The William Carlos Williams Letters – Part One

 ‘I have seldom been left so completely in the air by a friendly letter which interests me and which I should like to answer as intelligently as possible.  You say you do not know me save by my writing yet the style of your letter is that of any old friend.  I have never had to infer so much from a style as I have had to infer from yours.  I am fascinated for instinctively I like you, I like you very much and feel cheated that I shall in all probability never get to know you.’
 
My mother received two letters from William Carlos Williams when she was a young woman.  (If you don’t know Williams, he was a modernist American poet perhaps best-known for his poems ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘Paterson’ and his politics, as well as his mentoring of younger American beat poets including Allen Ginsberg.  ‘Paterson is Whitman’s America, grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganized by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation. No poet has written of it with such a combination of brilliance, sympathy, and experience, with such alertness and energy.’ – Robert Lowell).

This means that my mother also wrote to Wiliams at least twice though her letters are long gone, unless captured somewhere in a WCW archive.  I found his letters to her in a drawer not long before she died.  I don’t know what she wrote to him, though I can well imagine it.  I was captivated by the responses and particularly by the strong feeling of connection that was there.  How much of it was real, how much a posture?  How much can we learn about a well-known literary figure through letters sent to a family member who we believe we knew well?  And reciprocally, what might these letters tell me about my mother and my relationship with her?

She sent her letters in the early 1950s when she was a student of English and American literature at UCLA.  He was one of her favourite writers along with other 20th century American poets such as e.e. cummings.  For me his letters capture the tone of their generation, her circle of intellectual friends, some of whom went on to be famous in their various walks of life as philosophers, writers, artists, IT innovators and businesspeople, philanthropists and the like.  My mother, however, lived out the rest of her life more in the shadows, with a tattered copy of Williams’ Collected Poems sitting unobtrusively on her bookshelves until nearly the end of her life when I sold all her books (another story). 
 
‘Who you are and how old you are, is equally unknown to me or what you have been and what – or what you expect of life as a ‘student’ doesn’t alter the fact that you can write.  I give it up.’
 
I can well imagine her poring over her typewriter, or maybe in those days she would have handwritten the letter, (his was typed), wanting to make sure she captured precisely the right turn of phrase, especially when writing to one of her literary heroes.  I also imagine her prose being elegant but rather remote and distant – feelings captured but kept well at bay.  She was always very conscious of the right way of expressing herself, with studied warmth but a deep-set formality, whether on the page or in person.  Her zeal for getting it right in writing was so great that she had to give it up as her determination and commitment were not up to the demands of the profession.
 
When I read these letters, the age-old dance of the admirer and the admired steps off the page.  While on the one hand this dance is captivating and enticing, on the other hand there is something a little staged about it.  What is the truth behind these letters?  What did they trigger in Williams?  Was he just ‘playing the part’ or was there something more to it?
 
During her university years, my mother lived in the house of, and was the companion of, an at that time well-known British actress, Edith Wynne Matthison, who performed in the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare, and who lived in Los Angeles in later life. 
Williams had admired Matthison from afar in his now distant youth. Of Matthison it was said,

‘As Everyman she portrays almost all the human emotions, from light-hearted indifference and a full-blooded enjoyment of life and its good things, through incredulity, fear, anger, rebelliousness, supplication, despair, repentance, confession, pain, resignation and submission to final peace. That one woman should be able to express all these phases of feeling, and to sustain the part for almost two hours of uninterrupted effort would be marvel enough; but Miss Matthison is Everyman for those two hours, and her tears are as genuine at the one hundredth performance as they were at the first. Therein lies her power; in her absolute sincerity, and in her absorption in her part. To talent, nature has added the gift of beauty. She has eloquent eyes, a mobile mouth, and hands so full of expression and of feeling that they alone tell the story without need of words.’

How much did my mother know of Williams’ youthful passion for Matthison when she wrote to him?  How influenced was she by Matthison when she wrote her letter?  And who was Williams writing back to?  Was he writing to the Matthison image remembered from his youth when he wrote to my mother?  Or was he writing to the memory of himself?  Had he surrendered to memory or was he drawn to the appeal of the present?  Art, memory and life all mingle in this brief, tantalising exchange.

In trying to find out something about Matthison, I stumbled across a resonant anecdote about an encounter she had with a Vassar student somewhere between 1913 and 1917. That student was Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of America’s most famous female poets.  Matthison was about 40 years old at the time, twice Millay’s age.  They subsequently exchanged letters and in one of these, Millay says: ‘You wrote me a beautiful letter. I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love… When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You.’ 
 
