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Visiting Dr. Williams edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro

Michael Ferguson

  Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams.
Sheila Coghill & Thom Tammaro, editors.
University of Iowa Press, 2011.
228 pages, $24.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 1587299860 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

What I learned from William Carlos Williams was economy and precision. Every word has a weight and a texture. The different weights and textures create balances and imbalances that give shape and character to each line that in turn form a landscape of words. Images become vivid by virtue of their very starkness. Nothing wasted; no clutter. Small details and observations that may seem trivial, like a red wheelbarrow, acquire great significance because so much depends on them. The 't' at the end of 'wet' is a sharp point. It makes you stop for a brief moment before you slide into the white chickens. It creates rhythm, a pace. The consonants and vowels in the words define how you read the poem rather than a uniform meter of regular beats and numbers of syllables. In a plethora of words these small details would merge into a mass leaving an impression with all the edges smoothed and flowing. Williams is not Debussy. His famous maxim "no idea but in things" emphasizes concreteness, a grounding in external reality that gives his poems a reach beyond the narcissistic. The poem is not "I depend so much on this red wheelbarrow," but "So much depends on a red wheelbarrow." The former is limited because a reader who does not depend on a red wheelbarrow may not be able to relate to such a sentiment. It allows for an immediate clash between the reader and the poet. But the latter is an observation that is both empathic and objective. A reader, drawn into the poem through the emotive power of the object, can assent to the message even if he never saw a wheelbarrow or a chicken in his life. A connection is forged. The ability to use ordinary objects to create emotional resonances gave Williams his vast outreach and appeal. It is a lesson well learned by the poets in this volume.

Visiting Dr. Williams is very interesting, rich in biographical references and referrals to Williams' poems. The poems encompass a wide variety of subject matter, style, and perspectives on Williams and his life. Some of the contributors disagree with Williams' ideas and a few more take some exception to his character, but throughout great respect and admiration is on show. There are 188 poetry contributions in this volume. All the poets have been influenced by him, some quite markedly. In addition there are prefatory remarks by Paul Mariani and the editors, Shiela Coghill and Thom Tammaro.

The poets seem to be well informed about Williams, not only about his poetry, but his life, his ideas, his work as a physician, and his sex life. The intimacy of some of these poems made me curious about the relationship between the authors and Williams himself, such as Rodney Jones, Robert Gibb, Joyce Carol Oates, and Hilda Morley. It's unfortunate that the contributors' biographical notes section does not describe the individual poet's relationship to Williams. Some of the few exceptions are Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Byron Vazakas, and Mary Ellen Solt. Providing a little more detail about the intellectual or personal relationship between the contributor and Williams would have made these notes a lot more interesting and perhaps lent insight into some of the poems.

The plums poem and the red wheelbarrow poem seem to have made the most memorable impression on people. Kenneth Koch's piece takes off delightfully on the plums poem, for example. Greg Delanty contributes a dissent from William's views on poetry. Heid E. Erdrich challenges his perspective on "Elsie." Some were critical of his personal conduct, such as Tony Barnstone, Michael Heffernan, Rodney Jones, and perhaps, William Heyen. But by far most of the poems are honorific and warmly sympathetic.

Toward the end of his Autobiography Williams related an anecdote about a young poet he met on a speaking engagement who told him that some in his poetry group had criticized him because they thought his work was too much influenced by William Carlos Williams. "Do you think it stands in your way?" Williams asked him. He said he couldn't remember what he answered (WCW Autobiography, 370-71). Williams did not stand in the way of the poets in this volume. Coghill and Tommaro tell us that their collection represents only a small fraction of the poems inspired by the life and work of William Carlos Williams, but what they have selected certainly represents the best in William's legacy on American poetry. It is a fine volume that should be read and studied by any American poet.

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