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"January Morning" by Physician-Poet William Carlos Williams

Williams Demonstrates the Poetic Can Be Found Everywhere around Us

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William Carlos Williams as intern at Nursery and Child's Hospital.

"January Morning" is one of the most famous poems by America's great physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883–1963). A masterpiece of modernist verse, this poetic sequence — he subtitled it "Suite" — presents moments in his daily life, including his life as a pediatrician and obstetrican at Passaic General Hospital in Passaic, NJ.

The poem first appeared in Williams's book, Al Que Quiere! (1917; "To Him Who Wants It!"; Centennial Edition published from New Directions). His voice in it remains totally vibrant. The New York Review of Books recently said, "It seems clear that Williams is the 20th-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do."

The young doctor is dancing with happiness / in the sparkling wind, alone / at the prow of the ferry!

"January Morning" demonstrates beautifully Williams's poetic method using concrete images, which he later summarized in the phrase "No ideas but in things." His command of language in his verse made him a leader of the modernist revolution against the popular sentimental poetry using vague abstractions. Indeed, it was a revolution against the poetry his friend Ezra Pound said "flies away into the circumambient gas." Williams's poetry is grounded in the world around us.

Williams lived his entire life in Rutherford, NJ, the small town where he was born and raised. It is where he maintained his medical office in his home — where most people knew him simply as "Doc" without knowing he was a man of letters and leader of modernism. He often spent time in Manhattan with fellow artists, crossing the Hudson River by ferry. Al Que Quiere! was his third book but the first to present his unique poetic voice, as found in "January Morning."

All told, Williams published during his lifetime some 20 books of poetry as well as 17 books of prose, including novels, and he delivered more than 3,000 babies. Throughout his career he used his clinical gaze to his advantage as a poet:

January Morning (Suite)

I

I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn—the heart stirred—
are beautiful as Saint Peters
approached after years of anticipation.

II

Though the operation was postponed
I saw the tall probationers*
in their tan uniforms
                                  hurrying to breakfast!

III

—and from basement entries
neatly coiffed, middle aged gentlemen
with orderly moustaches and
well-brushed coats

IV

—and the sun, dipping into the avenues
streaking the tops of
the irregular red houselets,
                                                        and
the gay shadows dropping and dropping.

V

—and a young horse with a green bed-quilt
on his withers shaking his head:
bared teeth and nozzle high in the air!

VI

—and a semicircle of dirt-colored men
about a fire bursting from an old
ash can,

VII

                       —and the worn,
blue car rails (like the sky!)
gleaming among the cobbles!

VIII

—and the rickety ferry-boat "Arden"!
What an object to be called "Arden"
among the great piers,—on the
ever new river!
                         "Put me a Touchstone
at the wheel, white gulls, and we'll
follow the ghost of the Half Moon
to the North West Passage—and through!
(at Albany!) for all that!"

IX

Exquisite brown waves—long
circlets of silver moving over you!
enough with crumbling ice crusts among you!
The sky has come down to you,
lighter than tiny bubbles, face to
face with you!
                        His spirit is
a white gull with delicate pink feet
and a snowy breast for you to
hold to your lips delicately!
X

The young doctor is dancing with happiness
in the sparkling wind, alone
at the prow of the ferry! He notices
the curdy barnacles and broken ice crusts
left at the slip's base by the low tide
and thinks of summer and green
shell-crusted ledges among
                                the emerald eel-grass!

XI

Who knows the Palisades as I do
knows the river breaks east from them
above the city—but they continue south
—under the sky—to bear a crest of
little peering houses that brighten
with dawn behind the moody
water-loving giants of Manhattan.

XII

Long yellow rushes bending
above the white snow patches;
purple and gold ribbon
of the distant wood:
                      what an angle
you make with each other as
you lie there in contemplation.

XIII

Work hard all your young days
and they'll find you too, some morning
staring up under
your chiffonier at its warped
bass-wood bottom and your soul—
out!
—among the little sparrows
behind the shutter.

XIV

—and the flapping flags are at
half-mast for the dead admiral.

XV

All this—
                was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
                But you got to try hard—
But—
            Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
that's the way it is with me somehow.

* Nursing students.
WCW's mother, who rejected his modernist poetry.
Street in Rutherford, NJ, near WCW's home.

William Carlos Williams practiced pediatrics and obstetrics for over 40 years. He was a physician of immense integrity, who regarded allegiance to humanism as important as excellence in medical science. He now serves as a role model, and medical students read him (The Doctor Stories) to learn how he labored to get the "right picture" of patients — much like artists do with paint on canvas, and photographers with cameras; what today we call the holistic approach.

At Stony Brook Medicine, Williams is read in The Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics. Established in 2008 to expand and succeed the Institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society, the Center is dedicated to furthering the School of Medicine's long tradition of emphasizing humanism in medical education, and serving as "a place where the human side of medicine is elevated, examined, and revered."

Listen to Allen Ginsberg (4:16 min), whom Williams mentored, reading from and commenting on "January Morning." For more biographical info, see our post "Remembering William Carlos Williams."