The life of William Carlos Williams would have provided enough material for a full biography even if the man had never put pen to paper. A trusted physician known simply as Doc to generations of patients in Rutherford, N.J., he shared correspondence and friendship with everyone from Ford Madox Ford, Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg to Man Ray, Denise Levertov and Marcel Duchamp. A publicly devoted family man, he married the sister of his first love and spent the rest of his life betraying her by his philandering. A patriotic American (son of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother) who promoted a home-grown literary and cultural voice, he found himself accused of traitorous political associations just as his status as an American icon reached its peak. A chronicler and observer of the quotidian and the concrete, he counted as one of his closest confidants the very epitome of their opposite in Ezra Pound.
Of course, it is as a poet that we remember Williams, not just for his “The Red Wheelbarrow” (endlessly anthologized) or “This Is Just to Say” (endlessly quoted by hipsters every time they see a few plums), but for his masterworks, like the sprawling five-book Paterson, the later “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” or even his early Imagist collection Kora in Hell. Most significantly, Williams is recognized as the leading American Modernist poet, an innovator who rejected the poetic conventions of the time in favor of a distinctly American kind of verse. “No ideas but in things” has been lifted from his work as a kind of slogan for his poetry, and Williams also resisted the urge (so common among his peers) to seed his work with literary allusions or to force the rhythms of American diction into traditional poetic forms.
In Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, Herbert Leibowitz makes liberal use of the poet’s own prolific verse to illustrate and expand on the biographical details of Williams’s life and times. That life “was interwoven with his literary aspirations and achievements,” Leibowitz notes. “We cannot understand one without reference to the other.”
Leibowitz, the founder and editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review and the author of Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography, is not the first to undertake a biography of Williams (although Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked is now three decades old); but his focus on the degree to which Williams’s poetry can reveal detail and nuance about his life makes this biography an important contribution to our understanding of the man the critic Randall Jarrell called the “America of Poets.”
At its best, this close scouring of Williams’s poetry reveals startling insights into realms of his life that would be hard to glean from simple biographical detail. Leibowitz introduces new perspectives in this way on everything from Williams’s frequent infidelity (both physical and intellectual) toward his long-suffering wife, Floss, who read on the page about affairs and misdeeds whose details she had never been told, to his withering takes on his own poetry, which he once attacked as “waves like words all broken—/ a sameness of lifting or falling mood,” to the ways in which his creative and mental processes prefigured his 1953 committal to a mental hospital.
At its worst, the technique risks too much engagement with a kind of unfettered psychobiography and the language of pop psychoanalysis. Leibowitz informs us on occasion that Williams’s verse demonstrates that he “never got over” some of his conflicts with his father, that his partnership with Floss was a “blatant example of marrying on the rebound” or that he was engaged in an “‘oceanic’ struggle for dominance of himself between two kinds of desire.” It is the kind of language Williams himself would have loathed (he also distrusted psychoanalysis), specifically because of its flight from the concrete into vague generalization and cliché.
Perhaps only psychology, however, could attempt to make sense of Ezra Pound, whose presence in Williams’s life was both entertaining and maddening; dare we call him the consummate “frenemy”? Leibowitz aptly depicts Pound as a sort of perfect villain—a boorish, needy, self-aggrandizing lout who by turns praised Williams for his poetic genius and ridiculed him as a hopeless country bumpkin. One cannot escape the sense that without Pound’s looming presence in his life over the decades, Williams would have been twice as happy a man and half as successful a poet. Ironically, Williams’s own struggles with depression and mental illness in the later years of his life were paralleled by Pound’s own public descent into supposed madness, in a desperate attempt to escape the hangman’s noose.
Another complex and puzzling character in Williams’s life was Allen Ginsberg, that native of Paterson who saw Williams as a mentor and credited him with much of his first poetic success. Their correspondence and friendship made me curious about an unexplored area of Williams’s career: the relationship between Williams’s poetic innovations and desire to represent the concrete and the everyday, and the rise of the American folk musicians (with a similar emphasis on the local and the quotidian) to prominence just as Williams was reaching his greatest recognition in the 1940s and 1950s. Ironically, just 16 miles from Paterson, N.J., stood Greystone Hospital, where the great American folk music pioneer Woody Guthrie lived from 1956 to 1961 as his health declined. While much has been made of the back-and-forth influence between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, for example, would it be too far a stretch to imagine some of Williams’s efforts at representing an American diction and imagination were influenced by Woody Guthrie, and vice versa?
Like Guthrie, Williams’s politics were decidedly to the left (he is practically alone among the Modernists in this regard), and the whispered suggestion by certain red-baiters that Williams harbored Communist sympathies eventually cost him a consultancy with the Library of Congress in the early 1950s. That disappointment, and the ensuing public tempest, seems to have been a primary cause (along with a stroke) of the depression that caused him to be hospitalized in 1952. Six years later he suffered the third of a series of strokes that left him increasingly incapacitated, struggling to read or write, a phase of his existence that Denise Levertov described as “a slow ending to a life so quick and quickening.” His death in 1963 had little of the romantic or poetic flourish about it, but as Leibowitz notes about his funeral, it fulfilled Williams’s “profound conviction that life should not copy art.”