1883-1963, one of the most important modern American poets

A practicing physician, Williams was an acute observer of American life. In his mature verse he developed a lucid, vital style reflecting idiomatic speech and faithful to ordinary things seen and heard. His books of poetry include:

As well as a number of Classic Short Stories.

His book In the American Grain earned him a listing on the Modern Library's 100 Best Books: Nonfiction.

In his lifetime he was friends with Walter Arensberg and Robert Creeley who he corresponded with.

Some of his poems:

See New York Dada, Walter Arensberg, Marcel Duchamp, avant-garde, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and North American Poetry


Source: McMichael, George, "Anthology of American Literature", Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1974 Last Updated 04.15.04

Now if you really really want to know what makes William Carlos Williams tick go read his poetry. There is a lot of it here on E2 and I have explicated a wide variety of his prose and poetry. If you want to know how his poetry affects me, read Pastoral and I have measured out my life with a pumpkin patch.

Born in Rutherford, NJ on September 17, 1883, he began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Leipzig. After 1910 he practiced medicine in Rutherford and neighboring Paterson. At the same time he carried on his literary work, and his reputation, first as a poet and later as a writer of prose, became world renown.

    When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.
    William Carlos Williams

One can easily see some evidence of his idea in his poem:

Complaint

    They call me and I go.
    It is a frozen road
    past midnight, a dust
    of snow caught
    in the rigid wheeltracks.
    The door opens.
    I smile, enter and
    shake off the cold.
    Here is a great woman
    on her side in the bed.
    She is sick,
    perhaps vomiting,
    perhaps laboring
    to give birth to
    a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
    Night is a room
    darkened for lovers,
    through the jalousies the sun
    has sent one golden needle!
    I pick the hair from her eyes
    and watch her misery
    with compassion.

    William Carlos Williams (Sour Grapes1913)

He describes the scene on a house call to a woman in labor. It is past midnight in winter time when the road is frozen. Entering the home where the "great woman" is in misery; she is "sick," "perhaps vomiting," about to give birth to her tenth child. Williams exclaims to the reader "Joy! Joy!" in a room where a completion of love is about to occur he contrasts the anticipation of the event against the bleak as the wintry landscape all the while offering compassion to "pick the hair from her eyes." Williams attended numerous women in labor, many of whom were Italian immigrants. Birth control was not available and families were large. In this poem and in others about childbirth, he expresses obvious admiration and compassion for the poor women he visited in dire settings and circumstances.

His earliest works included Poems (1909) and The Tempers (1913). His mature work, frequently experimental and radical in form and technique, displayed to a great degree an influence by the Imagist movement and its rejection of unconstrained and contrived sentimentality. As a result his work became oriented towards the use of everyday speech and by withholding the emotionality of words he concentrated in concrete and sensory experiences often sensual in relation to nature, hinting at the forbidden and taboo.

    By listening to the language of his locality the poet learns his craft. It is his function to lift, by the use of his imagination . . . his environment to the sphere . . . where they will have a new currency.
    William Carlos Williams
Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh, and singularly American poetic form. He met Ezra Pound while attending the University of Pennsylvania who in turn introduced him to another well known Imagist Hilda Doolittle. As he became more self confident in his work he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially T S Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions.
    Times change and forms and their meanings alter. Thus new poems are necessary. Their forms must be discovered in the living language of their day, or old forms, embodying exploded concepts, will tyrannize over the imagination.
    William Carlos Williams
Many publishers avoided his quirky styling early in his career and to a great degree much of it was over shadowed by Eliot's The Waste Land and he frankly believed for some time that:
    Afraid lest he be caught up in a net of words, tripped up, bewildered and so defeated -- thrown aside -- a man hesitates to write down his innermost convictions.
    William Carlos Williams
Thankfully he didn't hesitate for long and created an ideology that there are 'No ideas but in things.’ His work really hit its stride in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor. Examples of his later poetry are contained in The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (1938) and Collected Poem( 1950). In the latter part of the 1930's Williams started the composition of an extended poem dealing with the American scene in the era of the Great Depression, Paterson Books I-V (1946-1958). His prose works include a widely read assemblage of essays on American history, in the American Grain(1925), and the novels White Mule(1937), as well as, In the Money (1940) and The Build Up(1952). In 1950 Williams received the National Book Award for poetry. Williams's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1963 and he passed away on March 4th in Rutherford. Awarded posthumously a Pulitzer Prize for his verse collection Pictures from Breugal(1962), his autobiography appeared in 1951, and his novel, A Voyage Pagany, in 1970.

