Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5415
Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
Williams, a brilliant American poet, as well as a distinguished editor, novelist, playwright, and essayist, also practiced medicine throughout his career. His devotion to the individual expression of his art led him to the free verse style and evocation of personal experience reflected in Paterson ,...
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Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
Williams, a brilliant American poet, as well as a distinguished editor, novelist, playwright, and essayist, also practiced medicine throughout his career. His devotion to the individual expression of his art led him to the free verse style and evocation of personal experience reflected in Paterson, perhaps his most famous work. Striving to create in a uniquely "American" idiom, Williams endeavored to produce a poetry which at once reflected the personal and the universal. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5.)
The early sixteenth-century French or Flemish Unicorn tapestries which now hang in the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in New York City contribute to the subject matter of Book V [of Paterson] and provide a symbolic depth which the poem had previously lacked…. Similarly, the Unicorn tapestries provide an analogy for understanding Williams' arrangement of the material in Paterson. That is to say, the weavers' interlacing of colored threads to form a design is analogous to the ways in which Williams develops his themes by the interlacing and juxtaposition of events, images, phrases, and other "things" which he had amassed for his long poem. In his essay "Caviar and Bread Again" Williams describes the poet's function in terms of weaving: "he [the poet] has been the fortunate one who has gathered all the threads together that have been spun for many centuries before him and woven them into his design." (pp. 288-89)
There are basically two kinds of interlace in Paterson. The first can be described generally as the interweaving of originally or logically continuous, or of basically homogenous, material (such as newspaper items or historical excerpts) throughout a section or sections of the poem. (p. 291)
The interweaving of excerpts from Cress's letters throughout the first two books of Paterson provides [an] example of this type of interlace. (p. 296)
The interlacing of fragments from Cress's letters accomplishes basically three things. In the first place, Williams is able to sustain a linear rhythm throughout the first two books as the reader gradually learns what is on Cress's mind. Secondly, the technique of interlace also creates an acentric, simultaneous effect as beginnings, endings, and incongruent materials are juxtaposed. Finally, the juxtapositions which are created confer new significance upon the letters and also upon the material with which the letter interacts upon the page.
The second and most dominant type of interlace in Paterson is the continual process of cross-referencing which occurs throughout the poem. It is based primarily on a number of narrative sequences, events, or images, initially related in full, elements of which are later used to amplify and illuminate certain aspects of the poem. The later references bring to mind the original event and as a result that event, as well as the context in which the reference now occurs, acquires an added dimension and must be continuously re-evaluated. (pp. 298-99)
Paterson's struggle to interpret the language of the falls, his search for a "redeeming language," is the major motif of the poem. Therefore,… the premature deaths of Cumming and Patch, which are intermittently referred to or subtly evoked throughout the first four books of Paterson, contribute to the elucidation and development of the poem's major motif…. (p. 300)
Throughout the first four books of the poem, Paterson is drawn toward the idea of jumping into the falls. The references to Sam Patch and Mrs. Cumming provide elicit reminders of Paterson's possible fate…. In light of the numerous drownings throughout the poem it is significant that at the end of Book IV a man walks out of the water, indicating that at least a key to a redeeming language has been found through the enactment of the four books of Paterson: "But he escapes, in the end, as I have said."
The interlacing of references to Cumming and Patch throughout the poem induces in the reader not only a continuous reappraisal of these two episodes but also a recognition of the poem's development…. [The] implications of Paterson's thoughts or actions are often revealed without the necessity of authorial commentary by juxtaposing them with references to Cumming and Patch. Williams expects his readers to keep the poem's events in mind so that even a slight reference to a previous occurence interlaces it with the present event, thereby creating the larger design of the poem. This continual process of cross-referencing also contributes further to the creation of a simultaneous effect and at the same time suggests the circularity of time. (pp. 300-02)
Paterson's structure is not simply one of theme and variation wherein a theme is stated and then examples are presented to support the theme, although the poem has often been described as primarily operating in this manner. Rather, the poem is a "field of action" in which meanings and themes arise and gradually emerge through the complex interaction of its materials—through the process and enactment of the poem. (p. 302)
The use and presentation of material in Paterson contributes to the creation of the world of Paterson, just as our apprehension of any city or person is only arrived at through the selection, arrangement, and recollection of information which comes our way in a nonrational, often random sequence. As we read Paterson we gradually inhabit the area of a city. Episodes, fragments, ideas, and images appear, disappear, and recur in constantly shifting patterns. The interlacing and juxtaposition of these things reveal the relevance of the separate elements while simultaneously creating a complex totality whose parts are interrelated—city, man, and poem. (p. 303)
Margaret Lloyd Bollard, "The Interlace Element in 'Paterson'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1975, pp. 288-304.
