"And Everyone and I Stopped Breathing": William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and the News of the Day in Verse

By Cappucci, Paul R. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"And Everyone and I Stopped Breathing": William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and the News of the Day in Verse


Cappucci, Paul R., Papers on Language & Literature


It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

--William Carlos Williams "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

The above line from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" expresses Williams's belief in the purpose and potential power of poetry. Living in industrialized northern New Jersey, Williams witnessed America's many problems and believed he could provide the poetic prescription--"the news"--needed to improve its condition. On the other side of the river, the younger poet Frank O'Hara was also interested in the news and sought to incorporate it into his verse, yet O'Hara does not seem to place the same high cost on its redeeming social value. "But how can you really care if anybody gets it," O'Hara writes in his mock manifesto "Personism" (1959), "or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?" (498). Although the Rutherford physician greatly influenced him, O'Hara conceives of the news and its function in poetry differently than does Williams. For Williams, the news is not composed of the popular stories of the day but rather the "beautiful"--often overlooked--things in his locale. In contrast, the younger O'Hara embraces the Pop element and culture of celebrity in his poetry. He seeks to supplement celebrity news--the collapse of Lana Turner, the beating of Miles Davis, the death of Billie Holiday--with his own unique representation of its relevance and connection to daily life.

In his Autobiography, Williams poses the following question: "What is the use of reading the common news of the day, the tragic deaths and abuses of daily living, when for over half a lifetime we have known that they must have occurred just as they occurred given the conditions that cause them?" (360). He laments that this news is nothing more than "trivial fill gap." In contrast, he discusses how his work as a physician enables him to discover something much deeper: "the hunted news I get from some obscure patients' eyes is not trivial. It is profound" (360). According to Williams, such news reveals "a new, a more profound language," a language that he calls "poetry" (361). For Williams, the roles of doctor and poet complement one another--"they are two parts of a whole" (359).

Throughout Williams's poetry you see such "hunted news" take precedence over the popular news of the day. His "Complaint" offers such a newsworthy moment. The poem begins matter-of-factly: "They call me and I go" (Collected Poems 1). (1) Immediately the speaker leaves his home "past midnight" and drives across a "frozen road" to tend to a patient. The tone indicates no sense of emergency, no sense of anger or excitement. Rather the speaker responds reflexively--he is needed, so he goes. Despite his presence as an outsider, he holds a privileged place in this home because of his role as physician. Trying to "shake off the cold" (8), which covers his whole being, he sees a "great woman" in discomfort (9), "sick" (11) and, as he remarks, "perhaps laboring / to give birth to / a tenth child" (13-15). Both the woman and the doctor have gone through the process numerous times. Yet this "great figure" needs more than a mechanical response from him. Night turns into dawn and "through the jalousies the sun / has sent one gold needle!" (18-19). The appearance of light parallels the doctor's emergence beyond the rote: "I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery / with compassion" (20-22). The poem thus concludes with an extraordinary moment when the outsider casts aside his coldness and performs an act of intimate human contact. For Williams, the news of his day misses such a story. After all, it lacks the sensationalism necessary to capture readers' interest. For Williams, the poet must discover this type of news and represent it in all its profundity.

In "Portrait of a Woman in Bed," Williams represents another incident that appears unremarkable, but upon closer examination reveals the extraordinary. …

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"And Everyone and I Stopped Breathing": William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and the News of the Day in Verse
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