And so life mimics life, captured through the art of letter-writing.

My mother’s first letter flattered the much older man who could not help but enjoy the attentions of a much younger woman, connecting him with an ardent passion from his own youth.  In this early stage of their connection, he craved something more.
 
‘…I like you very much and feel cheated that I shall in all probability never get to know you.  It particularly distresses me since you are a friend of my early love Edith Wynne Mathewson  – not that she ever knew it…..If you have an occasion to do so speak to Edith saying that an old admirer of hers has written you of her and that he has never forgotten her.  As for yourself I can only say that if you would identify yourself more clearly I should be happy to reply to you the next time you write more intelligently.’ 
 
Did he mean that he intended to reply more intelligently, or was he bidding her to write more intelligently?!
 
What was it she wrote back to him?  I would have liked to have known what she said, and how she felt about this first response.  I see in my mind’s eye a smile of excitement, pleasure and even a glint of triumph.  She would have felt as pleased by the coup of receiving the letter as by its content.  Possibly she even saw the emerging mingling of life and art through the exchange of letters.
 
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the next letter led to a change in the dynamic and the beginning of a withdrawal.
 
To be continued….

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16 Responses to The William Carlos Williams Letters – Part One

  1. Viv says:

    This is intriguing. I sense disappointment and disillusion in the offing as well as mystery (why did you sell all her books?? Why did he phrase things so oddly at times??) and look forward to see ing it open still further to scrutiny.
    I must have written thousands of letters in my time and maybe tens of thousands of emails too, in this current e era, and have kept many letters that were written to me. How hard it is to make sense of a relationship when the only evidence is a few letters and anecdotes: like deciphering a new Rosetta stone to unlock a past we didn’t know existed.
    I await the next installment.
    x

  2. Karin says:

    I think his letters are fascinating – the phrasing is intriguing. There is something very staged about his letters, but I imagine there probably was about hers too. And in fact this thought has given me an insight into all her correspondence, it was always as if she was writing to be read by someone else or by herself at a later stage in her life. There is mystery in her letters but not in my selling of her books, which was done for purely practical reasons – but gave me some strange insights into the lives and minds of second-hand booksellers especially in the age of internet bookselling. Thanks for your comment, Viv.

  3. Dody says:

    Aren’t these things we discover about our parents amazing? William Carlos William… I was just reading about him the other day. I was not exposed to him until graduate school in my forties. I took a class called Writing for Readers and the amazing teacher exposed us to Helen Vendler and the edition of her anthology included many poems by Williams which we read.

    Anyway – you say your mother lived out her life in the shadows. I sense disappointment. I will like to know more about this story. The word shadows is tricky. It seems somehow pejorative. Yet, it may just be a choice. Not everyone can be large. There are times I feel as if I am not nearly as successful as many people I knew in my youth. Like your mom, I live with my proverbial tattered copy of poems. But, I feel hugely successful emotionally. My interior self is certain I have made the choices that were right for me and perhaps your mother felt the same. I will be very interested to here more of this story.

    Your mom was quite spunky to write to Willams. It is really intriguing.

    • Karin says:

      Hi Dody Jane, your comments about my mother and the pejorative implications of ‘living life in the shadows’ put things into perspective and quite correctly too. A few months before she died, after having spent a couple years bedbound in a nursing home, my mother declared how much she had enjoyed her life as it used to be in the pre-nursing home days. I was always very judgmental of this life – and, oh dear, I am beginning to think this excursion, courtesy of William Carlos Williams’ letters, may take me on quite an uncomfortable journey! I will certainly eventually write here the story of the letters Part Two; and now both you and Viv have made me think there is more to write….we’ll see.

      Interesting word ‘spunky’ – love it as it’s never used in England. The sort of old-fashioned equivalent here would be ‘plucky’. I remember my university tutor here called me that when I arrived and I was quite baffled! Yes, I think my mother was ‘spunky’ in a way, and maybe it’s in the genes.

      Helen Vendler also wrote some great stuff on TS Eliot.

      • Chris says:

        I haven’t yet got my head round the whole story of this post – my education did not embrace the famous people mentioned so I have some background catching up to do. But I must wade in about ‘plucky’ versus ‘spunky’. For me plucky is a very light little word, the usage of which comes close to carrying connotations of being patronising or condescending. Spunky is a much more rip-roaring, full-blooded, macho word. Spunky would see plucky off with one hand while fighting off dragons with the other.

