Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Poetry and medicine, two parts of a whole

William Carlos Williams’ inspiring life and work

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

In the 80 years of his life, renowned modernist poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) known for his assertions of “no ideas but in things” — such as wheel barrows and chickens — published 21 books of poetry and 28 books of prose including four novels, an opera libretto, essays and criticism, his autobiography, a biography of his mother, and the translation of a medieval Spanish novel. His work has been credited with reshaping American poetry. Two months after his death, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Had Williams had any time to spare, it might have been said that the products of his literary genius came of such time. By his description, the time was stolen, not spare. In the course of his 40 year career as a small-town physician and the chief of pediatrics at the Passaic General Hospital in Passaic, New Jersey, he delivered more than 2000 babies and, by his estimate, saw over half a million patients. His days as a physician began at 7am and ended at 9pm when his night office hours ended.

How was he capable of such output? He addresses the question himself in a chapter of his autobiography entitled The Practice:

“They naively ask him, ‘How do you do it? How can you carry on an active business like that and at the same time find time to write? You must be superhuman. You must have at the very least the energy of two men.’ But they do not grasp that one occupation complements the other, that they are two parts of a whole, that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”

Williams came to neither career by choice. As a teen, he fancied he’d become a forester “to get away from human beings, out where I could be alone and clean.” His dreams of an active lifestyle were dashed when he pushed himself too hard during a high school track meet and was diagnosed with what was then called adolescent heart strain. The athletic boy who participated in sports of all kinds was told that the most he could look forward to in life was long walks in the country. Passing a special medical entrance exam at the end of high school, he was able to skip pre-med and go directly to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended poets Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

Poetic release

The suppression of his physical energies became a great boon to him, he discovered, sparking a search for a passion that could relieve some of what he called his pent up “frustration.” His mother had studied painting until she was driven off course by the birth of her children, and so he dabbled with her old paint set, and was not without talent. Ultimately, though, he seized the tools of his trade. He found that “with the back of a prescription blank and a good pencil in my hand,” he could write anything. A few simple words — such as would fit on a small sheet — had the power to bring him an immense satisfaction, a release.

Williams half-joked that he worried that he might be “found out” for plumbing the depths of his patients’ lives for material, and for receiving such a wealth of inspiration from their stories and their bodies of all shapes and sizes. Medicine was, he said, “my very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for me to write.” Profoundly influenced by Walt Whitman, America’s great humanist poet who was “mad for contact,” Williams was similarly preoccupied with contact with humanity, but focused on the body as an object of suffering and simple existence rather than of sexuality, as this excerpt from his autobiography shows.

“Was I not interested in man? There the thing was, right in front of me. I could touch it, smell it. It was myself, naked, just as it was, without a lie telling itself to me in its own terms. Oh, I knew it wasn’t for the most part giving me anything very profound, but it was giving me terms, basic terms with which I could spell out matters as profound as I cared to think of.”

A first-generation American — his father was a British citizen and his mother a Puerto Rican woman of French Basque and Dutch Jewish descent — Williams sought to immerse himself in and promulgate an authentic American culture. While friends and contemporaries like Pound and Eliot rooted their poetry in the European intellectual tradition, Williams immersed himself in the lives of Passaic’s immigrant factory workers, absorbing their dialects and aiming to capture a uniquely American language. Pound teased his friend saying, “America? What the hell do you, a bloomin’ foreigner, know about the place?”

Paterson, the industrial New Jersey city that gave Williams’ great epic poem its name, was a rich cauldron of human joys and struggles, especially during the Depression when Williams was gathering speed as a poet. At this convergence of race, culture and Old World languages, Williams balanced being a lyric observer and prophet with his role as obstetrician and general practitioner.

Scruples take the day

His was not, as he says “a money practice.” Early on, he could have found himself with a well-oiled career as a “New York Specialist,” but he was a man of principle and his adherence to scruples got in the way. In 1909, he was enjoying a residency at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in New York when he was asked to sign papers that would falsify the hospital’s monthly report to the state government on admissions, discharges, births and deaths. When he refused and none of the senior doctors backed him up, he quit and returned to his parents’ home in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he would end up living and practicing for many years. There he met and married, in 1912, Florence Herman. “Floss,” as he called her, made Williams’ dual career possible by tending to all the housework as well as the administrative details of his practice.

A slice of life of Williams’ daily rounds can be glimpsed through his particular poetic lens in his posthumously published collection of short stories called The Doctor Stories. The collection was compiled and introduced in 1984 by Dr Robert Coles, a well-known writer and child psychologist, whose own career path was chosen based on advice from Dr Williams, whom he met while interviewing the poet for his senior honours thesis at Harvard.

The stories are at once terse and quietly riveting. Like Williams’ poems, they feel open-ended, finishing abruptly but with an inherent meaning that settles in slowly. Dr Cole points to their value as admissions of fallibility, calling them “stories that tell of mistakes, of errors in judgment” as well as admissions of small successes, not in the field of research, but in “that most important of all situations, the would-be healer face-to-face with the sufferer who half desires, half dreads the stranger’s medical help.”

Williams’ son, Dr William Eric Williams, puts his father’s perspective on his career more bluntly, concluding in the book’s afterward that medicine came to his father’s rescue as a writer, allowing him to put food on the table while qualifying him to explore what he himself called “the ischio-rectal abscesses of mankind.”

Williams never wavered in his loyalty to his twin passions. He saw poetry, and in fact all art, as a crucial anodyne for doctors, a relief not only from the misery, suffering and death that all doctors must navigate, but from the sort of frustration that threatened to subvert him as a young man. In a 1950 interview on the Mary McBride show, Williams points to the vital importance of art. The artist, he explains, has the power to “bring… relief to others quite unsentimentally by presenting to them, putting before them, something which they may not understand, but gives them a secret satisfaction.”

The meaning inherent in William’s brief poem about a wheelbarrow and some chickens may seem obtuse. But an examination of his dual careers makes it plain: without this beauty, and without the attuned nature needed to behold it, a person’s very zest for life can be lost. Williams puts it best himself when he observes in his much-admired poem, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably very day
for lack
of what is found there.

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