William Carlos Williams Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams attempted to create an American voice for American poetry. Both Whitman and Williams wanted to record the unique American experience in a distinctively American idiom, a language freed from the constraints of traditional English prosody. Whitman, as Williams says in his autobiography, broke from the traditional iambic pentameter, but he had only begun the necessary revolution. It was then up to Williams to use “the new dialect” to continue Whitman’s work by constructing a prosody based on actual American speech.
Williams’s search for a new language using the American idiom was intertwined with his search for a new poetic measure. Although he wanted to recover the relationship between poetry and the measured dance from which he believed it derived, his concept of measure is elusive. He believed that Whitman’s free verse lacked structure. Williams sought a new foot that would be fairly stable, yet at the same time was variable, a foot that was not fixed but allowed for variation according to what the language called for. While the traditional poetic foot is based on the number of syllables in a line, Williams based his poetic foot on “a measure of the ear.” The proper measure would allow him to present the American idiom as controlled by the rhythm of American speech.
When Williams wrote his early poems, he had not yet developed his own poetical theory; he first wrote conventionally and then according to the Imagist credo. He created some very good pictures of “things,” and his poems achieved a reality of their own, but they did not go beyond the particulars to express universal truths—something that involves more than merely re-creating data.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for example, all the reader is left with is the picture of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens beside it standing in the rain. In “Poem,” the cat climbs over the jamcloset into the empty flower pot; Williams conveys nothing more than this picture. Other examples of Williams’s poems of this period include “The Locust Tree in Flower” (the locust tree in flower is sweet and white, and brings May again), “Between Walls” (behind the hospital in the cinders of the courtyard shine the pieces of a broken green bottle), and “This Is Just to Say” (the poet tells his wife he has eaten the plums she was saving in the icebox).
In “To a Poor Old Woman,” Williams does not convey any meaning beyond the picture he evokes of an old woman munching on a plum that she has taken from a bag she is holding in her hand. He does, however, experiment with the way he places the words of the line “They taste good to her” on the page. He repeats the line three times. First, he puts all the words on one line without a period at the end of the line; then he writes “They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her.” He is searching for the correct form to use—the elusive measure needed.
In the epic poem Paterson, Williams sought to cover the landscape of contemporary American society and to discover himself as an American poet. His twenty-year journey in Paterson is similar to that of Hart Crane in The Bridge (1930), Ezra Pound in the Cantos (1925-1972), and T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943). Just as Whitman revised the poems of Leaves of Grass (1855) continuously and frequently moved them from section to section within the volume, so Williams identified Paterson with his own continuing life as a poet.
Paterson consists of five books and a projected sixth; each book is made up of three sections. In “The Delineaments of the Giants” (Paterson, book 1, 1946), Mr. Paterson, as he wanders through the city Paterson, describes details of the town and the area around it: the valley, the Passaic Falls, and Garret Mountain. Williams creates a history for the city as he describes past and present inhabitants and events concerning both them and the city. In “Sunday in the Park” (
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