William Carlos Williams and The Baroness and What Happens When Someone Looks Back
“Once someone passes away they’re open to interpretation.”
So says Daphne Williams Fox, the grand-daughter of William Carlos Williams, as she responds to the new Herbert Leibowitz book on her famed ancestor. Leibowitz suggests that the Rutherford physician had an unconsummated affair with a Dadaist artist, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — and with names like these their mere introduction to one another probably sucked all the oxygen from the room. And can you imagine what might have passed for flirtatious chatter between the two poets, The Mind’s Games?
If a man can say of his life or
any moment of his life, There is
nothing more to be desired! his state
becomes like that told in the famous
double sonnet — but without the
sonnet’s restrictions. Let him go look…
Looking, of course, is always an option, and Williams undoubtedly engaged in the activity a lot. His optic nerve never grew tired. A coastline? “Today small waves are rippling…” Tomatoes? “Green/ in one basket and, in/ the other shining reds.” Violets? “Once in a while/ we’d find a patch… big blue/ ones in/ the cemetery woods…” An old brownstone church? “Among a group/ of modern office buildings…” Look! Look! Look! And finally–Look!
But what happens when someone looks back? When the writer as observer or as imaginator becomes the one who is seen and known and, as Daphne admits, “open to interpretation”? My sense is that creative writing, as a discipline, has no clear-cut answer. Nor does the practice of crafting a simple declarative sentence that is true come with an operators‘ manuel. No safe place exists for us — not even the library, not even the local delicatessen. Those people behind the reference desk are always watching. Those slicing lunchmeat have built-in baloney-detectors. And so, the conundrum that fascinates Leibowitz in telling the tale of William Carlos Williams is also the issue that Leibowitz himself may encounter some day. (He can only hope!)
Something Urgent I Have To Say To You stipulates that a poet’s subject matter cannot help but raise a window shade on what really happened behind closed doors. If Williams succumbed to certain philandering urges, for example, poems like Chanson and excerpts of Classic Picture might help to decipher the code. Daisy Fried falls in line with this tact in her New York Times Review of the biography.
Still I have to wonder whether speculation, neither confirmed nor denied, about the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s trysts really have a place in appreciating the following:
This woman! how shall I describe her
who is wealthy in the riches
of her sex? No counterfeit, no mere
metal to be sure –
yet, a treasury, a sort of lien upon
all property we list and transfer.
This woman has no need to play the market
or to do anything more than watch…
Oh baby! Someone, please call the National Inquirer! Chanson, in just two measly stanzas, has revealed a little cleavage in the way we know what we don’t know about a person. Where is Heraldo Rivera when we need him to dig up a little dirt? And what about this?
A woman’s brains
which can be keen
like a poet’s
to what deceptions she can muster
to lead men
to their ruin.
But look more deeply
into her maneuvers,
and puzzle as we will about them
they may mean
Now that’s just plain bizarre — and well within the context of the 1955 Greenwich Village milieu, when a female might aspire to the mentality of poet through simile alone. Today, of course, we would have to capitulate to the obvious every Classic Picture: whether or not women still fuss with their hair, as Williams observed, at least one woman’s brains are inherently poetic — Mutatis Mutandis!
In fact, the Baroness, as Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven came to be known, has finally broken into publication. In 2005, bookstores finally felt brave enough to display Body Sweats; The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven in full view of their paying customers. The title poem of the collection reads like so:
Well, there you and I have it. And, as Billy Joel has sung, we have what we have on the basis of “our respective similarities.” It turns out the condition of Ol’ Grand-Dad’s marriage is not important for Daphne. She has this: “Be patient that I address you in a poem, there is no other/ fit medium…”