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William Carlos Williams
1950 Winner for Poetry, Paterson, Book III; and Selected Poems

By way of introduction: When I was approached by Audrey Seitz and Rob Earp of Ingram last fall with the opportunity to write this monthly column, I jumped at the chance. It is an unfortunate occupational hazard of my job as Executive Director of The National Book Foundation, sponsor of the National Book Awards, that (for obvious reasons) I can’t express my opinion on any of the contemporary books that have been Finalists for or have won this most prestigious honor. I say "contemporary" because if you go back far enough, as I intend to do, and return to the classics, then the critical statute of limitations no longer applies to me.

So in this monthly column I am going to steer clear of recent times, and of writers who might still be contenders for the National Book Award.

Now that you have read my disclaimer, let’s proceed.

It all began with the first National Book Awards Ceremony in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the spring of 1950. William Carlos Willliams (1883-1963) was the Poetry Winner that year. He also happens to have been the subject of my doctoral dissertation as well as of the first biography I ever wrote, To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet (Atheneum, 1984, now sadly out of print, but there are still copies floating around for sale on various websites).

The long poem, Paterson, had been on Williams’ mind since the 1920s, when he decided to write a truly American epic that would, as he put it, "embody the whole knowable world." Williams chose as the focal point for his subject the city of Paterson, New Jersey, because it was near Rutherford, the town of his birth and life-long residency, where he practiced family medicine and delivered more than three thousand babies in the course of a forty-year career, during which he also produced more than forty books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and drama.

William Carlos Williams believed that the power of the local landscape should be harnessed by the poet to drive the shape and subject-matter of his work; and he also believed that American speech should be exploited as the root for our native poetry to assert itself, free from the constraints of derivative English tradition.

He originally planned that the poem Paterson would be divided classically into four parts, mirroring four stages in the lifespan of a man: "A man in himself is a city," Williams wrote, "beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of city may embody – if imaginatively conceived."

Book III, first published as a freestanding volume in 1949, possesses all the essential ingredients that make Williams’ long poem so exciting and original and modern – fragments of verse interspersed with excerpts from old newspaper articles, letters to Williams from friends, including Ezra Pound, perceptions of the ever-changing countryside. The central theme of Book III is the burning of the library, a catastrophe held by Williams to be like none other; for even though he was consumed by the demands of his profession, tending to the sick at all hours of the day and night, he was a voracious reader and a great lover of books.

The edition of the Selected Poems brought out in 1949 has of necessity over the past half-century been emended and expanded many times. The current edition in paperback from New Directions includes an insightful introduction by the English poet and critic Charles Tomlinson, and it presents examples of Williams’ work from his earliest poems reminiscent of Browning, Keats and Whitman, pre-1914, all the way through the final drafts for Paterson Book V (and Williams had begun notes for Book VI which were found in his papers after his death. He was unable to stay within the constraints of a four-part structure. He had too much to say.)

The greatest reward to be gained from this Selected Poems is to leaf through it quickly at first and notice how Williams gradually emancipated his style and stretched the limits of verse, freeing himself from stanzaic tightness of form, reaching toward what he liked to call "the variable foot." So let’s conclude with a brief example of that invented style, from one of Williams’ most delightful poems of the 1940s, The Sparrow, dedicated to the poet’s father:

-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director


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