Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)

by William Carlos Williams


William Carlos Williams was committed to the creation of a distinct American style of poetry, and over the course of his career his work became increasingly focused on an innovative approach to structure and measure. These two elements are the focus of his essay “The Poem as a Field of Action,” which was presented as a lecture at the University of Washington in 1948.

Williams refers to the subject matter of a poem as its materials, and borrows from Freud to call the poem, like the dream, a space for wish fulfillment. Subject matter is seen as fantasy, while the reality of the poem is its measure. Williams sees “a wish for aristocratic attainment” as the preferred subject of poetry until the Industrial Revolution, under whose spirit “it began to be noticed that there could be a new subject matter and that that was not in fact the poem at all.” Even though poets opened the imagery of their work to include the industrial landscapes and other new subjects, Williams argues, the poet’s use of measure has not undergone the same revolutionary change.

Applying Einstein’s theory of relativity to the “relativity of measurements,” Williams argues that “our poems are not subtly enough made, the structure, the staid manner of the poem cannot let our feelings through.” Citing “the rigidity of the poetic foot” as a significant obstacle to contemporary poetry, Williams proposes that his American peers instead turn to speech as a new form of measure, and particularly contemporary, shifting American dialects, in order to “listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make.”

Williams discusses the work of Eliot and Auden as falling outside of this proposed structural revolution in poetry. Williams sees Proust, on the other hand, as being the first to successfully bridge the innovations of literary style and natural science.

Spring and All (1923), composed more than twenty years before this lecture, has been seen by critics as the first collection of Williams to illustrate his notion of the poem as a field of action. In 1948, when Williams gave his speech at the University of Washington, he was immersed in his long project, the Paterson series, and was developing his conception of the “variable foot,” one of the main innovations of Williams’ to be adopted by younger poets. Williams’ theory was later developed by poet Charles Olson as “composition by field,” which focuses on the motion between elements in a poem, or between multiple poetic texts.

Talk given at the University of Washington, 1948

Let’s begin by quoting Mr. Auden—(from The Orators): “Need I remind you that you’re no longer living in ancient Egypt?”

I’m going to say one thing to you—for a week! And I hope to God when I’m through that I’ve succeeded in making you understand me. It concerns the poem as a field of action, at what pitch the battle is today and what may come of it.

As Freud says bitterly in the first chapter of his The Interpretation of Dreams, speaking of the early opposition to his theory:

—the aversion of scientific men to
learning something new

we shall learn that is a characteristic quite as pronounced in literature —where they will copy “the new”—but the tiresome repetition of this “new,” now twenty years old, disfigures every journal: I said a field of action. I can see why so many wish rather, avoiding thought, to return to the classic front of orthodox acceptance. As Antole France put it in Freud’s time, “Les savants ne sont pas curieux.”

It is next to impossible to bring over the quantitative Greek and Latin texts into our language. But does anyone ever ask why a Latin line in translation tends to break in half in our language? Why it cannot be maintained in its character, it quantitative character as against our accented verse? Have all the equivalents been exhausted or even tried? I doubt it.

I offer you then an initiation, what seems and what is actually only a half-baked proposal—since I cannot follow it up with proofs or even final examples—but I do it with at least my eyes open—for what I myself may get out of it by presenting it as well as I can to you.

I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure. I said structure. So now you are begging to get the drift of my theme. I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenations of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet. More has been done than you think about this though not yet been specifically named for what it is. I believe something can be said. Perhaps all that I can of here is to call attention to it: a revolution in the conception of the poetic foot—pointing out the evidence of something that has been going on for a long time.

At this point it might be profitable (since it would bring me back to my subject from a new point of view) to turn aside for a brief, very brief discussion (since it is not in the direct path of my essay) of the materials—that is to say, the subject matter of the poem. In this let me accept all the help I can get from Freud’s theory of the dream—as a fulfillment of the wish – which I accept here holus-bolus. The poem is a dream, a daydream of wish fulfillment but not by any means because of that a field of action and purposive action of a high order because of that.

It has had in the past a varying subject matter—almost one might say a progressively varying choice of subject matter as you shall see—I must stress here that we are talking of the recent past.

And let me remind you here to keep in your minds the term reality as contrasted with phantasy and to tell you that the subject matter of the poem is always phantasy—what is wished for, realized in the “dream” of the poem—but that the structure confronts something else.

We may mention Poe’s dreams in a pioneer society, his dreams of gentleness and bliss—also, by the way, his professional interest in meter and his very successful experiments with form. Yeats’s subject matter of faery. Shakespeare—the butcher’s son dreaming of Caesar and Wolsey. No need to go through Keats, Shelley to Tennyson. It is all, the subject matter, a wish for aristocratic attainment—a “spiritual” bureaucracy of the “soul” or what you will.

There was then a subject matter that was “poetic” and in many minds that is still poetry—and exclusively so—the “beautiful” or pious (and so beautiful) wish expressed in beautiful language—a dream. That is still poetry: full stop. Well, that was the world to be desired and the poets merely expressed a general wish and so were useful each in his day.

But with the industrial revolution, and steadily since then, a new spirit—a new Zeitgeist has possessed the world, and as a consequence new values have replaced the old, aristocratic concepts—which had a pretty seamy side if you looked at them like a Christian. A new subject matter began to be manifest. It began to be noticed that there could be a new subject matter and that that was not in fact the poem at all. Briefly then, money talks, and the poet, the modern poet has admitted new subject matter to his dreams—this, the serious poet has admitted the whole armamentarium of the industrial age to his poems—

William Carlos Williams, "The Poem as a Field of Action" from Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, copyright © 1954 by William  Carlos Williams.  Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Audio Article
 William Carlos Williams


William Carlos Williams has always been known as an experimenter, an innovator, a revolutionary figure in American poetry. Yet in comparison to artists of his own time who sought a new environment for creativity as expatriates in Europe, Williams lived a remarkably conventional life. A doctor for more than forty years serving the New Jersey town of Rutherford, he relied on his patients, the America around him, and his own . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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