William Carlos Williams was a double agent. This mild-mannered doctor by day was one of America's coolest avant garde poets by night. Though he was sometimes overshadowed by poets like T.S. Eliot (whom he wasn't afraid to talk some junk about), W.C.W. had a long and successful career as a poet, while at the same time maintaining his medical practice in his hometown of Rutherford, NJ. (Talk about an over achiever.) This guy was crazy. He'd spend all day delivering babies, write a bunch of poems at night, and then he'd head to NYC on the weekends to rub shoulders with the who's who of artsy-fartsy folk. Yes, this was actually his life.
Williams's career was jumpstarted by his friendship with Ezra Pound, who he met while in med school at the University of Pennsylvania, along with fellow poet H.D. (a.k.a. Hilda Doolittle). All three became members of the Imagist movement of poets, whose goal was to get rid of all the fancy shmancy rules and forms of old school poetry and instead create poems which used simple language to paint precise pictures of their subjects. Later in his career, W.C.W. became totally obsessed with creating a uniquely American style of poetry, which drew from the natural rhythms of everyday American speech and took its subjects from everyday American life.
In "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," all of Williams's goals as a poet are totally achieved. You've got the precise language of the Imagists mixed right in there with the casual sounding speech of Williams's distinctive American style. An earlier (much looonger) version of the poem was published in 1924. In the earlier version, the speaker takes on a much more prominent role. The much slimmer, 1939 revised version, is the one we hip you to in this module. It puts all of its attention on this grandmother from England. (Oh, and in case you were wondering.... yes, Williams did really have an English grandmother. You can find all the biographical deets you want about Williams here.)
Watching someone approach death is no fun (to say the least, right?). Whether that person has lived a long life, like in William Carlos Williams's "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," or if it's a younger person who's sick, it's super-hard to deal with. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, most of us will have to face it eventually. Hey, not trying to bring you down, here, but it's just the way it goes.
Poems like "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" are great to turn to, whether you're directly dealing with this or when you're just dwelling on the fact that you might have to one day. No, the poem isn't some sentimental, inspirational thing, but it's not all doom and gloom either. Instead, it's a clear-eyed picture of the realities of watching someone die, which somehow manages to be shot through with a wry sense of humor.
The poem doesn't pull any punches, but it doesn't pull you down either. Sometimes the most comforting thing is the truth, the way this poem delivers it, and the thought that we're all in this together.
Get the deets on the doctor-poet's life here.
As if the Last Bio Wasn't Enough
Click here for more about Williams's life—this time from Poets.org.
It's All about Image
Poets.org gives you the scoop on Williams, Pound, and the other poets of the Imagist movement.
Leibowitz on Williams
Watch a lecture on our man, given by a publisher and critic, Herbert Leibowitz.
UPenn and U
This is a great site, providing MP3 audio files of various readings.
W.C.W.: The Interview
Listen to the man give a friendly interview on something called the Mary McBride Show.
"The Modern Poem"
Do you like lectures? Williams has a doozy on tap for you.
Sweet hat, Willie.
WCW in The Paris Review
For those in the know, The Paris Review is code for The Big Time.
Fear the NY Times
This Times reviewer is not a fan of a book about Williams. Check out why and also get some steamy details about Williams's life.
Collected Poems Vol. 1
This big book of W.C.W. contains both first and revised versions of the poem.
Collected Poems Vol. 2
If that first volume didn't do it for you, this one gives you more.
William Carlos Williams
The filmmakers who made this documentary about our man probably could've been more poetic with the title.