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This article is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

Mistress and Wife: Poetry and Medicine in William Carlos Williams’s Career Herbert Leibowitz
William Carlos Williams’s patients seldom addressed him formally as Doctor Williams; to most, he was simply ‘Doc’. Wearing the doctor’s white gown, he entered into their feelings and was by all accounts frank, natural, alert, nuanced, testy, resourceful, amused and amusing, modest and honest. ‘Where ill kids, or grownups suddenly off kilter with sickness, become teachers’, the conflicts that churned in him when the subject was love, sex, or poetry rarely appeared.
 
Williams’s stories and poems about medicine and doctoring offer an invaluable window into his daily comings and goings. The plots are generally based on his own cases; their fictional doctors are as a rule Williams himself - often speaking in the first person - and reveal much about the man. Indeed, so difficult is it to distinguish between Williams and the various fictional characters referred to as ‘doctor’ that this article will follow the author’s own lead and use both terms interchangeably.
 
In scrutinising his patients, Williams reflected, the doctor reveals to both patient and reader ‘the inner secrets of another’s private motives’, and in these cumulative acts goes to ‘the base of the matter’ to lay them ‘bare before us in terms which, try as we may, we cannot in the end escape’. For Williams, day after day, each encounter with a patient can lead to uncertainty, ennui, friction, and inescapable signs of his own limits; but even the humdrum brings unexpected windfalls of pleasure and insight. The physician plays many roles: ...


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