A Complex Relationship Between Two Great Poets: 'Something Urgent I Have to Say to You'

William Carlos Williams

The long, complicated life of the great American poet, William Carlos Williams, told once more in prose that is reason enough to engage with this volume.

"Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams

Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Author: Herbert Leibowitz
Price: $40
Format: Hardover
Publication ate: 2011-11
Length: 496 pages

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.