I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
William Carlos Williams, 1934
A River of Words, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is the story of William Carlos Williams, an American poet and very busy family doctor. Not professions one would typically stir together!
Williams was born in 1883 in New Jersey, where he grew up with a great love for the outdoors and keen powers of observation. As a young boy he began writing his own poetry, yet found that the classic subjects of English poetry did not interest him as much as the everyday world around him — a world of cold, sweet plums, red, rain-spattered wheelbarrows, and childhood toys. Williams did not expect to earn an adequate living from his poetry, so he became a doctor, managing a very busy private practice, making housecalls, and delivering babies in order to support his own family. Then, in the evening, he would retire to his attic and shape a river of words into his own, uniquely-crafted poems.
The text in this picture-book-biography of a poet is fittingly sparse and poetical. Just as Williams pared his poems down to simple beauty, so Jen Bryant phrases her story in simple, beautiful language. Meanwhile, Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are artistic pleasures. She uses mixed-media collages, unusual, full of texture and history. Pages of old books, maps of constellations, and old, heavy book covers form the background for paintings, snippings, and fragments of poetry. They are so colorful and curious that they will easily capture the fancy of young children, yet she has created such brilliant collages that they also absorb the close attention of adults. Included in the book are timelines representing Williams’ life juxtaposed with important world events, highly informative notes by the author and illustrator about their work for this book, and a nice notation of further reading.