Directions, 1938.

 The Broken Span, New Directions, 1941.

 The Wedge, Cummington Press (Cummington, Massachusetts), 1944.

 Paterson, New Directions, Book I, 1946, Book II, 1948, Book III, 1949, Book IV, 1951, Book V, 1958, Books I-V published in one volume, 1963.

 The Clouds, Wells College Press and Cummington Press, 1948.

 Selected Poems, introduction by Randall Jarrell, New Directions, 1949, revised edition, 1968.

 The Pink Church, Golden Goose Press, 1949.

 The Collected Later Poems, New Directions, 1950, revised edition, 1963.

 Collected Earlier Poems, New Directions, 1951, revised edition, 1966.

 The Desert Music and Other Poems, Random House, 1954 (also see below).

 Journey to Love (includes Asphodel, That Greeny Flower), Random House, 1955 (also see below).

 The Lost Poems of William Carlos Williams; or, The Past Recaptured, collected by John C. Thirlwall, published in New Directions 16, New Directions, 1957.

 Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems (includes The Desert Music and Journey to Love), New Directions, 1962.

 Selected Poems, introduction by Charles Tomlinson, Penguin, 1976.

 Collected Poems: Volume 1, 1909-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan, Carcanet, 1988, Volume 2, 1939-1962, edited by MacGowan, 1989.

 Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems, new Directions, 1994.

 Early Poems, Dover Publications, 1997.

OTHER

 The Great American Novel, Three Mountains Press, 1923, reprinted, Folcroft, 1973 (also see below).

 In the American Grain (essays), A. & C. Boni, 1925, reprinted with introduction by Horace Gregory, New Directions, 1967.

 A Voyage to Pagany (novel), Macaulay, 1928, reprinted, New Directions, 1970.

 (Translator) Philippe Soupault, Last Nights of Paris, Macaulay, 1929, reprinted, Full Court Press, 1982.

 The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories (short stories), Dragon Press, 1932, reprinted, Folcroft, 1974.

 A Novelette and Other Prose, TO Publishers, 1932 (also see below).

 The First President (three-act libretto for an opera), published in American Caravan, 1936.

 White Mule (novel; part I of trilogy), New Directions, 1937, reprinted, 1967.

 Life along the Passaic River (short stories), New Directions, 1938.

 In the Money (novel; part II of White Mule trilogy), New Directions, 1940, reprinted, 1967.

 A Dream of Love (three-act play), New Directions, 1948.

 A Beginning on the Short Story: Notes, Alicat Bookshop Press, 1950, reprinted, Norwood, 1978.

 Make Light of It: Collected Stories, Random House, 1950.

 Autobiography, Random House, 1951, published as The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, 1967.

 The Build-Up (novel; part III of White Mule trilogy), Random House, 1952.

 (Translator with mother, Raquel Helene Williams) Pedro Espinosa, A Dog and the Fever (novella), Shoe String Press, 1954.

 Selected Essays, Random House, 1954.

 The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, edited by John C. Thirlwall, McDowell, Obolensky, 1957.

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

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

 Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, 1961.

 The Farmers’ Daughters: Collected Stories, introduction by Van Wyck Brooks, New Directions, 1961.

 The William Carlos Williams Reader, edited and introduced by M. L. Rosenthal, New Directions, 1966.

 Imaginations (contains Kora in Hell, Spring and All, The Great American Novel, The Descent of Winter, and A Novelette and Other Prose), edited by Webster Schott, New Directions, 1970.

 The Embodiment of Knowledge (philosophy), edited by Ron Loewinsohn, New Directions, 1974.

 Interviews With William Carlos Williams: “Speaking Straight Ahead,” edited and introduced by Linda Welshimer Wagner, New Directions, 1976.

 A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists, edited by Bram Dijkstra, New Directions, 1978.

 William Carlos Williams: The Doctor Stories, compiled with an introduction by Robert Coles, New Directions, 1984.

 The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, 1996.

 Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer, New Directions, 1996.

 The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher MacGowan, New Directions, 1998.

 William Carlos Williams and Charles Tomlinson: A Transatlantic Connection, edited by Barry Magid and Hugh Witemeyer, P. Lang (New York City), 1998.

Contributor to numerous literary magazines and journals, including Poetry, The Dial, Origin, Blast, Pagany, Little Review, New Masses, Partisan Review, and Glebe. Contributing editor of literary magazines and journals, including Contact I, 1920-23, and Contact II, 1932.

