- Introduction:William Carlos Williams, American Modernism, and West Coast Culture
The line must be pliable with speech, for speech, for thought, for the intricacies of new thought—William Carlos Williams, 1932 letter to Kay Boyle
The past above, the future belowand the present pouring down: the roar,the roar of the present, a speech—is of necessity, my sole concern—William Carlos Williams, Paterson
William Carlos Williams and West Coast Culture: We might begin with a brief reflection on the San Francisco Bay Area as a "culture region" by Robert Hass, who observes that Kenneth Rexroth's first book In What Hour
seems—with its open line, its almost Chinese plainness of syntax, its eye to the wilderness, anarchist politics, its cosmopolitanism, experimentalism, interest in Buddhism as a way of life and Christianity as a system of thought and calendar of the seasons, with its interest in pleasure, its urban and backcountry meditations—to have invented the culture of the West Coast.(224)
"Seems" is precisely right. Rexroth's "invention" is certainly part of a tradition of populist and progressive writers in and around the growing northern California Bay Area area, writers such as Ina Coolbrith, Jack London, Frank Norris, and Joaquin Miller—as well as the Oakland poet Edwin Markham, [End Page 1] whose 49-line blank verse poem of social protest, "The Man with a Hoe," first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1899.1 At the same time, Rexroth's West-Coast culture drew inspiration from the poetry of William Carlos Williams—who offered an alternative to the exclusive literary culture Rexroth associated with the East Coast mainstream of American modernism.2 That is, as Alan Soldofsky writes, Rexroth considered his "working class, San Francisco-rooted, left-leaning anarchistic sensibilities" aligned with "Williams's working-class Rutherford, New Jersey, plain speech poetics" (276).
We might follow all of this with now established lore: the "New American Poets" on the West Coast, in Donald Allen's gathering, who picked up Williams and absorbed what he called his "extracurricular" interest in the arts.3 "Up from the gutter, so to speak. Of necessity. Each age and place to its own" (SE 257), Williams boldly announced in his "Introduction" to the 1944 collection The Wedge. By mid-century, too, Williams's impressions, critical admonitions, and convictions about literary and social values were circulating widely through correspondence with poets on the West Coast—Theodore Roethke, Rexroth, Phillip Whalen, Lew Welch, Larry Eigner, among many others.4 Meanwhile, between 1947 and 1955, Williams made four trips West, where restless young poets were already breaking from the detached and genteel formalism of their modernist inheritance. Williams shared his ideas about poetry as a featured poet at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in the summer of 1947. The following year, in July of 1948, Williams attended a poetry conference in Seattle organized by Theodore Roethke, where he read the Second Book of Paterson and presented "The Poem as a Field of Action." Then, on his third trip, in 1950, with his wife Flossie, his itinerary included extended visits at the University of Washington, Reed College, and the University of Oregon, as well as a poetry reading in Los Angeles at UCLA during which Williams elaborated his views on the poetic rhythms and cultural significance of colloquial speech: "The minute you turn a phrase over to fit a meter and you can't get what you want to say into that meter, never change your phrase, change the meter! Then you've started, then you've started," he insisted. "[Y]ou've started to create a culture, in your place, where you are. Until you do that, you're lost" ("Reading").5
This special issue of the William Carlos Williams Review explores Williams's place in the creation of a distinctive West-Coast literary culture through the second half of the twentieth century. From Southern [End Page 2] California to the Pacific Northwest—in communities of poets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle—the creative work of Williams enriched literary and cultural communities up and down the West Coast. The...