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Herbert Leibowitz’s “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” provides a new perspective on the life and poetry of the doctor poet William Carlos Williams, a key American writer who led one of the more eventful literary lives of the twentieth century. Friends with most of the contemporary innovators of his era—Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and Louis Zukofsky, among others—Williams made a radical break with the modernist tradition by seeking to invent an entirely fresh and singularly American poetic, ...
Herbert Leibowitz’s “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” provides a new perspective on the life and poetry of the doctor poet William Carlos Williams, a key American writer who led one of the more eventful literary lives of the twentieth century. Friends with most of the contemporary innovators of his era—Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and Louis Zukofsky, among others—Williams made a radical break with the modernist tradition by seeking to invent an entirely fresh and singularly American poetic, whose subject matter derived from the everyday lives of the citizens and poor immigrant communities of northern New Jersey. His poems mirrored both the conflicts of his own life and the convulsions that afflicted American society—two world wars, a rampaging flu pan-demic, and the Great Depression.
Leibowitz’s biography offers a compelling description of the work that inspired a seminal, controversial movement in American verse, as well as a rounded portrait of a complicated man: pugnacious and kindly, ambitious and insecure, self-critical and imaginative. “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” is both a long-overdue assessment of a major American writer and an entertaining examination of the twentieth-century avant-garde art and poetry scene, with its memorable cast of eccentric pioneers, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein.
“Besides being a famously exacting editor, Herbert Leibowitz is a writer of exceptional gifts—elegant prose, critical sensitivity, keen empathy, and narrative grace. In the protean career of William Carlos Williams, he has found his ideal subject. His searching account of Williams’s life and personality, as seen through the prism of his work, makes for irresistible reading.” —Morris Dickstein, author of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
“In ‘Something Urgent I Have to Say to You’ Williams—inarguably a twentieth-century American master—is lovingly (but not uncritically) assessed in a twenty-first-century masterpiece of literary biography and analysis. With a fan’s enthusiasm and a scholar’s rigor, Herbert Leibowitz has given us a bountiful, beautiful project-of-a-lifetime book, the capacious embrace of which is made all the more amazing and all the more enduring by its author’s own sentence-by-sentence demonstration of verbal solidity wedded to verbal felicity.” —Albert Goldbarth
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 poemPaterson, 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,Patersonis 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.
The high priests of the New Criticism schooled their acolytes in an art of reading poems that elevated technique—modulations of meter, subtle shifts in tone, adroit maneuvers with syntax, ironies planted in dramatic monologues to detonate later—to an unaccustomed sovereignty. The critic explained how a poem worked, much as a chemist explained the elements of the periodic table: which words caused catalytic change and which entropy, which mixtures were volatile and which inert. According to this view, a poem chartered its own laws, which were often proudly tortuous, even baffling. Nothing was what it appeared to be: the most innocent line might shelter a furtive renegade who aimed to overturn conventional order and install ambiguity in its place. The job of the critic was to ferret out linguistic clues scattered on and below the poem's surface and, through patient analysis, put the circuitry back together. For this task, a poet's biography—his idyllic childhood or poisoned upbringing, his strivings to escape the yoke of poverty, racial bigotry, religious strictness, or even gentility—was deemed either irrelevant or mere raw material to be stored away or disposed of like slag, a by-product of the poetic process.
Under New Critical rules, all poets were not created equal. John Donne and Richard Crashaw prospered because they brandished witty paradox like expert swordsmen. Their poems demanded the close scrutiny and concentration of solving a chess problem. Romantic poets such as Shelley and Wordsworth, allegedly guilty of talking too much or too emotionally, were often disparaged as clumsy versifiers and bombastic idealists who clung to literalism, and therefore were assigned nosebleed seats in the bleachers at Elysian Fields.
