The early twentieth century in America (and in all the Western world) was a transition time for art and literature; the release from the traditions of Victorianism manifested itself in all kinds of experiments—Dada, Expressionism, Surrealism, etc. The most successful and long-lasting of these experiments was Imagism, a concentration on the visual impact of words, a kind of short-hand to heretofore unexpressed sensations; in addition to Williams, Ezra Pound was internationally famous for his Imagistic poetry.
A poet once said of Imagism, “Poetry is the history of the unrecorded.” This means that everyday sights, settings, and events are celebrated not in the headlines of newspapers, but in the sensitive observations of the poet observant of everyday life. The distinct contribution of Williams was the “Americanization” of poetic form. In addition to his sparse “snapshots” of American images, like vignettes of perfect scenes, he also introduced an American “poetic foot”, a “triadic line”, a way of breaking up a poetic line that kept its oral integrity but broke the old “rules” of feet and accents that had stultified the 19th century poetry of such traditionalists as Tennyson and Hopkins. It makes an interesting counterpart to Whitman’s longer, unrhymed lines in Leaves of Grass. Scholars claim that Williams’ “English” language was distinctly American in its cadence and phrasing, although the evidence for this view is sparse. (America as a country was going through its own examination of its relationship with other countries, especially at the outbreak of World War I; it should be noted that Williams' life and career extended over most of the 20th century). Here is a sample, less anthologized than the “Wheelbarrow” poem that is so often cited as pure Williams, which shows the connection between world events and Imagism:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Here can be seen the economy and the colloquial language of Williams’ work, as well as the pacifistic attitude that was distinctly American at that time, at least in the artistic community (see Ezra Pound’s biography for more on this).