Where Does It Hurt? An Exploration of the Impact of
William Carlos Williams’ Vocation on His Avocation
“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably
every day for lack of what is found there.”
There is in the modern era a tradition of physician/writers, men of medicine whose avocation (writing) in some ways outstripped their vocation (medicine), men like Anton Chekov, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas. The poet William Carlos Williams fits nicely into this pantheon, a man who entered medicine so that he might support his family as well as support his need to write. On that need to write, Williams confided to the little red notebook he carried round that “If I did not have/verse/I would have died/or been/a thief” (Williams DS, 137). In his autobiography, he summarizes his professional lives by saying “All that I have wanted to do was to tell of my life as I went along practicing medicine and at the same time recording my daily search for . . . what?”(Williams AB, xii). That “what” is what constitutes the bulk of his second career, the writing career, and what sets him apart and above a host of other popular 20th century poets.
Any given person who becomes a poet is likely to have as individual and distinct a view of the world about them as any other person, but a person who trains as a physician and then becomes a poet will perhaps view the world in a very different way than a person without benefit of such education. Richard Selzer, another prominent figure in the physician/writer mold, notes that “a doctor walks in and out of a dozen short stories a day. It is irresistible to write them down” (Selzer, 204). William Carlos Williams evidently was of the same mind as Selzer; he wrote down the short stories he came across while making his rounds, sometimes in poems, sometimes in essays or fiction. It is in large part the extreme variety of experience that life will bring a doctor’s way that we have to thank for the work of Williams.
William Carlos Williams’ training as a physician preceded and impacted his work as a poet and writer in significant ways, especially as regards the style he developed over the years; I posit that this style as a poet can be directly related to his task as a physician, that of taking the pulse of things, that of uncovering and exposing human frailty and weakness, of highlighting behavior, circumstance, and causality that combine to create (for good or ill) this tessellated mosaic of human existence.
Some such aspects of his style as a poet that I wish to explore are his very heightened sense of sexuality (in his life and his poetry—and how this was contributed to by his childhood as well as his studies of medicine), and how his background in medicine affected his general views on poetry. The first aspect, his highly sexual nature, I wish to treat in several respects: how his childhood and his medical training/career impacted his own sexual nature, and how this heightened sexual nature affected his poetry. With regard to the second aspect, how his background in medicine affected his general views on poetry, I will explore several avenues as well: how he often used experiences of his physician’s life as material for his poetic life, how he viewed poetry as a release, and his perception of poetry as revelatory act.
William Carlos Williams came to poetry through the back door of medicine; at a fairly early point in manhood, he determined he would be a writer, but that he “didn’t intend to die for art” (Williams AB, 49), and so he settled on a career in medicine, in the hopes that the steady employment offered by that vocation might allow him the freedom to pursue his desires to become a writer. But perhaps it wasn’t only the financial freedom being a physician offered him that attracted Williams to that profession by day as he struggled to write by night. Richard Selzer observes that “time was when in the professions—medicine and law—to patronize the arts was respectable; to practice them was not” (Selzer 203). Being a physician gave Williams a certain standing, a certain respectability, and a certain freedom as well, the freedom to say “to hell with them all. . .I wanted to tell people, to tell ‘em off, plenty” (Williams AB, 48-9). As his physician son writes, “the ‘art’ of medicine would be his crutch, supporting him and his family while he was ‘absent’ on his crusade” (Williams DS, 142). Being a physician paid the bills and allowed him the ability to “accept his eccentricity and his designation as a revolutionary in the arts” (Williams DS, 140).
