Writing Is a Nefarious Business


Our Daily Correspondent

“Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t, William Carlos Williams?” asks the venerable women’s-hour host Mary McBride. 

“Writing for forty years!” replies the poet with alarming jocularity. “That’s a nefarious business, you know!” 

What’s so interesting about this 1950 radio clip—besides the fact that you can practically hear WCW’s professional game-face deteriorate as his phlegmatic interviewer goes on—is that you get a real sense of what the doctor’s bedside manner must have been like. The old chestnuts, the complete silence—but before that, the bonhomie. When McBride asks him to read a poem, for instance, he says coyly, “There is one called ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ that people seem to enjoy. Let’s see if I can remember it … ”

But then, Williams gets very passionate: soliloquizing at length about the role of art and culture, and later about the rage he feels at seeing people die as a result of poverty and social injustice. ”I work off my impotent anger!” he says, indeed sounding angry. “I want to bring it to people’s attention, that’s all I can say. Hoping they’ll buy the book!”

There is a slightly awkward silence. “Do you think your mother had a great deal to do with your finally choosing writing?” McBride asks.

“I don’t think Mother had anything to do with it,” he says somewhat impatiently. “She had a lot to do with my choosing medicine.”

Then some fast-talking pianist plays “London Bridge.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.