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Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poem as a Field of Action (1948)


William Carlos Williams was committed to the creation of a distinct American style of poetry, and over the course of his career his work became increasingly focused on an innovative approach to structure and measure. These two elements are the focus of his essay “The Poem as a Field of Action,” which was presented as a lecture at the University of Washington in 1948.

Williams refers to the subject matter of a poem as its materials, and borrows from Freud to call the poem, like the dream, a space for wish fulfillment. Subject matter is seen as fantasy, while the reality of the poem is its measure. Williams sees “a wish for aristocratic attainment” as the preferred subject of poetry until the Industrial Revolution, under whose spirit “it began to be noticed that there could be a new subject matter and that that was not in fact the poem at all.” Even though poets opened the imagery of their work to include the industrial landscapes and other new subjects, Williams argues, the poet’s use of measure has not undergone the same revolutionary change.

Applying Einstein’s theory of relativity to the “relativity of measurements,” Williams argues that “our poems are not subtly enough made, the structure, the staid manner of the poem cannot let our feelings through.” Citing “the rigidity of the poetic foot” as a significant obstacle to contemporary poetry, Williams proposes that his American peers instead turn to speech as a new form of measure, and particularly contemporary, shifting American dialects, in order to “listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make.”

Williams discusses the work of Eliot and Auden as falling outside of this proposed structural revolution in poetry. Williams sees Proust, on the other hand, as being the first to successfully bridge the innovations of literary style and natural science.

Spring and All (1923), composed more than twenty years before this lecture, has been seen by critics as the first collection of Williams to illustrate his notion of the poem as a field of action. In 1948, when Williams gave his speech at the University of Washington, he was immersed in his long project, the Paterson series, and was developing his conception of the “variable foot,” one of the main innovations of Williams’ to be adopted by younger poets. Williams’ theory was later developed by poet Charles Olson as “composition by field,” which focuses on the motion between elements in a poem, or between multiple poetic texts.

Talk given at the University of Washington, 1948

Let’s begin by quoting Mr. Auden—(from The Orators): “Need I remind you that you’re no longer living in ancient Egypt?”

I’m going to say one thing to you—for a week! And I hope to God when I’m through that I’ve succeeded in making you understand me. It concerns the poem as a field of action, at what pitch the battle is today and what may come of it.

As Freud says bitterly in the first chapter of his The Interpretation of Dreams, speaking of the early opposition to his theory:

—the aversion of scientific men to
learning something new

we shall learn that is a characteristic quite as pronounced in literature —where they will copy “the new”—but the tiresome repetition of this “new,” now twenty years old, disfigures every journal: I said a field of action. I can see why so many wish rather, avoiding thought, to return to the classic front of orthodox acceptance. As Antole France put it in Freud’s time, “Les savants ne sont pas curieux.”

It is next to impossible to bring over the quantitative Greek and Latin texts into our language. But does anyone ever ask why a Latin line in translation tends to break in half in our language? Why it cannot be maintained in its character, it quantitative character as against our accented verse? Have all the equivalents been exhausted or even tried? I doubt it.

I offer you then an initiation, what seems and what is actually only a half-baked proposal—since I cannot follow it up with proofs or even final examples—but I do it with at least my eyes open—for what I myself may get out of it by presenting it as well as I can to you.

I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure. I said structure. So now you are begging to get the drift of my theme. I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenations of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet. More has been done than you think about this though not yet been specifically named for what it is. I believe something can be said. Perhaps all that I can of here is to call attention to it: a revolution in the conception of the poetic foot—pointing out the evidence of something that has been going on for a long time.

At this point it might be profitable (since it would bring me back to my subject from a new point of view) to turn aside for a brief, very brief discussion (since it is not in the direct path of my essay) of the materials—that is to say, the subject matter of the poem. In this let me accept all the help I can get from Freud’s theory of the dream—as a fulfillment of the wish – which I accept here holus-bolus. The poem is a dream, a daydream of wish fulfillment but not by any means because of that a field of action and purposive action of a high order because of that.

It has had in the past a varying subject matter—almost one might say a progressively varying choice of subject matter as you shall see—I must stress here that we are talking of the recent past.

And let me remind you here to keep in your minds the term reality as contrasted with phantasy and to tell you that the subject matter of the poem is always phantasy—what is wished for, realized in the “dream” of the poem—but that the structure confronts something else.

We may mention Poe’s dreams in a pioneer society, his dreams of gentleness and bliss—also, by the way, his professional interest in meter and his very successful experiments with form. Yeats’s subject matter of faery. Shakespeare—the butcher’s son dreaming of Caesar and Wolsey. No need to go through Keats, Shelley to Tennyson. It is all, the subject matter, a wish for aristocratic attainment—a “spiritual” bureaucracy of the “soul” or what you will.

There was then a subject matter that was “poetic” and in many minds that is still poetry—and exclusively so—the “beautiful” or pious (and so beautiful) wish expressed in beautiful language—a dream. That is still poetry: full stop. Well, that was the world to be desired and the poets merely expressed a general wish and so were useful each in his day.

But with the industrial revolution, and steadily since then, a new spirit—a new Zeitgeist has possessed the world, and as a consequence new values have replaced the old, aristocratic concepts—which had a pretty seamy side if you looked at them like a Christian. A new subject matter began to be manifest. It began to be noticed that there could be a new subject matter and that that was not in fact the poem at all. Briefly then, money talks, and the poet, the modern poet has admitted new subject matter to his dreams—this, the serious poet has admitted the whole armamentarium of the industrial age to his poems—

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.

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.

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.

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 13th, 2009
  • 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...

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