“Sidelights”

William Carlos Williams has always been known as an experimenter, an innovator, a revolutionary figure in American poetry. Yet in comparison to artists of his own time who sought a new environment for creativity as expatriates in Europe, Williams lived a remarkably conventional life. A doctor for more than forty years serving the New Jersey town of Rutherford, he relied on his patients, the America around him, and his own ebullient imagination to create a distinctively American verse. Often domestic in focus and “remarkable for its empathy, sympathy, its muscular and emotional identification with its subjects,” Williams’s poetry is also characteristically honest: “There is no optimistic blindness in Williams,” wrote Randall Jarrell, “though there is a fresh gaiety, a stubborn or invincible joyousness.”

Born the first of two sons of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry, Williams grew up in Rutherford, where his family provided him with a fertile background in art and literature. His father’s mother, coincidentally named Emily Dickinson, was a lover of theatre, and his own mother painted. Williams’s father introduced his favorite author, Shakespeare, to his sons and read Dante and the Bible to them as well; but Williams had other interests in study. His enthusiastic pursuit of math and science at New York City’s Horace Mann High School “showed how little writing entered into any of my calculations.” Later in high school, though, Williams took an interest in languages and felt for the first time the excitement of great books. He recalled his first poem, also written during that time, giving him a feeling of joy.

Aside from an emerging writing consciousness, Williams’s early life was “sweet and sour,” reported Reed Whittemore; Williams himself wrote that “terror dominated my youth, not fear.” Part of this terror, speculated James Breslin, came “from the rigid idealism and moral perfectionism his parents tried to instill in him.” Williams’s letters written while a student at the University of Pennsylvania to his mother exemplify some of the expectations he carried: “I never did and never will do a premeditated bad deed in my life,” he wrote in 1904. “Also… I have never had and never will have anything but the purest and highest and best thoughts about you and papa.” It was largely parental influence that sent him directly from high school to Pennsylvania in the first place–to study medicine. But as Breslin noted, Williams used his college experiences as a means to creativity, instead of, as his parents might have wished, as a means to success.

The conflict Williams felt between his parents’ hopes for their son’s success in medicine and his own less conventional impulses is mirrored in his poetic heroes of the time–John Keats and Walt Whitman. Keats’s traditionally rhymed and metered verse impressed the young poet tremendously. “Keats was my God,” Williams later revealed; and his first major poetic work was a model of Keats’s “Endymion.” In contrast, Whitman’s free verse offered “an impulse toward freedom and release of the self,” said Donald Barlow Stauffer. Williams explained how he came to associate Whitman with this impulse toward freedom when he said, “I reserved my `Whitmanesque’ thoughts, a sort of purgation and confessional, to clear my head and heart from turgid obsessions.” Yet, by his first year at Pennsylvania Williams had found a considerably more vivid mentor than Whitman in a friend, Ezra Pound.

Williams’s friendship with Pound marked a watershed in the young poet’s life: he later insisted, “before meeting Pound is like B.C. and A.D.” “Under Pound’s influence and other stimuli,” reported John Malcolm Brinnin, “Williams was soon ready to close the door on the `studied elegance of Keats on one hand and the raw vigor of Whitman on the other.’” Aside from the poetic influences, Pound introduced Williams to a group of friends, including poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and painter Charles Demuth, “who shared the kinds of feelings that in Rutherford had made him frightened and isolated,” Breslin declared. H.D., for example, with her arty dress and her peculiarities–sometimes she’d splash ink onto her clothes “to give her a feeling of freedom and indifference towards the mere means of writing”– fascinated Williams with a “provocative indifference to rule and order which I liked.”

In a similar way, it was a reaction against the rigid and ordered poetry of the time that led Williams to join Pound, H.D., and others as the core of what became known as the Imagist movement. While correlative revolutionary movements had begun in painting (Cezanne), music (Stravinsky), and fiction (Stein), poetry was still bogged down by “the inversions and redundancies imposed by the effort `to fill out a standard form,’” explained David Perkins. The Imagists broke from this formulaic poetry by stressing a verse of “swift, uncluttered, functional phrasing.” Williams’s first book, Poems (1909), a “conventional” work, “correct in sentiment and diction,” preceded the Imagist influence. But in The Tempers (1913), as Bernard Duffey realized, Williams’s “style was directed by an Imagist feeling, though it still depended on romantic and poeticized allusiveness.” And while Pound drifted towards increased allusiveness in his work, Williams stuck with Pound’s tenet to “make it new.” By 1917 and the publication of his third book, Al Que Quiere!, “Williams began to apply the Imagist principle of `direct treatment of the thing’ fairly rigorously,” declared James Guimond. Also at this time, as Perkins demonstrated, Williams was “beginning to stress that poetry must find its `primary impetus’… in `local conditions.’” “I was determined to use the material I knew,” Williams later reflected; and as a doctor, Williams knew intimately the people of Rutherford.

