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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.