[(essay date winter 2011) In the following essay, Berry discusses Williams as a local poet, rooted in the concerns and stewardship of his community of Rutherford, New Jersey.]
The Kind of Poet He Was. It is necessary, in fairness and in simple courtesy, to ask what kind of poet William Carlos Williams was. The answer clearly begins with his failure to conform to the usual expectations.
The idea now prevailing seems to be that poets occupy their designated places in the departmented structure of the arts and sciences, of which the increasingly industrialized modern university is the model. Poets, that is to say, are professionals like other professionals and specialists like other specialists. Their business is to produce, ideally, perfect poems of lasting value individually, as objects of art or "high culture." This assumption seems to underlie the judgment of such dismissive critics as Donald Davie and Bruce Bawer. Precedent to them was Yvor Winters, who, admirable as he was in some ways, ranked individual poems as greatest ever, greatest in English, etc., as if the art of poetry were a sort of contest. Increasingly poets are attached to universities and depend upon them for a living. I have been at times so attached and so dependent myself, and thus I know something of what is involved. Unless university poets are actually from some place in particular, and, unless they have the good fortune to be employed somewhere near their homes, they tend to be careerists and migrants, without local knowledge or affection or loyalty, like their professional and specialist colleagues. They are therefore under pressure to conform to, and they have no immediate reason to resist, the industrialist order represented by their university. They, like their critics, are inclined to think that the arts are under obligation to keep up with the times and to conform to industrial values and the advances of technology.
This is not a quarrel I wish to bring against anybody in particular, and I know there are reasons and also exceptions. (The most admirable exceptions are the poets who, despite the pressure to "produce" research and publications, have been steadily devoted to their teaching, their subjects, and their students.) I am describing, however, what is too easily possible in modern universities: the tendency toward careerism, personal displacement, scientific reductionism, and technological determinism. Williams saw this tendency, understood it, feared it, and resisted it.
He himself was not the least bit academic, either in his life or in his language. (Donald Davie took him to task for never using the word enjambment.) He lived, practiced medicine, and wrote his poems in the same place all his life. He lived by the terms of a community involvement more constant, more intimate, and more urgent than that of any other notable poet of his time. He watched his neighbors and his patients, who often were the same people, with the keenest interest, affection, and amusement, and, often enough, with dismay. That he greatly loved at least...