‘It’s as if no other poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language’, wrote Robert Lowell in 1962, near the end of the elder bard’s life: ‘His flowers rustle by the superhighways and pick up all our voices.’ Some decades earlier, Mike Gold, the editor of New Masses magazine, predicted that ‘[w]hen somebody writes the future history [of] proletarian literature in America, William Carlos Williams will be somewhere large in the table of contents.’ For him, William Carlos Williams’s poetry was for and of the working class.
Today, contra both Lowell and Gold, Williams is mainly known, if at all, as the author of a much-loved – and often parodied – post-it poem about someone else’s fruit: ‘I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the ice-box // and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast…’. His ‘proletarian literature’ and manifold investigations of the American scene remain, for the most part, out of view. This is a shame, because Williams was one of the most socially engaged and formally innovative poets of his generation. A radical democrat in his political leanings, he served as a practicing paediatrician for over four decades: a doctor-on-call whose natural sympathies lay with the working poor of the industrial towns of his native New Jersey. Throughout his life, he saw poetry as a means of recording both the streets-up vitality and the crushing poverty he encountered in these urban centres – places like Rutherford and Paterson – combining an oppositional political outlook with an acute sensitivity to the human drama at the heart of day-to-day experiences.
This last quality is partly evident even in his famous plum poem above, but its political effect is arguably fuller in a piece like Proletarian Portrait, in which a ‘bare-headed woman’ stands on the sidewalk with her shoe in hand, the whole world seeming to pause and tremble in the balance as she ‘pulls out the paper insole / to find the nail // That has been hurting her’. As here, Williams’s most meticulous evocations of ordinary (‘proletarian’) people and scenarios frequently read like exercises in political allegory: parabolic imaginings of things as they really are, or as they might be in the future. This is certainly true of his poem, The Yachts. Ostensibly depicting an afternoon of summer sport and leisure, it finishes as a critique of class society, as the bodies of the masses form ‘a sea of faces’ left ‘[b]roken, // beaten, desolate’, drowned out by the ‘skillful yachts’ as they ‘pass over’.
William Carlos Williams’s poetry was grounded in the vernacular
For Williams, American modernity was marked and maintained through the violence of elite privilege and social exclusion. ‘The wealthy / I defied’, he recalled in one late piece: the wealthy and those ‘who take their cues from them’. Like the social photographers of the 1930s, many of whom he knew and admired, his concern was to restore the experience of supposedly invisible communities – of labourers, immigrants, drifters – to the cultural record. The result was a body of poetic work at once crystalline in its political perceptions and dynamic in its formal movement, both elegant and plainspoken: a poetry grounded in the vernacular rhythms of American life, for ‘what good is it to me’, he asked, ‘if you can’t understand it?’
The same could not be said about the poets among whom Williams is most regularly classed today: high modernists whose literary politics ranged from the lavish insulation of Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, to the vituperative antisemitism of Ezra Pound, whom William first met as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.
While Pound increasingly sought to hitch his wagon of economic reform to the scorching lodestar of Mussolini’s racist authoritarianism in the 1930s Williams dedicated time and energy to anti-fascist causes. ‘I myself was chairman [of] a committee for medical aid to Spanish democracy’, he wrote in 1941, with a combination of sorrow and fury, as ‘the Storch Squadron went out with their planes on Easter while the women and children were in the streets [and] blasted them to butchers’ meat in the holy Basque city of Guernica “to see how effective the planes and bombs would be.”’
As Williams’s wife, Florence, recalled in 1964, he and Pound, although lifelong friends, ‘were on such opposite sides. Ezra was definitely pro-Fascist, much as he may deny it, and Bill was just the opposite.’ Likewise, stylistically, Williams stood apart from his peers, favouring idiomatic literary incisions, with a ‘feeling of reality’, to the allusive, often Euro-centric innovations of Pound and Eliot. The ‘revolution’ will be accomplished, he wrote, when ‘noble has been / changed to no bull’.
Although he published regularly in Marxist journals – a pattern of literary affiliation that earned him the reproval of a McCarthyite literary establishment in the late 1940s – Williams was generally distrustful of what he perceived as the didactic and jargonistic tendencies of America’s formal Left, and never joined, for example, the Communist Party when invited to do so. This didn’t prevent him from reaching his own conclusions, however. In 1936, he could be found arguing, with unapologetic assurance, that a ‘labor revolution by a society seeking to be in fact classless is both great and traditionally American in its appeal’:
To violently effect, by a brave stroke, the ejection of an inhuman and anti-social domination by those who have an effective control over the means of our common livelihood for their private gain – [this] would appeal to the American character if once put into motion.
