Tuesday, November 09, 2021

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II: 1939-1962

I am no expert on poetry. Let's start there. I do read some of it, now and then, and think any serious reader should want to hit poetry now and then. The specifics will differ - maybe Dickinson, maybe Herrick, maybe Best American Poetry - but I have to believe that if you like stories and words and learning things about the world, poetry is part of that mix somewhere.

I've been reading William Carlos Williams since college, where a 20th Century American Lit class introduced me to his book-length poem Paterson. That's since become one of the very few things I re-read: I've hit it roughly once a decade since, and have a copy waiting for me on the to-be-read shelf for this decade.

I read the first volume of his Collected Poems some time ago. I'm sure it's in my reading notebooks, but I'm not sure which year, so finding it would be a pain. It was definitely before this blog, before 2007. And I've had this second volume on the shelf since there; it somehow (along with the rest of one shelf of unread poetry) survived my 2011 flood.

That's more-or-less how The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. II: 1939-1962 came to be the book I read in the smallest room of the house over most of the past year. (It's a big, dense book. And poetry is good for reading one or two poems at a time: it keeps them separate and distinct.) It was edited by Christopher MacGowan; it's the definitive text, issued as part of a project in the '80s to eliminate errors in the Collected Early Poems and Collected Late Poems, the previous definitive editions. It collects the separate books The Wedge, The Clouds, The Pink Church, The Desert Music, Journey to Love, and Williams' nearly-posthumous final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer.

So this is over four hundred pages of modernist poetry, mostly post-war. Lots of sentence fragments, no organized rhyme scheme anywhere. Williams, as a poet, was all about the line, and even more the foot - his poems work really well read out loud. (I used to have a quirky dream to stage a big reading of Paterson, with multiple voices for different sections, though I had no clue who would want to attend such a thing. Maybe I just wanted to be able to yell "no ideas but in things" in public.)

There is nothing famous here. The two short poems by Williams that people know - the plums, the wheelbarrow - were much earlier in his career. It's just a lot of good, thoughtful poetry by one of the greats, a man who was also a working doctor in a busy city, living in a time of change and upheaval, watching the change of the seasons and his family grow up and older, traveling and thinking and writing.

I liked it. I liked reading a bunch of Williams poetry over the course of a year. I expect to get to Paterson in another year or so, and try some other poetry, bit-by-bit, in the near future as well. I recommend that to any reader. Maybe Williams, because he is good and surprising and little-known, so every poem will be new. But just as easily someone else: someone that speaks to you, a poet from your part of the world or background or similar to other things you love.

I guess I'm just encouraging you to read good poetry. Yes, that'll do.

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