William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture

William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture

William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture

William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture


Bremen's study examines the development of William Carlos Williams's poetics, focusing in particular on Williams's ongoing fascination with the effects of poetry and prose, and his life-long friendship with Kenneth Burke. Using a framework based on Burke's and Williams's theoretical writings and correspondence, as well as on the work of contemporary cultural critics, Bremen looks closely at how Williams's poetic strategies are intimately tied to his medical practice, incorporating a form of methodological empiricism that extends his diagnoses beyond the individual to include both language and community. The book develops a series of rhetorical, cognitive, medical, and political analogues that clarify the poetic and cultural achievements Williams hoped to realize in his writing.


The relationship between Williams's medical practice and his career as a writer has typically been described in the complementary terms Williams himself provides in his Autobiography:

. . . As I say, often after I have gone into my office harassed by personal perplexities of whatever sort, fatigued physically and mentally, after two hours of intense application to the work, I came out at the finish completely rested (and I mean rested) ready to smile and to laugh as if the day were just starting.

That is why as a writer I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather was my very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for me to write. . . . Oh, I knew it wasn't for the most part giving me anything very profound, but it was giving me terms, basic terms with which I could spell out matters as profound as I cared to think of.

(A 357)

Somehow, Williams explains, "I could always find the time to bang out 10 or 12 pages. in fact, I couldn't rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day" (A xiv). Just as Williams's writing revives him from the long hours of his practice, the prosaic "humdrum, day-in, day-out, everyday work that is the real satisfaction of the practice of medicine" (A 356) gives Williams the raw material in which he can discover the "radiant gist" of his poetry. Interacting with his patients, he finds "the actual words, as we hear them spoken under all circumstances, which contain it. It is actually there, in the life before us, every minute that we are listening, a rarest element--not in our imaginations but there, there in fact" (A 362).

But the "facts" of his medical career enabled Williams's poetry in more ways than just providing material that he could reshape into his writing. From the very start, Williams had pursued medicine because "only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to" (A 51). Obviously, Williams's decision to practice among the working class of Rutherford shows that "living and writing as he wanted to" meant something other than economic security and the artistic independence it would provide. Neither did it mean that Williams wanted to play the starving artist--"I would not court disease, live in the slums for the sake of art, give lice a holiday. I would not 'die for art,' but live for it, grimly! and work, work, work (like Pop), beat the game and be free (like . . .

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