Poetry Landmark: William Carlos Williams's Hometown of Rutherford, NJ
Though schooling and travel took him far away, William Carlos Williams always returned to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, which remained a central presence in his work. Williams was born in 1883 in Rutherford, near the city of Paterson. He attended school in New York, Switzerland, and Paris, and received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he began lifelong friendships with Ezra Pound and H. D. After finishing medical school, he went to Germany to study advanced pediatrics, and then traveled to the Netherlands, France, Spain, and England, where he visited Pound.
Williams returned home to Rutherford and, in 1910, set up a private medical practice, eventually becoming the head pediatrician of Passiac General Hospital in nearby Paterson. At the same time, he began publishing his work in small magazines, and by 1909 had published his first collection, Poems.
In 1913, a year after marrying his wife, Flossie, Williams bought a home at 9 Ridge Road, where the couple raised their two sons and lived for the rest of their lives. He maintained a home office for his private practice and a writing studio in the attic, where he observed through the window the goings-on of the town and overheard bits of conversation from the streets below, all of which he incorporated into his writing.
Surrounding the house were flower gardens that Williams passionately tended to in his spare time. Many flowers, whether from his garden or in local fields, appear in his poems, including daisies, primroses, Queen Anne's lace, and tulips.
While many of his contemporaries were enamored with European literary traditions, Williams sought to "pioneer a distinctively American poetic based on speech rhythms," writes Herbert Leibowitz in his book "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). He was deeply inspired by the working class townspeople of Rutherford, especially the patients he treated everyday.
Throughout Williams's work, one encounters Rutherford—the Passaic River, Erie Railroad Station, Hackensack Meadows, Paterson Falls—especially in his epic sequence Paterson, which he labored over for nearly two decades. "You are never far from Rutherford in any of Williams's poems—together they create a composite of the town," writes Leibowitz of the poem.
In 1982, the Williams Center for the Arts, a nonprofit multicultural performing arts center and cinema constructed around the 1920s Rivoli Vaudeville theatre and located just two blocks from Williams's home, was opened in the poet's honor.
Photo of Williams's grave in Hillside Cemetery courtesy of Cameron Self.