And Williams could rightly be termed eccentric, at the very least in the
openness with which he spoke of matters sexual (this in an age when
As a child, Williams’ unique family structure contributed to his early interest in areas of sex: he writes that “aside from Mother and Grandma I never knew a female intimately for my entire young life. That was very important. It generated in me enough curiosity to burn up fifty growing boys” (Williams AB, 5). Perhaps something could be made of the significant presence of his mother and grandmother during his childhood, but this paper is not of a Freudian bent, and so no attempt to chase down those particular loose ends will be made here. One can speculate however that such relative isolation from females other than these two family members did much to stoke the fires of curiosity that seemed to assail him during adolescence: “How I ever got through school across the lust that burned me to a cinder in those days is more than I can say” (Williams AB, 47). True, many adolescent boys (and girls as well) experience such all-consuming inquisitiveness, but Williams’ seeming isolation from females seems to have continued for some time after he entered adulthood. In writing about attending an outdoor theatrical production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It during his college years, he mentions his emotions on seeing some lovely young thespians reclining on the grass between scenes: “Goddesses! If that is not agony, to see, to desire and not to know how to begin, then I have never known it” (Williams AB, 63). Here Williams speaks as a frustrated lover, of sorts, but the subject of his anguished cries could as easily be that of the frustrated poet.
But his childhood was not the only contributor (exacerbator?) of his very active libido in adulthood. Williams’ medical training also played a significant part in his attitudes toward sex in general and women in particular. As a young medical student, he was in close contact with a maid he later characterized as inhabiting “a skin as tightly packed with goodies as a young intern could desire to pinch” (Williams AB, 79). The close proximity of so many nurses during those long shifts on duty were likely distraction enough for Williams, but he also seems to have been overly susceptible to the attractions of women even in a purely scientific setting. He recalls once as a medical student “falling in love with the corpse of a young negress, a ‘high yaller,’ lying stripped on the dissecting table before me.” One might understand a mild physical attraction for a naked young woman on a table (in the sense of appreciation for the beauty of the female form), but his description of falling in love with a corpse is macabre in the extreme. It seems that, as M. L. Rosenthal asserts in the introduction to the William Carlos Williams Reader, “the more gross or brutal the details, the more the mystery is heightened for Williams, and the more he is in love with the female principle in all its bewildering variations” (xi). One does get this sense, imagining Williams in his own words, lovingly lingering over the cold dead body he is about to dissect, presumably in the interests of science.
Much of Williams’ poetry can be characterized as very sensual or temporal in nature, much of it imbued with downright carnal overtones. A prime example is his “Sympathetic Portrait of a Child,” a portrait that, on close examination, seems somewhat lacking in sympathy. In fact, the flow of the poem, moving from how she (the child) “jerks her shoulders” to how her “skinny little arms/ wrap themselves/ this way then that/ reversely about her body!” to how her “cordy legs [writh]” in the sunlight “beneath the little flowered dress/ that leaves them bare/ from mid-thigh to ankle—” –this poem seems to evoke an image of the narrator checking this young girl out, leering at her almost, staring at her up and down. The implication is somewhat disturbing, and far from sympathetic, with sexual undertones that leave one wondering (at least this one) what the poet is doing here.
Another example of Williams’ poetry that seems to carry overtly sexual baggage is “The Raper from Passenack,” which appears to describe the aftermath of a rape, and the mental and emotional turmoil the victim suffers after the horrific crime has taken place. Aside from the violent subject matter, this poem stirs unease in the reader by seeming to almost excuse the rapist, to make his crime seem less venal by offering what might be his point of view in the first two stanzas:
The Raper from Passenack
Was very kind. When she regained
Her wits, he said, It’s alright, kid,
I took care of you.
What a mess she was in. Then he added,
You’ll never forget me now.
And drove her home.
The rest of the poem deals mainly with the reaction of the victim, her worries over the possibility of infection or disease and/or pregnancy and her struggles to fend him off (“I bit him/ several times”, “[I] call[ed] him every vile name I could/ think of”) as well as her feelings after arriving home (“I wish I could shoot him”, “And hatred, hatred of all men/ --and disgust”). But that disconcerting opening, that seems to seek to diminish the crime of the raper, carries with it an ambiguity regarding the violence of such an act that troubles the reader.
It is a commonly uttered aphorism that all writing is autobiographical in nature, and to be sure, Williams certainly mined his daily experiences as a physician for material in his poetry. A good example here is the poem “Between Walls,” a single sentence poem that, upon reading his autobiography, gives one the sense that the impetus for this poem came from the fodder his daily rounds provided him. The poem is as follows: “the back wings/ of the/ hospital where/ nothing/ will grow lie/ cinders/ in which shine/ the broken/ pieces of a green/ bottle.” In reading Williams’ autobiography, one comes on a passage wherein he recalls that
There was a high brick wall along the south side of Locust Street, just west of Thirty-sixth, inside of which there must have been an old garden, long neglected. The thought of it fascinated me. Charlie laughed when I spoke of it. “Not many could enjoy such a thing as that,” he said, “by merely looking at the outside of the wall.”
