Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)

by William Carlos Williams
Mr. Eliot, meanwhile, has written his Quartets. He is a very subtle creator—who knows how to squeeze the last ounce of force out of his material. He has done a good job here though when he speaks of developing a new manner of writing, new manners following new manners only to be spent as soon as that particular piece of writing has been accomplished—I do not think he quite knows what he is about.

But in spite of everything and completely discounting his subject matter, his genre, Eliot’s experiments in the Quartets though limited, show him to be more American in the sense I seek than, sad to relate, Auden, with his English ears and the best will in the world, will ever be able to be.

It may be the tragedy of a situation whose ramifications we are for the moment unable to trace: That the American gone over to England might make the contribution (or assist in it) which the Englishman come to America to find it and with the best will in the world, is unable to make.

Thus the Gallicized American, D’A——, according to Edmund Wilson in Axel’s Castle, with the iambic pentameter in his brain, was able, at the beginning of the symbolist movement in Paris to break the French from their six-syllable line in a way they had of themselves never been able to do. There is Ezra Pound also to be thought of—another entire thesis—in this respect. I see that I am outlining a year’s or at least a semester’s series of lectures as I go along.

Now we come to the question of the origin of our discoveries. Where else can what we are seeking arise from but speech? From speech, from American speech as distinct from English speech, or presumably so, if what I say above is correct. In any case (since we have no body of poems comparable to the English) from what we hear in America. Not, that is, from a study of the classics, not even the American “Classics”—the dead classics which—may I remind you, we have never heard as living speech. No one has or can hear them as they were written any more than we can hear Greek today.

I say this once again to emphasize what I have often said—that we here must listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make. This is not the same as the hierarchic or tapeworm mode of making additions to the total poetic body: the mode of the schools. This will come up again elsewhere.

That being so, what I have presumed but not proven, concerning Auden’s work, can we not say that there are many more hints toward literary composition in the American language than in English—where they are inhibited by classicism and “good taste.” (Note the French word tête, its derivation from “pot.”) I’d put it much stronger, but let’s not be diverted at this point, there are too many more important things pressing for attention.

In the first place, we have to say, following H. L. Mencken’s The American Language, which American language? Since Mencken pointed out that the American student (the formative years—very important) is bilingual, he speaks English in the classroom but his own tongue outside of it.

We mean, then, American—the language Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound carried to Europe in their ears—willy-nilly—when they left here for their adventures and which presumably Mr. Auden came here to find—perhaps too late. A language full of those hints toward newness of which I have been speaking. I am not interested in the history but these things offer a point worth making, a rich opportunity for development lies before us at this point.

I said “hints toward composition.” This does not mean realism in the language. What it does mean, I think, is ways of managing the language, new ways. Primarily it means to me opportunity to expand the structure, the basis, the actual making of the poem.

It is a chance to attack the language of the poem seriously. For to us our language is serious in a way that English is not. Just as to them English is serious—too serious—in a way no dialect could be. But the dialect is the mobile phase, the changing phase, the productive phase—as their languages were to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Rabelais in their day.

It is there, in the mouths of the living, that the language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression and, I add, basic structure—the most important of all.

To the English, English is England: “History is England,” yodels Mr. Eliot. To us this is not so, not so if we prove it by writing a poem built to refute it—otherwise he wins!! But that leads to mere controversy. For us rehash of rehash of hash of rehash is not the business.

A whole semester of studies is implicit here. Perhaps a whole course of post-graduate studies—with theses—extending into a life’s work!! But before I extol too much and advocate the experimental method, let me emphasize that, like God’s creation, the objective is not experimentation but man. In our case, poems! There were enough experiments it seems, from what natural history shows, in that first instance but that was not the culmination. The poem is what we are after.

And again let me emphasize that this is something that has been going on, unrecognized for years—here and in England. What we are at is to try to discover and isolate and use the underlying element or principle motivating this change which is trying to speak outright. Do you not see now why I have been inveighing against the sonnet all these years? And why it has been so violently defended? Because it is a form which does not admit of the slightest structural change in its composition.

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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