Williams’s writing is one of the major achievements in twentieth century American literature. As a significant representation of the modern American consciousness, it must be placed with that of four other poets born between 1874 and 1888: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Williams’s work complements theirs in important ways. He was less ready than they to maintain traditional techniques or assimilate the discoveries made in other literatures, but he was more genuinely open and responsive to both the fullness and the emptiness of contemporary life in the United States.
He listened more keenly to the dance rhythms and the flat cadences of American speech, observed more accurately the degradation and the unexpected beauties of its cities and countrysides, and explored more intensely the immediate historical ground on which Americans stood. He did all this, moreover, without slighting the spiritual emptiness that has haunted twentieth century writing. Williams may well be, of those five poets, the most important influence on the development of the American idiom in poetry during the last years of the twentieth century.
His work in both poetry and prose combines great technical ability with a passionate humanity. The major beauty of Williams’s art is perhaps that of a hard-won honesty, achieved through his attempt to isolate individual experience, to make the distinctions necessary to its proper perception, yet to acknowledge at the same time the continuity of all experience.
The content of Williams’s writing tends toward “pure poetry.” He seldom moralizes or indulges in philosophical or religious sermonizing. Criticism of capitalism is sometimes found in his fiction (for example, in the story “Jean Beicke”) and other prose (as in parts of In the American Grain) but almost never in his poetry. (“The Yachts” is one notable exception.)
The same is true of Williams’s medical background. He uses his scientific training and his experience as a doctor frequently in his fiction (as in his fine 1932 short-story collection, The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories), but it seldom appears in his poetry, except in an occasional term or phrase borrowed from medicine. As a writer of fiction—he published four novels and a number of first-rate short stories—Williams’s style is more conventional than in his poetry, but it is often ironic, sometimes even apparently callous, in attitude. His medical stories contain some of the most powerful descriptions of disease and suffering in modern fiction. In his fiction, as in his poetry, however, Williams is objective rather than indifferent. He shows the sympathetic detachment of a man who combined the writing of literature with a full-time career as a practicing physician.
Williams united a lifelong dedication to writing with a medical practice in New Jersey by writing emphatically about the life around him—the ordinary, and even apparently uninteresting, people, events, and landscapes that he encountered during his daily routine. His writing embodies two major tendencies. The first is vigorous formal experimentation in poetry and prose, frequently in the direction of abandoning traditional forms and, in his poetry, of mastering the possibilities of free verse, of which he remains the most influential practitioner.
The second is a plain-speaking directness of manner well suited to his native subjects and settings—for example, city streets, vacant lots, workers and their tools, a wheelbarrow, scraps of conversation, a sheet of paper rolling along in the wind, pieces of broken glass behind a hospital, the number five on a speeding fire engine. Nature, especially as represented by flowers and trees, is also an active presence in his poems, and it is celebrated without ever being idealized; it is puddles rather than lakes, sparrows rather than nightingales, weeds rather than roses. Everything is presented tautly, with a minimum of comment or judgment, in the simplest language and according to a lifelong preference for the concrete as expressed in his famous motto: “No ideas but in things.”
Early in his career, Williams rejected the literary heritage of the Victorian era, particularly its trite diction and stultified verse forms. He strove constantly to achieve the brusque nervous tension, the vigor and rhetoric, of American speech. Although he avoids slang, his language is thoroughly idiomatic. He seldom uses a word that is beyond the vocabulary of the ordinary reader, and the rhythm and intonation of his language are those of common speech. A careful study of his typography and punctuation shows that they, too, are intended to reproduce the rhythm—the pauses and emphases—of ordinary speech.
Williams’s poetry may be the most accessible and humane in modern American literature. He had a special knack for using natural speech poetically and an unusual appreciation of how other people feel and think. Virtually all of Williams’s lyrics illustrate his determination to develop in poetry the rhythm, diction, and syntax of the language actually spoken in Rutherford, New Jersey. Many of his lyrics are about poetry—what it is, how to write it—but a poem about poetry is also, for Williams, about how to live, for poetry is essentially the direct “contact”—the fresh perceiving and feeling by which life becomes worth living.
The music of Williams’s poems seems at first to be a deliberate absence of music, and it takes some time to perceive the finely controlled dance that the hesitations and abruptnesses of the free-verse lines accomplish. Reading them aloud should include experimentation with the pauses to be found on the page and listening for the plain, emerging music. The recognition of this unlikely lyricism involves the same kind of delighted surprise that can be experienced from Williams’s ways of finding beauty in unexpected places. Subject and style have the same aims, and an aesthetic of discovery through reduction and directness lies behind everything Williams did. To put it in terms of the visual analogies that very much interested him, his poems combine the freshness and daring of cubist painting and the candor and unmediated confrontations of photography.