Of course, many, if not all, writers mine their daily travels for writing material, but Williams’ vocation perhaps allowed him a greater variety of experience with which to salt his poetry, and the foregoing passage is somehow akin to what Williams’ poetry lets us do, look through the outside of the wall of common, ordinary experience, to the transcendent nature of the thing inside. Williams’ childhood isolation from most female company and his later medical training combined to enable him to look differently through that wall of sexuality through which most must pass, and even while this distinct perspective seems to have engendered in him a very active libido, one can be certain that this internal aspect of his nature managed to spill over into his writing.
Williams’ background in medicine not only impacted his intense sexuality (his awareness of the human body, his appreciation for the human form) and made itself felt in some of the very sensual, carnal themes of his poetry, but it also contributed in large measure to his general views on poetry (and art). Richard Selzer writes of the connection between medicine and writing:
In medicine, there is a procedure called transillumination (holding a part of the body up to a bright light in order to see into a cavity) . . . [which] gives an indirect vision, calling into play the simplest perceptions of the doctor. To write about a patient is like transillumination. You hold the lamp of language against his body and gaze through the covering layers at the truths within (Selzer 204-5).
This is surely what Williams did at bottom in terms of his two careers. He once said of his decision not to become a surgeon, “I don’t fancy a life spent dabbling in people’s guts” (Williams AB, 77), and so he dabbled instead, through his writing, in the heart and mind.
Williams’ background in medicine can be seen to have affected his general views on poetry in a variety of ways. As mentioned above, Williams (like all writers, no doubt) steadily mined his daily travels for material about which to write, and more importantly, his daily course as a physician allowed him entrée to a world full of manifold experiences he could only have come upon in that capacity of a physician who made house calls. The observant and curious Williams was thus able to render through poetry a view point regarding some mundane, easily accessible thing in a way that could make it into something of poetic substance. Kenneth Burke is quoted as saying of Williams’ poetry that “the process is simply this: There is the eye, and there is the thing upon which the eye alights; while the relationship existing between the two is a poem” (Williams Reader, xxv). Many physicians likely saw much the same thing as did Williams, and passed by, but he was enamored of the poetic quality of certain aspects of ordinary life, and the difference between the two is the poem.
With regard to the second aspect I wish to treat here, how his background in medicine affected his general views on poetry, I will explore several avenues as well: how he often used experiences of his physician’s life as material for his poetic life, how he viewed poetry as a release, and his perception of poetry as revelatory act. Williams, like other poets, saw in poetry a release, a liberation from the stunted, undeveloped creative life his profession as a doctor would have relegated him to had he not fed his urge to write.
But even so, his approach to poetry, to his art, was quite different from many other poets, even as regards his close friend and fellow poet, Ezra Pound. Williams’ approach to poetry (and art in general) seems to have been less pretentious, less affected. He writes in his autobiography:
What I could never tolerate in Pound or seek for myself was the “side” that went with all his posturings as the poet. To me that was the emptiest sort of old hat. The poet scorning the other made himself ridiculous by imitating that which he despised. My upbringing assumed rather the humility and caution of the scientist. One was or one was not there (58).
Part of Williams’ appeal is his poetic treatment of the common, the everyday, the things often easily overlooked as too pedestrian for poetic exploration. As he writes:
. . the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn. Thus the so-called natural or scientific array becomes fixed, the walking devil of modern life. He who even nicks the solidity of this apparition does a piece of work superior to that of Hercules when he cleaned the Augean stables (Williams Imag, 14).
