'The painters have paid too much attention to the ism and not enough to the painting,' William Carlos Williams wrote in 1928. Something similar could be said about Williams's own critics: since his death in 1963, attention to his theories and to his life has been getting in the way of his poems. With Williams, more than the usual number of isms and caricatures need to be cleared away. There is, for example, Williams the spontaneous man who wrote by the seat of his pants, the grandfather (for good or ill) of the Beats; Williams the comical minimalist, who proved that a note on the fridge could be read as a poem; Williams the Modernist, a foil for experimental painters, or for his difficult friend Ezra Pound. More recently, we have had Williams the avant-garde sentinel, dislocating sense and meaning in the manner of Gertrude Stein, and Williams the multiculturalist, pitting his Spanish-Caribbean heritage against a Eurocentric world. Williams the doctor-poet proved that words can heal; Williams the literary nationalist declared in 1957: 'I don't speak English but the American idiom.' All these Williamses exist; all of them are to some extent distractions, robbing many subtle poems of the attention they deserve. 'It isn't what the poet says that counts,' Williams wrote in 1944, 'but what he makes.' The reissue of this meticulously edited two-volume Collected (first published in 1986 and 1988) offers another chance to see what he made.
LRB 7 March 2002 | PDF Download