Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4223
Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
A Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Williams also wrote fiction and nonfiction. His influential works include Paterson and In the American Grain.
Williams' most ambitious work, the long poem, Paterson, is closer to symbolism than anything he has written, if one excepts the "rococo study" called "The Wanderer" which takes for its theme the whole duty of the poet. On the first page of the first section of the first Book of Paterson he declares: "—Say it, no ideas but in things—"….
The subject of this long poem, then, is a town on the Passaic River, and is also Noah Faitoute Paterson, the arkbuilder, the maker, the poet, the person. It shows his development under the tutelage of the city's genius loci as Wordsworth's "Prelude" offers an account of the growth of a poet's mind, however different the presiding local deities and the acknowledgment made them by the minds they helped to shape. It also bears resemblance to the quasi-prose epic in which James Joyce identifies his own native city of Dublin with the mythical tavern keeper whose dreams compose Finnegans Wake. Both the sage of Grasmere and the Irish exile wanted to free the language from deadening incrustations. So, too, Dr. Williams, lamenting those who die incommunicado, either because "the knowledgeable idiots" of the universities have reduced language to sapless abstraction, or because common speech has been so debased that the unlearned are inarticulate, cries out: "the language, the language."…
Paterson presents the poet's naked sensibility, which, though it responds to details so as to make them "voice his most intimate convictions," as the author says in his Note to Book One, defies the formulations of the intellect. Obviously Williams is using here the method that Pound employed in his Cantos. The poem also resembles the Cantos in the way in which it moves between music and plain prose. It is musical not alone in the lyricism of certain passages but in its presentation and recapitulation of themes. Thus the fourth and final Book, which deals with the "perverse confusions" that come of the failure of language and, less plainly, with the poet as savior, repeats the motifs of the earlier books with the same imagery, even to the African chieftain and his nine wives, and ends with a man by the seashore, walking inland with his dog. The tone is for the most part conversational, and the poem includes large fragments of prose discourse imperfectly assimilated. If Paterson is rarely as good as Pound's major work at its best, it is far more alive than the drearier sections of the Cantos. Both poets are concerned with communication, and with the forces obstructing and debasing it. The great difference is that for Williams the time is not antiquity or the renaissance, but now (he sees its old roots); the scene is no foreign country, but is the provincial factory town on the Passaic in all the sordidness of its abused beauty and energy.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 104-08.
William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have a nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird. Sometimes they have a marvelous delicacy and gentleness, a tact of pure showing; how well he calls into existence our precarious, confused, partial looking out at the world—our being-here-looking, just looking! And if he is often pure presentation, he is often pure exclamation, and delights in yanking something into life with a galvanic imperative or interjection. All this proceeds from the whole bent of his nature: he prefers a clear, active, intense confusion to any "wise passiveness," to any calm and clouded two-sidedness….
He is even less logical than the average poet—he is an intellectual in neither the good nor the bad sense of the word—but loves abstractions for their own sake and makes accomplished, characteristic, inveterate use of them, exactly as if they were sensations or emotions. Both generalizations and particulars are handled with freshness and humor and imagination, with a delicacy and fantasy that are especially charming in so vigorous, realistic, and colloquial a writer. He is full of homely shrewdness and common sense, of sharply intelligent comments dancing cheek-to-cheek with prejudices and random eccentricity; he is someone who, sometimes, does see what things are like, and he is able to say what he sees more often than most poets, since his methods permit (indeed encourage) him to say anything at all without worrying: Can one say such things in poetry? in this particular poem?…
Williams has the knowledge of people one expects, and often does not get, from doctors; a knowledge one does not expect, and very seldom gets, from contemporary poets. Williams's attitude toward his people is particularly admirable; he has neither that condescending, impatient, pharisaical dismissal of the illiterate mass of mankind, nor that manufactured, mooing awe for an equally manufactured Little or Common Man, that disfigures so much contemporary writing….
Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
When William Carlos Williams died we knew that his entire work was now given into our hands and that we should have to make what we could of it. He had spent his life trying to bring new things into the world, poet and obstetrician, to give exact names to things long obscured under old misappellations. Now the work was over, if not done. We had the impression that the work would persist as a moral force in the world, that it would be an inspiration to young writers, and yet that it was incomplete. It would not have been completed even if he had lived many more years. Already, he had written far too much, too many poems dashed off on the assumption that anything is a poem if you say it is. Williams lived by profusion, often by waste: he corrected one poem by writing another. He thought that if one were a poét, the genuine article, anything that came from one's typewriter would be poetic. The result is that while some of his poems are miraculously fresh and true, very few of them have the finality of, say, Eliot's early poems, or Tate's. In Williams the relation between one poem and another, like the relation between language and perception, is based on the assumption that, over the course of a long life, the hidden unity will emerge. This is what we mean when we say that he trusted his own magic: he was like a witch doctor, he never knew how the magic worked, but he was always confident that it would. Thinking of his common style we think of a river insecure in its banks: failure must be treated gently because it is the defect of his quality. So we respond to his sincerity when we hear his cry…. We are often goaded into saying that Williams's failures, because they are so rich in stance and intention, are worth more than the successes of lesser men, but this goes too far. One day we shall have to separate the grain from the chaff and gird ourselves to throw the chaff away….