Williams’s revolutionary ideas led him to write poetry that was simple, direct, and apparently formless. He seemed to be a “nonliterary” writer, yet his poetry, for all its freshness and seeming spontaneity, was the result of constant rewriting and refinement. Like nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, Williams used common-place American scenes and speech to portray contemporary urban America. Like Whitman, he was a significant force in the freeing of poetry from the restraints and predictive regularity of traditional rhythms and meters. Williams was a prime literary innovator in prose and poetry, and he was the poet of the twentieth century most sensitive to the teeming squalor of modern America.
In all of his work, Williams carried forward a revolutionary heritage that was welcomed by younger writers responsive to his example and influence. While steadfastly supporting the principle of free organic form, he also helped refresh and renew the language of poetry by freeing it from stereotyped associations. In his passionate equalitarianism, he has been more attractive to younger generations of poets than the more aristocratic Pound and Eliot. Williams’s writing reveals an openness to experience of all kinds and a refusal to accept doctrinaire theories and solutions. While insisting upon the authenticity of his own vision, he has at the same time insisted upon the relativity of all knowledge and the inadequacy of dogma. To this extent at least, despite his distance from the confident rationalism of the Enlightenment (which he also distrusted), his work as a whole supports the Jeffersonian principle of “eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
First published: 1917 (collected in Al Que Quiere!, 1917)
Type of work: Poem
While describing how to conduct a funeral, Williams’s speaker gives advice that applies to many communal activities.
“Tract,” from Al Que Quiere!, Williams’s second book of poetry, appears at first to be a frankly didactic poem in which the speaker attempts to teach the proper way “to perform a funeral.” The speaker gives advice in four areas: hearse, flowers, driver, and bereaved.
In stanzas 1 through 3, objecting to the usual funeral, with its standardized conventions which insulate mourners from the meaning of death, the speaker would substitute for the polished black hearse a “rough dray” to be dragged over the ground, with no decoration other than perhaps gilt paint applied to the wheels for the occasion. In stanza 4, in place of the usual wreaths or hothouse flowers, the speaker recommends “Some common memento . . . / something he prized and is known by:/ his old clothes—a few books perhaps—/ God knows what!” In stanza 5, he would have the driver pulled down from his seat to “walk at the side/ and inconspicuously too!” His final admonition, in stanza 6, is to the mourners:
Walk behind—as they do in France,seventh class, or if you rideHell take curtains! Go with some showof inconvenience; sit openly—to the weather as to grief.Or do you think you can shut grief in?What—from us? We who have perhapsnothing to lose? Share with usshare with us—it will be moneyin your pockets. Go nowI think you are ready.
By such simplicity and show of inconvenience, the poem holds, the townspeople “are ready” to conduct a funeral properly.
At first glance, “Tract” seems to be a poem of direct statement: The speaker attempts to reform his neighbors’ ideas about the proper conduct of a familiar ritual by setting forth specific precepts. The speaker’s impulse to reform, however, reveals a preoccupation with the idea of form that goes beyond the subject of funerals. The fact that the funeral is a common ritual is a reminder that any such group activity is inevitably symbolic and, in Williams’s view, a kind of art. From this perspective, the speaker’s injunctions apply not only to one rite but also to a whole range of symbolic activity in which members of a community may be involved.
Metaphorically, the “tract” becomes a statement of an aesthetic as the poet asserts his commitment to certain principles of form which he urges upon his unenlightened townspeople. These are, not surprisingly, the familiar tenets of an organic theory in which rigid, predetermined conventions are rejected in favor of forms that are free and functional and adapted to the circumstances from which they arise. The separate assertions of what had seemed a poetry of statement are revealed to be integral parts of a more comprehensive, dramatically unified symbolic art.
“The Red Wheelbarrow”
First published: 1923 (collected in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 1986)
Type of work: Poem
Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary wheelbarrow and a few chickens.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is perhaps one of the shortest serious poems ever published by an American poet. The structure is rigidly formal. The poem consists of four miniature stanzas of four words each.
so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.
Three images are involved: the wheelbarrow, described simply as red, the qualifying adjectival phrase “glazed with rain/ water,” which relieves the excessive severity of the second stanza, and the contrasting white chickens of the final stanza. The first line is colloquial and open in its invitation; the second line, the preposition “upon,” prepares the reader for the specifics to follow. Each two-line stanza has two stressed syllables in the first line and one in the second, and yet there is lively variation in where the stresses fall.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary sight. The poem—or the moment of perception it reports—evokes no cultural traditions or literary associations. The absence of these is strongly noticed, however, for if the poem is an immediate experience, it is also a demonstration and argument. “So much depends,” it says, on the object being there, but it also means that so much depends on the reader’s response to what is seen. If one’s response is dull, the world takes on this quality, and the converse is also true. Thus, although Williams believed that the American environment...
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