My Favorite Writers – Part 1: The Physician Poet

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was not a poet by career; he was a poet by night and a physician by day. As a doctor, he labored with humanity in its rawest form. He saw humanity in its most sorrowful moments of death and suffering and in its most joyous moments of birth and healing. This affected one of the key aspects of his poetry, the one that I cherish the most. Williams wrote with such human-centered detailing that you feel like you can step into a 3D version of his poems. He treated not only the human body and its ills, but his writing treated the heart, and has many times treated my own.

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

William Carlos Williams

During the first year at my current university I took a course on Modern Poetry. It was then that I was officially introduced to the famous American Imagist poet that is William Carlos Williams. Unsurprisingly, the Imagist Movement focused on the imagery within a poem rather than the structure — not that you won’t find structure in Williams poetry — but the forms that he uniquely incorporates into each poem amplifies the images and details within. Take these two poems for instance: Blizzard and Flowers by the Sea.

Flowers by the Sea” was one of the first poems of Williams’ that I read, and I remember always being enchanted by the magic of its last lines: “the sea is circled and sways / peacefully upon its plantlike stem.” Williams took a concept as vast as the ocean, and with his pen he wrapped it up into something as simple and individually captivating as a flower content on its own stem.

Now unlike several of his fellow imagist poets, who felt called to the creative atmosphere of Europe or became ex-patriots of the United States, Williams never neglected his deep American roots. He was both an American physician and poet to the American citizen. He wrote about the everyday American experiences, human interactions, the human interaction with nature. Above all, he wrote about people and aspects of small-town America unapologetically. His literary focus was to create a new American way of writing.

“If they give you lined paper, write the other way.”

Williams Carlos Williams

I cannot do this great poet justice in just one blog post. This was a man who lived two full lives within his one life: a doctor who loved his community and his patients; a man who loved his friends and his wife and family; and a poet who sought to change the face of American poetry. Later, his poetry and mentoring would spur more shifts and movements in contemporary poetry.

Before I conclude, I’d like to mention one of the particular reasons I love Williams poetry: his imagist “direct treatment of the thing” — a mantra that fueled the Imagist Movement — resulted in poems that are often short, succinct, and artfully direct. One of his most famous poems is The Red Wheelbarrow, which struck me with its effectiveness of the mantra. These poems are my favorite. I can sit down, open my copy of his selected poems, and know that there are so many small poems within that will each fill me deeply with the attention the writer gave to whatever “thing” it was that he was treating — a true doctor, indeed. So for poetry readers who lean toward the shorter-in-length yet profound poems, Williams is the gem you’re looking for.

But now that I’ve shared one of my favorite poets, who are some of yours? What other modern poets do you love to read? Let me know in the comments! As usual, I’m always looking for more poetry with which to fill the time I hardly have. For now, I will leave you with yet one more poem from Williams to digest:

“THE THOUGHTFUL LOVER"

Deny yourself all
half things. Have it
or leave it.

But it will keep—or
it is not worth
the having.

Never start
anything you can't
finish—

However do not lose
faith because you
are starved!

She loves you
she says. Believe it
—tomorrow.

But today
the particulars
of poetry

that difficult art
require
your whole attention.”

― William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Vol. 2: 1939-1962

For far more information on Williams Carlos Williams than I can give you — and of course, for more of his poetry — visit his dedicated page on The Poetry Foundation.