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The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams

by Herbert Leibowitz

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-11329-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A detailed biography of pioneering modernist poet William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), seen through a discriminating and skeptical eye.

Skeptical because, for all the close attention Parnassus editor Leibowitz pays to each phase of the physician-poet’s life, the author sometimes seems uncertain that Williams is a subject worthy of biographical scrutiny. Though Leibowitz has high praise for some of Williams’ scattered poems and for the first two parts of his epic poem Paterson, he deems Williams an admirably experimental writer whose experiments often fell short. What Leibowitz acknowledges is the importance of the experiments: By tinkering with rhythm, line breaks and subject matter in new ways, Williams strove to capture the voice of the everyday American without feeling beholden to old-fashioned Victorian poesy or the obscurantism of T.S. Eliot and his mentor Ezra Pound. (Williams and Pound’s relationship was always contentious. Pound could be equally supportive and condescending toward Williams, but Pound’s embrace of fascism and anti-Semitism during World War II shattered their friendship.) Leibowitz identifies two crucial personal influences on Williams’ poetry. First was his work as a physician in New Jersey, which exposed him to the working-class people he sought to embody in his writing. More important was his long but troubled marriage with his wife, Floss, which inspired some of his more powerfully embittered poems, as well as numerous affairs. (Leibowitz suggests Williams fathered at least one child out of wedlock.) The author concentrates heavily on close analysis of Williams’ poems, sometimes at the expense of narrative thrust; for instance, Paterson is mentioned numerous times with little explanation before the chapter dedicated to its creation.

Leibowitz doesn’t position Williams as a consistently great poet, but he saves him from the brickbats his work has recently absorbed, and gives him his due as a key figure in the creation of Modernist ideas.