Even before he finished the last part of Paterson as he had originally conceived it—with its four-part structure—Williams was already thinking of moving his poem into a fifth book. The evidence for such a rethinking of the quadernity of Paterson exists in the manuscripts for Book IV, for there Williams, writing for himself, considered extending the field of the poem to write about the river in a new dimension: the Passaic as archetype, as the River of Heaven. That view of his river, however, was in 1950 premature, for Williams still had to follow the Passaic out into the North Atlantic, where, dying, it would lose its linear identity in the sea of eternity, what Williams called the sea of blood. The processive mode of Paterson I-IV achieved, however, Williams returned to the untouched key: the dimension of timelessness, the world of the imagination, the apocalyptic moment, what he referred to as the eighth day of creation. (p. 305)
[The] apocalyptic mode is not really new for Williams in the sense that basically new strategies were developed for the late poems. Williams had tried on the approach to the apocalyptic moment any number of times; so, for example, he destroyed the entire world, imaginatvely, at the beginning of Spring and All to begin all over again, in order that his few readers might see the world as new. And in Paterson III, the city is once again destroyed in the imagination by the successive inroads of wind, fire, and flood, necessary purgings before Dr. Paterson can discover the scarred beauty, the beautiful black Kora, in the living hell of the modern city. These repeated decreations are necessary, in terms of Williams' psychopoetics, in order to come at that beauty locked in the imagination. "To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force," Williams had insisted in Spring and All. That single force was the imagination and this was its book. But Spring and All was only one of its books or, better, perhaps, all of Williams' books are one book, and all are celebrations of the erotic/creative power of the imagination.
What is new about the late poems is Williams' more relaxed way of saying and with it a more explicit way of seeing the all-pervasive radiating pattern at the core of so much that Williams wrote. In fact, all of Paterson and Asphodel and much else that Williams wrote, from The Great American Novel (which finds its organizing principle in the final image of the machine manufacturing shoddy products from cast-off materials, the whole crazy-quilt held together with a stitched-in design) to Old Doc Rivers (which constructs a cubist portrait of an old-time doctor from Paterson by juggling patches of secondhand conversations, often unreliable, with old hospital records), to The Clouds (which tries to come at Williams' sense of loss for his father by juxtaposing images of clouds with fragmentary scenes culled from his memory), in all of these works and in others Williams presents discrete objects moving "from frame to frame without perspective/touching each other on the canvas" to "make up the picture." In this quotation Williams is describing the technique of the master of the Unicorn tapestries, but it serves to describe perfectly his own characteristic method of presentation. (p. 306)
[What] marks poems like Asphodel and Paterson V as different from his earlier poetry is that Williams has come out on the other side of the apocalyptic moment. He stands, now, at a remove from the processive nature of the earlier poetry, in a world where linear time—the flow of the river—has given way to the figure of the poet standing above the river or on the shore: in either case, he is removed from the violent flux, from the frustrations of seeing the river only by fits and starts. Now the whole falls into a pattern: Paterson in Book V is seen now by Troilus/Williams from the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park, the line of the river flowing quietly toward the sea, the city itself visible as a pattern of shades, a world chiming with the world of the Unicorn tapestries, the world of art which has survived. From this heavenly world, the old poet can allow himself more room for ruminations, for quiet meditation. It is a world which still contains many of the jagged patterns of Williams' own world of the early fifties: the Rosenberg trial, the cold war, Mexican prostitutes and G.I.s stationed in Texas, letters from old friends and young poets. But all of these are viewed with a detached philosophical air, as parts of a pattern which are irradiated by the energy of the imagination. For it is Kora, who, revealed in the late work, glows at the center of the poetry, extending her light generously and tolerantly "in all directions equally." It is Kora again who, like the Beautiful Thing of Paterson III, illuminates the poem, but it is a Kora apprehended now quite openly as icon, the source of permanent radiance: the fructifying image of the woman, the anima so many artists have celebrated in a gesture which Williams characterizes as a figure dancing satyrically, goat-footed, in measure before the female of the imagination. Now, in old age, Williams too kneels before the woman who remains herself frozen, a force as powerful and as liberating as Curie's radium, supplying light and warmth to all the surrounding details, tolerantly, democratically.
