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Remembering William Carlos Williams, America’s Preeminent Physician-Poet

William Carlos Williams, MD
William Carlos Williams (1883–1963),
master poet and model physician.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of physician-poet William Carlos Williams, famous for such poems as "The Red Wheelbarrow" and Paterson, his epic masterpiece. He was 79 when he died.

Williams ("Doc" to his patients and neighbors) produced a remarkable body of work, having started to publish his many books around the First World War. Posthumously, in May of 1963, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, published the previous year.

During his lifetime, Williams published some 20 books of poetry as well as 17 books of prose, including novels, and he delivered more than 3,000 babies.

Williams has been called the single most important American poet of the 20th century. Why? Critic Adam Kirsch, in a recent review of three new Williams books, offers a good answer:

"Williams is the 20th-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do, and how much it does not need to do."

Also a short-story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator — while practicing as a physician (he became chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital) — Williams played a leading role in establishing modernism in the United States, and our breaking away from the literary dictates of England. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, he championed and advanced American poetry.

Williams dedicated himself to writing poetry of finely crafted images of the world around him, in particular of New Jersey where he lived and New York City which he loved.

"The poem springs from the half spoken words of the patient.... When asked, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing." — WCW

The language Williams heard around him distinguishes his poetry; that is, his use of real speech with its peculiar rhythms and colorations. "It is in the measure of our speech," he said, "that our idiom is distinctive." He called American "one of the greatest of modern languages."

In fact, Williams once proclaimed: "I don't speak English, but the American idiom. I don't know how to write anything else, and I refuse to learn."

Williams, unlike his peers Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, other leading U.S. poets of his day, stayed home in America. He preferred the New World over the Old. Indeed, he became a master of the American language and of the American image.

Dr. William Carlos Williams with His Boys in 1919
Williams and his boys in 1919, in front of his office in his home, in Rutherford, NJ.
Behind the national chauvinism of the poet is a man who was a product of the "mingling" (his word) that defines the unique character of the American people. His mother was Puerto Rican, and his father an Englishman who grew up in the West Indies. The poet was born and raised in Rutherford, NJ, where, after college and medical school in Philadelphia, he spent the rest of his life.

Most people who recognize the name William Carlos Williams — most likely from an English class in the distant past — know only one poem of his, "The Red Wheelbarrow." How funny this poem of just eight lines and twice that many words is his claim to fame! He wrote hundreds of poems, and longer ones, too. And then, of course, there's his Paterson.

"The Red Wheelbarrow" was first published in 1923. Here is what Williams said about it and how it came to be:

"The wheelbarrow in question stood outside the window of a house [owned by a "very likeable" old man; learn who] on a back street in the suburb where I live. It was pouring rain and there were white chickens about in it. The sight impressed me somehow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon."

This poem has had all kinds of widely varying interpretations by people intent on getting the poem's meaning and message. But as Williams told the audience at his poetry reading at UCLA in 1950, "If you don't know what I'm talking about, just remember that I didn't ask you to understand anything, only to listen."

Now, read and listen to the poem itself, and see the "sight" as Williams did:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

[Williams's recitation]

Williams liked to quote John Keats's famous line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." Our poet believed in it. He thought of his poems as objects, things he made. His "Red Wheelbarrow" is just one of many, just a sample of the work and craftsmanship of this American master, who — when not caring for his patients — labored to define our nation's ethos with our own language.

"The Doctor Stories" by William Carlos Williams 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 his poetry and prose (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 do with cameras; what today we refer to as taking a more 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."

See "William Carlos Williams (1883–1963): Physician-Writer and 'Godfather of Avant Garde Poetry,'" published in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, in the Surgical Heritage series. For books by Williams, visit New Directions.