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The Ethics of William Carlos Williams’s Poetry by Ian D. Copestake (review)
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The Ethics of William Carlos Williams’s Poetry. Ian D. Copestake. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010. 180 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

One of the most famous credos of modernist poetry is Williams’s distinctively succinct “No ideas but in things.” No statement is cited more often to explain the aesthetics and ethics of Williams’s poetry, from the iconic brevity of “The Red Wheelbarrow” to the epic complexity of Paterson. Another five-word credo that this statement echoes is less familiar, although it was certainly familiar to Williams: “NOTHING THAT IS NOT TRUE.” As Ian Copestake notes in his ground-breaking book, The Ethics of Williams Carlos Williams’s Poetry, this more obscure statement appears in the constitution of the Unitarian society of Rutherford, New Jersey, expressing the society’s conviction that “the church, itself, should have but one imperative dogma which may be expressed in five words—NOTHING THAT IS NOT TRUE” (qtd. in Copestake 17). The fact that such a [End Page 95] correspondence between modernism and Unitarianism seems so unlikely is the point of departure for Copestake’s judicious reconsideration of Williams’s poetics. And the fact that he so thoroughly recovers the roots of Williams’s Unitarian philosophy and so persuasively articulates its implications for his literary career is what makes this book so important.

Williams’s Unitarian religious background has been discussed in biographical studies (most notably, Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked), historical studies (Mike Weaver, William Carlos Williams: The American Background), and critical studies of his early poetry (David Frail, The Early Politics and Poetics of William Carlos Williams). Williams himself noted the impact of Unitarianism on his formation as a writer, as his parents were both active (and founding) members of the Rutherford Unitarian society. Copestake is the first scholar, however, to demonstrate the lifelong significance of Unitarianism for Williams’s poetry. As he notes, there is a longstanding critical consensus about Williams’s secular worldview, based largely on his assertions that religious doctrine impeded “contact” with the contemporary world. This presumed secularism has informed previous studies of Williams’s pragmatism as well as poststructuralist claims for his epistemological skepticism. The “committed non-commitment to prescriptive doctrines” (16) that informs Williams’s Unitarianism, however, differs from the religious traditions that he denounces. As Copestake argues, Williams’s self-conception as an artist is derived from the Unitarian principles of inclusiveness, openness, and utility. His commitment to his work as a writer furthermore enacts the Unitarian values of authenticity and self-realization: his quest for new forms of expression, then, enacts his faith. Paradoxically, Williams’s renowned iconoclasm is inseparable from his religious practice.

Copestake documents Williams’s engagement with Unitarian thought through archival research on the history of Unitarianism as well as careful attention to Williams’s philosophical writings, such as the “Five Philosophical Essays” from The Embodiment of Knowledge. The Ethics of William Carlos Williams’s Poetry does more than document the Unitarian roots of Williams’s poetics, however: it articulates a new understanding of his purpose and practice as a poet. Addressing the most distinctive, and most influential, aspect of Williams’s writing, his commitment to renewing the language and form of poetry as a meaningful public discourse, this book makes a nuanced case for the development of his ethics as a writer. Copestake initially explains how Williams’s poetry about work exemplifies this commitment. His close reading of “Fine Work” (from Adam & Eve & the City) exemplifies his lucid rendering of the religious, philosophical, and autobiographical implications of Williams’s formal precision. “Fine Work” is an especially appropriate example because it both recollects the impact of Williams’s parents on [End Page 96] his work as a poet and anticipates the more expansive redemptive purpose of Paterson, which Copestake discusses at greater length in the final two chapters.

Copestake’s approach to the ethics of Williams’s poetry also elucidates the intellectual—and intertextual—relations between his writing and that of nineteenthcentury philosophers associated with the development of Unitarianism. The second chapter concentrates on the recurring motifs of “root, branch, and flower” in Williams’s poetry, relating these motifs to his interest in...