To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, the Doctor Poet

It all began with the first National Book Awards Ceremony in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the spring of 1950. William Carlos Willliams (1883-1963) was the Poetry Winner that year. He also happens to have been the subject of my doctoral dissertation as well as of the first biography I ever wrote, To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet.

The long poem, Paterson, had been on Williams’ mind since the 1920s, when he decided to write a truly American epic that would, as he put it, “embody the whole knowable world.” Williams chose as the focal point for his subject the city of Paterson, New Jersey, because it was near Rutherford, the town of his birth and life-long residency, where he practiced family medicine and delivered more than three thousand babies in the course of a forty-year career, during which he also produced more than forty books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and drama.

William Carlos Williams believed that the power of the local landscape should be harnessed by the poet to drive the shape and subject-matter of his work; and he also believed that American speech should be exploited as the root for our native poetry to assert itself, free from the constraints of derivative English tradition.

He originally planned that the poem Paterson would be divided classically into four parts, mirroring four stages in the lifespan of a man: “A man in himself is a city,” Williams wrote, “beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of city may embody – if imaginatively conceived.”

Book III, first published as a freestanding volume in 1949, possesses all the essential ingredients that make Williams’ long poem so exciting and original and modern – fragments of verse interspersed with excerpts from old newspaper articles, letters to Williams from friends, including Ezra Pound, perceptions of the ever-changing countryside. The central theme of Book III is the burning of the library, a catastrophe held by Williams to be like none other; for even though he was consumed by the demands of his profession, tending to the sick at all hours of the day and night, he was a voracious reader and a great lover of books.

The edition of the Selected Poems brought out in 1949 has of necessity over the past half-century been emended and expanded many times. The current edition in paperback from New Directions includes an insightful introduction by the English poet and critic Charles Tomlinson, and it presents examples of Williams’ work from his earliest poems reminiscent of Browning, Keats and Whitman, pre-1914, all the way through the final drafts for Paterson Book V and Williams had begun notes for Book VI which were found in his papers after his death. He was unable to stay within the constraints of a four-part structure. He had too much to say.

Cause for Literary Celebration!

To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet
Published in New Edition Celebrating the Poet’s 125th Birth Anniversary

BALTIMORE. Neil Baldwin believes that William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is still the great standard-bearer of the modern American poetic tradition – and, furthermore, possesses the vitality to speak with enduring power to the millennial generation: “I first got into Williams’ poetry in my early twenties,” Baldwin recalled. “He was so accessible, so full of life. His down to earth language and sheer humanity made such a vivid impression upon me that I went on to write my doctoral dissertation as a descriptive catalogue of all of Williams’ manuscripts and letters in the poetry collection at SUNY/Buffalo, as well as at Yale’s Beinecke Library.” The catalogue, with a preface by the late Robert Creeley, was published in 1978, and is the definitive resource for access to Williams’ vast archives.

Baldwin’s biography of Williams, To All Gentleness, originally published in 1984 was the first in his succession of major published works of nonfiction and biography spanning the ensuing decades, from Man Ray to Thomas Edison to Henry Ford; most recently, Baldwin’s The American Revelation (St. Martin’s Press), was selected by the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal as one of the best nonfiction titles of 2005.

“Last spring, I realized that 2008 would mark the 125th anniversary of Williams’ birth,” Baldwin said. “Of course, the author must have a compelling subject; but timing is likewise critical in the ever-more-crowded field of trade publishing. What better moment could there be to shine a renewed spotlight on Williams’ work? I immediately thought of Black Classic Press: For thirty years they’ve kept good books in print. I spoke with Paul Coates, the founder, and the timing was perfect! They were in the process of expanding their publishing beyond African American titles with their INPRINT EDITIONS imprint.”

Coates happily agreed with Baldwin’s faith in their synergy. “Working with Neil on publishing To All Gentleness is special,” says Coates. “First and foremost, we get to publish and keep available an excellent biography on Williams. At the same time, we get to work with Neil, whose extensive knowledge of poetry and writing helps guide us in an area we haven’t published in before.”

William Carlos Williams, M.D., was born, practiced medicine, and died in the small town of Rutherford, New Jersey, nine miles west of Manhattan – the great metropolis where he sought weekend respite from the round-the-clock demands of his family practice. For fifty years, Williams ricocheted back and forth, from 3 a.m. house calls to art gallery openings; from visits to immigrant poor that paid him with farm produce to “little magazine” editorial board meetings; from taping the sprained ankles of the local high school football players to listening to late-night jazz in Greenwich Village clubs. Driven by an insatiable energy and the desire – as his lifelong friend Ezra Pound preached – to “Make it new,” scribbling hurried first drafts on prescription pads, Williams managed to produce more than forty books. Beyond the condensed, impressionistic, open-formed verse for which he is renowned, he churned out dozens of short stories, plays, essays, and a trilogy of novels. The wave of Williams’ life’s work crested in the ambitious epic Paterson, an attempt “to bring the whole knowable world into the province of the poem,” that remained unfinished at his death.

How does William Carlos Williams speak to us today? Baldwin says that “his work touches us on two major levels. First, the historical and cultural moment we are living through now. America seeks to regain and re-establish our sense of self-definition. Williams was steadfast in his belief in American values exemplified by an American language that glorified individuality, resourcefulness, and, yes – charity. Williams cared for those less fortunate because that was his profession and they were his patients; he also cared about the disenfranchised. And second, for today’s young people, Williams’ voice resounds with refreshing faith in the importance of everyday experience. Your life can be full and rich and meaningful if you know where to look, and the best place to start is at home, in your own backyard, with the people, places, and things you know best.”

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For more information contact Natalie Stokes, Associate Publisher, Black Classic Press, 410-242-6954 /