William Carlos Williams in Translation

By Jarman, Mark | The Hudson Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

William Carlos Williams in Translation


Jarman, Mark, The Hudson Review


ONE SIGN OF A WRITER'S ICONIC STATUS IS THAT READERS May begin to see themselves and their personal preferences wherever they look in the writer's life and work. As a result, the icon, with its connotation of fixity, turns protean. If the feminist wishes to see feminism in the life and work of Emily Dickinson, Dickinson cannot help but oblige. If the libertarian wants to find confirmation of libertarian principles, Robert Frost can be made to look very much like Ron Paul. And Shakespeare is at the mercy of the entire political, social, and cultural spectrum. During the most intense period of the counterculture, I remember hearing Jesus referred to on the left as a radical who would have happily participated in Days of Rage, and on the right, which was growing anxious about gender and sexual equality, as a "he-man." The icon can't help it. To paraphrase W. H. Auden in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the icon becomes his or her admirers. If two recent books, one a critical biography and one an appreciation, are any indication,1 William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) has achieved that dubious honor. So it is interesting to see how Williams himself interpreted the poetry of others in a new collection of his translations of Spanish-language poetry from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.2

When William H. Pritchard published Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, less than ten years after the last volume in Lawrance Thompson's less than flattering three-volume biography of Robert Frost, Pritchard 's aim in part was to remind readers that despite the flaws of the individual who emerged in Thompson's biography, Frost lived a life dedicated to poetry. Pritchard attempted to separate the monster of Thompson's portrait from the man who was an artist. He began a necessary job of rehabilitation, encouraging a renewed attention to the work of the poet. William Carlos Williams, on the other hand, is in no need of that kind of rehabilitation. Paul Mariani's biography of thirty years ago, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, is a voluminous and sympathetic portrait of the poet of Rutherford, NJ, and gives in copious details the life of a man who, despite his circumstances, deserves to take his place among the great modern poets. Despite the title of Herbert Leibowitz's critical biography, "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, " there is no urgent need to rescue Williams the artist from Williams the man. Of course, Williams was not the public figure that Robert Frost was in his lifetime. And the year he came closest to attaining that kind of stature, when nominated for Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now called Poet Laureate), the vicissitudes of McCarthyism blocked his appointment. No, it appears that Leibowitz wishes to argue something quite different from Pritchard's argument on behalf of the poet Frost. He wishes to bring the life and the work of Williams closer together, especially as the work reveals the flaws in that life, and in particular the problems in Williams' marriage, including his serial adulteries. In fact, he believes that he can read all of the work as a record of the life. However, his own attitude toward Williams often seems to be more like Thompson's to Frost than Pritchard's to Frost. He argues that both poetry and prose give us Williams, warts and all, if only we know how to look.

It is a surprise to learn that Williams' standing as a major modern poet has not been soundly established. Yet Leibowitz begins by taking issue with Donald Davie who, in 1987, published his opinion about Williams, "A Demurral," in The New Republic, in a review of The Collected Poems, 1909-1939. Davie, whose own career had an interesting division of sympathies between the formalism of The Movement and the legacy of Ezra Pound, couldn't hear Williams or understand his value or make him fit into Davie's idea of Modernism. But Davie's was very much a minority opinion of Williams and simply not as influential as Leibowitz treats it, though it may have been more widely shared in Britain. …

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