Although the New Critics undeniably taught two generations to read poems more alertly and to respect their intricately spun webs, forms, and textures, the poet in their scheme mostly was seen as creating the verbal artifact in the manner of a demiurge, then withdrawing to the sidelines, becoming a spectator as the critics dissected—or scavenged—his creation. The poet's intentions, motives, if not his experience, counted for little compared to the striations and glazes of, or cracks in, his well-wrought urn. Biography could only distract the reader from his duty as inspector of a poem's structural soundness or fault lines; dwelling on incidents from the poet's life would lead to sentimentality or a sloppy impressionism that corrupted and trivialized the work itself. Interpreting Donne's "The Flea," New Critics might mention in passing the youthful sexual escapades that landed Donne in prison, but even such pivotal events inspired little commentary. A peculiar bias blinded them to the fact that discordia concors, what Dr. Johnson defined as "a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike," might reside in the metaphysical poet's character as well as in his style, that hyperbole and poetic conceits are a psychological thumbprint left on a poem and worthy of study and speculation. Curiously, the ironies and puns that the New Critics reveled in analyzing often resemble the slips of the tongue and dreams Freud interpreted so methodically as clues to unconscious motives, conflicts, character flaws, and erratic patterns of development.
Strong hostility was generated in many quarters to biographers who ventured to investigate just such constellations and their relation to poems and novels. If the individual begins, the psychotherapist and literary critic Adam Phillips asks, with an "always recondite sense of himself," how can the biographer "penetrate the inner life" of a Hemingway or an Ezra Pound? Leslie Stephen's answer, "with a great deal of guesswork," could only galvanize the skeptics among the historians and theorists who scoffed at the very idea of seeking the sources of creativity and identity crises in "unconscious mental processes." They dismissed it as mystical mumbo jumbo or an illicit method that substituted unverifiable suppositions about a poet's erotic fantasies, say, for precise documentary proof. In a New York Review of Books essay several years ago, Joyce Carol Oates excoriated biographers for their Wal-Mart version of psychoanalysis that she labeled "pathography," a term of opprobrium that gained wide circulation. Oates viewed the biographers' efforts as tawdry and exploitative, the projection of their own neuroses and unconscious agendas on their helpless subjects' lives. Putting Hemingway and Pound retroactively on an analyst's couch is futile and hubristic, since no biographer can ever know exactly what his subject was thinking. No wonder Dr. Johnson observed in his Life of Cowley, "Actions are visible though motives are secret," and Emily Dickinson remarked acerbically to Thomas Wentworth Higginson that "biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the biographied." It's true that dead artists cannot refute the calumnies that sometimes mar the interpretations of their behavior. Nonetheless, biography is not a branch of pathography or fantasy that specializes in reductive psychobabble.
Unlike Oates, John Updike is not ready to preside over a requiem mass for biography, but all he can muster in appreciation of the genre is one and a half cheers. Biographers are trapped in Plato's cave, he contends, twice removed from reality, so they can offer readers little more than a blurred facsimile of a writer's life. Occasionally biography performs a useful if derivative job, like Piero della Francesca's assistants filling in patches of a fresco's background against which the master's evocative figures stand out. Mostly it behaves like a loutish Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, "ridiculing and denigrating his subjects."
After treating biography as if he were a bouncer tossing a boorish drunk from a classy tavern, Updike decides to sing another tune. He is pleased when biography, excavating an archaeological site, turns up a glittering shard of fact—that Nabokov wrote on three-by-five cards, for example. Although he worries that a gang of vulgar biographers is snooping around his house and writing desk, casing the joint and biding their time before invading his privacy and stealing his treasures, including his good name, he makes several handsome if grudging concessions. Psychoanalytical theories of compensation and Edmund Wilson's moving essay "[Philoctetes:] The Wound and the Bow" have "alerted biographers to the relation of creative drive to a human insufficiency elsewhere," or "the mysteries of [artists'] affective lives." Implying that a biographer can be an indefatigable lover and seeker of truths, Updike restores biography to its place in literature's house hold. "Viewing the intimate underside of writers we have read is fascinating," Updike declares, and near the end of his essay he notes, "The life of a writer, which spins outside of itself a secondary life, offers an opportunity to study mind and body, or inside and outside, or dream and reality, together, as one."