For Williams, part of his task as poet and writer seems to have been to show the rest of the world (and especially those high literary critics who frequently turned up their collective nose at such plain fare as he sometimes treated) that the common things of life are as deserving of poetic praise as are the finer, “nobler” human qualities often reserved for poetry. Furthermore,Williams seemed wrapped up in the effort to relate to the world that not only were these common things, these everyday, unnoticeable parts of life worthy of notice, they in fact embodied the unique American experience, the American cultural dynamic, made up as it was (and is) of a hundred different cultures, each bringing to this land their own common, everyday plain-ness, their own seemingly insignificant features that, to fresh eyes, can seem wondrous and vital.
As M. L. Rosenthal notes:
The fundamental premise (of Williams’ approach to poetry) is that the meanest of experiential data have their transcendent aesthetic potentiality, and hence that experience is the key to realization. Characteristically, the formal structure of a Williams poem involves a closing in on the realization involving several shifts of attention or focus along the way. It is not that nothing has significance, but that everything has it; not that eye and object alone make the poem, but that these, together with ear and intellect and formal movement, shape a poem through their convergence (Williams Reader, xxvi)
Part of this appeal that the poetry of the everyday had for Williams is in its ability to transform perception, to alter accepted viewpoints, and to open up to a people (who might not otherwise see it) a whole new way of looking at the world about them, and a way of appreciating the little things that make our little plot of ground unique as well as make ourselves unique.
Again, to quote Rosenthal: “certainly, Williams and Pound are at one in a driving conviction, evangelical in nature, that man’s best possibilities, brutally subverted and driven underground, must be brought to the surface through a freeing of pagan impulses” (Williams Reader, xxi). Williams was preoccupied with showing us the beauty and potential of the mundane world around us, and he did so by treating poetically subjects and themes that other, more “serious” and high-minded poets disdained. In so doing, he took a long step toward helping found the American cultural sense of self as distinct and different from imposed senses of culture offered by some of the more mature elements that make up American society.
Some examples of this attention to the everyday to be found in his poetry include the aforementioned poem “Between Walls,” as well as the poem “Proletarian Portrait,” in which he offers the reader a vision of an average, ordinary person (“A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron”) performing the most mundane of tasks, that of relieving herself of a bit of pain (“She pulls out the paper insole/ to find the nail/ That has been hurting her”). The scene is abbreviated, a woman, a street, a pause, a scrutiny, an action, a resolution; but this scene, and its title, impresses on the reader how even the most routine and familiar of sights and images can be viewed afresh so as to invest such a seemingly bland scene with dignity.
What motivation could have driven Williams to so focus his creative energies on the ordinary, the commonplace things of our existence? As M. L. Rosenthal opined, Williams devoted himself to the observation (and uplifting, through appreciation) of such ordinary things, because “to see them (the things of the familiar world that we view through the transcending prism of poetry) thus is to liberate ourselves and them from the rut and squalor in which the mass of men lead their ‘lives of quiet desperation’”(Williams Reader, xviii).
His lifelong interest in this part of the world, the unglamorous, the plain, common, cannot be overstated. As he wrote in the closing lines of the foreword to his autobiography, Williams believed that “what becomes of me has never seemed to me important, but the fates of ideas living against the grain in a nondescript world have always held me breathless” (xiv). Williams’ career as a physician afforded him myriad opportunities to investigate, catalogue, and ruminate on these mundanities of life, these commonplace events and people that, viewed through the prism of poetry, can be seen to embody new life, new thought, and new perceptions.
Williams once wrote that “There’s nothing like a difficult patient to show us ourselves” (Williams DS, xiii). Rather, to update that thought, there is nothing like the physician of a difficult patient, a physician who is also a poet, to show us ourselves.
Coles, Robert. Introduction. William Carlos Williams: the Doctor Stories. By William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1984. xiii.
Rosenthal, M. L. Introduction. The William Carlos Williams Reader. By William Carlos Williams. ed. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1965. xi, xviii, xxi, xxv, xxvi.
Selzer, Richard. “The Pen and the Scalpel.” Major Modern Essayists. ed. Gilbert H. Muller. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1951.
Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1971. 14.
Williams, William Carlos. The William Carlos Williams Reader. By William Carlos Williams. ed. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1965. 6, 35.
Williams, William Eric. Afterword. William Carlos Williams: the Doctor Stories. By William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1984. 137, 142.