Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)

by William Carlos Williams
Now when Mr. Eliot came along he had a choice: 1. Join the crowd, adding his blackbird’s voice to the flock, contributing to the conglomerate (or working over it for his selections) or 2. To go where there was already a mass of more ready distinction (to turn his back on the first), already an established literature in what to him was the same language (?) an already established place in world literature—a short cut, in short.

Stop a minute to emphasize our own position: It is not that of Mr. Eliot. We are making a modern bolus: That is our somewhat undistinguished burden; profusion, as, we must add in all fairness, against his distinction. His is a few poems beautifully phrased—in his longest effort thirty-five quotations in seven languages. We, let us say, are the Sermons of Launcelot Andrewes from which (in time) some selector will pick one phrase. Or say, the Upanishad that will contribute a single word! There are summative geniuses like that—they shine. We must value them—the extractors of genius—for what they do: extract. But they are there; we are here. It is not possible for us to imitate them. We are in a different phase—a new language—we are making the mass in which some other later Eliot will dig. We must see our opportunity and increase the hoard others will find to use. We must find our pride in that. We must have the pride, the humility and the thrill in the making. (Tell the story of Bramante and the building of the dome of the Duomo in Florence.)

The clearness we must have is first the clarity of knowing what we are doing—what we may do: Make anew—a reexamination of the means—on a fresh—basis. Not at this time an analysis so much as an accumulation. You couldn’t expect us to be as prominent (as read in particular achievements—outstanding single poems). We’re not doing the same thing.  We’re not putting the rose, the single rose, in the little glass vase in the window—we’re digging a hole for the tree—and as we dig have disappeared in it.

(Note: Pound’s story of my being interested in the loam whereas he wanted the finished product.)

(Note: Read Bridges—two short pieces in the anthology: 1. The Child 2. Snow.)

We begin to pick up what so far is little more than a feeling (a feeling entirely foreign to a Mr. E. or a Mr. P. —though less to them than to some others) that something is taking place in the accepted prosody or ought to be taking place. (Of course we have had Whitman—but he is a difficult subject—prosodically and I do not want to get off into that now.) It is similar to what must have been the early feeling of Einstein toward the laws of Isaac Newton in physics. Thus from being fixed, our prosodic values should rightly be seen as only relatively true. Einstein had the speed of light as a constant—his only constant—What have we? Perhaps our concept of musical time. I think so. But don’t let us close down on that either at least for the moment.

In any case we as loose, disassociated (linguistically), yawping speakers of a new language, are privileged (I guess) to sense and so to seek to discover that possible thing which is disturbing the metrical table of values—as unknown elements would disturb Mendelyeev’s table of the periodicity of atomic weights and so lead to discoveries.

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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