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The Williams Poems

March 01, 1987

It should hardly have to be said that a book review necessarily refers to a book. Henri Coulette seems to have forgotten this fact in reviewing the recently published "Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. I" (The Book Review, Feb. 15). Had he focused on the book rather than on the poet he would have recognized the New Directions project as a major publishing event. The "Collected Poems" completely transforms the 1951 "Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams," a work that removed individual poems from their original sequences, thus creating the impression that Williams was a writer of brief, imagist lyrics about red wheelbarrows and cats stepping over jamclosets. In fact, such lyrics were part of much longer sequences like "Spring and All" or "The Descent of Winter," works written in a dense, discontinuous prose that attempted to replicate in language what Williams was seeing in visual artists like Marcel Duchamp, Charles Sheeler and Juan Gris. By eliminating the prose in these sequences, New Directions neutralized much of the insurgent, experimental impulses of the young Williams, and only with "Imaginations" (1970) did we have a chance to see these avant-garde works in their original form. The new edition of Williams' complete poems places the poet's entire oeuvre at last in proper perspective, correcting numerous textual errors, supplying comprehensive publishing information about all poems and providing hitherto unpublished poems to the canon. That Coulette should have avoided the historical significance of this venture in favor of condescending remarks about Williams' inability to write in "metrical language" or his desire for fame seems an insult to a great poet's memory and an irresponsible treatment of a major moment in modern publishing.

MICHAEL DAVIDSON

Solana Beach

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