(First published in Poetry Ireland Review)
Recalling his fondness as a young poet for “rising rhythm, falling rhythm, [and metric] feet with Greek names”, in 1961 the celebrated writer, Robert Lowell, concluded of his early, Pulitzer Prize-winning work: “Everything I did was grand, ungrammatical, and had a timeless, hackneyed quality.” But “[a]ll this was ended”, Lowell wrote, “by reading Williams”, a figure whose vernacular verse and roots-up depictions of daily American life changed what the younger writer imagined to be possible (and acceptable) in the art, “as though some homemade ship, part Spanish galleon, part paddle-wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands and worked by hand, had anchored to a filling station.”
In its largeness, ease, and exaggerated invention, the image is unforgettable; but also helpful in indicating both the nature and scale of the influence that the older poet exerted on writers of Lowell's generation, and others later. From the 1910s onwards, as prevailing literary appetites seemed to be for either artful pentameters or abstruse experimentalism, Williams pioneered a speech-based poetry of precise social observation, a poetry grounded in the specificities of his locale in Rutherford, New Jersey, and in his own manifold experiences as a paediatrician and doctor-on-call, serving largely working-class families in the surrounding area. “They call me and I go”, Williams wrote in 1921, on “a frozen road / past midnight, a dust / of snow caught / in the rigid wheeltracks”, to attend to a patient “laboring / to give birth to / a tenth child”. Like much of Williams's work, the poem is stripped to its essentials and clear in its social understanding of the scene described, offering a delicately cadenced, disarmingly plainspoken record of things as they are. While contemporaries like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were forging fractured meditations on the losses of modernity – allusion-heavy and Euro-centric – Williams's home-grown modernism sought to document and reflect the realities of life in America, providing what he called “a recognisable image” of his place and moment, in a language accessible to all. “What good is it to me”, Williams queried, “if you can't understand it?”
Although Williams famously had to self-publish his first five collections of poetry due to a lack of editorial interest in his work, in his later years (and posthumously) he came to be regarded as one of the most original American poets of the twentieth century. “One is”, if anything, “rather embarrassed at the necessity of calling Williams original”, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell once noted, for “it is like saying that a Chesire Cat smiles.” Part of the reason, no doubt, that writers as stylistically far-flung as Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Denise Levertov, later cited the importance of the “American English” register, egalitarian outlook, and insistent contemporaneity of Williams's work to their own development. Even beyond the hallowed halls of American verse, Williams's reputation has cast a long and bright-spangled shadow, encompassing composer Steven Reich's absorbing musical rendition of his mid-century poetry collection, The Desert Music, and film director Jim Jarmusch's tribute – with a dose of slapstuck humour and a permeating attentiveness to the rhythms of place – to Williams's poem, Paterson, in the 2016 film of that title. Like his famous “red wheel / barrow” and the icebox plums “so sweet / and so cold”, Williams's cultural presence has become, apparently, ubiquitous.
Less remarked upon, however, are the links between the work of this now-acclaimed American poet and that of an array of Irish writers across the twentieth century. Although having no ancestral connections to Ireland (his parents, English and half-Basque originally, transplanted themselves from Puerto Rico to New Jersey before he was born) Williams throughout his life was forthright in his admiration of what he perceived as Ireland's creation of “an indigenous art” based on local conditions and concerns – and one which he felt American moderns could learn from. Williams went so far as to have the characters of his play, A September Afternoon, set during the American revolution, speak in the same drawn-out dialect exemplified in the works of J. M. Synge, which had emerged on the radar of avant-garde circles in New York. “It’s this we’ve been fearing the two weeks now they’ve been camping beyond the hills,” one character intones – with an idiomatic emphasis (or over-emphasis) worthy even of W. B. Yeats's Hibernicised dramatic productions.
Williams in fact met Yeats in person while on a visit to Paris in 1924, recalling his arrival at a much-frequented studio to find the Irish figure “in a darkened room [...] reading by candelight” from a series of (quite conventional) verses by the New Zealand poet, Ernest Dowson, surrounded by a “very small gathering of his protégés, maybe five or six young men and women, members of the Abbey Theatre group.” Williams's portrait of the eminent litterateur is of course as amusing as it is atmospheric, Yeats's “beautiful voice” deepening to convey the supposed intensities of Dowson's poetry – which, Williams says flatly, “was not my dish.”
