The red wheelbarrow. The plums. Dancing in front of a mirror. That’s what I always think of when I think of William Carlos Williams. I’ve been reading around a lot more in his Selected Poems and it turns out he’s a lot more irreverent, and less the grandfatherly type, than I thought.

I’m not sure why he’s always seemed so. I complained to my book club that my misperception of his work must be because the only poems of his that are anthologized are the imagist ones. But then I went back to my anthologies and I’m wrong, poems like “Tract,” with more edge and a much different tone than “The Red Wheelbarrow,” are actually well-represented.

Maybe it’s just the photographs. His Selected cover photo gives a much different impression of the man than the photo on the cover of his autobiography (which is an entertaining read. It’s really just a series of somewhat randomly connected stories and anecdotes. Some are quite interesting, though some are a bit ‘and then that one time when I was a boy I fell down.’ “Spontaneous” is the word the jacket uses.) Here are more photos, and even a self-portrait painting (scroll a ways down).

Donald Justice says of Williams in Poets Reading: The Field Symposia, edited by David Walker (a book of essays about poetry I cannot recommend highly enough) that “We Americans value our material objects, and Williams gives them back to us in words.” And Marvin Bell in the same book says,

“Americanism,” for Williams, meant that the circumstances of poetry are local, the tone of poetry is personal, the process of poetry is improvisational, and the subject of poetry is reality.

(This is from a piece about “Dedication for a Plot of Ground” which has one of those killer last lines.)

I would never have guessed Williams if someone had quoted me this stanza, from “The Birth of Venus”:

Why not believe that we shall be young again? Surely nothing
could be more to our desire, more pebble-plain under a hand’s breath
wavelet, a jeweled thing, a Sapphic bracelet, than this. Murder
staining the small crimson waves is not more moving—though we strain
in our minds to make it so, and stare.

One of my current favorites is “To Elsie,” which begins

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

but I’m not sure I’d have loved it 15 years ago. Maybe, but maybe not. One feels differently about different writers at different times, of course. In high school, for instance, I was all about Carl Sandburg, but only his cute cat and happy accordion-playing people poems. Now I go for poems of his like Chicago. And — I know poets are sort of not supposed to admit such things, but — I never really got Whitman until I tried again last summer.

This is why, though I’ll trade in fiction and non-fiction at bookstores for the sake of shelf space and budget, I never let go of a book of poetry.