A visit with William Carlos Williams
Working at night with the Staten Island Music Theatre as set designer, stage manager, sometime actor and chorus member, I met Diane Logie who, with Nick Rinaldi, co-produced our presentations on the professional theatre at Sailors Snug Harbor or at the venue of The Elizabethtown Players. We put on fully-staged productions of Carousel, New Girl in Town, and Damn Yankees, among others, using the talents of professional actors, dancers and musicians who were at liberty, as well as community theatre people.
Knowing that I was a poet, Diane offered to introduce me to William Carlos Williams, the legendary doctor-poet, perhaps the most American of poets, champion of free verse, author of forty books and winner of most major literary awards, who lived in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Diane's father, the writer Fred R. Miller, one-time publisher of the proletarian magazine Blast, had been a longtime friend of Dr. Williams (who had prompted Oscar Baron to publish Miller's Gotbucket & Gossamer in his Outcast Chapbooks in 1950) and often took the young Diane along when he visited; over the years, she remained very close to WCW and Florence Herman, his wife.
Our visit took place on April 15, 1961. We arrived at the modest house and were warmly greeted by Flossie, as Williams called her (although she was Floss in his poems, plays and a novel). Her husband was seated in the livingroom by the front window; around him on the floor and on a table were groupings of books and literary journals. He could not rise to greet us but not because of his seventy-eight years. A victim of stroke, he was greatly incapacitated. There were moments when his lucid speech was interrupted by a silence imposed by his condition; in those hiatuses, his eyes would be highly expressive of the thoughts his mouth could not utter. He went in and out of that state throughout our visit. Diane, who had seen him in better days, was very moved by his condition, as was I. It was a situation in which the adage "Doctor, heal thyself!" was applicable but modern medicine had yet to learn how to cure such devastating illnesses.
I had brought two books for WCW to sign but when I realized that he could not use his right arm fully, I withdrew my request. But he would have none of it. His wife handed him my books and he painstakingly proceeded to write his name in each. I witnessed him struggling to inscribe a signature in each, his hand trembling from lack of total control. I was feeling great guilt over having put him through the ordeal but William Carlos Williams smiled at me when he had finished writing. As a consequence of his selfless action, I now possess two treasures: Kora in Hell. Improvisations, in The Pocket Poets Series of City Lights Books, and The Collected Later Poems, published by New Directions; each bears only his signature in the shaky letters dictated by his condition.
I took away from the visit many images of the man and the poet, the latter urging me to write "naturally" and to forgo traditional forms towards a more open, freer poetic expression. He cajoled me: "Say it! Not in ideas but in things." Those words have stuck with me through the years.
His death in 1963 brought not only the sorrow of seeing pass a major voice in American poetry, but an emotional response that centered on the man and his spirit. Despite his debilitating illness, he had taken the time to meet with me and to consider the poetry I had brought for him to critique. I wrote a few lines in celebration of that humanity.
TO WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
your joy in having
still the thought--
new images of
as it should be,
in your reality
From Robert Lima’s manuscript ¡Some People!