William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture

Bremen, Brian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Jul-26-2004


William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was one of this country’s premier poets, winning the Bollingen Prize for poetry in January of 1953. As a practicing physician, Williams (hereafter "WCW") incorporated many of his medical experiences into his fiction, less into his poetry. Brian A. Bremen’s book examines WCW, "a medicine man," to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase for Williams (Kenneth Burke was a lifelong friend and publisher of WCW), for whom writing was "always a form of criticism-as-diagnosis." (p.6) For Bremen, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and former editor of the William Carlos Williams Review, WCW’s poetics "embrace ideas about literature, history, medicine, gender relations, politics that are currently finding expression in the contemporary critical enterprise of ’cultural studies.’ " (p. 7) Bremen’s book explores how WCW developed these ideas between "Spring and All" (1923) and Paterson, Books I-IV (1951).

After quoting a remark that Burke recalls WCW making about the nature of man, Bremen states that the quotation substantiates "the close relationship between Burke’s and Williams’s thinking" and also points out "how naturally Williams’s roles as doctor and poet combine with Burke’s closely related roles of ’Cure’ and ’Pontificate.’ If, along with this coincidence, we remember that the word ’Semiotic’ comes from the Greek meaning ’concerned with the interpretation of symptoms’ and was used by d’Alembert in his ’Tree of Knowledge’ to describe that branch of medicine concerned with diagnosis, we can begin to see how Williams’s own concern with history, culture, and the word becomes the way in which he can extend his diagnostics beyond the individual to embrace both the language and the community, providing both with cure and consolation." (p. 7)

Bremen develops his argument in four chapters: Chapter 1: "Finding the Poetry Hidden in the Prose," in which Bremen lays the groundwork for his discussion of Williams’s views on poetry and prose and introduces key figures in Williams’s thinking and/or Bremen’s analysis, e.g., Kenneth Burke, Heinz Kohut, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; Chapter 2: "The Language of Flowers," in which the author uses the psychology of Jessica Benjamin and the botany of Erasmus Darwin to demonstrate how WCW’s poetry eventually shares in a "more feminine, ’mother-based’ psychology that privileges the "narcissistic" over the "oedipal" (p. 46) while his "more modern language of flowers moves beyond these simple associations to act as ’representative anecdotes’ that embody a complex notion of ’empathy’ and ’identification,’ one that both empowers and even attempts to ’cure’ the reader." (p. 45).

Chapter 3: "Modern Medicine," is of especial interest to the readers of this bibliography, and a chapter heavily dependent on the relationship between Burke and Williams and the critical evaluation of the latter by the former. This chapter argues that "it is precisely Williams’s role as a doctor and its symbiotic--not merely complementary--relationship to his role of poet that provides the clearest model of Williams’s aspirations for his writing. Specifically it is the act of diagnosis that is at the core of both Williams’s medicine and his poetry." (p. 85).

In chapter 4, Attitudes toward History, Bremen offers a critical reading of WCW’s In the American Grain, an American history text as WCW felt history should be written and understood--a thesis Bremen successfully compares to WCW’s analogous views about poetry and prose. Chapter 5, The Radiant Gist, a chapter devoted primarily to Paterson, Books I-IV, serves as well as a coda to the book.


Anyone who has spent more than an hour reading and trying to understand Williams’s poetics will applaud Bremen for tackling such a polymorphous subject characterized by a frequent penchant for frustratingly aphoristic opacity, a poetic diction and style that disarms and entices even as it confuses, and apparently (remember the aphoristic opacity) abrupt changes, often within the same essay. Although the field is not as hopeless as it might sound, it is a challenging and daunting endeavor to analyze a corpus of thought and ideology that has always struck me as intentionally Propertian in its ambiguity.

Professor Bremen deserves much praise for such a comprehensive, relatively succinct treatise that daringly incorporates such unlikely sources of critical understanding as Jessica Benjamin; the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; Philodemus, a first century BC Epicurean philosopher; and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, an eighteenth century French scientist and encyclopedist colleague and collaborator of Diderot.

Although it is tempting to cavil that this is cultural, not literary criticism, both WCW and Bremen would rightly point out that such is Bremen’s title and that such a cavil would, as Murray instructs Leo "Chuckles The Chipmunk" Herman in the movie "A Thousand Clowns," be missing the point, i.e., that for WCW literary criticism is cultural criticism is social criticism. As such Bremen’s project is variably successful.

The psychological vocabulary and argument can get dense, e.g., in chapters 1 and especially 2, but are necessary homework for chapter 3, which relies on this groundwork. Chapter 3, "Modern Medicine," is a valuable chapter for its analysis of several Williams works and also works of S. (Silas) Weir Mitchell, including a brilliantly constructed parallel reading of a Mitchell anecdote from "The Moral Management of Sick or Invalid Children" and Williams’s The Use of Force (annotated by Felice Aull and also by Pamela Moore and Jack Coulehan). Bremen’s notion of WCW’s idea of "cure," at least for this reader, ultimately comes down to his ability to instill empathy and force the reader to re-create anew the poetic material in Williams’s work. It is at times a difficult and tenuous notion but one that Bremen finally, by book’s end, conveys to the reader.


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count