The icon presupposes a kind of paradise, or, conversely, most paradises are peopled at least at strategic points with figures approaching iconography. Dante for one felt this. It is no accident, then, that, as Williams moves into that geographical region of the imagination where the river of heaven flows, he will find other artists who have also celebrated the light. And there, in the place of the imagination expressly revealed, will be the sensuous virgin pursued by the one-horned beast, the unicorn/artist, himself become an icon in this garden of delights. Three points demand our attention, then: 1) the movement toward the garden of the imagination, where it is always spring; 2) the encounter with the beautiful thing, Kora, the sensuous virgin to whom the artist pays homage; 3) the figure of the artist, both the all-pervasive creator who contains within himself the garden and the virgin and also the willing victim, a figure moving through the tapestry, seeking his own murder and rebirth in the imagination. (pp. 307-08)
Williams discovered … that the old masters had had their own way of transcending the idiocy of the single, fixed perspective. Like the cubists with their multiple perspectives, their discrete planes apprehended simultaneously, the old masters had also moved their subjects outside the fixed moment. They were able, therefore, to free themselves to present their figures in all of their particularity both within a specific moment and at the same time as universal types or patterns, moving frequently to the level of icon. This shift in perspective helps to explain the similarity (and difference) between the achievement, say, of a volume like Spring and All, and the later poems: the analogue, except in terms of scope, is between the cubist perspectives of a still life by Juan Gris and the multiple perspectives of the Unicorn tapestries centered around the central icons of the virgin and the unicorn. (p. 309)
In orginally conceiving of Paterson in four parts, Williams had, as he pointed out, added Pan to the embrace of the Trinity, much as he felt Dante had unwittingly done in supplying a "fourth unrhymed factor, unobserved" to the very structure of the Commedia. (This factor appears if we note the creative dissonance developed by the unrhymed ending reappearing in any four lines after the initial four.) The world of Paterson I-IV is very much a world in flux, a world in violent, haphazard process, where objects washing up or crashing against the surfaces of the man/city Paterson are caught up into the pattern of the poem even as they create in turn the pattern itself. So such things as the chance appearance of a nurse who was discovered to have a case of Salmonella montevideo, written up into a case history in the Journal of the American Medical Association for July 29, 1948, or a letter from a young unknown poet from Paterson named Allen Ginsberg, or a hasty note scribbled by Ezra Pound from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, letters from Marcia Nardi or Fred Miller or Josephine Herbst or Edward Dahlberg or Alva Turner find their way into the action painting of the poem. The lines too are jagged, hesitant, coiling back on themselves, for the most part purposely flat, only in "isolate flecks" rising to the level of a lyricism which seems without artificiality or undue self-consciousness, a language shaped from the mouths of Polish mothers, but heightened.
The first four books of Paterson are, really, in a sense, the creation of the first six days, a world caught up very much in the rapid confusion of its own linear, processive time, where the orphic poet like the carnival figure of Sam Patch must keep his difficult balance or be pulled under by the roar of the language at the brink of the descent into chaos every artist encounters in the genesis of creation. What Williams was looking for instead in a fifth book, after resting from his unfolding creation, was to see the river at the heart of his poem as the ourobouros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, the eternal river, the river of heaven. This meant, of course, that time itself would have to change, and a new time meant a relatively new way of measuring, meant a more secure, a more relaxed way of saying. That was a question, primarily, of form, and the emphasis on the variable foot which the critics went after all through the fifties and sixties like hounds after an elusive hare was in large part a strategy of Williams' own devising. But it was an absolutely necessary strategy for him, because just here the real revolution in poetry would have to occur: here with the river, metaphor for the poetic line itself. (pp. 310-11)
It is she, Kora, around whom all of Paterson V radiates, and, in the tapestries, she appears again with the tamed unicorn amidst a world of flowers where Williams had always felt at home. In a sense, Marianne Moore's real toad in an imaginary garden finds its correlative here in Williams' icons of the virgin/whore situated among "the sweetsmelling primose/growing close to the ground," "the slippered flowers/crimson and white,/balanced to hang on slender bracts," forget-me-nots, dandelions, love-in-a-mist, daffodils and gentians and daisies. We have seen this woman before: she is the woman in Asphodel caring for her flowers in winter, in hell's despite, another German Venus, his wife. Which, then, is the real, Williams' wife seen or his icon of his wife? And his wife seen now, at this moment, or his wife remembered, an icon released by the imagination from time, ageless, this woman containing all women? Rather, it is the anima, the idea of woman, with its tenuous balance between the woman as virgin and the woman as whore, the hag language whored and whored again but transformed by the poet-lover's desire into something virginal and new, the woman and the language translated to the eighth day of creation, assuming a new condition of dynamic permanence. In this garden, the broken, jagged random things of Williams' world are caught up in a pattern, a dance where the poem, like the tapestries themselves, can be possessed a thousand thousand times, and yet remain as fresh and as virginal as on the day they were conceived, like Venus, from the head of their creator.
