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.

Inspiration Conversation: featuring “The Disciple’s Information Desk”

“Everybody walks past a thousand story [and poem] ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”

– Orson Scott Card

Poets get inspiration from all sorts of intricate corners of the world: the rhythmic Boing! of a basketball bouncing on cement; a self-help book’s chapter on other people’s opinions; an annoying, overreaching song on the radio, or even a client’s heartfelt complaint over the phone. Well, I just received inspiration from a sermon I listened to on this snowy March morning. I opened my living room and kitchen blinds; I let the blinding snow-light flood my home; I set out my laptop for the service’s live stream on the coffee table, and I wrapped myself in a large sweater on my sinking couch, ready for Sunday morning’s learning. And while my thin-socked toes froze, I heard my pastor’s sermon on the Transfiguration.

For those unfamiliar with the event, it is when Christ takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him up onto a mountain. While there Christ’s appearance suddenly changes, and out of the blue he is joined by Elijah and Moses. (Note that these two prophets have been dead quite a long time.) The disciples are stunned, and Peter literally blabbers out of shock. He’s interrupted, though, by an enveloping cloud, out of which God speaks and basically tells the disciples to “shut up” and listen to Jesus. After the cloud leaves, Elijah and Moses are gone, and everyone is ominously silent. Quite the event, huh? (Unsummarized version in Luke 8:28-36.)

Now during this event, the rest of Jesus’ disciples (he has a total of 12) have been approached by a man whose son is possessed and terrorized by a demon. This father asks the disciples to heal his son, but all nine disciples fail. But when Jesus comes down the mountain, this same man also approaches him, entreating Jesus to heal his only son. Unsurprisingly, Jesus heals the boy of the evil spirit, but not before saying something that really puzzled me: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 8:41a). I mentally gasped. Jesus was annoyed. How on earth? He, in a sense, actually complained. But at who, exactly? About what? It’s one of those semi-ambiguous complaints, and my imaginative mind doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

And that’s when an image struck me. I saw myself at my day job, at my desk, waiting for people to come in with questions that maybe I can answer and maybe I can’t. I saw the times I succeeded. I saw the times I’ve failed. I saw the times I’ve become annoyed and couldn’t bear the questions anymore. Then I saw the following poem shaping in my imagination:

The Disciple’s Information Desk 
Luke 8:37-43

They come to me, eyes
wild with confusion
to search and search
The woman losing her
coin, her whole day’s
wages, the shepherd
scouring his pastures
the woods, the streams
for his lost sheep
They come to me

To my unattractive desk
with their unprepared
Questions, with their
frantic hearts beating
out of their rushed mouths
And I listen, I half listen
I can only half understand
these harder questions
I cannot answer, I can
not fix. I am not the
Master. I am only the
Student worker here.

I am one of the helpless
disciples. Why Sir, do you
Come to me with this issue?
"I need help, and your boss is
not here." Then I will try. I
will listen. I will half listen
and half understand. I will
fail. "Please do something!
My son… my Son has gone
through enough with this demon!"
He is searching. This father
Searches for an answer from
me. And I fail.

I am a helpless disciple
Sitting at this unattractive desk
That brings forth the people
with questions. I walk with
the Wise, with the Miraculous
but I cannot heal your son
You must wait for my boss
to come down from the
Mountain. You must wait
until the manager is here.

- An original poem by Julie E. Harms

Perhaps I’ve broken the poets’ code by detailing my pre-poem inspiration, but I did so purposefully, and I willingly put myself at the scrutiny of other poets. I think it is important in the conversation concerning inspiration. Once upon a time poets wrote the highest form of poetry if they could allude to the most elaborate mythological, historical, or religious references. They were writing for the educated society, to those who could understand such images and complexities.

But in my opinion, contemporary poetry does not use outside inspiration to show its superiority; contemporary poetry uses outside inspiration as a conduit that makes the poem relatable to the contemporary reader. The fact that I used biblical inspiration for this poem does not on its own merit make it a better poem than others. But the fact that I took biblical contents and connected them to an everyday trial or experience is what heightens the poem.

Another poem that does this (and in my opinion does it better) is Helen Considers Leaving Troy, by Jeanann Verlee. Verlee modernizes the woman of Greek legend, allowing the reader to theorize and consider Helen in the light of a modern woman trapped in an undesired relationship. Not only does her content reflect this, but Verlee also uses a creative structure to accomplish that relatability. Each stanza is fueled with inner thoughts affected by an established situation: “while walking the dog,” “while paying the bills,” “when Menelaus writes a letter,” etc,.  These tie Helen to the present day, and overall create a more relatable Helen that we as contemporary readers find we can more intricately understand.

In relation to my own writing, I can hardly write without inspiration, It must be from something or someone or because of somewhere. In any artist’s creation there has been a touch of inspiration to spur that said creation. It may be big, it may be small, it may be a legendary figure from history, it may be words from an ancient book, or it may be snow-blinding light that still floods through my windows as I type. Whatever inspiration comes next, I hope to catch it as successfully as I did today. I’ve missed many a poem because I did not grasp the tails of inspiration soon enough. But that, my literary friends, is a thought to explore on another day.

“Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.”

– Emily Dickinson