William Carlos Williams

Woke up this morning and my first thought was I want to read some William Carlos Williams stories. I’m sure you’ve had that same thought yourself (not specifically about Williams but you know what I mean) and you want to act on it right away. I’m sure I first discovered him while perusing the Adult fiction section in my local public library as a kid so it was as a fiction writer I knew him before I had any idea he was a “famous American poet.” The first place I would normally go to is my bookcase but I knew he was woefully underrepresented there as I only had Paterson. Next place I check are the area libraries and I found out that was the case there also. I put a hold on The Farmer’s Daughters (a collection of his stories) at one of the libraries but it takes three days and that wasn’t good enough as I realized I needed something of his in my hot little hands right away. I don’t and probably will never have a Kindle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and don’t feel like reading anything of his online (Re: hot little hands and that many of the print editions are those legendary New Directions paperbacks) so I guess I’ll head to the nearest B&N store later (I wont even bother calling ahead as from previous experience I know they will have difficulty looking up so complicated a name as his) and peruse its shelves to see what of his they have which I suspect (again from previous experience) will be a wasted trip. But who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised. I’ll let you know. On a personal note when I worked at the Poetry Collection (think of it as the Library of Congress for poetry) at the University of Buffalo while getting my MLS I discovered we had his writing desk and many of his manuscripts, and Paul Mariani came there while he was working on his authoritative biography of the man, so I had the once in a lifetime pleasure of being his gofer, bringing any primary materials he wanted, gaining a familiarity with him I never would have otherwise had. I always meant to check the book to see if he had included me in the Acknowledgements as he said he would but never did. Some of you may be thinking at this point I thought he was mainly a poet and you are right but he also happens to be an extraordinarily diverse writer (essays, poetry, stories, novels, plays) who it seems is mostly unread today. His work is a constant pushing of the boundaries between poetry and prose creating a fascinating hybrid unlike any other I’ve come across. He says it best himself in some lines from the poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in which he wrote:

        “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Where to begin when considering his work? There is of course his most famous work Paterson, a five-book epic poem delineating a city as a man, considered controversial by most and read by few, undeservedly so. It is so worth the effort if you give it a chance. His book In the American Grain, totally unique in all of American literature and perhaps the finest prose work of same, is a fresh imaginative rendering of the history and myth of American figures and events. Coincidentally (or not), a similar method was applied to a history of American Lit as recently as 2009 in a book entitled A New Literary History of America, by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. The book Spring and All is perhaps the best illustration of his hybrid method, consisting of alternating sections of prose and free verse, best characterized as “a manifesto of the imagination.” Difficult to find on its own it appears in its entirety in The William Carlos Williams Reader. Finally, I return to the story collection The Farmer’s Daughters, which gathers together fifty-two stories from earlier books, The Knife of the Times (1932), Life Along the Passaic River(1938), and Make Light of It (1950), and includes as well the great long story, The Farmers’ Daughters, completed in 1956.  A dozen or more stories included here are true masterpieces, but in all of Williams’ stories there is a vitality and an immediacy unique in American fiction.

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