Thursday, April 5, 2012

National Poetry Month—William Carlos Williams "The Crowd at the Ball Game"

Dr. William Carlos Williams, 1922

Hallelujah!  It’s Baseball Opening Day at Wrigley Field, the official shrine, the Holy of Holies, of my beloved Chicago Cubs.  It’s a new season.  Exciting young players.  Hope abounds.  In celebration we have to share one of the many poems about the Great American Pass Time, many of them penned by our most distinguished poets.  Take one of my favorites, William Carlos Williams for instance.

William Carlos Williams was born in a comfortably middle class home in Rutherford, New Jersey in 1883.  He would spend virtually his whole life in and around the environs of his hometown.  His father was American, but his mother was born of a “respectable” Puerto Rican family, meaning they had almost pure Spanish bloodlines.  

An outstanding pupil at local Horace Mann High School, he excelled at writing poetry and in biology.  He determined to pursue a dual career in medicine and literature.  After graduating with a degree in Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania and an internship in obstetrics and gynecology, Williams hung up his shingle and practiced medicine in his hometown and in the near-by industrial center of Patterson. 

Many of his patients were Paterson mill girls, others were local prostitutes and desperate young mothers with too many babies.  Yet he also saw the proper middle class ladies of his hometown.  The experience of his practice influenced his poetry and other literary endeavors.  

While at the University of Pennsylvania, he fell in with the brilliant Ezra Pound.  Pound profoundly influenced the poetry Williams continued to write.  He joined the Imagist movement, writing unsentimental poetry in evocative language and experimental forms.  Pound arranged for the publication of Williams’s second volume of poetry, The Tempers in London in 1913. 

Back in Rutherford, Williams continued to prolifically produce poetry, essays, plays and fiction.  He slowly built a reputation second only to Pound as an Imagist.  This position would be challenged by the emergence of T.S. Eliot in the 1920’s.  By that time Williams was drifting away from the Imagists anyway considering them, especially Eliot, too bound to European culture, too elitist, and too obscure.  

He continued to experiment adventurously with poetic form and typography.  This experimentation was evident in his Complete Poems, published in 1938 and his Collected Poems published in 1950.  He began work on his great extended poem of America in the Depression.  Patterson, Books 1-V was published over a period of years from 1946 to 1958.  He also produced three novels during this period. 

Williams’s health began to fail after a heart attack in 1949 and a series of small strokes.  He had to retire from the practice of medicine but continued to write.

He received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1950 and published his memoirs the following year.  

He continued to write bold, experimental poetry in addition to his Patterson books. His latter notable collections include Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, 1962 and the posthumous Imaginations, 1970.  He lived to see his reputation as a poet soar with the open admiration of a new generation of writers, notably Allan Ginsberg and the other Beats.  Williams died in Rutherford in 1963.

In 1923 Williams contributed this poem to the re-incarnation of The Dial under the editorship of Scofield Thayer when it was the center of the Imagist movement and with Poetry one of the two most important literary journals of the time.

The Crowd at the Ball Game

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them —
all the exciting detail
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius —
all to no end save beauty
the eternal -
So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful
for this
to be warned against
saluted and defied —
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut —
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it —
The Jew gets it straight - it
is deadly, terrifying —
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
that lives
day by day in them
idly —
This is
the power of their faces
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail
permanently, seriously
without thought

—William Carlos Williams

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