Early in his biography of the defiantly unorthodox poet William Carlos Williams, Herbert Leibowitz makes it clear that he intends to be just as unconventional as his subject. In the book’s first chapter, Leibowitz, the longtime editor of the literary magazine Parnassus, mounts a sustained assault on “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” a love poem widely considered one of Williams’s great achievements, and the source of Leibowitz’s title. Leibowitz calls the poem “a false lyric that strays far from the vigorous speech melodies [Williams] pioneered” and sneers that its “hackneyed verse matches the insipid content.” The criticism here, however, has less to do with “Asphodel’s” language than with the conflict it creates with the biographer’s method. Poetry, for Leibowitz, is often “biographical evidence,” and his disappointment lies in what he considers the poem’s insincerity in light of Williams’s real, sometimes contentious, relationship with his wife.
This conflation of life and poetry—and Leibowitz’s tendency to bludgeon one with the other—is entertaining, but problematic. More so than most biographies, Something Urgent documents the struggle between Leibowitz’s admiration and distaste for his subject, which plays out in his fixation on Williams’s fifty-one-year marriage to Florence Herman—known as Floss—particularly its unpleasant aspects. By many accounts, most crucially his own, Williams was often restless in his marriage, and Leibowitz presents ample evidence that the poet had a number of affairs over the course of his long life. While this is well within a biographer’s purview, Leibowitz’s obsession with Williams’s dalliances detracts from the book’s other biographical concerns (there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the poet’s “fitful relations with the Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven”), and sometimes clouds his judgment of Williams’s poetry, as appears to be the case with “Asphodel.” While Leibowitz mounts a plausible defense of his methods, correctly pointing out that Williams was often an explicitly autobiographical writer, he does not do enough to distinguish between the facts of Williams’s life and his own forceful interpretation of it.
Leibowitz’s book is not intended as a definitive biography of Williams. That has already been done by Paul Mariani in the 1981 tome William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, which, in its almost nine hundred pages, managed to provide a more detailed, step-by-step account of Williams’s life than Leibowitz’s more critical study. While Leibowitz does take a roughly chronological approach, he reserves the right to skip around at will, jumping ahead to later poems that relate to ones under discussion through thematic connections. For those who want to linger over the details of Williams’s career, the Mariani biography is indispensable. Leibowitz comes across, sometimes charmingly, as an enthusiastic university lecturer, carving out the pieces that most interest him and leaving everything else out.
Leibowitz’s more provocative method may be a reaction to the relatively sedentary life of his subject. Unlike his old friend Ezra Pound or his sworn enemy T.S. Eliot, Williams lived most of his life not far from where he grew up, at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey. Born in Rutherford to a British father and a Puerto Rican mother, he famously worked as a physician and spent most of his literary career in relative obscurity. Paterson, Williams’ epic five-book poem that is often counted as his major work, was inspired by (and named after) the neighboring city in decline. Though Williams corresponded with peers such as Pound, Wallace Stevens, and James Laughlin (the rich young publisher of New Directions who first introduced Williams’s work to a wider audience), serious critical or popular attention eluded Williams for much of his life. It was only in his old age, as he suffered through a series of strokes and illnesses, that Williams finally began receiving honors, including the Bollingen Prize in 1953 and the appointment as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, the latter of which he was not able to accept due to controversy over his alleged leftist political views. In 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Breughel. In the years after his death, acolytes such as Robert Creeley and Luis Zukofsky proselytized for his importance in the development of American poetry, and his work now holds a major place in the national pantheon. Nor has interest in his work waned: Last year saw a beautiful facsimile of his 1923 book Spring and All, a collection of his translations from Spanish, and an appreciation of his work by Wendell Berry.
One reason for the critical ambivalence towards Williams during his lifetime seems to have been the variable quality of his work, often within the same book or poem. Williams’ interest in finding new ways to express his mind’s movement, and to yoke this to the physical world (famously, “No ideas but in things”) led him to develop new literary forms in which prose and poetry jostle in close proximity, often without a unifying structure. This is especially apparent in Spring and All, in which effusive, sometimes clumsy prose (“It is spring! but miracle of miracles a miraculous miracle has gradually taken place during these seemingly wasted eons”) alternates with more perfectly realized poems. In one of these, “By the road to the contagious hospital,” Leibowitz praises Williams for listening “to the acoustic properties of words with the same care and skill he devoted to the beating of a patient’s heart.” While his experimental style made him a model for the next generation of American poets, including A.R. Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, and John Berryman, it also led to accusations of carelessness and inconsistency. Paterson, for example, contains letters from acquaintances and admirers printed verbatim along with free verse and encyclopedia entries. When we see Anne Carson do this today, we aren’t fazed by it. But Williams was innovative for his time, willing to take risks to get at what he believed to be deeper truths.
One of the virtues of Leibowitz’s biography is that he does not take Williams’s greatness as a given. The biographer’s critical approach forces readers to reassess, sometimes radically, their own appraisals of Williams’s books and poems. Leibowitz’s attention to the early prose experiment, Kora in Hell, for example, is illuminating enough to prompt a second look at what seems to be one of Williams’s least palatable works. By describing Williams’s desperate outlook at the time, and explaining the book’s significance as a key early example of Williams’s early creative intention, Leibowitz’s biographical method sheds a great deal of light on the work. Certain lines begin to glow in a way, such as Williams’s reflection about his young son: “Never have I heard so crushing a critique as those desolate inventions, involved half-hyms, after his first visit to a Christian Sunday school.”
Also somewhat surprisingly, Leibowitz considers In the American Grain, a book of essays and meditations on important American historical figures, to be Williams’s masterpiece. Leibowitz devotes ample space to an exposition of the book’s purpose, which he considers to be about “America’s position in the world,” as well as, perhaps paradoxically, “Williams’s feelings about, and experiences in, Europe.” It seems contrarian to suggest that the greatest book of a poet so obsessed with the local is one that spans hundreds of years of global history, but Leibowitz is convincing in his argument that this unexpected book is the apex of Williams’s literary project, satisfying both his interest in the concrete details of quotidian life and his broader ideas about being American. Leibowitz highlights the brilliant chapter about Edgar Allen Poe as evidence of Williams’ ability to draw connections across disparate periods of history and aesthetics. Summarizing Williams’s gloss on Poe, Leibowitz writes, “Poe is at once Founding Literary Father, trailblazer like Eric the Red … and visionary modernist who anticipated Stein’s experiments with abstract language..” Leibowitz is at his best in this territory, bringing his own considerable knowledge of twentieth century literature to bear on Williams’s literary achievements.
Still, Leibowitz can be a frustrating guide. His biographical readings of poems too often yield the conclusion that he draws early on in the book: “Williams’s poems furnish abundant evidence of his wavering emotions towards Floss.” Leibowitz is more interesting when he moves away from this hobbyhorse, but his grandiose style sometimes fails him, as when he writes, “There are no portraits of women hanging on the walls of In the American Grain’s gallery, yet women play a central role in the book, because Williams personifies America as a ravishing woman violated again and again by men so ravenous for material gain, fame, and the wielding of absolute power that, showing no restraint, they drove out, enslaved, or slaughtered the indigenous residents.” How does this prove that women play a central role in the book? In other places, Leibowitz’s desire for compactness gives way to glibness, as in this description of James Joyce: “His eyesight was poor, but his conversation was voluble and eccentric.” The sweet spot between saying too much and too little sometimes eludes him.
As the book moves to the end of Williams’s life, it’s disappointing that Leibowitz does not seem overly interested in Williams’s late style, a fragmented but straightforward approach to poetry conceived in the face of his crippling strokes and other health problems. Leibowitz is ambivalent about Williams’s work from this period. He meticulously analyzes the meaning and rhythm of “The Descent,” a lovely, careful poem that shares its philosophical DNA with Samuel Beckett, then bluntly states that it “is a monochromatic poem that reads awkwardly at times because Williams labors to write in an abstract language that is alien to him and bars humor.” But the language doesn’t seem alien at all—it seems a recital of personal, hard-won knowledge. “For what we cannot accomplish, what/ is denied to love,/what we have lost in anticipation—/ a descent follows,/endless and indestructible.” As with “Asphodel,” which comes from roughly the same period, there is an edge to Leibowitz’s critique. The biographical framework with which Leibowitz assesses the late poems makes him read them too heavily as the result of Williams’s diminished physical capacity rather than a distinct phase in his aesthetic development. This doesn’t do justice to Williams’s achievement in conveying the fundamental darkness of old age while retaining his distinctive, ebullient voice. In this case, as was often so, Williams the poet was greater than the sum of his biographical parts.
Andrew Martin has written for the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic's The Book, among other publications. He lives in Missoula, Montana.