by Paul Mariani ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 25, 1981
The small-town doc, the innocent celebrator of nature and people, the cultivator of poetic tangibles, the rube adrift in a culture too sophisticated for him: these attitudes about Williams die hard and slow. And so Mariani has decided (unlike his less ambitious predecessors Mike Weaver and Reed Whittemore) to hurl a cinder block at these misconceptions, delivering a fat, detailed life of the poet whose personal stationery in med school bore the sign of a turtle and the motto J'arriverai--""I will get there."" Indeed, with Wallace Stevens, Williams was the American poet who did get there, in terms of continuing influence and freshness and profound technique. And Mariani sees Williams as a master of the ""hounds and hares"" strategy--letting the other guy go first, then stepping in for the real spoils. Young, he operated this way in courtship: wanting Charlotte Herman, losing her to his brother Ed, then marrying Charlotte's sister Floss--who turned out, in patience and love and understanding of Williams' disorderly genius, to be the find of his life. He also started a literary career that way--chiefly by reacting to European trends (a lifelong and obsessive antipathy to Eliot, a great ambivalence toward Pound), thus establishing himself as the major local force. But the closer the look at Williams, the darker (yet paradoxically more illuminating) he becomes. His love for the town of Rutherford, N.J., rubbed against his intense hatred of the restraints it put upon him as a writer. A libel judgment against him for an early short story left him always a little gun-shy about publicness, the larger literary world. He was plagued by neglect (paying to be published instead of vice versa till age 50) and then by patronization (""I am sitting at the center of a vortex that doesn't vortex""). Extraordinary erotic energy led to countless adulteries, each of which he felt he paid for in fearsome psychic coin. His spasmodic intellectual spontaneity constantly landed him into political trouble. And yet through it all came splendors: the artistic restlessness to keep breaking through (from Spring and All to Paterson to Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower); the fumbles and corrections, often prompted by Louis Zukofsky, to whom WCW always went for a best reading; the absolute conviction, nonetheless, that he was right about what Mariani aptly terms ""the nature of real learning. . . the way in which human consciousness came in contact with its world."" The end of such a life is especially heartbreaking to read about: the curtain that kept falling between stroke-wracked Williams and his great equation--the world and the poem. But despite this rich material and fresh research into hundreds of unpublished Williams letters, Mariani's study--though fittingly informal, capturing the generosity and the masks of Williams' spirit--lacks psychological depth or a forceful, objective frame. Likewise, more critical attention to the early poems would have been welcome. Still, even if Mariani hasn't produced a completely successful literary biography, his work is one of great love and scrupulosity--and it will help balance the scale like nothing that's come before it.
Pub Date: Nov. 25, 1981
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981
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