One of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, William Carlos Williams is “The cornerstone of New Directions”
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a poet, short-story writer, novelist and essayist whose importance to the subsequent development of modern American poetry in the twentieth century grew out of his commitment to recording the “local” experience of Rutherford, New Jersey and its environs. From 1909 until the early 1930s, Williams’s poetry appeared in small journals and specialist editions, but the founding of New Directions by James Laughlin brought the author and young publisher together, and Williams subsequently published the majority of his remaining life’s work with Laughlin’s company. Williams’s career as a poet was supported by his full-time career as a practising physician in his hometown of Rutherford, and his poetry sought to capture the rhythms of the speech he heard around him. His fiction and short stories were also rooted in his local environment, as demonstrated by his Stecher trilogy of novels, beginning with White Mule, which first published by New Directions in 1937 only a year after the company was founded. In this and the subsequent volumes, In the Money (1940) and The Build-up (1952), Williams recounts the lives and speech of working-class immigrant families growing up in New York. Laughlin, who in 1937 described Williams as “the cornerstone of New Directions,” sought to bring out a collection of Williams’s poetry under one cover, an ambition which saw the Complete Collected Poems appear in 1938, before New Directions also published a collected edition of Williams’s later poetry in The Collected Later Poems (1950). Both works formed the inspiration for New Directions’ later scholarly editions of Williams’s collected poems in two volumes, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan, and Volume II, 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan, which appeared in 1986 and 1988 respectively. As a modernist poet guided in his early work by the goading and friendship of his college friend and fellow New Directions stalwart, Ezra Pound, Williams’s innovative and experimental poetry and prose also found a home under Laughlin’s wing. In 1946 New Directions published the first volume of a prospective four volume long poem entitled Paterson, the subsequent books appearing in 1948, 1949, 1951, before a fifth book appeared in 1958. A revised edition of Williams’s Paterson, edited by Christopher MacGowan, was published in 1992, and these remarkable editions completed the scholarly overhaul of Williams’s poetry undertaken by New Directions throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. His classic of literary Americana and creative non-fiction, In the American Grain (1952) was recently reissued with a new introduction by Rick Moody, and a facsimile edition of the first publication of Spring and All (Paris,1923) was just published with a new introduction by C.D. Wright.
[New Directions would like to thank Professor Ian Copestake for contributing this biography.]
“It is ever more apparent that Williams was this century's major American poet.”
“So remarkable an influence upon the poetry of our time.”
“An American original... he stole time to create the most substantial one-man body of literature in our history. When he died at 79, he had no peer as the total American writer. His language rolled clean off the American tongue. His emotions were torn from the national consciousness, like a page from the morning paper. More than Robert Frost, perhaps more than Eliot, Williams shaped the present in American poetry… his writing needs a million readers and this Reader is a great place to begin.”