William Carlos Williams: Poet and pediatrician

January 1, 2008

The 125th anniversary commemorating the life of pediatrician and poet, William Carlos Williams.

The year 2008 marks the 125th anniversary of poet William Carlos Williams' birth. Williams brought a distinctly American style of language to verse, and was a prime inspiration for the beat generation. He is one of the most prominent authors of Puerto Rican heritage, and a Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. He was also an MD.

Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School after schooling abroad in Geneva and Paris. After receiving his MD in 1906, he specialized in pediatrics during his residency training in New York and the University of Leipzig. Returning to his hometown of Rutherford, N.J., he opened up a pediatrics practice in 1910.

For the next 41 years, William Carlos Williams was a full-time pediatrician. He made housecalls. He wrote prescriptions. He delivered babies. He dealt with patients in every income bracket and every sort of strife. This immersion affected his view of poetry. Poems about superficial matters, told in overwrought language, didn't reflect his reality.

For decades, his regularly published poems received little attention outside a narrow field of followers. However, after he retired from medicine the world started to notice to his style. Now the situation has been reversed: he's known worldwide for his poetry, and all but forgotten for his pediatric practice.

His poetic legacy, not the words he used but the philosophy behind them, is what influenced others after him. His two great ideas just happen to be bedrocks of pediatric medicine.

First, his language. What Williams did in poetry was to take that pediatrician's plainspoken approach when speaking to kids and parents, and apply it to an art form accustomed to grandiose rhetorical flourishes. His plum was simply a plum, his fire engine a fire engine. The sparseness made each word pop, and forced an idea to not hide behind words.

Also, Williams was proud of the "variable foot," breaking lines of poetry at specific points instead of fitting it all on one line. There was no one size of line that should fit all verse: each line was different, and needed specialized care for its treatment. It's not too different from the tenet that children are not little adults, and need special care for their treatment, too.

William Carlos Williams could never have identified so much with the working-class American voice if he hadn't loved them, hadn't cared for them, both personally and medically. He might not have even become the celebrated poet he's remembered as if he hadn't lived his life as a pediatrician first and foremost.

Complaint

They call me and I go.It is a frozen road past midnight, a dust of snow caughtin the rigid wheeltracks.The door opens.I smile, enter andshake off the cold.Here is a great womanon her side in the bed.She is sick,perhaps vomiting,perhaps laboringto give birth toa tenth child. Joy! Joy!Night is a roomdarkened for lovers,through the jalousies the sunhas sent one golden needle!I pick the hair from her eyesand watch her miserywith compassion.