Williams's verdict on Yeats's own work, however, was a different matter. Writing in 1913 to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, Williams credits his own urge to modernise and break free from the “fixed iambic measure” of traditional Anglophone verse to Yeats's example: “he teaches what can be done with the three-syllable foot”, Williams observes with an earnest exactitude, “by dropping the last syllable in the foot every time but once or twice in the entire poem”, and so clears the way for “some other kind of measure” to be worked out by future versifiers. Yeats may never quite have seen “the figure 5 / in gold / on a red / firetruck” the way Williams did – the world-in-motion passing, bit by bit, into line-broken revelation – but his impulse to combine lyric art with regional speech and preoccupations (in Ireland) nonetheless proved serviceable to this relatively unknown doctor-poet's efforts to develop a new understanding of literary craft and purpose.
Many years later, in 1949 – and in the wake of the anthology, 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, edited by his friend and frequent literary typist, Kitty Hoagland – Williams revisited and confirmed the importance of Yeats as a creative influence, penning a poem he called, resonantly, “Cuchulain”. Whereas in Yeats's “Cuchulain Comforted”, the “Violent and famous” warrior takes his place in the underworld among “Convicted cowards all, by kindred slain”, Williams's hero retains his social stature, albeit as seen by his once-lover, Aife, who has been left behind. “His life lived in / me warmed / at his fires // A power in the night”, the poem reads, Cuchulain's reputation near the end of his days coming strangely to resemble Yeats's own: “Madman, clown – success”. “Mad Ireland” may have hurt Yeats “into poetry”, as W. H. Auden perceived a decade earlier, but his “gift” and legacy “survived it all” – a perspective on their shared literary forebear that Williams seems also to have held.
1949 also marked the moment when Williams's only Irish-published poem was printed – in the October issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by David Marcus. Entitled “May 1st Tomorrow”, the poem is a playful exercise in free association and a self-satirising account of literary labour and its trials. “The mind's a queer sponge”, Williams writes, “squeeze it and out come bird songs” – a proposition that recurs, ironically, later in the piece as a pure interruption of the “view of the mind / that, in a way gives milk” to the thirsting poet: “Chuck, chuck, chuck. Toe whee. Chuck!”. With linguistic verve and exuberant self-satisfaction, the poem both enacts and mocks the process of its own composition – a reminder of Williams's own experimental tendencies.
Similar procedures are found throughout the epic poem, Paterson (if on a larger and more complex scale), the early sections of which Williams also completed and published in these years. Described by Lowell as an attempt to represent “Whitman's America” in modern times, “grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganised by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation”, the poem sets out “to form the colors” of such a vista “in the terms of some / back street”, finding in the “poor, the invisible, thrashing, breeding / . debased city” of its title a vision of social and cultural renewal. Paterson delves into the history, geography, and many voices of its locale, in an emblematic effort to discover the often gruelling, if sometimes delectable realities that undergird American life mid-way through the twentieth century. It stands – as Lowell and many others have contended – as a “great American poem.” And in terms of structure and technique, among its most important influences were the novels of James Joyce.
As before with Yeats, Williams met and dined with Joyce while holidaying in Paris in the 1920s, remembering in his Autobiography the Irish writer's “small, compressed head, straight nose and no lips”; that he “spoke with a distinct, if internationalized, Irish accent”; and that he “would take no hard liquor, only white wine”. Entertaining as such reminiscences are, the encounter of the two men was perhaps less creatively formative than Williams's self-immersion in Joyce's work. Before writing Paterson “I had been reading Ulysses”, Williams remarks in 1958, and was “influenced [by] Joyce who had made Dublin the hero of his book” – a book that seemed to allow the American poet in turn “[to fall] in love with my city”.
It's a theme that resurfaces throughout Williams's essays and letters: in his desire to create an art responsive to the actualities of life in contemporary America, he turns to Joyce's works for guidance. We find Williams in 1927, for example, commending the manner in which “Joyce's style” seems to bend and shapeshift to reflect “the facts” of urban Dublin, his apparent artfulness arising from “the realistic conditions that compel him” – an insight prefiguring one of the fundamental assertions of Williams's own literary practice: that there can be (as he phrases it in Paterson) “No ideas but / in the facts”.
In the same period, during the initial serialisation of Joyce's Work in Progress (later Finnegans Wake) in transition magazine, Williams placed himself at the forefront of critical debates concerning the new work – to the extent that he was included, along with Thomas MacGreevy and one Samuel Beckett, among twelve contributors to the first ever roundtable collection of essays elucidating and defending Joyce's literary achievements, “Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of work in progress”. Joyce's next book will be nothing less than “the leap of a new force”, Williams's contribution declares with evident excitement, asserting that it “is a new literature, a new world, that [Joyce] is undertaking” – proof, perhaps, of his own thoroughly modernist belief that by revitalising “a static, worn out language”, the contemporary artist can uncover “a literary way [to] save the world”. A grand statement, certainly, but one that indicates concisely the esteem, energy, and seemingly effortless understanding with which Williams engaged even the more difficult phases of Joyce's work.
