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Book Review: William Carlos Williams

Last spring, New Directions released a facsimile edition of Williams’ avant-garde work Spring and All some 90 years after its first publication.

As we feast on a daily barrage of tweets, text messages and Facebook posts, it is rare that we encounter anything that even remotely resembles poetry.

Yet there are times when a string of text unfurls in the chat box that stands on its own as something akin to a poem and reminds us of a writer whose poems are emblazoned forever upon our consciousness.

William Carlos Williams dramatically altered the American literary canon with poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say”—and he did it at times in 140 characters or less.   

A medical doctor from New Jersey who made house calls, Williams eschewed the allusions and classical references of his contemporaries T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and focused on “local” scenes and an accessible, conversational style.   

Last spring, New Directions released a facsimile edition of Williams’ avant-garde work Spring and All some 90 years after its first publication.

Brought out in the fall of 1923 in France, most of the first 300 copies of the book—which contains “27 poems interspersed by a series of Dada-influenced mini-essays”—were confiscated by customs, according to a 2007 article in the Journal of Modern Literature.

The slender volume had disappeared until a decade after William’s death in 1963.

Providing a rare glimpse into the poet’s engine room, the hybrid work alters seamlessly between blocks of prose and swiftly moving currents of free verse such as “Wheelbarrow,” “To a Contagious Hospital,” The Rose” and “At the Ball Game.”

It’s a notebook that lays bare the gears and the levers of imagination at work. When you see these poems all spruced up in his collected volumes, the wild noise of the blast furnace is gone, making this book essential to experience the poems as they happen.

Spring and All can be read as a response to Eliot’s The Waste Land published the year before.

In an attempt to bring poetry back to earth, Williams strips his carefully wrought lines of ornamentation. It’s also not a stretch to assume that the Section V fragment which includes “sold to them men knock blindly together” was transformed by Eliot in 1925 into “we are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men” for his own work.

Williams makes the case that poetry does not mirror reality, it is reality and a distinctly American one.

In an effort to stake out his territory, he does not genuflect to the masters of Britain. A modernist and imagist poet, he is not “creating the uncreated conscious of his race” as Joyce’s character Steven Daedulus attempted, or sitting on the banks of the Thames next to Eliot with a fishing rod in meditation trying to snare the Holy Grail.

Williams’ poems are not “tedious arguments” but simple, pulsing jazz-like streams of language. His sharp-edged lines feed on the moment—on the “plums that were in the ice box” or “the sunlight in a yellow plaque upon the varnished floor.”

The work itself is a jarring little oddity that stands in stark contrast to the orchestration of “The Waste Land” and the “Cantos” of Pound. Its sections are out of sequence and the prose sections accrue in blocks that suddenly ignite into stanzas varying in quality while raging with ambition.

On page 43, Williams writes, “so most of my life has been lived in hell – a hell of repression lit by flashes of inspiration, when a poem such as this or that would appear.” 

And one of the most important poems of the last 100 years comes out of nowhere under the section heading XXII:

                                                 so much depends

                                                 upon

 

                                                a red wheel

                                                barrow

 

                                                glazed with rain

                                                water

 

                                                beside the white

                                                chickens

 

The energy of the poem flows downward, but the single word lines in the couplets suspend motion long enough to create the slightest sense of ascension.  It is the defining moment of his manifesto, the push-and-pull between the imagination and reality, poetry and prose, and the writer suspended in act of liberation with a creative force.

Williams writes, “the imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam, it is not a plaything but a power … it’s unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence.”

As a poet, Williams was moving forward at a brisk pace, obsessed with the now.

The poems of Spring and All dance, flicker and glide like “whirling flywheels” down the page. They rarely gaze at navels, approach zoology, or dwell on mommy. In the end, his work comes to down to the freshness and simplicity of his observations about real things.

His work paved the way for what came next in the form of the Beat Generation, and in many ways, what is still to come in the chat boxes and wall posts of our imagination.

“Poets are damned but they are not blind,” writes Williams in his introduction to the Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl.”  “They see with the eyes of angels."

 

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Dean Bartoli Smith is a poet and journalist who lives in Baltmore. His book of poems, American Boy, won the Towson University Prize for literature in 2001. He is the father of Mary Julia and Quinn Smith.

Jerry Kerr September 29, 2011 at 07:24 PM
This is a wonderfully succinct review of an under-appreciated work by an outstanding American author. William Carlos Williams was both a doctor who practiced family medicine and a disciplined writer who brought compassion and vision to his two great life's works. This review compels the reader to take a closer look at the work of this uniquely American writer.
p. ray davis September 30, 2011 at 11:55 AM
Enjoyed the review. Thanks.
Paul Nelson October 19, 2011 at 04:32 AM
I don't think I have seen a more brilliant summary of Spring and All and why it is important. Smith gets it in a deep way and, more importantly, is able to get across to the casual reader (the non-poet?) why the book is essential. Williams is the logical heir to Whitman and, as pointed out, essentially American. His IS a poetry of the moment, creating a foundation for poets like Charles Olson, and yes, the Beats. How critical this is escapes most reviewers. Bravo.

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