William Carlos Williams: Embattled Messiah

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, May 2009 | Go to article overview
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William Carlos Williams: Embattled Messiah

Timko, Michael, The World and I

The elder son of William George and Raquel Helene Williams, two of the founding members of the Rutherford (New Jersey) Unitarian Society in 1891, William Carlos Williams became a dedicated doctor and a major twentieth-century American writer before his death in 1963.

"Among the poets of his own illustrious generation," John Malcolm Brinnin has written, "William Carlos Williams has been the man on the margin, the incorrigible maverick, the embattled messiah."

For the rest of his life, including the years of faithful service to his patients and his devotion to writing prose and poetry displaying what he called "the American idiom," Williams never forgot the principles and ideals he had learned "growing up Unitarian."

In his autobiography Williams tells of his own feelings: "This world of Sunday School and church did heaven knows what to me. We were a small sect in a small church so that the need to cling together was always apparent. It appealed to me that Christ was divine by the spirit that was in him and not by miraculous birth. This seemed democratic and to the point. I believed it."

Although he never paraded his early nurturing, Williams from time to time did reveal and acknowledge his debt to his Emersonian heritage, sometimes embarrassingly so. In a letter to his mother when he was twenty-one, for instance, he assured her that in spite of her doubts he "never did and never will do a premeditated bad deed in my life."

According to Paul Mariani, who has written extensively on Williams, the Unitarian-Emersonian creed was behind much of his poetry. Williams, says Mariani, believed that man himself was divine and so the work he did must also be the truth. "This "transcendental mode," he concludes, "would remain the bedrock of his beliefs for the rest of his life."

Williams entered the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia following his graduation from Horace Mann High School in New York City. All through his medical school and his interning years in New York (1902-1909) he kept up his interest in writing, and in 1909 he published his first book of poetry.

While still a medical intern, Williams became engaged to Florence Herman. He married Flossie, as she was known, in December 1912, and, as one account of his life put it, "within two years had a mortgage, the first of two infant sons, and a practice that included evening office hours and house calls."

For the rest of his life Williams continued to be both a dedicated doctor and writer. His patients were devoted to him, and he became what one critic has called "a self-consciously American poet," one dedicated to establishing a genuine American idiom.

Often irreverent in tone, his writing, especially his poetry, defied all conventions--formal, political, and religious. Although he did not like the term, he wrote in what is known as free verse, and throughout his career he was always innovative.

Critics have called his work a "bridge" between the "regional approach" of Robert Frost and the "European focus" of T.S. Eliot. Williams claimed that he wanted a "new kind" of poetry, and his poetry has been described by his admirers as "making rhythmical entities" out of the "materials of modern talk and the everyday experience that such talk reflected."

His success in achieving this goal is seen most clearly in his volume of mixed prose and poetry Spring and All (1923).

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