It is perhaps surprising that so few composers have set the poems of William Carlos Williams, one of the most influential and well-known poets of the 20th Century, to music. The reason may lie within Williams’ poems themselves; the particular and remarkable mixture of subject, imagery, and metre that marks a poem by William Carlos Williams is immediately identifiable, presenting several specific challenges to any composer who approaches them. A typical method of verse-setting will not meet the challenge of Williams’ unique patterns based on American speech mannerisms. This new collection of songs composed by Christopher Ludwig meets the challenge presented by William Carlos Williams with sensitivity and skill. Begun as a project to set the twelve poems that make up Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning posthumous Pictures from Brueghel, the completed endeavor is both far-reaching and expansive, comprising 56 poems. In the words of the composer, there were “numerous other William Carlos Williams poems that cried out to be set.”
William Carlos Williams was born in 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey to immigrant parents. His father was English, his mother Puerto Rican. Williams grew up speaking three languages – English, Spanish, and French, and was educated in part in Switzerland and France. After completing high school in New York City, Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated with a medical degree in 1906. He worked the rest of his life as a physician in his home town of Rutherford. Williams once stated that his work as a doctor informed and inspired his poetry; it permitted him "to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos..., to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother." The “inarticulate poems” of his patients became the spark of Williams’ poetry: "it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab."
Alongside his medical vocation, the other great influence on Williams’ poetry was America itself, and his perception of what America and the “New World” represented. His own sense of self was a microcosm of America, a land of immigrant sources blended into a unique and individualistic society. He wrote, “Of mixed ancestry, I felt from earliest childhood that America was the only home I could ever possibly call my own. I felt it was expressly founded for me, personally.” This sense of Americanism drove Williams to develop poetry that drew upon the elements of speech and thought that permeated his environment, as opposed to the more “structured” and academic poems of writers such as T.S. Eliot, which Williams felt imposed a European sensibility to poetry. (Reflecting upon the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land, Williams wrote "I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.")
Despite the surface impressions of the staid, “ordinary” life of a small town physician, “rooted in locality,” Williams was at the same time remarkably cosmopolitan, and very well connected in the artistic community, both in the States and indeed, globally. He frequented the artistic circles of Greenwich Village in New York City (a short drive away) and had close relationships with other writers such as Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (“HD”), the painter Charles Demuth, and other avant-garde artists. Along with Pound and HD, Williams was a central figure of the Imagist Movement, a school of poetry founded on principles outlined by Pound, in which “direct treatment of the thing” was to be accomplished by “swift, uncluttered, functional phrasing.” Above all was Pound’s exhortation to “make it new!” Williams stuck by these tenets throughout his writing life, even as Pound and others drifted slowly towards greater abstraction and allusiveness. (Williams’ relationship with Pound caused difficulties later in his life, as the ever-American Williams was caught under a cloud of suspicion cast by Pound’s wartime support of the Fascist regime in Italy.) Various sojourns in Europe also brought Williams into contact with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and others in the Modernist and Surrealist movements.
In short, Williams moved easily within circles not typically frequented by middle-America suburban doctors in the first half of the 20th Century. Indeed, his local circle knew almost nothing about Williams’ artistic accomplishments; he wrote in relative obscurity for over 30 years before receiving broader appreciation in later life. Within the avant-garde, however, Williams writing had an influence that stretched into the 1960s and beyond, particularly with writers such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. As Bruce Cook explains, Williams "withstood the influence of Eliot, ignored the New Critics and the academic poets who followed their lead, and simply went his own way, his lines growing shorter, more austere, more pointed with each poem."
William’s determination to create a new, authentically American poetic art was the driving force behind all his writing. He strove to understand and portray his country and his fellow citizens through poetry which reflected the distinct rhythms and idioms of American life in the modern age. To this end, Williams employed uneven rhythms, unusual enjambment, and a concept of his own invention he termed the ‘variable foot’. This latter idea is somewhat obscure, but Williams used it as a guiding principle even to the typographical set-up of his poems, creating an amalgam of aural and visual patterns. The result is poetry that can be appreciated on many levels, moving from the apparent mundanity of everyday subjects, to universal truths and observations of the human condition revealed by Williams’ probing, unsparing intellect, presented in forms that are as often as visually evocative as they are conceptually rich.
Setting such writing to music is a significant challenge to a composer. Williams’ poems often contain potent imagery that is strongly suggestive of a musical context. However, the irregular patterns, unusual syllabic rhythms, and uneven line lengths make an approach based on “verse writing” to be almost unworkable. The usual musical techniques of repetition and structure do not readily apply to most of Williams’ poems. Composer Christopher Ludwig surmounts these problems by creating a mood for each song through the piano writing, while the vocal melody is more often reminiscent of speech than singing. Structure and musical coherence is maintained by repetitive elements and short, almost ornamental motifs. The result is an effective blend of musical expression with vocal phrasing that is, to quote Pound’s dictum, “swift, uncluttered and functional.”
The three CDs that make up this collection are loosely organized in a mostly chronological order. The first disc contains some of Williams’ earliest texts, such as Peace on Earth, First Praise, and Hic Jacet, all of which were published in a collection entitled The Tempers in 1913. Other poems are also early, including The Young Housewife (1916) and “Libertad! Igualdad! Fraternidad!” (from a collection called Al Que Quiere!, published in 1917). Many of the rest of the texts from disc 1, and most of disc 2, are from a collection of poems entitled Sour Grapes, published in 1921 shortly after the deaths of Williams’ father and paternal grandmother. This earlier period is most notable for the Imagist influence in Williams’ work. Several other texts on disc 2 come from the middle 1930s, including Classic Scene, The Defective Record, Between Walls and The Term. The final disc of the set is comprised of poems taken from Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems, Williams’ last book, published in 1962, and for which he received the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
Considering the sheer volume of Williams’ life work (48 published books of poetry and prose), the challenge offered by such a collection is often one of discretion – what should be included, and what left out. This new offering of songs set to William Carlos Williams’ poetry presents a broad and representative survey of the breadth of Williams’ art. It is an ambitious project, to be sure, but also a welcome addition to modern song-setting that will no doubt bring a new audience to William Carlos Williams’ remarkable poetic legacy.
©2013 by Brian Mix
All song settings of William Carlos Williams are with permission from New Directions Books.
ndbooks.com - New Directions Books
Figure 5 - Click here to go to Album Page
The following Audio file is an interview between SFU Professor Harvey De Roo and Composer Christopher Ludwig and Baritone Cliff Ridley on the three William Carlos Williams Albums. It provides insight into this immense 56 song cycle, as well as art song in general.