If Williams maintained a somewhat chirpy belief in the democratic possibilities of the USA as a political experiment, this credo gained grit and clarity with his accompanying insistence on re-casting ‘America’ as a kind of living monument to rebellion. It’s in this context that he could write so admiringly, in 1937, of H.H. Lewis, the sharecropper-poet and avowed Communist ‘fighting to free himself from a class enslavement which torments his body’. ‘He speaks with fervor,’ Williams observed, ‘a revolutionary singleness and intensity of purpose, a clearly expressed content… he resembles the American [rebel] of our revolutionary tradition.’
A mirror for our own times: the poetry of William Carlos Williams
For Williams, there was nothing more dutifully patriotic than to question, ceaselessly, the presumptions and practices of the status quo: political, literary, and medical. ‘I am boiling mad’, he declared to one correspondent in the late 1940s, at ‘this morning’s mail from the American Medical Association’, which ‘in the name of “democracy” orders me to pay $25 into their treasury to fight “socialized medicine”’. This ‘represents what we are up against in our times,’ he concluded, with a righteous fire drawn from a deep understanding of the human value of public healthcare, as well as the nefarious motives of a professional lobby intent on derailing such an infrastructure. In this respect, Williams’s era (and predicament) holds a foreshadowing mirror to our own.
In a similarly combative mode, in a 1933 editorial to the short-lived magazine, BLAST, which he co-founded ‘in the service of the proletariat’, Williams was keen to correct what he saw as a blind spot in the thinking of some of his contemporaries, taking subtle aim at the racism that remained operative in both radical and literary circles. ‘No Communist should care for the color of the skins of his comrades’, he asserted, perhaps in reference to that phenomenon later described by David Roediger, whereby ‘the great liberal mobilizations of the New Deal and industrial unionism in the 1930s […] became a key site for the making of race’, as the ‘the color line’ was consolidated in workplaces, public housing schemes, and even within the union movement. For Williams, by contrast, the political agitator and the literary ‘artist’ alike should, as he put it, have ‘skin the color of the rainbow – with black added’.
In truth, this gutsy egalitarianism on Williams’s part was more intuitive than programmatic, and not always adequate in practice to his original intentions. He had a tendency to speak from the nerves, writing reactively to what he experienced and perceived in the society around him. The result is a passionate, if sometimes contradictory, record of his times, in which ‘color’ is a charged category and, as Toni Morrison has observed, ‘embedded assumptions of racial (not racist) language’ filter a ‘literary enterprise that hopes and sometimes claims to be “humanistic”.’
In other respects, however, Williams still seems a remarkably thorough and prescient social critic. Paterson, his boundary-breaking long poem published from the mid-1940s onwards, offers not only a portrait of the titular New Jersey town, but an exposé of the social and environmental degradation faced by its working residents, whose place and circumstances come to stand in for a larger American reality. As Williams’s literary protegé, Allen Ginsberg, memorably noted when growing up there in the 1940s: ‘Paterson itself [seemed to be] degenerating into a twentieth-century mafia-police-bureaucracy-race-war-nightmare-tv-squawk suburb.’ Williams, moreover, ‘had articulated’ this catastrophic situation ‘to its very rock-strata foundations’.
The poem is technically innovative and thematically far-ranging, exploring questions of historical violence, civic and subjective memory, alienation, intimacy, as well as poetic and ecological regeneration. In contrast to Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film of the same name, the Passaic river as it appears in Paterson is not so much a font of inspiration, bringing the poet’s reverie to life, but a churning symbol of the environmental toxicity, corporate abuse, and social decay that plagues the surrounding region, its waters ‘steaming purple / from the factory vents, spewed out hot’. As Williams once argued, the much-celebrated Alexander Hamilton – who established the USA’s first cotton and textile mills in Paterson in 1792 – ‘led the country [to] financial stability but at the cost of much that had been enivisioned during the early years of the revolution’. The ‘dead bank’ of the Passaic river, ‘shining mud’, is where Williams’s protagonist stands, attempting both to mourn and to fathom this modern America, as he breathes the fumes. Today, even by the environmentally destructive standards of twenty-first-century capitalist civilisation, the Passaic remains notoriously, and perhaps irremediably, polluted. It is impossible to read Paterson, Williams’s unflinching epic of diagnosis and discovery, without feeling an uneasy shiver of recognition.
If literature, for Williams, was a means of gaining access to social realities, right down to the root, it was also an ‘instrument’ for imagining the future: a shared life free of alienation and exploitation. Williams’s ‘delicious’ hunger for ice-box plums and vivid portraits of proletarian endurance both speak to this vision, which Paterson also shares: of an art and a society based on the living needs of human communities. The ‘outstanding character of poetry’, he wrote, resoundingly, is that it ‘cannot exist other than as the revolutionary attribute of a free people’. The message was the medicine: we need it still.
William Carlos Williams:
A Recognisable Image: WCW on Art and Artists,
Collected Poems: Vols I & II,
Something to Say: WCW on Younger Poets.