William Carlos Williams 101
Few American poets of the past century have enjoyed as much critical and popular acclaim as William Carlos Williams. He is one of his generation’s most widely read and anthologized poets and one of the most innovative and influential. His energetic, modernist poems still feel bold and experimental.
As his poem “Dedication for a Plot of Ground” attests, Williams sprang from hardscrabble, immigrant roots. Born in New Jersey to an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry, he lived a prodigious life, producing numerous volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism, all while maintaining a busy practice as a medical doctor. His quintessentially American background informs his poetry in many ways. His free verse poems brought poetry closer to what he called the American idiom, the plain but vivid speech of the populace he came from and cared for. He also viewed his poetry as pragmatic and purposeful: to help us better understand our lives. “The poet’s business,” he writes in his autobiography, is “not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him in the particular to discover the universal.”
This selection of poems, ordered chronologically, provides a brief overview of Williams’s widely varied body of work.
“The Great Figure”
This 1921 poem is typical of many of Williams’s shorter lyrics: with its terse lines made “tense” by enjambment, it describes the sounds and swift movement of a firetruck on a rainy night. Its narrow focus is influenced by Imagism, a movement promoted by his early friend and mentor Ezra Pound. Williams was also inspired by the work of avant-garde painters, who responded to the tumult of “the dark city” by adopting new subjects (or figures) and perspectives. Such inspiration proved reciprocal: Williams’s friend Charlie Demuth later created a painting based on this poem called I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.
“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”
This early persona poem testifies to Williams’s feel for the inner lives and everyday struggles of townspeople he regularly saw as patients and sought to include in verse. Spoken by a woman who has lost her husband, this study of grief demonstrates an impressive range of tone and technique. It also illustrates Williams’s passion for the renewal of spring and its “masses of flowers,” an enduring subject and symbol for Williams over the course of his career.
Williams saw his experimental masterpiece Spring and All (1923) as a response to what he called the “atom bomb” of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Alternating between prose and free verse, Williams’s book seeks renewal and newness, which stands in contrast to Eliot’s apocalyptic vision. This famous poem from the collection finds Williams at his most Whitmanic: citing people such as Elsie, the Williams family maid, as examples of misplaced materialism, he seeks to express “the truth about us.” Though the poem’s careering tercets and final, chilling image describe a culture out of control, Williams also glimpses possibility in “the earth under our feet” and the “imagination” that “strains / after deer / going by fields of goldenrod.”
“The Red Wheelbarrow”
Why, exactly, does “so much” depend on the figures of this iconic poem? Did the poet, as the story goes, scribble it down on his prescription pad as he left the home of a dying patient? Or is it praise of rustic labor, an ode to the humble things that so many people depend on for livelihood? The poet doesn’t say; his true subject is perception itself. By offering just these things in themselves—“no ideas but in things,” he later wrote in Paterson—Williams makes us see them newly and reminds us how much an image depends upon its context and frame of reference.
“This Is Just To Say”
This 1934 poem draws on a concept of modern art: the ready-made. Like Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited a urinal in an art gallery in 1917, Williams seems to make art of the artless, out of the found or ephemeral: the poem reads like a note left on a kitchen table. But its plain language and mundane occasion belie its wit. A shrewd observer of domestic life in poems such as “Danse Russe,” Williams here captures the tension between individual desire and familial togetherness with an apology that can be read as both genuine and coy.
Williams saw the triadic or stepped line, which he invented late in his career, as a possible “solution of the problem of modern verse.” Here, the form provides him both flexibility and stability: its consistent shape, along with the unifying “single image” of the titular flower, allows Williams to range across numerous subjects—his “approaching death,” the atomic bomb, the nature of art—without losing coherence or momentum. Such a formal achievement is even more impressive considering its circumstances: Williams wrote this long love poem—an apologia for his wife—after a series of strokes left him nearly paralyzed, typing it on a typewriter with just one finger of his non-dominant hand.
from Paterson, Book V
Written in five separate books over the course of several decades, Paterson is a modernist epic through which Williams, as he writes in his autobiography, attempts to “find an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world about me.” First published in Poetry in 1958, this excerpt from the fifth book finds Paterson—a figure for the poet and an embodiment of the city he worked in—contemplating his mortality. Weaving together lyrical observations, historical fragments, letters, manifestos, and monologues, Williams creates “a living fiction,” an encompassing portrait of his mind and milieu.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.