SOME OF THE BEST
17 September, 1998
Rod & KubbyKat Too: Photo by Bob Gentry 4/26/2000
A Thought for Today
So much of life is drudgery, so much it pain but the little pleasures that come along from time to time more than make up for any misery.
Dear Rod, I always enjoy your feelings about other poets. A while back you wrote lovingly of William Carlos Williams. Please repeat that Flight Plan.
IMAGINATION & ILLUMINATION: SOME THOUGHTS ON A PERSONAL HERO
William Carlos Williams is one of our greatest American writers. His body of work and his interests in writing encompass nearly every literary form extant. He wrote four full-length plays, the libretto for an opera, four novels, 54 short stories, an autobiography, a biography of his mother, a book of essays and criticism, a history of America and even translated a medieval Spanish novel. He spent the better part of three decades composing his epic five-volume poem Patterson, and in addition he wrote 600 poems of such excellence it is hard to believe that writing was an avocation not his major life work.
For forty-two years he was a country doctor in the small town of Rutherford, New Jersey, specializing in pediatric and obstetric medicine. He gave the major part of his life to medical practice and nearly all of his writing was done after midnight, or early morning before going to his office, and in his office between appointments with patients. Even after retiring as a doctor, with more time to write, he studied and kept up with medicine. He had to snatch and grab every moment he could to set down a breathtaking body of work that would embarrass many full time writers. All of his writing was good, solid and inventive. Like Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes he was much taken with American speech. W.H. Auden called his "Asphodel, The Greeny Flower "one of the most beautiful love poems in the language.
During his lifetime Williams won nearly every important literary award his country had to offer. including The Pulitzer Prize.. Williams, Whitman and Walter Benton are the first poets I ever read and I was and still am much influenced by each of them. I first met Williams in the early 1950s when I was in army training at Fort Slocum, New York. I called him from the base [his number was in the telephone directory]; told him I had a weekend pass and would love to meet him. "Come along," he said and I did.
Williams had always been a supporter of poetry and young poets, a good thing since I hadn't even published my first book yet. I had completed the manuscript though and it was about to be published by a vanity press. I took it along to show him. He beamed when he saw that all the poems were printed in lower case with the barest of punctuation, a style he used in writing most of his own poetry and one the kid in front of him that day had unabashedly borrowed. We agreed that the less emphasis one placed on punctuation the more ways there were for the reader to interpret the work.
He told me "The poem will always be your experience but the reader will bring his imagination to it too. All we have is the language and our greatness is what we bring to it." Heady advice for a 20 year old.
I griped about not having enough time to write now that I was a G. I. and about to go overseas. He replied, "You will find the time." He said he liked my poetry and told me that my style (at that time it was more his style than mine) would serve me well. He singled out for particular praise an entry simply entitled July 11. [Republished here in Flight Plan 7/16/98] "This is good," he said, "a love poem with original metaphors. One that is erotic without hitting you over the head with stale wording." I memorized the words and exactly how he said them. We talked about the fact that my first book would be a 'paid for' venture. "Do it," he said, "Get published any way and everywhere you can. The world thinks it doesn't need poetry, but we are the most important soldiers in the land." He was expanding to me on one of the poems he wrote that contained these lines:
"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there".
As we shook hands again, when it was time for me to catch my ride back to base, he kindly told me "You will be an important poet, because you are an original." As I was going down the hill he yelled after me, "I'll be seeing you, I know I will, don't forget to send me a book." Williams died in 1963 after a series of strokes that stilled his mind and hand. He would have been eighty-six today. The freedom of being a poet without having to be a versifier is a legacy he fought for all his life. The more awards he won as his fame and the power of his poetry grew, the more the big shot poets of his time put him down. Stevens, Eliot and even his former college chum Ezra Pound criticized him for his lack of meter and rhyme. Surely it was the jealousy of a club that fiercely guarded each other that caused the attacks. William Carlos Williams created his own meter and rhyme scheme and that's what inspired so many of us who came after him to do the same.
Williams genuinely loved writing and medicine in equal measure. Not only did he lead a life of 'quiet desperation'; time after time he writes of retreating into his imagination when schizophrenia from a personal life that was a mess and the torment of writing itself overtook him.
Webster Schott, in his fine and perceptive introduction to "Imaginations", a 1970 compendium of Williams' work wrote "he retreated to the senses and found a piece of freedom through his imagination. To Williams the ability to imagine became the ability to survive. It was a need as urgent as sexual hunger." To this he adds the poet's own words, "The imagination will not down . . .If it is not a dance, a song, it becomes a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity; if it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women cannot be content any more than children with the mere facts of humdrum life - the imagination must adorn and exaggerate life, must give it splendor and grotesqueness, beauty and infinite life."
William Carlos Williams gave us illumination through his imagination. For me, add inspiration. Without a winter afternoon spent in the company of one of my great literary heroes I might not have had the courage and tenacity to pursue that most difficult but ultimately rewarding life, writing.
There is an excellent web site devoted to William Carlos Williams, I urge you to visit it. This man could not be more my father or grandfather if he were blood kin. The book my idol had critiqued was " . . . and autumn came", today's poems are taken from it.
RM -First published 9/16/98