William Carlos Williams: The Ogre

Morton Bartlett
Morton Bartlett

The Puerto Rican-American physician William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), while practising both paediatrics and general medicine in a hospital, had at the same time a full literary career, writing short stories, poems, plays, novels, critical essays, an autobiography, translations and correspondence. He is remembered mostly for his poetry, whose style evolved from imagism to modernism.

Williams aimed at creating a truly American poetry, written in a modern American language and centred on the everyday lives of common people. He wanted to free it from the influence of British and European culture and language, which he considered as worn-out.

He also mentored younger poets, in particular Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation during the 1950s and of the counterculture of the 1960s, also an early proponent of freedom for homosexuals.

It seems that Williams was a radical socialist, advocating a communist revolution. He wrote in radical journals like New Masses, he titled one of his poems “Proletarian Poet,” and some of his poems have been interpreted as allusions to working-class revolt. During McCarthyism, suspected of being dangerously pro-communist, he lost a position of consultant with the Library of Congress in 1952-1953.

In May 1963, Williams was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The Poetry Society of America presents since 1978 an annual William Carlos Williams Award for the best book of poetry written by a single author who is a permanent resident of the United States, and published by a small, non-profit or university press in a standard edition.

I have selected a poem from his collection Al Que Quiere! (“To Him Who Wants It”) that he published in 1917. It has been transcribed on Wikisource and PoetryNook, but it can also be read in facsimile form on Biblioklept.

Addressing a little girl, the poet reveals secret thoughts that would burn her, yet in some way she can feel its fine needles:

The Ogre
by William Carlos Williams

Sweet child,
little girl with well-shaped legs
you cannot touch the thoughts
I put over and under and around you.
This is fortunate for they would
burn you to an ash otherwise.
Your petals would be quite curled up.

This is all beyond you—no doubt,
yet you do feel the brushings
of the fine needles;
the tentative lines of your whole body
prove it to me;
so does your fear of me,
your shyness;
likewise the toy baby cart
that you are pushing—
and besides, mother has begun
to dress your hair in a knot.
These are my excuses.

One can hear on YouTube this poem read by Alan Davis Drake (here, here and here):

Previously published on Agapeta, 2019/02/26.

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