Why is it, then, that almost fifty years after his death, the reputation of William Carlos Williams still seems to be haunted by a ghost of uncertainty? You don’t have to read far in “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You,” Herbert Leibowitz’s assiduous new commentary on Williams’s “life and works,” before you hear its moans. “During his lifetime Williams had the pleasure of becoming a beloved figure,” writes Leibowitz, the founder and longtime editor of the journal Parnassus. But
voices of dissent rang out from the choir loft, basically rehearsing the accusations that he lacked the rudiments of technique or an understanding of form, that he was a sentimentalist and a shallow thinker, and, most damaging of all, that his quest for a uniquely American poem grounded in speech was a foolish enterprise, doomed to fail.
In the poet Wendell Berry’s The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, a brief personal tribute to a writer Berry counts as a major influence, the same undermining voices are invoked: “I would hear, sometimes from older writers I admired, judgments such as ‘I love Bill Williams, but he has no mind,’” Berry writes. “Late into the drafting of this book I still felt the need to begin by defending him,” before realizing that “defense was not necessary.”