He said, I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it. and described his goal in the The Fool's Song:

    I tried to put
    Truth in a cage.
He was practicing physician, who wrote prolifically in all the major genres who encouraged the literary careers of many of his contemporaries.
    "It’s what you do with a work of art; it’s what you put on the canvas and how you put it on the canvas. It’s how the words fit in. Poems are not made of beautiful thoughts; it’s made of words, pigments put on, here, there, made actually."
    William Carlos Williams
He inspired and encouraged many to make their own experiments with an American kind of writing making him recognized as a significant figure in modern American literature, and is still widely read.

The Works of William Carlos Williams


Selected Sources

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "William Carlos Williams," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988

Literary Kicks:
http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn/People/WilliamCarlosWilliams.html
Accessed Oct 19 2001.

The Poets' Corner:
http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/wcw-sg2.html#16
Accessed Oct 19 2001.

William Carlos Williams :
http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=120
Accessed Oct 19 2001.

At His Best, At His Worst

William Pratt’s anthology The Imagist Poem contains poems with a multifarious assortment of themes, subjects, and styles. All of them are grouped under the umbrella of Imagism, a twentieth century poetic movement that sought to revolutionize poetry. While all emerged from the same movement, they differ greatly from each other in quality. An excellent example of the Imagist poems’ varying degrees of merit comes from William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.”

In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams creates a detailed image, consisting of the common objects rain water, chickens, and the titular red wheelbarrow. I enjoy how he effectively feeds the reader small pieces of information, beginning with the attention-grabbing “so much depends / upon.” I felt compelled to continue reading; it was as if I was about to learn a valuable lesson from a sort of aphorism. His word choice is simple and elegant, especially the description of the “glazed” wheelbarrow and the stark contrast between the tool’s red finish and the chickens’ white feathers. While Williams uses elliptical expression to suggest that some information is omitted, namely, what “depends upon” the scene, he manages to comment on the transient nature of life. Not only do I admire the poem for the skill that went into its creation, but I also find the poet’s philosophy engaging and apt. I interpreted the poem’s “meaning” as follows: a fundamental characteristic of human nature is to place a great deal of importance on the finite; the wheelbarrow, “glazed with rain / water,” and the chickens are both transient things, and a lot of what we care about depends upon things of this sort. Never have I enjoyed such valuable insight delivered with concrete, simple language. It awes me that Williams can both lyrically paint a vivid portrait and poignantly convey a universal truth in a mere sixteen words.

“The Locust Tree in Flower,” however, reveals a Williams that is, simply, sub-“Wheelbarrow.” Here he uses one-word lines, mainly adjectives, to describe the blooming of the tree mentioned in the title. While I find the adjectives fresh and enjoy the juxtaposition of dissimilar traits (“old” and “bright,” for example), his pairing of two prepositions in the opening stanza ruins the poem for me. “Among / of,” the poem begins, which, I feel, serves only to deliberately confuse the reader, something that seems pretentious in a thirteen-word description of a tree. Also, I feel that his word placement and stanza breaks are basically arbitrary. Rather than effectively describing the locust’s flowering, Williams, protected by the freedom of Imagism, appears to have jotted down a few words and pulled them from his hat. I found “Locust” neither skillful nor meaningful, and I feel that all good poems exhibit one of these qualities.

Both poems are characteristically Imagist; Williams directly and tersely approaches his subjects in both “Wheelbarrow” and “Locust.” However, I feel the two poems differ in their effectiveness. After being enthralled by the former and appalled by the latter, I have come to realize the difficulty in consistently creating superior art. But in Williams’ defense, to merely recreate and mimic oneself is not the mark of an artist. Williams’ voice is dynamic and unpredictable, and for this I applaud him.

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