HEROES AND VILLAINS - Williams Carlos Williams by David Widgery
But William Carlos Williams, the great Modernist poet, succeeded. Williams, who was born in 1883 and died in 1963 after a series of strokes, was not only a prolific poet, critic, novelist and dramatist, but also a lifelong, full-time general practitioner in Rutherford, New Jersey. Although he could have easily set up in private practice in Manhattan, he chose instead to work in a working class industrial township with many recent immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, who spoke little English.
His ‘Doctor Stories’ deal with crises understood by any contemporary inner-city GP: still birth, autopsy, patients who refuse examination or cannot understand reassurance, never-ending evening surgeries, externded family consultartions in broken Englisuh, the particular test of night-visiting. My visits are made to the concrete tower-blocks of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, and the new immigrants are from Vietnam and Bangladesh. There is no other writer who deals so well with how to listen, how to care, how to be there at the moment of physical need. He must have jotted these feelings down on prescription pad or notebook, then transcribed them o his laboratory typewriter, when hammering often awoke his children. ‘By the time we assembled for breakfast, he had probably already done an hour’s stint,’ recalls his physician son William.
As much as his industry, I like his laconic tone. His tenderness is hard-edged, his humanism slightly cynical; best of all, he is never sentimental about the oppressed. And there is the sheer quality of his literary work.
Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican, was only a second-generation English speaker, so he struggled to develop a truly American voice. His innovations were a simile-free- metaphor-stripped diction arranged with a syntax and prosody based on lug breaths. It produced a wonderful, still woefully underrated body of work, ranging from the long love-poem ‘Asphodel’, to the haiku-like lilts in ‘Pictures form Breugel’.
Williams is heroic because he was a prophet in his own land, because he reclaimed poetry from European-imitating academics and because he stayed a working doctor – and enjoyed it. ‘I never felt’, he wrote, ‘that medicine interfered with me but rather that it was my food and drink, the very thing that made it possible to write.’ So whenever I become disgruntled about the workload, I mutter a phrase of Williams’ about one of his patients, which sums up my own mixed feelings about practicing in the East End: ‘her smile, with a shrug, always won me.’
(David Widgery, The Independent)