Biography is a tricky business. A good biographer must wear many hats. A deerstalker for one. Every biographer is part sleuth. If Freud wore a hat, Mr. or Mrs. Biographer would need to hang that one in his or her foyer as well. And, whatever Rona Barrett wears on her head… Well, you get the idea.
For the telling of a poet’s life throw another hat in the ring, that of the critic fluent in prosody and such.
Still, you can hang as many hats in your foyer as you like. They might look grand, like diplomas on brass hooks. No matter. The Hound of the Baskervilles will come howling in the night. The hound in this case being the other critic. And there is more than one. For they move in packs. Feral and fearsome packs. Just ask Herbert Leibowitz, the author of a new biography of William Carlos Williams, esteemed poet and pediatrician, who, after his death in 1963 (the year of my birth), left a legacy of profound influence that persists to this day.
The years immediately following his death saw his memory laureled. In his acclaimed Dream Songs, John Berryman paid special tribute ”to Bill underground:/Rest well,who worked so hard, who made a good sound/constantly for so many years…” Among the many living, writing poets of today to sing the good doctor’s/great poet’s praises (such as fellow New Jerseyan Robert Pinsky), none other than Noble laureate Seamus Heaney speaks of Williams’s ”delicate ear.”
While a delicate ear might serve a poet well, it seems that a biographer would benefit more from a thick skin to withstand the aftermath of publication. But when you malign the very poem (the much anthologized Asphodel, That Greeny Flower) from which you take the title of your book, one might argue that you’re asking for it. Criticism that is. Regardless, Leibowitz has received it, most notably from James Longenbach writing in The Nation. On the other hand, Albert Goldbarth deems the book ”bountiful,beautiful.” After all, the biographer in question is no Rona Barrett. Editor and co-founder of the venerable literary magazine, Parnassus, Leibowitz, deserves a read. And if you’re of a bent, Our Town Books has the book in question, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life And Works Of William Carlos Williams.