William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (sometimes known as WCW) (September 17, 1883March 4, 1963), was an American poet closely associated with Modernism. He was particularly concerned with developing poetry in a recognizably American idiom.



He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a town near the city of Paterson. He attended public school in Rutherford, New Jersey until 1897, then was sent to study at Château de Lancy near Geneva, Switzerland, the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, France, for two years and Horace Mann High School in New York City. Then, in 1902, he entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

In college, Williams befriended Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and the painter Charles Demuth. These friendships supported his growing passion for poetry. He received his M.D. in 1906 and spent the next four years in internships in New York City and in travel and postgraduate studies abroad (e.g., at the Univ. of Leipzig where he studied pediatrics). He returned to Rutherford in 1910 and began his medical practice, which lasted until 1951.

In his life he helped to deliver more than two thousand babies but regarded his medical career as a way to finance his final goal of becoming a poet.

In 1912 he married his fiancée Florence (Flossie, "the floss of his life") Herman. The newlyweds moved into a house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford; and his first book of serious poems, The Tempers, was published.

The Williamses spent most of the rest of their lives in Rutherford, New Jersey, although the couple did travel occasionally. One such trip was to Europe in 1924. There Williams spent time with fellow writers such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Williams returned home alone that year, while his wife and sons stayed in Europe so that the boys could have a year abroad as Williams and his brother had had in their youth. Much later in his career, Williams traveled the United States to give poetry readings and lectures.

Although his primary occupation was as a doctor, Williams had a full literary career. His work consists of short stories, plays, novels, critical essays, an autobiography, translations and correspondence. He wrote at night and spent weekends in New York City with friends - writers and artists like the avant-garde painters Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and the poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. He became involved in the Imagist movement but soon he began to develop opinions that differed from those of his poetic peers, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

Williams was a very active member of his community (his parents were strong supporters of the Unitarian church in Rutherford) and he didn't hide his political opinions. He aligned himself with liberal Democratic and left wing issues. In 1949 he published a booklet/poem The Pink Church that was about the human body but was misunderstood as being pro-communist. This supposed pro-communism led to his losing a consultantship with the Library of Congress in 1952/3, a fact that led to him being treated for depression. Williams' had a heart attack in 1948, his health began to decline, and after 1951 a series of strokes followed. William Carlos Williams died on March 4, 1963 at the age of seventy-nine. Two days later, finally a British publisher announced that he was going to print his poems – one of fate’s ironies, since Williams had always protested the English influence on American poetry. During his lifetime, he had not received as much recognition from Britain as he had from the USA. In May 1963, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

His major works are Kora in Hell (1920), Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), Paterson (1963,repr. 1992), and Imaginations (1970).

The Poetry Society of America continues to honor William Carlos Williams with an annual award in his name for the best book of poetry published by a small press, non-profit, or university press.


Williams is best known for his poem The Red Wheelbarrow, which is considered the model example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also This Is Just To Say). He also coined the Imagist motto "no ideas but in things." However, Williams did not personally subscribe to Imagist ideas, which were more a product of Ezra Pound and H.D.. Williams is more strongly associated with the American Modernist movement in literature, which rejected European influences in poetry in favor of regional dialogues and influences. In particular, his call for more regionalism in American literature came on the heels of his brief collaboration with Ezra Pound in editing an early draft of T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot's poem exemplified what Williams disliked about European influences on American poetics. Williams simplified the mystery of what makes good poetry when he said: "If it's not a pleasure, it's not a poem."

Meter and Form

Williams disagreed with the values proclaimed in the works of Pound and especially Eliot. He felt both were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams tried to invent an entirely fresh form, an American form of poetry whose subject matter was centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people.

Variable Foot

The concept of the variable foot evolved from years of visual and auditory sampling of his world from the first person perspective as a part of the day in the life as a physician. The variable foot is rooted within the multi-faceted American Idiom. This discovery was a part of WCW's keen observation of how radio and newspaper influenced how people communicated and represents the "machine of words" (as he decribed a poem on one occasion) just as the mechanistic motions of a city can become a consciousness. Williams usually uses a kind of organic rhythm i.e., the poem is shaped to reflect the movement of thought, speech, or action in the poem. Therefore, WCW didn’t use traditional meter in most of his poems.

Williams often referred to the convergence of his profession as physician and poet as the badge that allowed him into the underbelly of humanity, and the route of discovery of these various rhythms. His correspondence with Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) also exposed him to the relationship of sapphic rhythms to the inner voice of poetic truth:

"Asteres men amphi kalan selannan

aps' apukpuptoisi faenon eithos

oppota plithoisa malista lampsi

gan epi paisan"

"The stars about the beautiful moon again hide their radiant shapes, when she is full and shines at her brightest on all the earth" Sappho.

