William Carlos Williams 1883—1963
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS was a physician in Rutherford, New Jersey, for more than forty years, until forced to retire by the heart problems that finally killed him in 1963 at the age of seventy-nine. But despite his full-time career as a doctor, he published forty-nine books, a remarkable testament to his energy and determination, even if some of those books do represent collections of previously published material. In addition, his bibliography lists almost a hundred contributions to books edited by other people and more than six hundred publications in periodicals. These numbers include not only Williams’ poetry but also his novels (he published four), his essays, a history, numerous reviews of books and art exhibitions, and even an opera libretto. But for all this output, Williams did not begin to gain the kind of recognition accorded such contemporaries as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens until the last dozen years of his life. When that recognition finally came, though, it brought with it the attention of such younger poets as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and even Robert Lowell, all eager to learn from Williams’ lifetime of writing and his ways of articulating what he saw as the necessary direction for American poetry. An indication of what Williams meant to the more radical poets of the 1950s comes from Amiri Baraka’s account of his own education in Greenwich Village, in The Autobiography ofLeRoi Jones (1984). Among the various people who sought:
a point of departure from the academic, from the Eliotic model of rhetoric, formalism, and iambics…. Williams was a common denominator because he wanted American Speech, a mixed foot, a variable measure. He knew American life had outdistanced the English rhythms and their formal meters. The language of this multinational land, of mixed ancestry, where war dance and salsa combine with country and Western, all framed by African rhythmand-blues confessional.
Williams often explored his own mixed ancestry in his poetry. He was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, the older of the two sons of William George and Raquel Hélene Rose Hoheb Williams. His father was born in England of English parents but accompanied his mother to the New World in 1856 at the age of five, where they lived on various Caribbean islands, finally settling in Santo Domingo. William George married Raquel, of Puerto Rico, in 1882, when the couple— along with William George’s mother—moved to New York and then to Rutherford. William Carlos’ younger brother, Edgar, went on to become a noted architect. (In the 1950s he contributed to the design of the Rutherford Public Library, which now houses a rich collection of the papers of the town’s famous poet-doctor.)
The record of the relationship between the two brothers has been preserved more in their extensive correspondence than in the poems of William Carlos. But Williams’ views of his father and mother and also of his paternal grandmother form the subject of a number of his poems....