Tell ‘Em Off Plenty

by jkatejohnston

17 September 2013

Dear Max,

Here’s my highlights reel from Williams’s autobiography. (I love typing long things. I used to do this all the time! And I remember telling Mr. Stephens that if I were still a teacher I’d make the students copy—write out long paragraphs word for word so at least their fingers would know what it feels like to write one sensible sentence after another. He didn’t disagree.)

Anyway, back to Williams:

The big fight came at the beginning when I was making up my mind what to do with my incipient life.

The preliminary skirmish concerned itself with which art I was to practice. Music was out: I had tried it and didn’t qualify. Besides, I wanted something more articulate. Painting—fine, but messy, cumbersome. Sculpture? I once looked at a stone and preferred it the way it was. I couldn’t see myself cutting stone, too much spring in my legs to stand still that long. To dance? Nothing doing, legs too crooked.

Words offered themselves and I jumped at them. To write, like Shakespeare! and besides I wanted to tell people, to tell ’em off, plenty. There would be a bitter pleasure in that, bitter because I instinctively knew no one much would listen. So what? I wanted to write and writing required no paraphernalia. That was the early skirmish, ending with the spontaneous poem—a black, black cloud, etc.

That having been decided, forever, what to do about my present objective, medicine? Should I give it up? Why? (48-49.)

“I once looked at a stone and preferred it the way it was” makes me think of Quentin Crisp who was asked what he had against art and replied, “What have you got against the wall?” Well, I love them both, but the feeling is completely different. Williams is all in for art, it’s just, which one?

So he writes an epic poem about a prince and castle and a forest in the style of Keats’s Endymion. (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever/Its loveliness increases; it will never…” and so on. How un-Williams can you get?)

His brother arranges for Williams to meet a famous Professor Bates for a look at the epic poem.

My Endymion manuscript rolled into a great wad, just like that of the poet in the funny papers, had a broad elastic stretched about it. Going to see Bates, I carried the thing unwrapped in my hand.

His rooms were in the old Back Bay section of Boston facing the Charles Basin. I rang the bell. The door opened level with the street, if I am not mistaken. His man admitted me: Mr. Bates would see me at once. The first door to the right, please. But as I was about to enter the library I stumbled at the sill and my three-pound poem rolled miserably into the room. What could I do but pick but up again?

Mr. Bates was sitting at a small desk near the window, a tall, middle-aged man with white hair. He was very kind. My purpose in going to him had been to ask him whether or not, to his mind, I should quit medicine and write or go on with medicine. Bates took his time, looked through the poem with some care and deliberation while I sat and sweated it out. Finally he looked up.

“I can see that you have a sensitive appreciation of the work of John Keats’s line and form,” he said, “you have done some creditable imitations of his work. Not bad. Perhaps in twenty years, yes, in perhaps twenty years (this was approximately in November 1905) you may succeed in attracting some attention to yourself. Perhaps! Meanwhile, go on with your medical studies.”

Then, a little pathetically, he pulled out the middle drawer of his desk and continued, “I, too, write poems And when I have written them I place them here—and—then I close the drawer.” I thanked him and left. I remember how sweet the air seemed as I stood for a moment on the sidewalk looking over the Charles Basin. (54-55.)

Well, I love that Professor Bates for telling the truth and for his kindness, showing his own poems in the drawer. And what a service to humanity. Williams would have been nowhere without the medicine. Everything he writes about patients and doctors and nurses is so much more interesting than what he says about all the writers and artists he ran with when he could, which wasn’t much.

So, he becomes a doctor and gets his first book out, self-published. He’s still young. He went straight from high school to medical school.

The poems were bad Keats, nothing else—oh well, bad Whitman too. But I sure loved them. Where does a young man get the courage for such abortions? I can tell you my need must have been great. There is not one thing of the slightest value in the whole thin booklet—except the intent. (107)

And that’s everything in the end, the intent. I love his attitude toward his own young self—amused, half-admiring, rueful, sympathetic. And it’s wonderful to be reminded how many ways there are to get to where you need to be. (School being the least promising path.) It seems like Williams had to write those spectacular failures to become the writer he was. He battled for it. What a hero. (What a prince.)

When I think about myself and the writers I grew up with in college—we never could have written a spectacular failure like that. We were critically awake. Not necessarily an advantage in the end.

Anyway, after ten years of medical practice he and Flossie take a year off work and go to Europe, leaving their boys, age six and nine, at home with servants (for shame, but I’m going to overlook it).

In Paris with Robert McAlmon:

Met Hemingway on the street, a young man with a boil on his seat, just back from a bicycle ride in Spain. The three of us back to the hotel where I swiped Bob’s best socks; he gave me several neckties.

Bob told me of an incident which happened during a train ride he had had with Hem on his way back from Spain a year before. They had stopped and the passengers had alighted for a breath of fresh air. Beside the track was a dead dog, his belly swollen, the skin of it iridescent with decay. Bob had wanted to get away from the stink as fast as he could, but Hem would not. On the contrary, he got out his notebook and began, to Bob’s disgust, to take minute notes describing the carcass in all its beauty.

“I thoroughly approve,” I said. (212.)

Me too.