The William Carlos Williams Letters – Part Two

Part One written in November 2010…continued here….

I promised to complete the story when I shared my reflections on the first letters exchanged between my mother and William Carlos Williams in an earlier post.  It feels like the time is right to do that now.  I still feel in a reflective mode about things and people that have passed and are passing; coupled with ongoing reflections on how we may get to know people through written exchanges and how close or distant that may be from really getting to know them in person.  I feel that the end of a relationship or connection that has largely been based on an exchange of letters (or in today’s world – e-mails) can be as meaningful as a face-to-face relationship – that is, as significant for the psyche if not as obviously impactful on the fabric of everyday life.  Yet it can also be perplexingly enigmatic, not least because we all create (maybe even craft) personas, whether consciously or unconsciously, through the way we present ourselves in writing and also, I think, on the internet.  Of course we craft personas in our everyday lives too – but I am wondering whether it is easier to do this when the relationship is built merely on an exchange of written words; and also whether the temptation for the reader to project onto the writer is greater in these circumstances.  I wonder whether other people have thoughts about this….

****************************************************************************************** 
 
The second and last letter in the exchange between my mother and the famous American modernist poet William Carlos Williams happened only two weeks after the first.  It was a short-lived connection.  They wrote to each other in the July heat of 1953, he on the East Coast she on the West.  Williams opened his second letter complaining of the heat, with a very English attitude: ‘Much that we experience in our lives depends on the weather.’
 
What did she tell him of herself?  I imagine her describing her passion for English and American literature and for creative writing.  She was an aspiring writer.  She may have described herself as an intellectual, well-read mid-Western American of Norwegian descent – or maybe she disowned her origins from which she had fled.  I would love to be able to read her self-portrait in these letters.  She was always very good at describing herself and even laughingly hinting at some of her darker qualities, that side each of us is keen to disown.  ‘Every real person casts a shadow,’ as the psychologist says.
 
On the face of it, Williams seems keen to develop the budding epistolary relationship:
 
‘I was glad to know more about you, it gave me at least a presumptive picture of the person to whom I was writing.  I am sorry that you did not come down front to say hello when I spoke in California but I agree, what good [would] it have done?  It is better this way when I have no visual image to interfere with my view of you whatever you may look like.’

How true this is –the mystery and romance is enhanced by the lack of real contact.

He gives his letter to her a bell-shaped curve.  As the interest rises he then puts a brake on the mounting energy, with a touch of self-deprecation (real or feigned?):
 
‘You must have a sympathetic feeling for the old.  It is to your credit but it has its dangers.  A hundred years from now they may be discovering that there are unsuspected beauties in something I may have said but now is not the time to be talking of such things or to be interested in them.  Today belongs to the generation which denies the validity of much that I have affirmed.  You should be paying attention to them, not me – as your friend, your male friend, has no doubt warned you.’
 
Who is this unknown male friend?  It could have been my father, but I feel it is more likely to have been another man – a young, original, offbeat, even maverick writer who fled the US and ended up in Paris, sending her long, complicated, angst-ridden letters in years to come. 

Why did Williams to start to move away?  What did my mother say to him about his work?  What images did she choose to dwell upon and linger over?  Did he perhaps feel she had come too close and, as he put it, that she was ‘making a claim’ on him?  All questions that will remain unanswered and open to speculation.

Williams crafted his letter as if it were a poem.  He provides an archetypal image as he approaches his denouement: ‘My three year old grandaughter…has just appeared in the garden below me, and is busily tearing a grape leaf into shreds.  That gesture too is immortal.’  With this image as if of a statue or in today’s world a movie clip, he too starts to tear the grape leaf of their correspondence into shreds.
 
He begins to distance himself and as his letter ends, there is a feeling of finality:
 
‘I am glad to be hearing from you, an unknown young lady whom I have never known and yet has established a claim upon me.  You say you are moved by ‘desire’.  Be careful of such desires for they are close to denials.  Better to find closer objects and especially something which presents itself as attainable.  Not that I do not share your love of the unobtainable, that is perhaps our common bond of sympathy.’
 
