03/14/2012 01:05 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

Starving Artists: Why Authors Write Books About Being Poor

This time next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the American poet and physician William Carlos Williams. In March of 1963, family, friends, and townspeople gathered in Williams's hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey to commemorate his passing. As Adam Kirsch recently pointed out, though, "it was the doctor that the people of Rutherford came to honor, not the poet, whom neither they nor practically anyone else had read."

His patients may have known Williams as the town doctor rather than the town poet, but they did not love him any less. From 1910 to 1952, Williams was said to have delivered 2,000 babies in and around Rutherford, including the police officer whose patrol car led his funeral procession to the nearby cemetery. As a doctor, though, Williams usually served a lower class of patients than even police officers. He built his practice out of the immigrant poor who worked in the textile mills of nearby Passaic and the native poor who farmed the outlying areas of rural New Jersey.

If those poor and immigrant patients, some of whom attended Williams's funeral, knew him as a doctor and not as a poet, he knew them as both doctor and poet. Williams filled his early poems with their portraits, houses, and speech. The red wheelbarrow of his most famous poem, upon which so much depended, belonged to, in Williams's words, "an old negro named Marshall" whose house Williams visited in the early 1920s. "The pure products of America go crazy," Williams would write in a 1922 poem, "To Elsie," and for Williams the pure products of America were its poor:

mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity....

Such folks, concludes Williams, "express the truth about us," which is not only that we tolerate the conditions that produce generation after generation of poor girls like Elsie but that we, like her, have no "peasant traditions" to give us character.

Given his profession, it may not surprise us that Williams often turned his patients into poems. As Hemingway supposedly said, write what you know, and Williams knew poverty.

What might surprise us, though, is that among the generation of modern poets who reinvented poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century, nearly everyone, and especially the poets whom people think of when they think of modern poets--Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes--wrote about the poor. Even T.S. Eliot, who most of us picture in some combination of three-piece suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and pomaded, severely parted hair, set some of his first poems in the slums of North Cambridge, Massachusetts, into which he wandered during his Harvard College undergraduate days.

In a 1940 letter to a now defunct poetry journal, Williams explained why modern poets wrote about the poor as often as they did. "Some experience to the sharp edge of the mechanics of living," he wrote, "is necessary to the poet." Something, he continued, must give the poet his sense of "what is commonly called 'reality.'" For Williams, that something, among other things, was "dire poverty."

In other words, poverty helped modern poets keep it real, as the outmoded slang has it. When they started out, in the 1910s and 1920s, what modern poets hated most about the then-contemporary verse was all its artificialities: its metronome-like iambic pentameters, its moon-and-June rhymes, its puffed up diction, its watercolor portraits of nature at a time when most people lived in cities and the smoke from factories covered everything in grime, not fine turns of phrases. If poets wanted to make it new, as Ezra Pound demanded, they could change how they wrote poems, trade iambs and quatrains for free verse. If they really wanted to make it new, though, they could change what they wrote about, too. As Williams did, they could stop writing poems with titles like "Hymn to the Spirit of Fraternal Love" and start writing ones with titles like "The Poor" or "The Raper from Passeneck."

When Americans are not vilifying them, they mostly prefer to forget the poor. And, if history is any guide, merely remembering that the poor exist does not guarantee that all that much will be done to relieve their poverty. (Recall the outpouring of sympathetic interest in poverty that followed Hurricane Katrina--and that receded almost as quickly as the flood waters.) Still, next year, when we observe Williams's death, we would do well to remember how he and other modern poets became modern. As often as not, their path to poetic glory ran through some of our poorest neighborhoods.

John Marsh is the author of Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys [University of Michigan Press, $35.00].