Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)

by William Carlos Williams
Look at Mr. Auden’s earlier poems as an example, with their ruined industrial background of waste and destruction. But even that is passing and becoming old-fashioned with the new physics taking its place. All this is a subject in itself and a fascinating one which I regret to leave, I am sorry to say, for a more pressing one.

Remember we are still in the world of fancy if perhaps disguised but still a world of wish-fulfillment in dreams. The poet was not an owner, he was not a money man—he was still only a poet; a wisher; a word man. The best of all to my way of thinking! Words are the keys that unlock the mind. But is that all of poetry? Certainly not—no more so than the material of dreams was phantasy to Dr. Sigmund Freud.

There is something else. Something if you will listen to many, something permanent and sacrosanct. The one thing that the poet has not wanted to change, the one thing he has clung to in his dream—unwilling to let go—the place where the time-lag is still adamant—is structure. Here we are unmovable. But here is precisely where we come into contact with reality. Reluctant, we waken from our dreams. And what is reality? How do we know reality? The only reality that we can know is MEASURE.

Now to return to our subject—the structure of the poem. Everything in the social, economic complex of the world at any time-sector ties in together—

(Quote Wilson on Proust—modern physics, etc.)

But it might at this time be a good thing to take up first what is spoken of as free verse.

How can we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity, affecting our very conception of the heavens about us of which poets write so much, without incorporating its essential fact—the relativity of measurements—into our own category of activity: the poem. Do we think we stand outside the universe? Or that the Church of England does? Relativity applies to everything, like love, if it applies to anything in the world.

What, by this approach I am trying to sketch, what we are trying to do is not only to disengage the elements of a measure but to seek (what we believe is there) a new measure or a new way of measuring that will be commensurate with the social, economic world in which we are living as contrasted with the past. It is in many ways a different world from the past calling for a different measure.

According to this conception there is no such thing as “free verse” and so I insist. Imagism was not structural: that was the reason for its disappearance.

The impression I give is that we are about to make some discoveries. That they will be far-reaching in their effects.—This will depend on many things. My address (toward the task) is all that concerns me now: That we do approach a change.

What is it? I make a clear and definite statement—that it lies in the structure of verse. That I may possibly lie elsewhere I do not for a moment deny or care—I have here to defend that only and that is my theme.

I hope you will pardon my deliberation, for I wish again to enter a short by-path: It may be said that I wish to destroy the past. It is precisely a service to tradition, horning it and serving it that is envisioned and intended by my attack, and not disfigurement—confirming and enlarging its application.

Set the overall proposal of an enlarged technical means—in order to liberate the possibilities of depicting reality in a modern world that has seen more if not felt more than in the past—in order to be able to feel more (for we know we feel less, or surmise that we do. Vocabulary opens the mind to feeling). But modern in that by psychology and all its dependencies we know, for we have learned that to feel more we have to have, in our day, the means to feel with—the tokens, the apparatus. We are lacking in the means—the appropriate paraphernalia, just as modern use of the products of chemistry for refinement must have means which the past lacked. Our poems are not subtly enough made, the structure, the staid manner of the poem cannot let our feelings through.

(Note: Then show (in what detail I can) what we may do to achieve this end by a review of early twentieth-century literary accomplishments. Work done.)

We seek profusion, the Mass—heterogeneous—ill-assorted—quiet breathless—grasping at all kinds of things—as if—like Audubon shooting some little bird, really only to look at it the better.

If any one man’s work lacks the distinction to be expected from the finished artist, we might well think of the profusion of a Rabelais—as against a limited output. It is as though for the moment we should be profuse, we Americans; we need to build up a mass, a conglomerate maybe, containing few gems but bits of them—Brazilian brilliants—that shine of themselves, uncut as they are.

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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 William Carlos Williams

Biography

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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