- Remembering William Carlos Williams:Hugo Rodríguez Alcalá (1917–2007)
On Tuesday afternoon, April 22, 1958, three men, two in their early forties, the third ten years younger, knocked on the front door of William Carlos Williams’s Victorian home at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey, where the Williamses had lived for the past forty-six years. They were there to talk with Williams about a group of some twelve early and mid-twentieth century poems he had agreed to translate from the Spanish into a contemporary American idiom.
The oldest of the three was José Vázquez Amaral, 44, a professor of Romance languages at Rutgers, where he had been teaching for the past eleven years. He was also a well-known member of Ezra Pound’s Ezraversity which held its peripatetic classes on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, DC. It was there that Pound had spent the past twelve and a half years for his wartime radio broadcasts from Rome, often excoriating the American banking system and the FDR administration (once telling Williams in a letter that Roosevelt was nothing if not “an ambulating dunghill”).1
Over the past eight years, the handsome, genial Amaral had become a regular visitor of Pound’s at the hospital and had already translated Pound’s Pisan Cantos into Spanish. (He would translate and publish all 120 Cantos as Cantares Completos into Spanish three years after Pound’s death). Amaral had been born in Los Reyes, Jalisco, Mexico, and had earned degrees from La Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, including a law degree. Back in December 1951, Pound had sent Amaral an “anonymous communication” telling him to get in touch with Dr. W. Carlos Williams at his home in Rutherford. Pound had described Williams as “an honest man, who has spent most of his life in Rutherford.” Moreover, he was “part spanish, and has for 50 years been meaning to translate MORE spanish [End Page 1] poetry into north-american.” Amaral would do well, he added, “to call on him, and Old Bill might help stir up some enthusiasm at Rutgers” for greater respect shown to Iberian languages and literatures, in particular Latin American. Earlier Amaral had taught a seminar at Swarthmore on Spanish American poetry, and had done some translations into English “of Neruda, Villaurrutia, Carlos Pellicer and Jose Gorostiza,” which the translator Dudley Fitts had thought “rather good.”2 He wondered if Dr. Williams would be interested in seeing them, and of course Williams was. Pound, Amaral added, quoting Williams, was surely “one of the very few products of American, especially US, culture of sufficient stature to interest anyone.”3 The trouble was that the authorities were keeping Pound “in a cage in Washington” so as not to let him “mingle with other U. S. bipeds,” a fact which “baffled and confused” his Mexican sensibilities a great deal. In any event, he did think it “would be a fruitful thing to me” if he and Williams were “to become acquainted,” even “on the slightest pretext.”4
Four years later, on February 1, 1956, Amaral sent Williams a sheaf of poems by various Latin American poets, explaining that “the work of cultural interpenetration between English and Spanish America seems to have arrived.”5 Finally, in the spring of 1958, Amaral received a Rockefeller Foundation grant which allowed him to put into action the plan he had been devising, one of whose chief objectives, as he wrote Williams on April 17, 1958, was “to encourage translations from Latin American literature by eminently qualified people like yourself.” Only in this way, Amaral felt, could “the cause of better knowledge of Latin American literature” be properly served. As part of his larger project, Amaral was editing a Latin American number for New World Writing, in which Williams’s translations would appear. Earlier he’d sent Williams a dozen Spanish poems, along with literal translations he himself had made “to save [Williams] some useless trouble.”6 Now it would be Williams’ job was to turn them into poems.
“I have been handed a job which I let myself in for without suspecting how...