I often think that Williams is best understood as a grammarian; skilled in reading the signs. He had no interest in the kind of thing that interested Stevens: philosophy, ontology, epistemology, gorgeous nonsense of the mind; but he was engrossed in history, because he thought of history as signs, footprints, tracks in the mud, proof that someone has lived there. He was much closer to Davy Crockett than to Bergson, Berkeley, or Plato: one never thought of him as a suitable correspondent for Jean Wahl or Paul Weiss. When he saw a footprint he had no interest in the meaning of the experience as knowledge, perception, vision, or even truth: he just wanted to find the foot. If he saw a blackbird, he had no interest in the thirteen ways in which Stevens saw it: one way was enough, given reasonable lucidity. This is to say that Williams was a moralist, not a philosophic poet. If he was a little weak in consecutive thought, the reason was that he believed the pure reasoning powers had been in office too long; besides, his own mind worked best by pointing to things. This is what gives In the American Grain its remarkable animation. These things were done, Williams is constantly saying, and if we can only understand why they were done and the spirit in which they were done and the expense of that spirit, we can probably begin to understand ourselves. Conrad speaks, in a letter, of the silence of fact: Williams understood that silence, and listened to it; he wrote thousands of words, but he never thought them more important than fact….
Williams set out to write the moral history of his country: he needed a certain language. Merely to arrange a duel with Europe was not enough. It has been said that he never gave up fighting the War of Independence. True: hence his devotion to such writers as Freneau, Poe, and Whitman. Sometimes he writes a belligerent, noisy prose, like Melville in the essay on Hawthorne, because no fight is ever finally won. But he was not a chauvinist….
The core, the root, the source: this is the concern of In the American Grain, many of the essays, Paterson, the short stories, the novel White Mule. The people of Paterson move around, without understanding, inarticulate, because they do not understand their origin. Williams is concerned to show that the roots, understood, give new life. This is why he went to the unacademic bother of resuscitating Columbus, Cortez, the Mayflower, the founding of Quebec, Aaron Burr; why he took to the inspired cribbing of Cotton Mather, Franklin's Information to Those who would Remove to America, William Nelson's History of the City of Paterson and the County of Passaic. The same reason sent him to James Otis, Patrick Henry, William Bartram, Crévecoeur, Jefferson, Washington, wherever he could find the American spirit in human action, in men from his own time like Alfred Stieglitz…. Williams, in poems, essays, fiction, letters, has undertaken to provide a grammar of American culture; American because he is American, a man with a stake in the country, not because he thinks America is better than Athens or Rome. If the grammar seems incomplete, the reason is, I suggest, that it lacks a religious dimension. Put Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture beside Williams's grammar and the point is made. But Williams's achievement remains heroic in its dedication, its energy, its largesse….
Williams's best poems delight the mind because they show the continuing possibility of grace, delicacy, even when the materia poetica is ordinary. These poems offer a language, at its best, lithe, vivid, close to the contour of speech. They choose the living world for text, as Yeats said of Synge. So we read them as we read Chaucer, Wyatt, Fulke Greville, Jonson, Swift, Crabbe, Clough, Pound. But Williams, who was prepared to learn from anyone, needed someone nearer home; Whitman, who would sustain him in the belief that American speech constituted a new language, American as distinct from English and sometimes as opposed to English….
The thesis of Williams's poetry, implicit in the instinct, is that the living world, despite much subversive evidence, is still a reliable text. These poems hold out for a mode of life in which consciousness, being, action, and suffering are mutually sustaining terms; not rivals. Or if any one of them is to be deemed primus, it is primus inter pares: as action is first in the life of a man like Herbert Clark, Williams's friend and hero, who devoted his entire energy to eliminate the yellow fever mosquito in the Central American jungle.
Denis Donoghue, "Williams, a Redeeming Language," in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 180-93.
