The Makings of An American
"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
In the introduction to “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” a new critical biography of William Carlos Williams, Herbert Leibowitz writes, “What most distinguished Williams was his drive to turn himself into a masterful American poet.” It is therefore surprising that in the first half of the book Leibowitz makes only a few tepid attempts to explore this particular artistic mission. Instead he spends several chapters discussing the ways in which Williams’s poetry reveals aspects of his personal life. He detects in certain early poems Williams’s ambivalence toward his staid English father and enigmatic Puerto Rican mother. He finds in Kora in Hell, a collection of febrile prose poems, indications of the poet’s sexual frustration. He devotes three whole chapters to Williams’s “attitudes towards women” and identifies poems ostensibly about his infidelities and lack of romantic interest in his wife Floss. With the notable exception of a short section describing the compositional techniques Williams adopted in Kora in Hell, these chapters eschew prosody in favor of psychoanalysis.
In the second half of the book, Leibowitz provides an overview of Williams’s life from the 1920s onward. It was during this period that Williams wrote his most startling books, including The Great American Novel, Spring and All, The Descent of Winter, In the American Grain, and Paterson. Although he recognizes their importance to the development of Williams’s style and voice, Leibowitz does not seem to like the writer’s more radical books. “The Great American Novel is neither great nor a novel,” he quips in a passage about Williams’s brazen, scattershot attack on the novel form. As for the modernist manifesto Spring and All, Leibowitz contends that it succeeds “roughly half of the time” and declines sharply in quality after “the near-perfect art” of the poem “To Elsie.” The Descent of Winter, a sort of companion to Spring and All, is dismissed as “unlikable” and “slapdash.” Finally, Leibowitz concludes his chapter on Paterson by describing Williams’s late epic poem as “a beautiful torso with conspicuous defects.”
Leibowitz considers the more polished prose work In the American Grain Williams’s masterpiece. The book purports to be a history of the United States, but adopts many unconventional techniques. Williams impersonates the voices of historical figures, pilfers whole pages from canonical American texts, and employs a dense, highly figurative style all his own. In the American Grain represents Williams’s most developed statement about his native land. Its prose is assured, its experiments subtle. Leibowitz carefully unravels the book’s layers of meaning and offers a cogent analysis of its vision of America as a country mired in corruption and Puritanism.
Still, one could be forgiven for wondering why Leibowitz bothered to write a critical biography about a modernist experimenter whose experiments he largely finds defective. His chronological approach combined with his apparent search for wholeness in Williams’s individual works not only leads him to make narrow evaluative statements, but also at times serves to obfuscate the very thing that was most important to the poet: his American-ness. To be sure, there is much to recommend “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You.” It is elegantly written and meticulously researched. It provides a humane, sometimes even heroic, portrait of Williams the man, particularly in its discussion of his long-term friendships with Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, and James Laughlin. But if we want to understand the distinctly American contours of Williams’s writings and what pleasures they afford, ultimately we must, to borrow one of the poet’s oft-quoted lines, return to “the things themselves.”
Fortunately, earlier this year New Directions published a pocket-size edition of Spring and All that reproduces the original 1923 text. The book is a rambunctious riposte to “The Waste Land,” a work that, in Williams’s view, “gave the poem back to the academics.” Williams, in contrast, sought new forms that could accommodate the vicissitudes of vernacular American English and thus enliven the moldering, official language of literature. However, what’s most important about Spring and All is how it foregrounds process, both as an aesthetic principle and an aspect of American life. “America is process,” social critic John Kouwenhoven astutely observed in his essay “What’s American about America.” That is, American culture celebrates movement and change as ends in themselves. In a purposely jumbled sequence of poetry and prose, Williams invoked the very touchstones that Kouwenhoven later used to illustrate this point, including jazz, the poetry of Walt Whitman, industrial machinery, skyscrapers, and, of course, our seemingly endless roads.
Poem 11 (“The Right of Way”) describes a joyride down one of those fabled roads, during which the speaker briefly observes the social interaction between an old man, a young woman, and a small child. Instead of stopping to savor this “nameless spectacle” of “supreme importance,” the speaker lurches forward, toward nowhere in particular. The speaker concludes: “Why bother where I went? / for I went spinning on the / four wheels of my car until / I saw a girl with one leg / over the rail of a balcony.” In other words, the real pleasure is in the journey itself. Or to put it differently: the destination is the journey. Likewise Williams’s use of enjambment evokes the lumbering cadences of provincial American speech, making the poem seem less like a refined meditation than an improvised monologue. It thus draws our attention to the process of telling, the form of the poem reflecting the wayward path of its subject.
All of this holds true for Spring and All in general. The book is about discovery and its genius lies largely in its ability to mimic and convey the excitement of that process. This is also what makes it so characteristically American. Leibowitz faults the poem for “morphing at times into a loose and baggy monster.” But what are Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Huckleberry Finn if not loose and baggy monsters? Like these books, Spring and All is best understood as an experience rather than as a series of parts that can finally be resolved into a consonant whole. In a literary world flooded with slick, glossy narratives, the book’s refusal to hold together still resonates and strengthens one’s belief that all meaningful writing embodies a perpetual search for possibilities.
Justin Mitchell writes for Ply magazine and the Black Ballot Weekly Report.