William Carlos Williams takes an interview

“So Mr. Williams, tell me, what do you write?”

Okay. So, WCW died in 1963, twenty years before I was born, and even if he hadn’t, I’m sure he wouldn’t have deigned to speak to the likes of me. I recently read The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, first published in 1948 by New Directions Books. There are many things to be said about the life of prolific writer and doctor Williams…

Observation #1. He surrounded himself with artists…famous artists.

How did he know so many famous people. He went to school with and was a life long friend of Ezra Pound and H.D., dined with James Joyce, partied with Man Ray and bunch of other artists, conversed with Gertrude Stein, doctored Charles Demuth… the list goes on. Literally the index in his biography could be a who’s who of first half of the twentieth century.

Observation #2. He loved and respected his wife very much, but he had misogynistic (and racist) tendencies.

They leak out the sides of his autobiography and sometimes hit you square in the face. Besides numerous condescending descriptions of women and girls throughout his book. There was this stunning passage:

I have had several but not many intimate friendships with men during my life, patterned, I suppose on the youthful experience of my brother…You could count them surely on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand there is Flossie, my wife, who is the rock on which I have built. But as far as my wish is concerned, I could not be satisfied by five hundred women. As I said, at the beginning, I was always an innocent child.

Why, I remember once as medical student falling in love with the corpse of young negress, a “high yaller” lying stripped on the dissecting table before me.

Men have given the direction to my life and women have always supplied the energy.

There is so much weirdness in that passage. I’ll just let you stew on that for a while.

Observation #3. He is an amazing writer and thinker.

Through at times, I felt I did not like the man I was reading, ultimately he has a thoughtfulness and delicacy with words–that made his autobiography a page turner. As a case in point and prelude to my next post–an “interview” with WCW about being a working writer–I’ll leave you this:

And it must be said of a life of confinement, if he survives it, that much of the world’s greatest writings has waited on a removal from the world of affairs for its doing. Concentration is what a man needs to bring his mind to harvest. We may and he will, whoever he may be, change ourselves by our contacts, but to drain off the good we must find quietude. The monk’s cell is ideal for the purpose…it represents a quiet relief from economic pressures: one can write then. Prison, though, is better, or seems to have been so in the past. Aesop was a slave; many a Greek did his best work in exile to Sicily or even the next city. Sappho must have felt mightily confined by Lesbos; Raleigh wrote well in prison: Pilgrim’s Progress came from confinement–as birth does also–but the best of all was Don Quixote, when Cervantes was put in jail…

The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets. And as they confine in themselves the only “life,” the ability to sprout at a more favorable time, to come true in the secret structure to the very minutest details of our thoughts, so they get their specific virtue.

We write for this, that the seed come true, and it appears to be this which makes the poewcwm the toughest certainty that life experience acknowledges.