Because he is an artist, Updike can distinguish between a literary biography of superb quality, like Boswell's Life of Johnson or George D. Painter's Marcel Proust, and a biography that piles up facts, bales them, stores them, then recounts them in the droning voice of an inventory clerk. We've all read and deplored obese biographies that cram facts into their narrative maws as if suffering from a compulsive eating disorder. Thoroughness is commendable, shapelessness deplorable. Herschel Parker's massive two-volume biography of Melville, however useful as reference, fails as portraiture and interpretation. The artist is suffocated by the weight of facts. Do we need to know how many bottles of bourbon Faulkner, John Berryman, and James Dickey drank? Not really, though how their alcoholism affected their personality, their relationships, and, above all, their work is germane to the biographer's task. If William Carlos Williams was a sometime womanizer, does it matter how many women he took to bed? No, but how his philandering affected his marriage and his poetry is crucially important to assess. In the foreword to his Autobiography, Williams cagily warns biographers, "We always try to hide the secret of our lives from the general stare. What I believe to be the hidden core of my life will not easily be deciphered, even when I tell, as here, the outer circumstances." Therein lies the biographer's challenge: to cross the minefield to the site of "the hidden core" and, once arrived safely there, to refuse to adopt reductive or formulaic explanations of the subject's behavior.
It's a commonplace that biographers cannot be indifferent to facts beyond the personal lives of their subjects. Individual lives, after all, are inescapably entangled in the events of their times. Yeats's poetry is inconceivable apart from the painful, fractious political history of Ireland, as Guillaume Apollinaire's, Isaac Rosenberg's, and Wilfred Owen's are inextricably associated with the slaughter of the Great War. In a presidential address to the American Historical Association, William Langer set forth his misgivings about psychobiography, reminding his audience that if biography neglects to locate its protagonist in a historical context and lacks a convincing theory that explains the interplay between large groups and institutions—reformers, armies, corporations, state legislators, anarchists—and aspiring or crushed men and women, the biography leaves a gaping hole in its narrative fabric. Langer's worry is legitimate and applies to poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, and Yusef Komunyakaa, who, caught in the cogs of history's machinery and suffering grievous wounds, bear witness to, respectively, the murder of a husband and the imprisonment of a beloved son, the wrenching limbo of exile, and the atrocities of war (the napalming of innocent peasants in Vietnam and the death of a buddy in his battalion). A few poets seek to escape the historical furies by retreating into a pursuit of their art, but there's no hiding from the juggernaut of tyranny: a writer such as Primo Levi is driven out of his chemistry laboratory and sent to a concentration camp, where he survives by a mixture of luck and ingenuity, whereas the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti is executed along with a large group of ordinary citizens. A poet such as William Carlos Williams lives through the disasters of world wars, economic depressions, genocides, and strikes physically unscathed, but with heightened social consciousness, he sometimes highlights these "outer circumstances" in his poems and at other times drops them suggestively into the background, like a church seen in the distance in a Constable landscape.
Despite these caveats, the New Critics' insistence on a poem's autonomy is a useful shot across the biographer's bow. Though a sonnet may present self-communing on a stock theme—carpe diem, for instance—it's not necessarily a coded autobiographical statement. Shakespeare's sonnet cycle has resisted innumerable attempts to probe for evidence of his sexual preferences or partners. Other poems, such as Paradise Lost, also stymie the biographer poised to search its heroic verse for self-disclosures. The sectarian schisms and political tumult that tore En gland apart in the seventeenth century—regicide, civil war, exile, religious persecution—infiltrate the majestic theological drama of the Fall of Man in subtle ways. Since an epic poem is not a roman à clef or a disguised allegory, we can't compile a list of glib correspondences—God equals Oliver Cromwell, Belial stands for Charles II—however tantalizing it may be to do so.