If the modernisms of Joyce and Yeats influenced Williams's poetic development in a variety of ways, there are also some fascinating connections between the American bard and a number of later Irish writers. Eavan Boland once hailed Williams as an “obstinate, generous titan of demotic verse”, while Thomas Kinsella acknowledged his importance in similar terms, writing that the American doctor was instrumental in “opening up the voice” of the modern poem to the twentieth century at large. Likewise, in the landmark memoir-cum-interview, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalled having “a short William Carlos Willliamsy line in his ear” while writing his third collection, Wintering Out (1972). Intriguingly, both Williams and Heaney wrote poetic responses to P. V. Glob's images of the preserved, pre-Christian bog body discovered in Denmark in 1950, known as the Tollund Man: Williams in “A Smiling Dane” (1955) and Heaney in “The Tollund Man” (1972). Heaney famously took Glob's landmark 1969 compendium, The Bog People, as the source text for his poem – as visitors to the National Library of Ireland's Listen Now Again exhibition, exploring Heaney's life and poetry, will learn. Williams, however, was working off near-contemporaneous reports of Glob's findings, and specifically a print and photographic feature on the archaeological dig included in The National Geographic Magazine (to which he subscribed) in March 1954.
For each writer, the recovered burial victim serves as an icon of ancient atrocity and almost miraculous abidance through time simultaneously, evoking a sensation of alienation mixed with understanding. Although “Not knowing their tongue”, Heaney's piece famously concludes, as a poet familiar with the sectarian conflict of Northern Ireland, “Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost / Unhappy, and at home.” Williams, similarly attuned to the residual intimacy of such violence (although obviously without the same Northern Irish context in mind), in his piece queries:
And what if
the image of his frightened executioners
is not recorded?
Do we not know
it had occurred
We can still see in his smile
In 1955, a year of brutal racist lynchings in the United States – including, notoriously, the murder of fourteen year-old Emmett Till – Williams's depiction of the exhumed body “with a rope... intact / round the neck”, along with his grimly ironic imagination of the pre-Christian, tribal executioners by way of the “features” and “grimaces” of his fellow citizens, may very well have held a political relatability beyond what he necessarily intended for it. Even without the current of ethical interrogation typified by Heaney's approach, however, Williams's portrait of the “Smiling Dane” serves as a nuanced affirmation of his adage that “[p]lace is the only universal” – that the particulate life of a given scene may generate the frame through which its general meaning billows and enters, as Williams had previously discerned in the work of Yeats and Joyce. “His stomach”, the poem reads,
its contents examined
before he died
to have had
consisting of local grains
which he probably enjoyed
though he did not
much as we do
For Williams, the image of the Tollund man attains its universality as much through his difference from the present – the swallowing of “local grains” whole, without chewing them, for example – as through the unsettling familiarity of his features and fate. This, indeed, is the main divergence in the two writers' respective portraits of Glob's bog body: where Heaney sees explicitly delineated in “his stained face” the “scattered, ambushed / Flesh of labourers, / Stockinged corpses” of his own landscape and era, Williams finds “A Smiling Dane”, whose physical frame and bodily habits seem to resist the assimilation into the current moment which they also invite, his excavators deciding in panic to “quit the place [...] thinking his ghost might walk”.
Also in contrast to Heaney, of course, who in his bog poems was navigating just one turning-point in what would be a much longer poetic trajectory and career, Williams wrote his piece with almost fifty years of literary work behind him – his response to the images of the Tollund Man marking the culmination of a number of well-established creative, formal, and medical concerns. Serving as both a quickened image of the present and a distant fact from the past, Williams's “Danish native” (to adapt a line from another of Heaney's poems) is “neither here nor there”, but both at once, “a hurry through which”, quite literally, “known and strange things pass” – to the delight of his beholder, who meets that strangeness not just with the searching vision of a writer, but with the attentive understanding of an anatomist at work.
The point, and the general comparison with Heaney, is hopefully a clarifying one, ultimately bringing us closer to Williams: the New Jersey doctor-poet who was said to have overseen the delivery of 2,000 babies in the Rutherford area over the course of his medical career; and who, when asked in 1954 to name the writers who had most helped his own work to come into the world, included alongside the American “Whitman” that other indefatigable celebrant of bodies-in-contact and local life, “James Joyce” – one of the many Irish filling stations at which Williams's homemade ship cast anchor, stopping for fuel.
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS // FURTHER READING