‘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….