"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
(Farrar Straus Giroux)
Herbert Leibowitz deftly combines biography and literary criticism in this detailed examination of a great American poet, writing with aplomb equal to that of his subject. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say” are staples of poetry anthologies and his short story, “The Use Of Force”, has an equal place in fiction collections. But to cease exploration of Williams’ writing with those three easy pieces does a great disservice to us as readers and, of course, to the poet himself. Unfortunately, far too many of us have stopped reading after the first stanzas of the elegant and epic poem that is Williams’ oeuvre, favoring Pound and Eliot, the most visible and recognizable verse masters of the last century.
In these pages Leibowitz chronicles the complex relationship Pound and Williams shared––the former was deeply critical of his friend’s work. He often lashed out with an acerbic tongue that suggests there may have been an underlying jealous lurking deep within the mad genius. Williams found Eliot almost intolerable and did not he shrink from saying so. Perhaps Williams’ reluctance to leave the US and become the toast of European salons, to leave behind his medical practice or his beloved Rutherford, New Jersey, somehow marked him as less serious than his contemporaries, or at least less of an artist.
He was neither, of course. Insistent on experimentation and ever seeking a higher ground in his art, Williams was also a remarkable physician whose experiences informed his prose and verse. He was also a married man who found time for extramarital affairs despite remaining married to the same woman (Florence Herman, “Floss”) throughout his life. What might have seemed an average, normal life has to be understood as a contradiction to the exquisitely unconventional artist Williams became.
Leibowitz connects his subject’s life and work, reminding us that the New Critics eschewed biography and authorial intention in favor of an almost scientific reading of a work; they also found it necessary to create a hierarchy of literary figures. Leibowitz writes that John Donne and Richard Crenshaw moved to the head of the class while Shelley and Wordsworth were relegated to “nosebleed seats in the bleachers at Elysian Fields”. Our author finds value in the belief that we cannot entirely ignore the author’s biography nor entirely cast off the idea that a work of art can be autonomous.
The exploration of Williams’ private sphere could have proven particularly dangerous––but our respect for the man does not diminish for knowing his shortcomings, rather he emerges as still likeable man despite these failings. We also come to understand that he loved his family and his wife even if he was not above the usual rounds of confusion and temptation.
Leibowitz clearly reveres his subject, but he doesn’t flinch from a true critical assessment of the work––if stanzas are clumsy or ill realized he lets it be known without apology. There are moments when more leniencies on the failings and more attention to the successes may have buoyed the reader’s enthusiasm for the subject, although those already deeply entrenched in Williams’ body of work will doubtless find these incisive observations infinitely valuable.
The narrative doesn’t necessarily unfold in predictable ways––at times the story backtracks, or the author takes spectacular and graceful leaps with the chronology, clearly not for fear of exhausting our zeal for the work, but instead for the sake of accurately capturing perhaps the saddest element of the story––that Williams’ public acceptance and popularity grew toward the end of his life, in such a way that some might be tempted to categorize it as “too late”. A series of strokes diminished some of the doctor’s capabilities and the prolonged decline is difficult to witness, even from the distance we are afforded in these pages.
Williams continued to write during this latter era of his life––and indeed managed to create some of his most interesting and satisfying work at the time. That era is not as thoroughly chronicled here as it might have been; indeed it may have placed the rest of the artist’s life in a different relief, perhaps an even greater one than we witness in these pages. Most impressive, though, is that Leibowitz’s own writing––separate from the statements it makes or the questions it may leave unanswered––is uniquely satisfying; in the book’s 400-plus pages, one never finds themselves feeling the author’s power––or vocabulary or nuance––flagging, a mighty feat of its own and surely reason enough to engage with this elegant volume.