The first paradox that strikes us when we look back at the whole poetic career of Dr. William Carlos Williams … is that the voice we hear in the poetry is almost always wholly romantic, as Wallace Stevens said more than thirty years ago; but when the poet tells us what he intends, and what he thinks poetry is, the formulas he falls back on are generally as antiromantic as Eliot's and Pound's. The second paradox is that the man behind the voice we hear in the poetry, as we come to know him through his autobiography, his letters, and his comments on his own career, is likely to strike us as characterized chiefly by his simplicity, honesty, and openness; yet he produced a body of poetic work and poetic opinion so complex, various, and self-contradictory that no single generalization about it is valid for all of it. A third paradox is that this poet whose most sympathetic critics—including R. P. Blackmur, Wallace Stevens again, and, especially, Randall Jarrell—do not think him a clear abstract thinker, prided himself particularly on his role as a theorist of poetry….
When all the paradoxes are added up, we see that even the method of paradox fails to do justice to the man and the work at once. But to live with Williams' work, all of it, for any considerable time is to come to feel a unity which partially defies any simple formulation into statement.
Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 369-86.
Webster Schott has edited an important book. Imaginations brings together five early volumes Williams published between 1920 and 1932: Kora in Hell, Spring and All, The Great American Novel, The Descent of Winter, A Novelette and Other Prose….
Schott, in brief but balanced and informative introductions, sees the unity of Williams's work as lying in the poet's early attempts to define and exercise the imagination, without which, as Williams says again and again, we might as well number ourselves among the dead. At the same time Schott realizes that the idea of imagination unifies the five books only emotionally….
What we witness in Imaginations is the battle for pure form, for meaning indistinguishable from form, for a new poetry characterized by an imaginative leap that is itself almost beyond definition….
Our words have become clichés, and the poet's only recourse is to give them back to themselves, to free them, to place them in new, more local contexts. They need new forces. They have to be freed from the conventions of logic, personal association, memory, traditional form and genre….
It is a matter of our survival to see things as they are. And it is, to Williams, a matter of the highest imagination, the most sublime intelligence, to see something new, to make something new. He found no contradiction here. To see the object as it is, in its own existence, is to see it anew…. Imaginative perception is synonymous with salvation….
[But] never must we think that the imaginative leap is a flight from reality. Just the opposite is true. The modern artist has to strike to the bone of the thing itself, to its essential "thingness."…
Also, Williams is an "organic" poet, as these five books attest. He sings the praises of inspiration and has faith that the form one of his works finally achieves, if he has the genius to allow his words to free themselves, to dance, will be the right and only form….
Life, for Williams, would not stand still enough to be true to systems of logic. The poetry of thought was artificial and, therefore, dead….
What is it that we demand from our poets? This, I suppose, is the primary question these five early Williams volumes pose for us. The poet is insistent, telling us that the world does not have room for both "conventional" and "new" poets. The former can lead us only to death, hell, and winter; the latter point the way to life, heaven, spring. The imagination, he argues, is our means to a dynamic existence. What is necessary is cleavage—from the past, from the mind and its rote drudgery, and images of cleavage abound in the poems and prose of Imaginations. Williams here has written primarily to destroy, feeling that life and art have become not only superficial and meaningless, but cancerous, deadly. The reader of Imaginations is likely himself to come away with mixed feelings. Much here is unquestionably brilliant, but often the patients, the volumes themselves as manifestations of all that they argue, seem to die of such radical cures.
William Heyen, "The Poet's Leap Into Reality," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 1, 1970; used with permission), August 1, 1970, pp. 21-4.
By collecting Kora in Hell, Spring and All, The Great American Novel, The Descent of Winter and A Novelette and Other Prose into one volume, New Directions enables us to follow the development of the man who wrote Paterson. These books are, in varying measure of completeness, literature in their own right. They are also the very sustained and serious effort of a major writer to see where he is and where he must go. The direction he finds during these years is the one he follows for the rest of his life. His later stocktakings deal largely with his changing grasp of means. Imaginations works with definitions of purpose which are crucial to his future achievement.
The effort engages him in finding out what he means by clarity. Confronting his world, he sees only confusion and chaos….
The writing of Imaginations strengthens [Williams] in a belief that possibilities for cultural renewal and health lie in, and can be nurtured by, the same environment as that which victimizes and warps people. He comes to believe that systems of aesthetic order which ignore this environment are bound to fail, offering at best a "soft second light of dreaming" to escape from reality. He sees and celebrates in Imaginations the vitality in the disorderly lives of the poor. His drive throughout these books is to identify the springs of this vitality, and to make it available to his writing….
He is not seeking self-realization and freedom at the expense of form—another charge he sometimes faces, and one to which Imaginations vigorously gives the lie. The freedom is essential to the discovery of new patterns, and in working to achieve it Williams often sounds joyfully destructive. But he is also working to make new forms: he undercuts traditional notions of structure in order to arrive at a new basis for faith in form….
