William Carlos Williams: In praise of women
For nearly fifty years he practiced medicine, first in the slums of New York City and then, when he refused to sign his name to some petty graft arrangements at Childs Hospital, found himself banished to the provinces of Rutherford, his hometown, across the Hudson River in northern New Jersey. That move may have been his salvation as a man and as a poet.
One thing is sure: it became as much his own special vantage point as the woods of New England were Robert Frost's or Amherst became Emily Dickinson's. There -- in 1883 -- he had been born, and there, eighty years later, he was buried, within sight of that maddening city gleaming in the white light: Manhattan. Here in Rutherford, he treated all sorts of patients, most of them poor blacks and immigrant Poles and Italians and Germans, at first deferentially , and then, with time, identifying with their vitality and their American language. He had an extraordinary ear for the language -- an acquired one in his case, where Spanish was often spoken in the home -- and he paid as much attention to gas station attendants and nurses and shopkeepers as his expatriate friend Ezra Pound was paying to the music of Medieval Italian and Provencal French, and to Greek.
Williams came to identify himself so closely with his poor ravished landscapes, with the polluted waters of the Passaic and the Hackensack, the fouled meadowlands to the east, the very trees and flowers as well as the back alleys of the poor, that when he came to write his great autobiographical epic of America he named it after the dying industrial city a few miles to the west: Paterson -- another exploited American city, used and mistreated like so many things that were feminine and good, townspeople frequently brutalized by poor education and low wages, people with their
low, sloping foreheads The flat skulls with the unkempt black
or blond hair, The ugly legs of the young girls, pistons Too powerful for delicacy! The women's wrists, the men's arms
red Used to heat and cold, to toss quartered
beeves And barrels, and milk-cans, and crates
Williams' boisterous and vital people. And how he came to love them, almost in spite of his early reserve and priggishness. Like Whitman before him, he came to celebrate these people and his rural/industrial landscapes in poem after poem and then in story after story, sometimes even forgetting to fictionalize the names (until he got in trouble over that). With an extraordinary humility and compassion, with an excitement that sometimes seemed to border on giddiness, Williams saw his people as they were and embraced them. Kenneth Rexroth put it exactly when he called Williams a latter day Franciscan.
For fifty years he and his wife, Floss, lived at the same address: 9 Ridge Road, that late Victorian structure with its patients' office attached off the kitchen. It is still there -- house and office, Williams' practice in pediatrics carried on ably by his son, Bill Jr., who still cares for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the very babies Williams Sr. once brought screaming into the world. Williams wrote poem after poem about the flowers of his place, about the rivers, about the changing seasons, about his patients, about children, but especially about women.
For the truth is that he saw in women a beauty and a strength and a resiliency that was so much more than surface beauty (though there was that too). Whatever woman was, she was a reality which went deeper than skin or bone or cortex, and he never tired of his meditations on her mysterious essence. Romantic that he was, he wrote of one young girl while he himself was still a young man that, though he would
pass her on the street We shall say trivial things To each other But I shall never cease To search her eyes For that quiet look. . . .
But there were other women too who stirred him to poetry, women most people would pass on the street without looking twice at. Not Williams though, noting one old woman munching a plum on the street a paper bag of them in her hand They taste good to her hey taste good to her. They taste good to her. . . .
Or, in a more serious mood another woman laboring to give birth to a tenth child. Joy! Joy! Night is a room darkened for lovers, through the jalousies the sun has sent one gold needle! I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.
By the time he came in the early 1940s to write his great work, Paterson, Williams would give voice to the complex desires and frustrations and angers of his female counterpart. He would even go so far as to let the woman speak for herself, though her accusations would nearly overwhelm the book. Here was the female artist in America, overworked, scorned, first touted and then as quickly rejected. And yet somehow the woman managed to survive and even to flourish in spite of adversity and misunderstanding with something of the same resiliency Williams saw in nature and in the working classes themselves. What was it but the power of love itself to evoke the giants sleeping in the ruined landscapes along the Passaic River, which ran through Paterson, ran through Rutherford and out into the oil-bleared scenery of Newark Bay:
We sit and talk and the silence speaks of the giants who have died in the past and have returned to those scenes unsatisfied and who is not unsatisfied, the silent, Singac the rock-shoulde remerging from the rocks -- and the
giants live again in your silence and unacknowledged desire. . . .
In old age, unable any longer to care for his people, he would still walk the streets of Rutherford, looking for the women who continued to fire his imagination, like the heavy Negro woman carrying a bunch of marigolds
in an old newspaper: She carries them upright,
the bulk of her thighs
causing her to waddle
as she walks looking into
the store window which she passes
on her way.
Or the woman he tried following down Park Avenue, Rutherford's main axis, one day in his seventy-third year, listing to one side from the effects of his infirmities but still intent on his Adamic pursuit to name the nameless feminine energy he still, after all those years, stood in awe of: If ever I see you again as I have sought you daily without success I'll speak to you, alas too late! ask what are you doing on the streets of Paterson? a thousand questions: Are you married? Have you any children? And, most important, your NAME! which of course she may not give me -- though I cannot conceive it in such a lonely and intelligent woman Have you read anything that I have written? It is all for you or the birds. . . .
And yet, at the heart of all these women, was the Woman: Floss, his wife of half a century. Like many marriages, there were ups and downs, difficulties, disappointments. And yet, in his last years, seeing that it would all soon begin to unravel, Williams wrote a long love poem to this remarkable woman, a poem he called ''Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.'' At the close of that thirty-page poem, in which he had asked her to forgive his transgressions against her, he circled back to the beginning, to their wedding day, with the realization that the Perfect Woman and that frail girl trembling as she walked down the church aisle had after all been one and the same:
At the altar
so intent was I before my vows,
so moved by your presence
a girl so pale and ready to faint
that I pitied
and wanted to protect
you. As I think of it now,
after a lifetime
it is as if a sweet-scented flower
and for me did open.
Looking at the evidence in the poems he created over sixty years, nearly all of them spent with the same woman, his wife, it is clear that that complex flower, that vision of a language -- our language, being saturated with love -- did after all open.