William Carlos Williams
Earlier this year I read Wendell Berry’s The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, a collection of essays and reflections about a theme in the life of “the poet of Rutherford” that is near to Berry’s own heart. That theme is place, or what Berry refers to as “local adaptation, ” and he explicitly says that his purpose in writing the book was to examine “Williams’ lifelong effort to come to terms with, to imagine, and to be of use to his native and chosen place.”
It is that phrase “to be of use to” that I want to consider here. For those of us interested in poetry, we tend to think in terms of poets as “poets” or writers before we think of them as people with lives, and sometimes lives where they excelled at things other than poetry. Williams was known as a doctor (specifically, a pediatrician) before he became known as poet. And he was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, and he was “of use” as a doctor before his poetry helped put Rutherford on the map.
The biography of Williams posted by The Poetry Foundation recognizes the importance of his medical career to his poetry: “A doctor for more than forty years serving the New Jersey town of Rutherford, he relied on his patients, the America around him, and his own ebullient imagination to create a distinctively American verse.”
Williams wrote more than poetry, including essays, articles, and short stories, and even a collection of short stories about the practice of medicine collected in a volume called The Doctor’s Stories. Yet you can’t read his poetry for long before you notice allusions to medicine, hospitals and doctors. Even in his famous prose/verse work Spring and all (1923), you can find the direct references:
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead brown leaves under them
leafless vines –
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches…
It’s not only the direct references. His poems are written with a keen, observing eye: the eye of a doctor, a physician who can’t always rely on what his patients tell him or what he can directly observe, because he knows so much may be hidden and unknown.
On a wall at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rutherford, a plaque has been placed recognizing Williams for both his poetry and his practice of medicine. “We walk the wards where Williams walked, ” it reads. “William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963, Poet Physician, Member of This Medical Staff 1924-1963.” And then it concludes with a quote by the poet physician: “The poem springs from the half-spoken words of the patient.”
The poetry of William Carlos Williams cannot really be separated from his work as a physician. I suspect his work as a physician cannot be separated from his poetry, either. Both are facets of the same person, a whole person, and man who wrote poetry with a doctor’s eye and practiced medicine with the compassion of a poet.
And so question: can you see how your own everyday work influences and structures your writing, whether it is poetry, fiction, non-fiction or all of the above? Can you find similarities in how you do work and how you write?
Photograph by Kelle Sauer. Used with permission. Poetry at Work post by Glynn Young.
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“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish