'Something Urgent I Have to Say to You': The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams

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'Something Urgent I Have to Say to You': The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams Biography
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Herbert Leibowitz’s “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” provides a new perspective on the life and poetry of the doctor poet William Carlos Williams, a key American writer who led one of the more eventful literary lives of the twentieth century. Friends with most of the contemporary innovators of his era—Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and Louis Zukofsky, among others—Williams made a radical break with the modernist tradition by seeking to invent an entirely fresh and singularly American poetic, whose subject matter derived from the everyday lives of the citizens and poor immigrant com­munities of northern New Jersey. His poems mirrored both the conflicts of his own life and the convulsions that afflicted American soci­ety—two world wars, a rampaging flu pan-demic, and the Great Depression.

Leibowitz’s biography offers a compelling description of the work that inspired a seminal, controversial movement in American verse, as well as a rounded portrait of a complicated man: pugnacious and kindly, ambitious and insecure, self-critical and imaginative. “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” is both a long-overdue assessment of a major American writer and an entertaining examination of the twentieth-century avant-garde art and poetry scene, with its memorable cast of eccentric pioneers, includ­ing Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein.

Editorial Reviews

A detailed biography of pioneering modernist poet William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), seen through a discriminating and skeptical eye.

Skeptical because, for all the close attention Parnassus editor Leibowitz pays to each phase of the physician-poet's life, the author sometimes seems uncertain that Williams is a subject worthy of biographical scrutiny. Though Leibowitz has high praise for some of Williams' scattered poems and for the first two parts of his epic poem Paterson, he deems Williams an admirably experimental writer whose experiments often fell short. What Leibowitz acknowledges is the importance of the experiments: By tinkering with rhythm, line breaks and subject matter in new ways, Williams strove to capture the voice of the everyday American without feeling beholden to old-fashioned Victorian poesy or the obscurantism of T.S. Eliot and his mentor Ezra Pound. (Williams and Pound's relationship was always contentious. Pound could be equally supportive and condescending toward Williams, but Pound's embrace of fascism and anti-Semitism during World War II shattered their friendship.) Leibowitz identifies two crucial personal influences on Williams' poetry. First was his work as a physician in New Jersey, which exposed him to the working-class people he sought to embody in his writing. More important was his long but troubled marriage with his wife, Floss, which inspired some of his more powerfully embittered poems, as well as numerous affairs. (Leibowitz suggests Williams fathered at least one child out of wedlock.) The author concentrates heavily on close analysis of Williams' poems, sometimes at the expense of narrative thrust; for instance, Paterson is mentioned numerous times with little explanation before the chapter dedicated to its creation.

Leibowitz doesn't position Williams as a consistently great poet, but he saves him from the brickbats his work has recently absorbed, and gives him his due as a key figure in the creation of Modernist ideas.

 

Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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