Blake famously claimed that Milton was a member of the Devil's Party without knowing it. Satan's charismatic oratory, cool leadership, love of adventure, and wily, fearless nature, which in the epic's kinship system make him a first cousin to Odysseus, tempt us to think so. But those dramatic traits don't entirely suit Milton's bookish nature. When Satan first glimpses Adam and Eve, whom he has sworn to destroy for revenge, Milton memorably sketches an Iago figure, who "saw / Undelighted all delight." Is this an unconscious self-portrait? A gibe at sexual repression? A condemnation of jealousy? A voyeur's stance? How much did Milton identify with rebellion? Milton's biographer must wrestle with these questions; they don't yield easy answers. Yet because the poet's prodigious learning colors the dramatic narrative of Paradise Lost on every page, the biographer can pick up valuable data on many topics: Milton's championing of freedom of expression, his misogyny, his positions on theological controversy, his relish of slashing polemics. Tracing these sources, a biographer will gain a fuller knowledge of Milton's formidable mind and the doctrinal soil out of which Paradise Lost sprang, but a limited connection between Satan's psychology and Milton's.
There is a second hurdle. At some basic level—call it the poem's genetic makeup—Milton goes about his artistic business without regard to his unkempt life or the political circumstances that hem him in. As the self-styled heir and rival of Homer and Virgil, he clearly flaunts his mastery of epic conventions and his ambition to produce a Christian Iliad. With its strategically deployed battalions of commas, semicolons, and colons, Milton's thorny Latinate syntax drives the familiar biblical plot at a leisurely pace. In the sonorities and cadences of his blank verse, Milton's virtuosity dazzles, as even those detractors who found it cold and pompous conceded. Virile, impersonal, haughty, convoluted, Milton's sentences coil and spring, halt, contemplate, digress, and advance like a serpent. But it's nearly impossible to parse Milton's character or erotic nature from his labyrinthine grammar. Though he lingers over Eve's languid voluptuousness, she remains embalmed in the amber of women's submissive role as sanctioned by Christian dogma ("Hee for God only, Shee for God in him"). Because Paradise Lost is an escape from personality into epic style, Milton's biographer must warily account for the myriad ways the epic's rules and restrictions modify our sense of who the poet was.
Are biography and poetry, then, continents linked only by a narrow isthmus often flooded and impassable? Yes and no. Take the twentieth century's most famous poem, The Waste Land. Even though Eliot called the poem "a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life," its exegetes ignored his remark and, like a pack of beagles, fanned out to uncover and pounce on every allusion, from The Golden Bough, Dante, Vedic scripture, Spenser, and Jacobean drama to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. (Eliot's notes made the job simpler.) Critics tended to shy away from commenting on how the misery of his failed marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood seeped into the refined ennui of "A Game of Chess" and the tawdry coupling between the carbuncular clerk and the typist in "The Fire Sermon." By marshaling facts and ideas from the poet's letters, anecdotes in friends' memoirs, and interviews, Eliot's biographer can document the poet's despair as his marriage crumbled and he suffered a nervous breakdown that required treatment in a Swiss sanatorium. Despite The Waste Land's ritualistic tone, thematic ambitions, and numerous allusions, it confirms our suspicions that sexual disgust and fear were rooted in the poet's psyche. The clipped dialogue and flurry of questions in "A Game of Chess," like the expensive rococo stage set, highlight the emotional estrangements of a marriage on the verge of dissolution. There is nothing euphemistic about the wife's agony. Rattled by her husband's stony politeness, she succumbs to hysteria; her impoverished vocabulary, broken rhythms, and flurry of beseeching questions are revelatory:
"My nerves are bad to night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. "Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. "What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? "I never know what you are thinking. Think."
The relationship between life and art here serves the biographer's purposes well.
Excerpted from SOMETHING URGENT I HAVE TO SAY TO YOU: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams by Herbert Leibowitz, published in November 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Herbert Leibowitz. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from SOMETHING URGENT I HAVE TO SAY TO YOU by Herbert Leibowitz Copyright © 2011 by Herbert Leibowitz. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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