“To the extent that a life can have an agenda, my life’s agenda for a long time has included some sort of deliberative writing about the poetry of William Carlos Williams as a payment or at least an acknowledgement of a personal debt,” says poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry. The result is this absorbing volume, which is not only an in-depth examination—and appreciation—of Williams’s poetry and poetics, but of poetry in general and the place of poetry in civilization. That is not to suggest that the book has a grand tone or sweep. Reading it is akin to attending a Chautaucqua given by someone, who, though not an academic, has long studied and thought about and lived with a body of work.
As suggested by the book’s title, Williams’s commitment to his home place, both in his poetry and his life, spoke to Berry and shaped him as a writer. “[Williams] was a poet determinedly and conscientiously local . . . His commitment to one small part of the world made him radical in a way that he may only partly have recognized.” Berry’s rural Kentucky is markedly different from Williams’s industrial New Jersey, but “of all the writers known to me,” Berry writes, “Williams dealt most directly and explicitly with the complex cultural necessity of an ongoing, lively connection between imagination in the highest sense and the ground underfoot.”
Quoting generously from Williams’s work, Berry organizes his discussion of it into chapters that focus on line and syntax, rhythm, measure, economy and form, as well as less immediately recognizable terms, like “completeness” and “art conscious and learnable.” When he does not understand some part of the work, he freely admits so, declaring that it does not keep him from savoring the body of it. He approaches the poetry with care, thought, and pleasure; here’s part of his response to Williams’s famous poem “The Red Wheel Barrow”: “As Williams formed it on the page it both sings in the ear and lights up in imagination . . . Some readers may deal with this poem by asking, ‘So much of what depends upon…?’ Surely it is possible to like it very much without taking it very seriously . . . [D]on’t we know that difficult and painful lives have been made livable by just such comely small visions as this poem gives us, and by somebody’s ability to say such graceful things about them?”