The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

How dreadful to be known as a revolutionary poet and yet write a tedious and boring autobiography.

I’ve been thinking about reading WCW’s poetry but first decided to check his autobiography for any cautionary tales. And yes, they are legion—sexually harassing young girls with his college pal Ezra Pound, slinking along with various “streetwalkers,” ogling the nurses in his hospital (“well-made” with “powerful legs”). But there are bits of interest as well, such as words of wisdom from people who told him to keep studying medicine so that he could get an income while he worked on his writing (an abundance of plays and poems). Instead of enlisting in the military for WWI, he opts to remain home offering his services as a doctor, which were needed in the 1918 flu pandemic. He has the obligatory post-WWI jaunt through Paris and Europe, hobnobbing with Joyce, Pound, “Hem,” Ford Madox Ford, the usual tripe. On a return visit, he’s invited to tea at Gertrude Stein’s, and the toxic waste of his friends’ dismissal of her work bubbles to his lips and he actually tells her he’d burn her notebooks if he were her. (Later he comes to admire her work, so he does redeem himself slightly in my eyes).

Mostly I kept reading for the all too rare tidbits about writing which, looking back, all seem to be clustered in the Foreword.

There is a great virtue in such an isolation. It permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.

When and where did I or could I write? Time meant nothing to me. I might be in the middle of some flu epidemic, the phone ringing day and night, madly, not a moment free. That made no difference. If the fit was on me… I would be like a woman at term; no matter what else was up, that demand had to be met.

Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found. I had my typewriter in my office desk. All I needed to do was to pull up the leaf to which it fastened and I was ready to go. I worked at top speed. My head developed a technique: something growing inside of me demanded reaping. It had to be attended to. Finally, after eleven at night, when the last patient had been put to bed, I could always find the time to bang out ten or twelve pages. In fact, I couldn’t rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day. Cleansed of that torment, having scribbled, I could rest.

Once he got bitten by the theater bug in college, he wanted to write plays and wanted to see every available play that came through but had no money.

But it was money that finally decided me. I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to. I would live: that first, and write, by God, as I wanted to if it took me all eternity to accomplish my design. My furious wish was to be normal, undrunk, balanced in everything.

Besides meeting Ezra Pound at University of Pennsylvania, he also befriended the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Williams’ relationship with Ezra was complicated—he describes Ezra coming over to his house and playing the piano. “Everything, you might say, resulted except music… It was part of his confidence in himself. My sister-in-law was a concert pianist. Ez never liked her.” There was a particularly horrifying scene wherein Ezra brings WCW along to stalk a “particularly lovely thing in her early teens…. The poor child was all but paralyzed with fear, panting to the point of speechlessness as she just managed to say in a husky voice, ‘Go away! Please go away! Please! Please!”

The 1913 Armory Show seemed to be a pivotal moment for the group: “There had been a break somewhere, we were streaming through, each thinking his own thoughts, driving his own designs toward his self’s objectives. Whether the Armory Show in painting did it or whether that also was no more than a facet—the poetic line, the way the image was to lie on the page was our immediate concern. For myself all that implied, in the materials, respecting the place I knew best, was finding a local assertion—to my everlasting relief. I had never in my life before felt that way. I was tremendously stirred.”

Then the war came. “I decided that I would write something every day, without missing one day, for a year. I’d write nothing planned but take up a pencil, put the paper before me, and write anything that came into my head. Be it nine in the evening or three in the morning, returning from some delivery on Guinea Hill, I’d write it down.”

John Herrmann was a pal of his who bought a farm, grew his own vegetables, and wrote. Occasionally he’d float into the city and go into a bar with a copy of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans which he’d read aloud. “He’d have them spellbound. It wasn’t a gag. He knew it was interesting stuff and if people could get to it they’d like it.”

One of the more idiotic tidbits to drop from WCW’s pen was this: “Spanish is not, in the sense to which I refer, a literary language.” Had he not been exposed to Don Quixote?