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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Avoiding the urge to romanticize William Carlos Williams

On this date 124 years ago, writer William Carlos Williams was born. I'm fond of Williams for a few different reasons. His political and philosophical leanings are akin to my own. He managed to practice pediatric medicine and maintain a prolific career as a poet and essayist. And, most shallowly, I really like the alliterative quality of his name.

Williams embraced a theory of poetry that exalted the commonplace, gave voice to natural cadences and uneven meters, and rejected the flowery romanticism of the 19th Century upon whose heels he followed. He was part of the Imagist movement that included close friend Ezra Pound.

The background information in the Answers.com article on William Carlos Williams is quite interesting, and touches on an idea that's been rattling around in my head recently. The biographical article on Williams discusses the conflicting influences of Pound and Williams' mother. The former demanded a strict theoretical approach to his art, while the latter inspired more freedom and emotion.

We humans are nothing if not contradictory, and it's important to recognize and embrace that. To believe in one approach to art, politics or life to the exclusion of all others is naive, and the purity of our ideals can sometimes prove self-defeating. As one example, Williams is said to have rejected any comparisons to Walt Whitman who he viewed as overly sentimental, but the two had much in common in their love of the diversity of American experience.

Filled with a sense of playfulness and emotion, Williams' art often transcends his own theory, and that's a beautiful thing. Here is one of my favorite pieces by him:

Pastoral
by William Carlos Williams

THE little sparrows
hop ingenuously
about the pavement
quarreling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.

Meanwhile,
the old man who goes about
gathering dog-lime
walks in the gutter
without looking up
and his tread
is more majestic than
that of the Episcopal minister
approaching the pulpit
of a Sunday.

These things
astonish me beyond words.
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