The work done in Imaginations is … the movement of his mind toward fuller understanding of what he must do, how it may be done, and why the poet must take upon himself the work of redemption. But the books are more than his instructions to himself: they explore possible ways of meeting the needs which he is simultaneously defining. He experiments with free association and juxtaposition, with contrasts between one style and another, with poems which continue a prose insight on another plane, with parody and imitation. In such experiments, he is looking for ways to make out of the open-ended sequentiality of life an art which will not deny or palliate actuality but will use and imitate formally his contacts with its rhythms. Further, he works for a kind of contact which we recognize now as a major direction in the development of modern literature; we owe our recognition of it partly to him.
Ann Parsons, "The Art of Process," in Nation, November 23, 1970, pp. 534-36.
[William Carlos Williams] meant by the Imagination a hard-to-place zone where mental clarities occur: You no more experience clarities in your head than you experience vision in your eye. Where is the seen world? It is beyond the eye, in a space you have learned to create. And where, likewise, is the thought world? Ah, in the Imagination….
[There] is almost no Williams criticism, despite much appreciative writing. It is almost impossible for critics not to be talking about something the words derive from: a yard with a red wheelbarrow (what to say about that?) or the tapestry in the Cloisters, or the geography of Paterson, N.J. When the London Times stated (Jan 7, 1965) that Paterson was "an imaginary town in New Jersey which Williams created as his symbol of America," it was righter than it knew, though it didn't know how to go on.
Hugh Kenner, "Red Wheelbarrow Revisited," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 12, 1970, pp. 22-4.
William Carlos [Williams'] influence has not only lasted, but has grown, until it surpasses that of T. S. Eliot in the years between the wars….
Williams was the master of the put-on. He used to tell people that Kora in Hell was a collection of notes he'd taken on his grandmother's conversation, when of course it is a kind of parody of the Vita Nuova of Dante. In his later years he went around on the college poetry-reading circuit telling the professors and the students that he had made a revolutionary prosodic discovery, the expandable foot in which you could have as many syllables or accents as you wished. Everybody took notes and Bill's prehensile foot has become a standard tool of academic exegesis…. Williams is the greatest prosodist of his generation because he is the greatest poet. Perhaps he really did believe in prehensile feet, and worked entirely by ear, but it's extremely doubtful….
In Paterson, Williams takes over from Pound and Marianne Moore the collage of extended materials; long passages of slightly altered prose, letters, and documents, and combines them with all the poetic forms he had developed in a lifetime of exploration. Spring and All and Kora in Hell, snapshots like "The Attic Which Is Desire," written in the heyday of American modernism, are forecasts of Paterson, but they are only fragmentary anticipations. Paterson is an extraordinary synthesis, a profoundly personal portrait of a man as the nexus of a community, which expands out from him and contracts into him like the ripples from a cast stone moving in both directions simultaneously. It is also what we used to call a philosophical epic, but it is not a revery like Zukofsky's A but a dramatic narrative. Also it is distinguished by its high degree of integration…. Williams went on writing Paterson to the end of his life, but the poem has a beginning, a middle, and a long ending cadence, and it really is a philosophical epic, although its overt philosophizing is rather childlike. Its implicit philosophy, the pedal point that sustains all its manifold melodies and recitatives, is a profound philosophy indeed—"It is the thing itself which is transcendent."
Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, pp. 75-83.
There is nothing so complex as Williams' early "imagist" simplicity, and nothing so dangerously alluring to the philosophical critic. The poems require little interpretation, but invite extensive theorizing, and the most convincing theories so far constructed—including Williams' own—develop primarily through complex paradox. It seems pointless, for instance, to argue that Williams creates a completely objective vision, without exploring the ways in which it may also be completely subjective. Only through such abstractions can the critic approach this highly concrete poetry, but abstractions about Williams inevitably suggest their opposites. For this reason, and because of Williams' own semi-mystical statements … there is a strong critical temptation to see the poetry as operating in an essentially unlogical realm. Often it seems that Williams rejects the dualistic and analytic logic of Western thought and that his poetry, like the implicitly monistic Eastern haiku which centrally influenced the imagists, evokes transcendental visions which are not only not paraphrasable but also not ultimately susceptible to analysis…. [But] Williams is seldom quite so far from traditional dualistic logic as [some critics] (and often Williams himself) [suggest]. If his poetry achieves the effect of revelation, it does so not through the transcendental evocativeness of the haiku, not through any breaking down of barriers between things, but through a rather surprisingly rigorous process of logical analysis….
Williams seeks a reality of essences, not surfaces, and he creates it through analysis and deliberate artificiality…. He conveys an exultation close to mystical, but grounded in immediate fact, a mysticism of particulars. This is the power that defines Williams' greatest poetry, his ability to describe a simple world in simple language, and through the logic and purity of his vision to create such genuine flowering.
Anthony Libby, "'Claritas': William Carlos Williams' Epiphanies," in Criticism, Winter, 1972, pp. 22-31.