This is to be contrasted with a poem from "Pictures from Brueghel" titled Shadows:

"Shadows cast by the street light

               under the stars, 

                              the head is tilted back,

the long shadow of the legs

                           presumes a world taken for granted

on which the cricket trills"

The breaks in the poem search out a natural pause spoken in the American idiom, that is also reflective of rhythms found within jazz sounds that also touch upon Sapphic harmony.

Though readers are still able to sense a certain rhythm they are often aided by the visual appearance of the poems. The rhythm exists but is invisible to the reader. It is not trapped in an artificial structure (e.g. iambic pentameter).

“Triadic” / “Stepped line’’

WCW never stopped searching for the perfect line. He experimented with different types of lines and eventually found the “triadic” or “stepped line’’, a long line which is divided into three segments. This line is used in Paterson and in poems like “To Elsie” After some time he decided that he had to move on and didn’t use this concept anymore

Example: "Sunday in the Park"

From Paterson Vol. II

               outside myself 
                                  there is a world, 
 he rumbled, subject to my incursions 
 —a world 
              (to me) at rest, 
                                which I approach

Here Dr. Paterson walks through the park of the city and thinks about poetic methods. The triadic follows the breathing of the poet and his steps through the park (maybe the park even is hilly, so the steps in the line would resemble his steps down a hill) and the inner movement of the poem.

“No ideas but in things”

While he disliked Ezra Pound's and especially T.S. Eliot's (see The Waste Land) frequent use of allusions to foreign languages, religion, history or art, Williams drew his themes from what he called "the local."

In this context he also coined the expression "No ideas but in things", his famous summation of his poetic method. What he meant is that poets should leave traditional poetic forms and unnecessary literaty allusions aside and try to see the world through the eyes of an ordinary person.

According to Williams, a poet must write about "things with which he is familiar, simple things - at the same time to detach them from ordinary experience to the imagination" (Williams, The Autobiography, 197), to put it in other words: "Write about what you know." His work as a physician in a rural town helped him in many ways: He could draw from his patients' conversations when they came to see him; he had access to many different households when he visited patients on house-calls; and his environment contained many scenes of nature, ranging from the beginning life of a plant to decaying pieces of metal. Since the industrial city of Paterson was nearby, he could also draw from industrial themes.

Williams and Modern Art

During his time in New York City (about 1906-1910), Williams became friends with the avant-garde modern artists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Around this time he got to know the Dadaist movement. That is why many of his earlier poems are influenced by Dadaist and Surrealist principles. In general, he found modern art very inspiring. Just like Marcel Duchamp’ with his “objets trouvés”, he started experimenting with montage and other modern art techniques. Duchamps, for example, showed the formal properties of a urinal Duchamp_Fountain.jpg or a bicycle wheel by their displacement and by renaming them (He called the urinal "Fountain"). Some modernist artists also modelled objects of everyday life as wireframes that just showed their form, but took away their traditional use by using wire as material.

In this tradition, Williams displaced everyday language, showing that all language is poetic. He took unchanged fragments of everyday language out of their original context and reassembled them into a poem. He made these fragments poetic and in the same moment he took away their original use; what remained was a hollow "wireframe" that was filled with new poetic properties.

WCW did not choose his phrases "trouvés" randomly or by accident. He wanted to show that things which before had been seen as not poetic by traditionalists do have certain poetic qualities i.e., a list of ice cream flavors, advertising slogans or a grocery list:

"2 partridges
 2 Mallard ducks
 a Dungeness crab
 24 hours out
 of the Pacific
 and 2 live-frozen
 from Denmark"
     (Williams, Collected Poems 2, 208-09)

Here again one of Williams aims is to show the truly American (opposed to European traditions) rhythm which is unnoticed but present in everyday American language.

For the cover of his Kora in Hell, Williams used a picture of modern artist Stuart Davis (1894-1964). Williams_Kora.jpg

Williams even was involved in the "Armory Show" in 1913 (read the link). He was part of a group of artists called Others. They gathered in his house in April of 1916. Others.gif See also the external link on Williams and the visual arts and on the armory show at the bottom of the page.

William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost

Robert Frost also uses everyday language. His poems are true to the speech of New England country people, his environment. The settings and contents of his poetry are usually of rural origin, like his recurring theme of the cruelty of nature. Robert Frost usually uses traditional devices, i.e. , blank verse, rhyme, narrative or the sonnet form. Williams, in contrast, wrote in "plain American which cats and dogs can read", to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. Though Frost’s settings and speech seem to be similar to Williams’, for Williams they were more a stereotype than reality. That is why he disliked Robert Frost’s writing. Concerning techniques like meter and rhyme, they used almost a completely different set of literary "tools".







External links

The following photos are part of an American Lit. course page at the University of Virginia.

nl:William Carlos Williams


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