Beginning with his internship in the decrepit “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City and throughout his forty years of private practice in Rutherford, Williams heard the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. As a doctor, his “medical badge,” as he called it, permitted him “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.” From these moments, poetry developed: “it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.” Some of his poems were born on prescription blanks, others typed in a few spare minutes between patient visits. Williams’s work, however, did more than fuel his poetry: it allowed him “to write what he chose, free from any kind of financial or political pressure. From the beginning,” disclosed Linda Wagner, “he understood the tradeoffs: he would have less time to write; he would need more physical stamina than people with only one occupation…. [He] was willing to live the kind of rushed existence that would be necessary, crowding two full lifetimes into one,… learning from the first and then understanding through the second.” There is little doubt that he succeeded in both: Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair called him “the most important literary doctor since Chekov.”

Williams’s deep sense of humanity pervaded both his work in medicine and his writings. “He loved being a doctor, making house calls, and talking to people,” his wife, Flossie, fondly recollected. Perhaps a less subjective appraisal came from Webster Schott, who defined Williams as “an immensely complicated man: energetic, compassionate, socially conscious, depressive, urbane, provincial, tough, fastidious, capricious, independent, dedicated, completely responsive…. He was the complete human being, and all of the qualities of his personality were fused in his writings.” And, as Randall Jarrell pointed out, it is precisely in his written work where Williams demonstrates that “he feels, not just says, that the differences between men are less important than their similarities–that he and you and I, together, are the Little Men.”

Corresponding with Williams’s attraction to the locale was his lifelong quest to have poetry mirror the speech of the American people. Williams had no interest, he said, in the “speech of the English country people, which would have something artificial about it”; instead he sought a “language modified by our environment, the American environment.” Marc Hofstadter explained: “Thinking of himself as a local poet who possessed neither the high culture nor the old-world manners of an Eliot or Pound, he sought to express his democracy through his way of speaking…. His point was to speak on an equal level with the reader, and to use the language and thought materials of America in expressing his point of view.”

While Williams continued with his innovations in the American idiom and his experiments in form, he fell out of favor with some of his own contemporaries. Kora in Hell: Improvisations, for example, suffered some stinging attacks. For a year Williams had made a habit of recording something–anything–in his notebooks every night, and followed these jottings with a comment. One of “Williams’s own favorite books…, the prose poetry of Kora is an extraordinary combination of aphorism, romanticism, philosophizing, obscurity, obsession, exhortation, reverie, beautiful lines and scary paragraphs,” wrote Webster Schott. Yet, as Hugh Fox reported, few peers shared Williams’s enthusiasm for the book. Pound called it “incoherent” and “un-American”; H.D. objected to its “flippancies,” its “self-mockery,” its “un-seriousness”; and Wallace Stevens complained about Williams’s “tantrums.” Fox defended the avant-garde Williams against his critics by saying, “Anything hitherto undone is tantrums, flippancy, opacity… they don’t see (as Williams does) that they are confronting a new language and they have to learn how to decipher it before they can savor it.”

Surrounded by criticism, Williams became increasingly defensive during this time. His prologue to Kora came from his need “to give some indication of myself to the people I knew; sound off, tell the world– especially my intimate friends–how I felt about them.” With or without allies, Williams was determined to continue the advances he felt he had made in American poetry.

What Williams did not foresee, however, was the “atom bomb” on modern poetry–T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams had no quarrel with Eliot’s genius–he said Eliot was writing poems as good as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”–but, simply, “we were breaking the rules, whereas he was conforming to the excellencies of classroom English.” As he explained in his Autobiography, “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself–rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.” Not only did Williams feel threatened by Eliot’s success, but also by the attention The Waste Land received. As Karl Shapiro pointed out, “he was left high and dry: Pound, who was virtually the co- author of Eliot’s poems, and Marianne Moore were now polarized to Eliot. Williams felt this and would feel it for another twenty years. His own poetry would have to progress against the growing orthodoxy of Eliot criticism.” But while the Eliot wave undoubtedly sank his spirits, at the same time it buoyed his determination: “It was a shock to me that he was so tremendously successful,” Williams admitted. “My contemporaries flocked to him–away from what I wanted. It forced me to be successful.”



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