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By Word of Mouth: A Review Essay

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 137-159 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0026

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Superbly compiled, edited, and annotated by Jonathan Cohen, and with a stimulating preface by Julio Marzán, the bilingual anthology By Word of Mouth is the most important addition to the Williams canon since Christopher MacGowan's edition of Paterson. Yes, some of Williams's translations from the Spanish (and poems in other languages too, such as Chinese) were included in The Collected Poems volumes I and II. But it turns out that those selections of Williams's Spanish translations were incomplete; the 1916 Others translations were missing, and so were some of Williams's best translations from the Spanish done in the 1950s, when he focused on contemporary work by Latin American poets. Every admirer of Williams's work should own this volume. It does not gather pieces of secondary interest. Rather, Williams's poems from the Spanish are not just well worth reading in their own right; they will also enhance how we understand Williams's original English-language poetry and his evolution as a writer. Our notion of Williams's work in "the American idiom" should be forever broadened and changed because of By Word of Mouth.

Here's just one introductory instance of the revelations that By Word of Mouth has in store. Most Williams aficionados agree that his idea of necessary "contact" with the New World was perhaps the single most important idea Williams had that spurred his breakthroughs of 1916-1925, the period in which Williams published Al Que Quiere!, Kora in Hell, Sour Grapes, Spring and All, The Great American Novel, and In the American Grain. These works's daring immediately placed Williams in the vanguard of US modernists. Williams's "contact" concept was perhaps most memorably captured by the opening prose manifesto and the first poem in Spring and All:

There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between: Yesterday, tomorrow, Europe, Asia, Africa, —all things removed and impossible, the tower of the church at Seville, the Parthenon.

(I 88)

Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

(I 96)

Was there another key source for these moments, aside from Emerson in Nature (1836) declaring in frustration that, "Our age is retrospective. . . . The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes," or John Dewey's essay "Americanism and Localism"? Well, Williams indicated one by quoting it as an epigraph at the opening of his first really original volume of poems, Al Que Quiere! But that source, Rafael Arévalo Martínez, a Guatemalan, wrote in Spanish, and Williams did not translate the Spanish when he cited it. The result? Arévalo Martínez's passage is hardly ever mentioned by Williams critics, much less carefully discussed, as a primary source for Williams, though Williams himself highlighted its importance. He gave Arévalo Martínez to us at the start of Al Que Quiere!, whose title means "to him who wants it!," but it appears that not enough of us wanted it—it was in a "foreign" language.

Yet Williams also gave us an English translation of Arévalo Martínez on "contact" —and most of us have ignored that too, even though both the original Spanish epigraph (with typographical errors corrected) and Williams's translation appeared in Christopher MacGowan's notes to Collected Poems I in 1986 (480-81). Here is the key passage from the epigraph in question:

I had been an adventurous shrub which prolongs its filaments until it finds the necessary humus in new earth. And how I fed!

(CPI 481; Cohen 136)

Arévalo Martínez's words come from a story that was published in Spanish in 1915 and is now recognized as one of the best Latin American short stories of the twentieth century. Its title may be rendered in English as "The Man Who Resembled a Horse." William Carlos's translation of this story, which he excerpted for Al Que Quiere!'s epigraph, was a labor of love shared with his father, William George, who was fluent in Spanish...

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