- Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams Eds. by Shelia Coghill and Thom Tammaro
Visiting Dr. Williams is an anthology of poems to commemorate Williams a half-century after his death, and includes poems originally published in the Fall 1963 issue of Beloit Poetry Journal (14.1), a chapbook memorializing Williams and edited by David Ignatow. This title is the fourth anthology coedited by Shelia Coghill and Thom Tammaro, whose previous anthologies include Visiting Walt, Visiting Emily, and Visiting Frost. I don’t know how Coghill and Tammaro choose the subject of an anthology, but, undoubtedly, he or she must be, as the subtitle indicates, “inspiring” enough to be considered. The question might be how does being inspired by Williams differ from being influenced by his poetry? While Visiting Dr. Williams doesn’t ask to be read as a critical investigation of how poets have overcome Williams’s influence, I found it useful to read more into the poems than “inspired by” suggests. The best poems in the anthology have obviously been influenced by Williams’s experimentation with the possibilities inherent in the relationship between line and syntax. So while Visiting Dr. Williams proves that Williams has inspired many poets, those inspired by his “work” more so than his “life” furthered my understanding of poetic technique with their poems.
“Visiting” can mean “the action of coming or going to a person or place for some special purpose,” and, in the case of each anthology, this special purpose [End Page 92] seems to be “contact” with a poet’s life and work. Some of the contributors to Visiting Dr. Williams visited him during his lifetime. In fact, of the 188 contributors, a number write about interacting with him and the lessons he taught. Still more know Williams through his work—not necessarily who he was, but what inspires them about his poems. As Coghill and Tammaro point out, Williams’s imagery “flashes through the American psyche” (xvii), evidenced by its resurgence in other poets’ poems. Wheelbarrows, chickens, plums, and white flowers also remind us, as Alice Friman writes in her poem, “Ars Poetica on Lava,” of Williams’s ability to deliver his mind up “blank as a cardboard with a pinhole” (51). But the allusions are enough to remind the reader that it’s also necessary for a poet to “make it new.” Williams rebelled against the tradition that Eliot required, preferring, in texts like Kora in Hell and Spring and All, to break the rules his contemporaries were also breaking in poetry and the visual arts. Although Williams inspired all of the poems in this anthology, the comparison of one to another raises “the anxiety of influence.” Harold Bloom wrote that “weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves” (5). The better poems show Williams’s influence but can also stand on their own. For example, a poem like Joel Oppenheimer’s “We Mark the Centennial of William Carlos Williams’s Birth Observing a New Hampshire Patriot” contradicts the still life Williams creates in “The Red Wheelbarrow” with a woman using the American flag as a hand towel. Yet, as a reader, I wanted less of Williams and more of Oppenheimer; the majority of the poem is a rehash of what Williams has already written, starting with a first stanza that has almost the same amount of syllables as “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
yes i know alot depends onthe white house withits pink shutterseven withoutrain falling(134)
In contrast to Oppenheimer’s poem is A.R. Ammons’s “WCW,” which begins with a speaker at the beach and reading Williams. Ammons doesn’t adopt the imagery or syntax of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but, like Oppenheimer, he’s interested in challenging the immovability of an object:
a woman cameand turned [End Page 93] her red dog looseto sniff(and pisson)the dead horseshoecrabs...