This is a breathtakingly beautiful paragraph – and it so evocatively captures the essence of who my mother was.  I remember the son of close family friends telling me when I was frustrated with her (as adolescent children often are with their mothers) that she was a dreamer and this was so true.  She loved having dreams, and she was more than happy knowing they would never be fulfilled – as long as life was comfortable.  In her latter days, life fell short of this basic requirement.  Her final two years were spent bedridden in a nursing home, dreaming through the days in a kind of morphine-induced haze which always makes me think of another of her favourite writers Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider, a novella inspired by Porter’s near-fatal attack of flu during the 1918 pandemic, much of which is written in a stream-of-half-consciousness style to capture the feverish state she was in.

As Williams suggests, in unobtainable desire there is indeed denial.  And I guess that my desire to get to the bottom of this story is itself a continuation of this unobtainable desire into perpetuity.

My mother was happy to live her life at a distance, and I would imagine that this letter provided a perfect closure to the correspondence she had initiated.  It gave her enough to dream about without making any demands.  

Reed Islands – nearly finished – by Vanessa Hadady


 

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7 Responses to The William Carlos Williams Letters – Part Two

  1. souldipper says:

    What a treat that you have this peek into your mom’s heart. Wonderful.

  2. Chris says:

    I am envious. My mother, from my perspective, was someone who cared for my father and my brother and me and had no intellectual life or life outside the family … or maybe she did. Now I wonder – would I like to know that she wasn’t as straightforward as I thought? I think I’ll settle for knowing I was loved and she was loved back. Maybe the half insight Karin has is more frustrating than being completely ignorant. Or maybe not ….

  3. Viv says:

    I think you are right about relationships that are conducted at a distance having as much power as those close up. And yet, there remains something enigmatic and unfathomable about such relationships. I do feel though that even those we think we know, those who are close kin or close friends, often hide mysteries from us unconsciously, because I believe that we cannot know the whole of a person. It’s too much. We can seldom bear even knowing ourselves too at times, let alone another.
    The stories of the past are always the most beguiling when we lose the chance to clarify them and set things into stone: this happened then, this did not happen at all. When we do not know, then the past becomes a wonderful mystery that will bear exploring forever without the finality of facts to curtail our expedition.
    “The past is another country. They do things differently there.”
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    x

    • karin says:

      Thanks all for your comments.

      Chris, my insight isn’t frustrating, it’s enticing – but I like half-finished stories, that gives free reign to the imagination!

      Viv, I really like your comment and insights about long-distance relationships, especially those that exist through the written word; and also your comments about the past. Of course we can only have this sense of wonderful mystery if we feel secure in ourselves somehow. The past can be a means to both bondage and liberation. I love the light echoes of TSE too. Thanks.

  4. Stephen says:

    I find your writing thoughtful and engaging as always. Reading of your mother’s literary strength it made me think how people from very diverse backgrounds can come into contact and relate to each other. My mother only ever wrote notes for the milkman (“two pints please”) and her education was sadly lacking as a consequence of her very poor, working class roots but here I am reading of your mother’s discourse with a renown American poet.
    Viv’s view that the past leaves as many mysteries as it resolves is intriguing in some ways but for me, I’m nore accepting of the past for what it is, the past. We cannot change it although, I suppose, we can use it to fire our imagination for the future in terms of what might have been.

  5. Tricia says:

    Firstly – let me tell you how very intrigued I am by both your mother’s experiences and your interpretation of them. Very glad I didn’t have to wait and could jump between these two posts having come to them late. So fascinating to speculate on how the words on a page both hide and reveal the other person, like sliding doors giving us glimpses into both complex inner lives and outer relationships/personas. The things we choose to reveal are…revealing, but so much remains covered, unknown – even in those we have known our whole lives. Perhaps they remain the most mysterious of all, for there is more to be lost from complete honesty. And Viv’s comment – that we can never truly know another – can hardly even bear to know ourselves is interesting too. So much to think about here.

    • Thanks, Tricia – once again for keeping something from the past alive in a positive way – that is, by reminding me of some of the messages that are timeless. There was a film called ‘Sliding Doors’ which was exactly as you describe it. Your comment ‘there is more to be lost from complete honesty’ is true. We lose our illusions about each other for one thing!

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