William Carlos Williams William Carlos Williams American Literature Analysis

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William Carlos Williams American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 5,512 words.)