"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You"

Often when readers encounter William Carlos Williams in the too-brief space allotted classroom poetry -- weeks of high school English, required college reading -- they're offered a spare but juicy address about plums, called "This Is Just to Say": 

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

There's also "The Red Wheelbarrow," which claims:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white

Sometimes these glimpses are followed by a jargonish lecture on imagism or modernity. We may be granted an interesting biographical side note: As well as being a poet, Williams was a practicing doctor. Then plums, doctor, wheelbarrow, and poet pass. 


It's slim treatment of a revolutionary. These Williams moments are so pared and familiar as to become best-of-Williams wallpaper, a Williams Post-It -- allowing us not to see or hear the American giant. What a relief, then, to settle into Herbert Leibowitz's "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams, a trek through Williams's long career; his loves and dalliances; his delicate relationship with his era's literati; his work as a school doctor and obstetrician in working class, not-yet-suburban New Jersey.


Williams thought of himself as an "American primitive"; in this study he emerges doggedly trying to capture his "American grain" in stints of productivity between calls to deliver a tenth baby, or after jamming a tongue depressor down the throat of a resolute but dying child. Here's Williams the philanderer, the dutiful but sometimes unhappily married husband; Williams the ambivalent suburbanite and also frustrated poet; here are strata of a life that, like a Williams poem, layer and only jaggedly cohere.


Meanwhile, Leibowitz positions Williams among his fellow moderns -- in his fortuitous, competitive friendship with Ezra Pound; in his dislike and envy of T. S. Eliot; in his ambivalence about New York and Paris, whose literary glitter he ducked into, then avoided to better hear his own voice. (He needed this space: In Paris, Ezra Pound called Williams "Little Bill," the "Big Bill" in question being none other than William Butler Yeats.) And after years of being rejected by both the mainstream and avant-garde -- (sometimes for seeming too much of one to suit the other) -- Williams emerged as an avuncular mentor to the next generation, a model for poets as diverse as Lowell, Tate, and Ginsberg.


The last big biography of Williams was Paul Mariani's -- itself a tome, but one more willing to take the liberty of leaping around inside Williams's head. Leibowitz, by contrast, remains outside, dry, chronological. That's not always a bad strategy, as his deliberations pay off, and what emerges at the end of the book is not a resolved character inhabited, but a fascinating one circled. Which is not to say this biography is without its faults: Leibowitz sometimes makes much of Williams's sexuality in a way that reads tiresomely into the poems, so that every time Willams uses the word crotch (even for the branch of a tree) it gets flagged for painstaking anthropomorphizing. Leibowitz plots literary biography alongside close reading, and at times either the reading or biography suffer -- occasionally both do.


But Williams triumphs as a figure of consummate interest. And this is as good a moment as any to admire his poems' revolutionary strangeness -- their mysterious plainness and also their explosive ruminations about what art might be now. It's worth remembering that the fragment about the red wheelbarrow was hardly a spare standalone, but part of a highly experimental prose-studded cycle called "Spring and All," which has just been reissued in facsimile by New Directions this year.


Here's an excerpt from another poem, from the mid-twenties, called "New England":

is a condition --

of bedrooms whose electricity


is brackish or made into

T beams -- They dangle them


on wire cables to the tops

of Woolworth buildings


five and ten cents worth --

There they have bolted them


into place at masculine risk --

Or a boy with a rose under


the lintel of his cap

standing to have his picture


taken …

We -- in our own conditions of bedrooms -- can wake up to this muscular language with its T's and W's imitating the wires sectioning the once-rural sky. Then the image fractures and shifts, and New England becomes a boy. We don't have to decide. We admire Williams newly in his now indisputable place as one of America's greatest poets, arguably greater in retrospect than his uneasy competitors, Eliot or Pound. In this telling, he's restored to his own dogged mystery -- his intensity of purpose, his long hours, his vision of poems that speak in a modern American way -- to and for us all.

April 24: "[The HST] lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way..."

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangladeshi mathematician's past barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and spy-haunted Afghanistan in a page-turning tale of exile, intrigue and the price of friendship. A Discover Great New Writers selection.

The People's Platform

Once touted as the foundation for tomorrow's digital democracy, the Internet is increasingly ruled by a few corporate giants, while millions of contributors till its fields for free. Astra Taylor looks at why the web has failed to deliver a communitarian cyberscape, and offers a compelling case for restoring its original vision.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.