What are the main poetic characteristics of the American poet William Carlos Williams?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883–March 4, 1963) was a poet, writer, and, importantly, physician. He spent most of his adult life in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he was affiliated with Passaic General Hospital. One of the distinct features of his writing is the way it grew out of his...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883–March 4, 1963) was a poet, writer, and, importantly, physician. He spent most of his adult life in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he was affiliated with Passaic General Hospital. One of the distinct features of his writing is the way it grew out of his experience as a practicing family doctor who engaged in close observation of the details of the ordinary life of his family, friends, and patients. Along with Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, he can be considered a poet deeply embedded in the American experience and thus distinct from many members of the modernist movement, despite his technical experimentation. Although Williams was well-educated and sophisticated as reader and writer, he was somewhat less closely tied to European traditions than his friends and fellow imagists Pound and H.D., or modernists such as Eliot, but instead fully rooted in a rural American tradition with a strong sense of place and community.

Williams's poetry is written in free verse. It uses ordinary rather than literary language grounded in American rather than English idiom, and evokes emotion often indirectly by meticulous presentation of striking sensory details, including not only vision but also all the other senses. The generic terms applied to Williams work most often are "modernist" and "imagist." Williams was known for both very short, striking works grounded in single images and long poems and prose poems loosely and thematically rather than narratively structured.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Carlos Williams is an imagist poet. Especially in later life, in longer poems like "Paterson," he used America as his subject.

Although initially influenced by Keats and Whitman, meeting the poet Ezra Pound was the seismic event in Williams's poetic life. He took to heart Pound's dictum: "make it new."

He also met and was deeply influenced by imagist poets such as H.D. Imagism represented a sharp break with the poetry of the past. Unlike poets such as Keats, Tennyson, or Hardy, who often told a story, or, in other words, wrote narrative poems, imagist poets wanted to capture images in a stark, clear, and precise way. Their poetry was more like painting than story-telling. A classic example—perhaps the classic example of an imagist poem is Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow:"

so much depends

upon a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

The poem is short, simple, and stark. It relies on the reader being able to visualize a rain-dripping red wheelbarrow next to white chickens. It is almost impossible to imagine a Victorian poet writing such a poem.

Williams was shocked by T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," which, though he admired it, he felt set poetry back because it was so complicated and allusive. He wanted poetry to head in the direction of the clear and direct. Later in life, he published a long poem called "Paterson" that attempted to capture the American spirit through a place, Paterson, New Jersey, which was near his home of Rutherford, New Jersey. Though long, the poem uses simple diction, and a jagged, often imagistic style.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Certainly, at first glance, the poetry of William Carlos Williams seems to be very curious. In fact, when he first started writing poems like "This Is Just to Say," nobody took him seriously. Typically, his lines do not have any meter and no rhyme. No figurative language is used and no other "normal" elements of poetry were utilised except for imagery and a very unique sense of rhtyhm. Often punctuation was completely absent as well. However, these are elements of his own poetic style, which he called objectivism.

William Carlos Williams in his poetry tried to focus on the reality of individual life and its surroundings. In his poetry, he tried to cut out any unnecessary elements and returned to the bare necessities. Thus we can see that his work does not include frequent allusions like his two contemporaries, Pound and Eliot.

Thus we can see that what characterises the style of Williams is his concise and sparse writing, focusing on everyday topics. For Williams, the supposedly "boring" and commonplace topics of, for example, a red wheelbarrow, schoolgirls walking down a street, and a piece of paper blowing in the wind all became topics of his poetry. Through which, of course, he hoped to evoke the power and wonder of the ordinary.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team