Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Daisy Fried: So Much Depends on WCW

William Carlos Williams was a furious poetic revolutionary — furiously working over a lifetime to reinvent American poetry, furious at poetry he considered backward, and at critics and editors who didn’t get it. To many, including me, he was the greatest poet of the 20th century. Unlike Eliot and Pound, two of his rivals in importance, he refused to be an expatriate. When Pound wrote him from overseas, urging Williams to leave America, Williams incorporated the advice into a brutally terse and powerful poem in praise of staying home. He spent virtually all his life in Rutherford, N.J., close to the American voices that enthralled him. He was determined to make them the basis of a new poetic diction, one that has hugely influenced American poets and poetries since. It’s not too much to say he was our Dante, making a distinctively American language out of slang, jokes, complaints and rants. Williams did this by endlessly reworking heavily enjambed line breaks and stanza breaks in exquisitely casual and deceptively ordinary poems — a red wheelbarrow shining after a rainstorm, a fire engine tearing through city streets, a woman whose body is covered with moles. He did this alone, and largely ignored by the mediocre stars of American literary life. His capacious, rigorously humane work has a delicacy of ear that hasn’t yet been surpassed. All this, and poetry was his night job — his days were spent as hardworking Dr. Williams of North Jersey. 

Left-liberal where Eliot was establishment reactionary and Pound openly supportive of Fascism, Williams remained unaligned with any political party. He rubbed shoulders in nearby New York City with many of the major and minor avant-gardists of the time. He lived mostly quietly, staying married to the same woman his whole adult life. 

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Daisy Fried’s books include Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (Pitt Press, 2013).

The prose is a quotation from Daisy Fried’s “So Much Depends,” a review of “‘Something Urgent I Have to Say to You’: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams” by Herbert Leibowitz, which appeared in The New York Times Book Review (Nov 25, 2011). Included in Vox Populi by permission of Daisy Fried.

The poem is from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. 

4 comments on “Daisy Fried: So Much Depends on WCW

  1. Barbara Huntington
    June 11, 2021

    Thank you. Can’t resist adding my 2 cents worth. https://barbarahuntington.com/2017/09/29/with-apologies-to-wcw/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Djelloul Marbrook
    June 11, 2021

    I have a fond memory of my one encounter with Dr. Williams. I was 14.
    My aunt, the artist I. (Irene) Rice Pereira, was holding her annual brunch
    for people she disliked. Some of those in attendance, like Dr. Williams,
    Irene’s husband, the Irish poet George Reavey, and Dylan Thomas and his
    wife, Caitlin, were in on the party’s motive. Irene asked Dr. Williams to
    sit next to me and perhaps prevent me from being overwhelmed by the
    high-powered nature of the Sunday gathering. She knew I had no filters.
    She told him I loved poetry and wrote poems. I had already read his first
    Paterson book, and he was intrigued that a boy should have enjoyed it.
    Later in life I realize that he and I shared a conviction that staying in place
    and keenly observing life around us sustained us, nourished our poetic
    impulse. Thomas was the bartender and was gleefully intent on snockering
    the haughtiest and most pretentious of the honored guests. Dr. Williams
    perceived right off that I was deeply unnerved by the motive of the event,
    and I think he was not entirely comfortable with it himself. George Reavey danced
    a painting off the wall with his Kazotsky kick, and Irene chewed him out.
    He had been a British cultural attaché in Moscow during the war and later
    translated Boris Pasternak’s Zhivago. He was an expert in French symbolist
    poetry and had written two fine symbolist volumes himself. I told Dr. Williams
    this—he already knew_and he said, Symbolism is not for you, you are too
    keen an observer. That was prescient, although I didn’t know it at the time. What
    I remember most about his demeanor, his presence, is that he had no agenda.
    He wasn’t waiting for an opportunity to say something impressive. He was
    listening, watching, celebrating his witness. In old age, as I look back on
    that morning, I admire this in him inordinately.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Vox Populi
      June 11, 2021

      Thanks, Djelloul. You’ve written of this encounter before, and I think it is a wonderful character sketch.

      Liked by 1 person

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