Tuesday, November 10, 2009

William Carlos Williams and book burning

Of William Carlos Williams’ debut slim volume, Poems, which the young and popular physician of Paterson, NJ published privately in 1909, only two copies are known to exist. Of the second state, which differs from the first in only a few respects, a hundred copies were published in 1910 by a local printer Howell at 25 cents a copy. Dr. Williams took a dozen of these to the local stationery store and after a month four had been sold, so he brought home the remainder and after distributing a few copies to members of his family, returned the rest of the edition to his printer. At some point Howell, as Williams recalled in his Autobiography, then wrapped them in a neat bundle and put them away for "safe keeping."  After they had "reposed ten years or more on a rafter under the eaves" of his old chicken coop they were, Williams recorded ruefully, "inadvertently burnt."

Apparently only 9 copies survived from the inferno, by which time (it would have been sometime after 1920) Williams had published with greater success and presumably received back what was left of the edition. Or did the egregious and highly embarrassed Howell retain them? What I want to know is why, for all that Williams regarded the contents of Poems as "bad Keats…bad Whitman too" and felt that there was "not one thing of the slightest value in the whole thin booklet," could he not have given the ninety-odd pamphlets house (or surgery) room?  Today, each copy of this first book by one of the most important innovators in American poetry commands around $25,000, with or without scorch marks!!  -- via Bookride

(There was a reprint of the book a few years ago; bad Keats far more than bad Whitman, I'd say.  Hardly anybody I know seems to have seen these poems, however, even given the reprint.  It's extraordinary, and chastening, to reflect on how Williams rocketed forward from such incredibly unpromising work...  I'll try to give a specimen here soon.)

1 comment:

Kent Johnson said...

This puts me in mind of the great and greatly enigmatic 1930s Chilean poet Omar Caceres (next Fulcrum, delayed, has something on him; you can find an article about him by Eliot Weinberger, at Jacket, as well): The entire edition of his first book, Defensa del idolo (Introduction by Vicente Huidobro), was put in a pile, doused with kerosene, and burned-- by Caceres himself. Two known copies have survived from that self-immolation, his only work. Some years later, he was murdered. He made his living as the only sighted member (violinist) in a band of blind musicians. And now he is considered one of the great Chilean poets of the century.