William Carlos Williams's An Early Martyr: The Descent Beckons

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Author: Ron Callan
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 109. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,955 words

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[(essay date 2004) In the following essay, Callan analyzes An Early Martyr as an unappreciated part of the Williams canon and argues that the later revisions of the work detract rather than add to its value.]

When one thinks of the Williams canon, Spring and All, In the American Grain, White Mule, The Wedge, Paterson, and Pictures from Breughel come to mind. An Early Martyr (1935) seems beyond that pale. It is a book of its time, resonant with issues from the 1930s: the Depression, left-wing politics, and "Objectivism".1 It also comes close to what is generally accepted as the end of Williams's "early" phase, and a time in which he was having difficulty writing poetry, measuring poems.2 Also, An Early Martyr is not marked by the poet's radical combination of poetry and prose passages.3 However, both in the manner of its construction and the ways in which Williams used it thereafter, An Early Martyr adds considerably to the range of his achievements. My interest here is in the process toward publication, the consequences of the arrangement of the poems, the effect of Williams's recycling of material from earlier publications, and the unravelling of the primacy of the book in its reinvention in later versions. I am influenced in this by Stanley Koehler's work on Williams's "descent" in the 1940s4 and particularly the notion that "Memory is a kind / of accomplishment".5 An Early Martyr was a new book of poems in 1935 that undermined the simple autonomy of the object.

Published by Alcestis Press, An Early Martyr was Williams's (at the time, almost 52 years old) fifth book of poems (excluding his "first" book, Poems, which he insisted should not be published again). Williams had waited twelve years for a book of poems after Spring and All. The publisher, Ronald Lane Latimer, was, according to Williams, a "strange person", adding that the name was an "an alias, I think".6 His suspicions were correct. Alan Filreis's study of the pseudonymous Latimer's work with Wallace Stevens reveals Latimer's complexity (even confusion) of name and mind. His first editorial for Alcestis Quarterly promoted the poet who tries "to capture and intensify the beauty of things as he sees them" (Stevens and Edith Sitwell are his examples) over the one who uses art as "an instrument of an economic theory" (Auden and Spender).7 Latimer would later admit:

I love the idea of bringing out a proletarian ... poet in a deluxe edition! These lovely incongruities.8

Filreis describes Latimer's change of mind as "spectacular".9 It was this "strange person", an aesthete who discovers the truth of the Communist Party while remaining committed to deluxe publications, who provided Williams with an almost unique opportunity--the publication of a book of poems.

Williams was ill-prepared for the project, as this 1935 letter to Latimer indicates:

Certainly, I'd like to have a book of verse by the Alcestis Press. I haven't a damned thing to send you for #3...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100922