He published his first book, Poems, in 1909, and would go on to publish dozens more, as well as short stories, novels, critical texts, plays, translations, you name it, while living most of the rest of his life in New Jersey and practicing medicine. In my post on Marianne Moore, I mentioned the little magazine Others, and Pound joined this group in 1915, but he would eventually come to know nearly every one of his major American peers, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens (with whom he carried on a long correspondence), Conrad Aiken, among many others. One of the things I love about Williams as a poet was that he wrestled with two tendencies, which often clash: on the one hand, he was restlessly and relentlessly experimental, something that gets overlooked because of the seeming simplicity of his work, but what is a poem like "Spring and All" or "The Figure Five in Gold" (I love!!! this poem) or "The Red Wheelbarrow" or the almost completely assimilated "This is just to say" if not a challenge to the pre-existing body of English and American poetry? And yet as each of these poems demonstrates, he also aimed for simplicity, sometimes for a American plainspokenness, grounded in everyday speech, that made (and still makes) his poetry appear at times artless, especially when compared to works like Eliot's "The Waste Land" or Stevens's Harmonium or anything by Gertrude Stein.
In fact he was criticized more than once by his peers for his radical experiments, some of which, like Paterson, are brilliant failures, and which opened up vast spaces for poets writing alongside him and those who came after. One of this later and most beautiful poems, from the 1955 collection Journey to Love, is the final long love lyric "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower"--notice how he balances out the meter of the title by added the extra syllable to "green," also intensifying and defamiliarizing, and simultaneously imbuing with affection this simple word--which is not just a hymn to his beloved, but a four-part pastoral that bears many dark notes, of self-criticism, regret, admonition, affirmation; it is a composition built to bear a great deal, and Williams, at the height of his powers, knew how to pull it off. I am including a long excerpt of it, up to the point of one of its most famous lines, which makes an argument for the poem itself and for poetry's power; however we take his words, it is clear that he knew what he was talking about, and knew, as the very best poets do, how to transform it into poetry. If you can, read it aloud, for the entire excerpt, like the poem, rolls off the tongue like song. Should you want to read the entire poem or his other late masterpieces, they're collected in Pictures from Brueghel and other poems by William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1950-1962 (New Directions Publishing Corporation). Enjoy!
ASPHODEL, THAT GREENY FLOWER (an excerpt) Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem- save that it's green and wooden- I come, my sweet, to sing to you. We lived long together a life filled, if you will, with flowers. So that I was cheered when I came first to know that there were flowers also in hell. Today I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers that we both loved, even to this poor colorless thing- I saw it when I was a child- little prized among the living but the dead see, asking among themselves: What do I remember that was shaped as this thing is shaped? while our eyes fill with tears. Of love, abiding love it will be telling though too weak a wash of crimson colors it to make it wholly credible. There is something something urgent I have to say to you and you alone but it must wait while I drink in the joy of your approach, perhaps for the last time. And so with fear in my heart I drag it out and keep on talking for I dare not stop. Listen while I talk on against time. It will not be for long. I have forgot and yet I see clearly enough something central to the sky which ranges round it. An odor springs from it! A sweetest odor! Honeysuckle! And now there comes the buzzing of a bee! and a whole flood of sister memories! Only give me time, time to recall them before I shall speak out. Give me time, time. When I was a boy I kept a book to which, from time to time, I added pressed flowers until, after a time, I had a good collection. The asphodel, forebodingly, among them. I bring you, reawakened, a memory of those flowers. They were sweet when I pressed them and retained something of their sweetness a long time. It is a curious odor, a moral odor, that brings me near to you. The color was the first to go. There had come to me a challenge, your dear self, mortal as I was, the lily's throat to the hummingbird! Endless wealth, I thought, held out its arms to me. A thousand tropics in an apple blossom. The generous earth itself gave us lief. The whole world became my garden! But the sea which no one tends is also a garden when the sun strikes it and the waves are wakened. I have seen it and so have you when it puts all flowers to shame. Too, there are the starfish stiffened by the sun and other sea wrack and weeds. We knew that along with the rest of it for we were born by the sea, knew its rose hedges to the very water's brink. There the pink mallow grows and in their season strawberries and there, later, we went to gather the wild plum. I cannot say that I have gone to hell for your love but often found myself there in your pursuit. I do not like it and wanted to be in heaven. Hear me out. Do not turn away. I have learned much in my life from books and out of them about love. Death is not the end of it. There is a hierarchy which can be attained, I think, in its service. Its guerdon is a fairy flower; a cat of twenty lives. If no one came to try it the world would be the loser. It has been for you and me as one who watches a storm come in over the water. We have stood from year to year before the spectacle of our lives with joined hands. The storm unfolds. Lightning plays about the edges of the clouds. The sky to the north is placid, blue in the afterglow as the storm piles up. It is a flower that will soon reach the apex of its bloom. We danced, in our minds, and read a book together. You remember? It was a serious book. And so books entered our lives. The sea! The sea! Always when I think of the sea there comes to mind the Iliad and Helen's public fault that bred it. Were it not for that there would have been no poem but the world if we had remembered, those crimson petals spilled among the stones, would have called it simply murder. The sexual orchid that bloomed then sending so many disinterested men to their graves has left its memory to a race of fools or heroes if silence is a virtue. The sea alone with its multiplicity holds any hope. The storm has proven abortive but we remain after the thoughts it roused to re-cement our lives. It is the mind the mind that must be cured short of death's intervention, and the will becomes again a garden. The poem is complex and the place made in our lives for the poem. Silence can be complex too, but you do not get far with silence. Begin again. It is like Homer's catalogue of ships: it fills up the time. I speak in figures, well enough, the dresses you wear are figures also, we could not meet otherwise. When I speak of flowers it is to recall that at one time we were young. All women are not Helen, I know that, but have Helen in their hearts. My sweet, you have it also, therefore I love you and could not love you otherwise. Imagine you saw a field made up of women all silver-white. What should you do but love them? The storm bursts or fades! it is not the end of the world. Love is something else, or so I thought it, a garden which expands, though I knew you as a woman and never thought otherwise, until the whole sea has been taken up and all its gardens. It was the love of love, the love that swallows up all else, a grateful love, a love of nature, of people, of animals, a love engendering gentleness and goodness that moved me and that I saw in you. I should have known, though I did not, that the lily-of-the-valley is a flower makes many ill who whiff it. We had our children, rivals in the general onslaught. I put them aside though I cared for them. as well as any man could care for his children according to my lights. You understand I had to meet you after the event and have still to meet you. Love to which you too shall bow along with me- a flower a weakest flower shall be our trust and not because we are too feeble to do otherwise but because at the height of my power I risked what I had to do, therefore to prove that we love each other while my very bones sweated that I could not cry to you in the act. Of asphodel, that greeny flower, I come, my sweet, to sing to you! My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. Hear me out for I too am concerned and every man who wants to die at peace in his bed besides.
Copyright © 1962 by William Carlos Williams, in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1950-1962. New York: Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.