William Carlos Williams

by Reed Whittemore
Houghton Mifflin, $10.95
Dr. Williams had a cussed personality, with all the innocence and all the belligerence of the American self-taught artist who hates the past because it is there. He balanced an enduring but uneasy friendship with Ezra Pound against a lifelong enmity for T. S. Eliot, whom he regarded as the archfiend of “academicism.” But in truth, Williams suffered undeserved neglect by whatever establishments there be and lived his life out in little magazines.
A famously busy pediatrician in Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams took as his poetry’s principal figure the Passaic River, and for his prose, the people of the towns it waters and drains. He was torn by conflicts among his devouring mother, his devoted wife, and lusts that would not leave him alone. His vitality loomed as large as his confusions, though. The miracle of his career is the achievement of a pure and pellucid poetry and an autobiographical prose with highly attuned observant powers. He rode out the riptides of his imagination.
His was a curious mind, divided as it was between the imperatives of Pound’s dictum, “make it new,” and the demands of clinical compassion which he expressed more completely in his novels and in the wavering curve of his great long poem, “Patterson.” than in the short lyrics that gradually emerged out of his romantic, Keats-ridden early work,
Reed Whittemore gives us a breezy, bumpy version of the life in a clustered, repetitive prose which strikes an attitude of faint condescension. Did the struggle between poetry and medical practice in the doctor—poet’s life really pale to insignificance before such weighty questions as “Modernism, Yes or No”? Whittemore, himself a good poet and a respected editor, deals effectively with Williams’ literary admirations and antipathies. He gives short shrift to Williams’ checkered publishing history. His book is a bundle of sketches rather than a finished portrait, from which the reader will not gain much sense of a poet’s journey unfolding. Sadly, biographer and subject were evidently not born to make a good life together.