Arguably America’s most influential and prolific poet (and one of my personal favorites), William Carlos Williams, was a product of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Williams’ mother was born in Mayagüez, a city on the western coast of Puerto Rico. She met Williams’ father, who was raised in the Dominican Republic, and together the couple moved to Rutherford, New Jersey. Spanish was the primary language spoken in the Williams’ household, an amazing fact considering Williams’ grasp of the English language is second to none. Williams’ book, Yes, Mrs. Williams, is somewhat of a biography of his mother which touches upon his experience as a bilingual, bicultural American.
Williams’ Caribbean heritage has largely been overlooked by the literary community. Much of American history, literary or otherwise, has been whitewashed, giving the impression that all great literary figures have been Anglo-American men, which could not be further from the truth. Williams’ poetic philosophy of “no ideas but in things” single-handedly inverted the high literary tradition of transcendentalism and finding meaning in lofty, heightened prose. Williams re-grounded the American idiom, finding meaning instead in the ordinary, and in vernacular language.
Williams founded a poetic tradition that was materialist and attuned to the voices of everyday people–a poetic tradition from which you can draw a straight line to the spoken-word poetry found today in Nuyorican culture.
But letting the master speak for himself:
from Paterson, Book I
The Delineaments of the Giants
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring
animate a thousand automatons. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires–unroused.
–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!
We si and talk,
quietly, with long lapses of silence
and I am aware of the stream
that has no language, coursing
beneath the quiet heaven of
which has no speech; to
go to bed with you, to pass beyond
the moment of meeting, while the
currents float still in mid-air, to
with you from the brink, before
to seize the moment.
We sit and talk, sensing a little
the rushing impact of the giants’
violent torrent rolling over us, a