Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)

by William Carlos Williams
And we had better get on the job and make our discoveries or, quietly, someone else will make them for us—covertly and without acknowledgement—(one acknowledges one’s indebtedness in one’s notes only to dead writers—preferably long dead!).

We wish to find an objective way at least of looking at verse and to redefine its elements; this I say is the theme (the radium) that underlies Bridge’s experiments as it is the yeast animating Whitman and all the “moderns.”

That the very project itself, quite apart from its solutions, is not yet raised to consciousness, to a clear statement of purpose, is our fault. (Note: the little Mag: Variegations) But one thing, a semiconscious sense of a rending discovery to be made is becoming apparent. For one great thing about “the bomb” is the awakened sense it gives us that catastrophic (by why?) alterations are also possible in the human mind, in art, in the arts . . . We are too cowed by our fears to realize it fully. But it is possible. That is what we mean. This isn’t optimism, it is chemistry: Or better, physics.

It appears, it disappears, a sheen of it comes up, when, as its shattering implications affront us, all the gnomes hurry to cover up its traces.

Note: Proust (Wilson) He has supplied for the first time in literature an equivalent on the full scale for the new theory of modern physics—I mention this merely to show a possible relationship—between a style and a natural science—intelligently considered.

Now for an entirely new issue: Mr. Auden is an interesting case—in fact he presents to me a deciding issue. His poems are phenomenally worth studying in the context of this theme.

There is no modern poet so agile—so impressive in the use of the poetic means. He can do anything—except one thing. He came to America and became a citizen of this country. He is truly, I should say, learned. Now Mr. Auden didn’t come here for nothing or, if you know Auden, without a deep-seated conviction that he had to come. Don’t put it down to any of the superficial things that might first occur to you—that he hates England, etc. He came here because of a crisis in his career—his career as a writer, as poet particularly I should say. Mr. Auden may disagree with me in some of this but he will not disagree, I think, when I say he is a writer to whom writing is his life, his very breath which, as he or any man goes on, in the end absorbs all his breath.

Auden might have gone to France or to Italy or to South America or following Rimbaud to Ceylon or Timbuctoo. No! He came to the United States and became a citizen. Now the crisis, the only crisis which could drive a man, a distinguished poet, to that would be that he had come to an end of some sort in his poetic means—something that England could no longer supply, and that he came here implicitly to find an answer—in another language. As yet I see no evidence that he has found it. I wonder why? Mind you, this is one of the cleverest, most skilled poets of our age and one of the most versatile and prolific. He can do anything.

But when he writes an ode to a successful soccer season for his school, as Pindar wrote them for the Olympic heroes of his day—it is in a classic meter so successful in spite of the subject, which you might think trivial, that it becomes a serious poem. And a bad sign to me is always a religious or social tinge beginning to creep into a poet’s work. You can put it down as a general rule that when a poet, in the broadest sense, begins to devote himself to the subject matter of his poems, genre, he has come to an end of his poetic means.

What does all this signify? That Auden came here to find a new way of writing—for it looked as if this were the place where one might reasonably expect to find that instability in the language where innovation would be at home. Remember even Mr. Eliot once said that no poetic drama could any longer be written in the iambic pentameter, but that perhaps jazz might offer a suggestion. He even wrote something about “My Baby,” but it can’t have been very successful for we seldom hear any more of it.

I wish I could enlist Auden in an attack, a basic attack upon the whole realm of structure in the poem. I have tried but without success so far. I think that’s what he came here looking for, I think he has failed to find it (it may be constitutional with him). I think we have disappointed him. Perhaps he has disappointed himself. I am sure the attack must be concentrated on the rigidity of the poetic foot.

This began as a basic criticism of Auden’s poems—as a reason for his coming to America, and has at least served me as an illustration for the theory upon which I am speaking.

Look at his poems with this in view—his very skill seems to defeat him. It need not continue to do so in my opinion.

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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