[(essay date fall 2004) In the following essay, Clark discusses the themes of suffering and the liberatory power of art in Williams's poetry, focusing on the later poems "To a Dog Injured in the Street" and "The Yellow Flower."]
What is the work a cure for? (All works are "medicine." Otherwise, why bother to write them?)Kenneth Burke to William Carlos Williams, 9 June 1953, The Humane Particulars, The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke
To the end of his life, William Carlos Williams's writing is informed by the erudite touch and the epistemological stance of the doctor.1 But bodily suffering provokes a complicated response, one that troubles the interface, sometimes incorrectly characterized as seamless, between Williams's two vocations and disrupts the interpenetration of the "inner world of the subject" and the "outer world of things" that J. Hillis Miller sees as both the method and the accomplishment of the poems.2 My subject in this essay is two poems written in the aftermath of the disabling strokes Williams suffered in 1951 and 1952. I want to look closely at the way these poems, "To a Dog Injured in the Street" and "The Yellow Flower," struggle under the burdens of illness and old age to make sense of suffering and to reconcile it with the aims and measures of art. I begin, though, by situating them in an extended consideration of human suffering, ethical responsibility, and poetic will, one strand of the doctor's story as it develops over half a century from early poems like "Sick African" (1917)--where the poet stands apart from the patient and his illness as he might stand back in contemplation of a painting--through the morally and aesthetically ambitious poems of his midcareer and finally to the moving poems that follow Williams's own descent into illness.
Suffering in others generates a range of reactions in Williams, from profound compassion to detached curiosity to harsh impatience and cold fury. These responses and the self-scrutiny that attends them--"almost Augustinian" Robert Coles calls it--form one strand of the doctor-poet's story over a long career.3 A second strand, also very familiar to Williams's readers, is diagnostic. His interpretation of symptoms is broad based and far reaching, beginning in medical knowledge and linguistic attunement but extending to include psychological, economic, and political reasoning, effacing disciplinary boundaries in order to comprehend and address the causes of illness and suffering.
Kenneth Burke, Williams's friend and interlocutor for more than forty years, describes him as a "benignly nosological" poet whose diagnostic skill informs both his medical and his poetic practice.4 Williams's mind is defined, for Burke, by its power to move between a "professional concern with the body as a suffering or diseased object" and a "natural or poetic"--even a sexual--interest in the body (284). "[H]e could," Burke observes, "both use flowers as an image of lovely womanhood and speak of pathology as a 'flower garden.' The principle made for great mobility, for constant transformations. ... [H]e proceeded...