William Carlos Williams lived his whole life in New Jersey, became a much-loved doctor who delivered thousands of babies, hung out with that fascist Ezra Pound and, incidentally, revolutionized American poetry. Not in a wishy-washy way, either, but truthfully, and with the simple maxim “no ideas but in things.” Two of his poems, “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say,” are often held up for praise in earnest college poetry classes, easy to both parody and love, but for those of us who cherished those eager, bright-eyed discussions in class, well, wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to your blue-collar dad about those poems at Thanksgiving? Or your bus driver, or your co-workers at whatever stodgy job you ended up with when your college degree let you down? Williams was the kind of guy who is just quintessentially American: a Puerto Rican mother and an English father, living in and writing about New Jersey, publishing his early work himself… he had all that determination we so love to applaud in the American mythology, typically reserved for the entrepreneurs, guys like Gatsby or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett. But Williams wanted to write poetry. More than that, he wanted to write about America, in American, he wanted the world to pay attention to the simplicity of a word, a turn of phrase, things as ordinary and lovely as rain, plums, chickens and garden tools.
“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” That’s one of the folksier quotes from Williams himself, and it opens the new collection “Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams.” Inside are 102 poems, coming from heavyweights like Ashbery, Creeley, Lowell, O’Hara—all the heroes that make English majors creamy—and our current Poet Laureate, Philip Levine. But there’s also George Young, a poet who is a retired physician, and Judith Robbins, a poet and minister at a community church in Maine. That’s the best part of this anthology, the big names mingling with the not so big, all connected here by the simple fact that Williams was an influence, even if fleetingly. Sometimes inspiration is a flower, or because “so much depends” on something, or even just plums, again. Yes, there is a lot of that, and the imitation can become a little stifling if you pick up this collection to read on an airplane. There is much imagining of delivering babies, and New Jersey, and Flossie, the wronged but devoted wife of Dr. Williams, and when taken as a whole, it’s a little tedious to trudge through the repetition.
But that is not how to read this book: it’s best to take sips. For funny, it’s Kenneth Koch, imitating “This is Just to Say” with “I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer./ I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do.” It’s clever, if you’re in on the joke. Robert Bly, always bashful, has a dream, and tells a dead Williams “I found myself/ Lying, saying I cared nothing about form…” Allen Ginsberg, who Williams took under his wing in the years when his health was failing, writes in his elegy, “Williams is in the Big Dipper… there’s a life moving out of his pages.” Everyone in the world needs to read more poems, and a great way to make the blind see is with William Carlos Williams. This collection has more than a hundred voices saying that very thing. There is something for dads and waitresses and politicians in this group of poets, and what’s more American than that? (Jessica Meyer)
“Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams”
Edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro
University of Iowa Press, 304 pages, $25