  4. Karin says:

    Hi Chris, your comments on ‘plucky’ and ‘spunky’ are quite intriguing! I have only ever been called ‘plucky’ once, it was soon after I arrived in the UK, by my supervisor who, now that I think about it, was probably conveying (in that very English indirect way that I didn’t get at the time – at all) her disapproval, perhaps even disdain, about how I had talked with a very eminent professor at a party at her house! Fascinating…it’s only taken me three decades to get that message – which I think I knew in my bones at the time. But as she was a Henry James scholar, I thought she was just using English in a very particular way. Maybe it was both. Thanks for the subtle distinction from ‘spunky’, characteristic of your type!

  5. Stephen says:

    Gosh, this post took me off in a completely different direction from the actual text and more into the environment of your upbringing. My mother had a problem writing a note for the milkman let alone reading poetry and having the confidence to write to a famous poet. Same planet, different worlds.

  6. Karin says:

    Hi Steve, the environment of my upbringing is a much longer story…..however, your mother sounds a bit like my grandmother (father’s mother). She came to the US from Lithuania in adolescence, entered through Ellis Island and nearly didn’t make it as some men tried to entice her to a ‘house of laughter, house of tears’; she never learned how to write in English other than to sign her name (I think), so writing a note for the milkman for her would have been an impossibility.

  7. psimon5 says:

    1. The Coincidence: when I drafted my first (abandoned) post to this blog I got to thinking about a time as a student when a flatmate and I wrote our favourite quotations and sentences on the walls and ceilings of my student digs (we painted over when we left!). One of my most favourite quotations was “if they give you lined paper, write the other way”. About to use this quotation in my post, I Googled it to check when Nabokov wrote it and found that it is actually attributed to… you guessed it: William Carlos Williams. (Nabokov wrote one of my other favourites: ‘literature was born the day a little boy came running home shouting ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ and there was no wolf behind him.’).
    2. The Cliffhanger. I’d love to hear the story about selling your mother’s books.
    3. The Next Chapter. Looking forward to The WCW letters – part two.

    • Karin says:

      Wonderful Coincidence (synchronous), I promise my Cliffhanger and the Next Chapter. Now I’m curious about how this post and your abandoned First Draft, took you back to thinking about your student digs – your Cliffhanger….

  8. That is some inspirational stuff. Never knew that opinions could be this varied. Thanks for all the enthusiasm to offer such helpful information here.

    • Chris says:

      Buck up, Karin! I’ve now re-read this, got to grips with it and am desperate for the next instalment.

      As a side-line it is fascinating to hear about different mothers. Mine went to grammar school, worked in a high-class ladies’ dress shop, married my father, gave up work and thereafter devoted herself to the family. A gentle modest retiring lady, always concerned that she should do the right thing in company the only mark she appears to have made on the world is via the unselfish love she gave to her children and grandchildren. I never saw her read anything except Mills & Boon romances but she was an intelligent woman. Did she feel fulfilled in life? I don’t know – and it’s too late now to ask.

      • Karin says:

        Next instalment to follow in due course. I have got distracted down another avenue, but it does have further info about my mother in it so in a sense is another follow-up. Interesting to hear about your mother, I have a strong visual image. It makes me wonder, do we ever know our mothers?

  9. Karin says:

    Thanks for your comment, glad you’ve enjoyed reading my post!

    • Chris says:

      Hi again Karin,

      I look pretty much like my mother but I carry a little more weight than she did. So was your visual image correct?

      I watch with interest the relationship my nieces have with their mother (my sister-in-law). It seems so much more a relationship based on the equality of all being adults together than I ever felt I had with my mother, much as I loved her and she loved me. She looked after me and then I looked after her but there didn’t ever seem to be a time between those two states. Is it that mothers today stay younger in mind, spirit, body and outlook longer than they did in times past? Or do youngsters grow up faster?

      • Karin says:

        Hi Chris,
        My visual image was more around the dress of the woman and her general demeanour (I now realise), her facial expression was but a silhouette. So I can’t answer that question.

        I’m not convinced that mothers today stay younger in any or all those ways than they used to (though we do live in a youth culture so certainly that aspiration is there or at least the pressure from outside is there). I wonder if social mores have changed, and the acceptable and accepted distance between the generations is no longer a norm. Now it’s cool for the generations to bridge the gap. And yes, I agree, children do grow up quicker, another social pressure.

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