The woman is of course all-pervasive in Williams' poems. What is different here in the long late poems is the more explicit use of Kora as the symbol, in fact, the central icon in his late poems. (p. 313)
Williams has made that consummate metapoem [Paterson V] far more explicit for several reasons, one comes to realize: first, because no critic, not even the most friendly and the most astute, had even begun to adequately sound the real complexities of the poem by 1956, ten years after Paterson I appeared. (Indeed an adequate critical vocabulary for the kind of thing Williams was doing was not even attempted by the critics and reviewers.) Secondly, Williams felt the need to praise his own tradition, his own pantheon of artists, to pay tribute to those others who had also helped to celebrate the light. Williams would show that, on the eighth day of creation, all of the disparate, jagged edges of Paterson could, as he has said in his introduction, multiply themselves and so reduce themselves to unity, to a dance around the core of the imagination.
In the dreamlike worlds of Asphodel and Paterson V, filled as they are with the radiant light of the imagination, all disparate images revolve around the virgin/whore, including the "male of it," the phallic artist who is both earthly Pan and Unicorn, that divine lover, who dances contrapuntally against his beloved. Williams, perhaps sensing that the old, crude fight against the clerks of the great tradition had been sufficiently won to let him relax, chooses now to celebrate a whole pantheon of old masters in Asphodel and again in Paterson V.
And if the presences of Bosch, Breughel, and the master of the Unicorn tapestries are the central presences in the three late long poems, still, there is room to celebrate a host of other artists who dance in attendance on the woman as well. We can do little more at this point than enumerate some of them: Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the lovely prostitutes among whom he lived; Gauguin, celebrating his sorrowful reclining nude in The Loss of Virginity; the anonymous Inca sculptor who created the statuette of a woman at her bath 3000 years ago; the 6000-year-old cave paintings of bison; Cézanne for his patches of blue and blue; Daumier, Picasso, Juan Gris, Gertrude Stein, Kung; Albrecht Dürer for his Melancholy; Audubon, Ben Shahn, and Marsden Hartley.
We come, then, finally, to our third point: the figure of the artist himself, the male principle incessantly attracted to and moving toward the female of it: the anima. And here we are confronted with the comic and the grotesque: the figure of Sam Patch or the hydrocephalic dwarf or the Mexican peasant in Eisenstein's film, and, in the late poems, the portrait of the old man, all of these finding their resolution and comic apotheosis in the captive, one-horned unicorn, a figure, like the figure of the satyr erectus, of the artist's phallic imagination. There is, too, Breughel's self-portrait, as Williams thought, recreated in the first of Williams' own pictures taken from Breughel, and imitated in a cubist mode…. And, again, there is the head of the old smiling Dane, the Tollund Man, seen in a photograph; it is a portrait of a man, a sacrificial victim, strangled as part of some forgotten spring rite, the features marvelously preserved intact by the tanning effects of the bogs from which he had been exhumed after twenty centuries of strong silence, that 2000-year-old face frozen into something like a half-smile. That face chimes with Breughel's face as both chime with the strange, half-smiling face of Bosch peering out from his strange world where order has given way to an apocalyptic nightmare.
But the male remains the lesser figure of the two in Williams. As he told Theodore Roethke in early 1950, "All my life I have hated my face and wanted to smash it."… He was willing, however, to let the icon of the unicorn, the one-horned beast, stand. And he let it stand because it represented the necessary male complement to the female of it, the object desired, the beautiful thing: the language in its virginal state. No one but the virgin can tame the unicorn, the legend goes, and Williams had, like other artists before and after him, given himself up to that elusive beauty. Like Hart Crane in another mode, he had given himself up to be murdered, to offer himself not, as Pound had, to the pale presences of the past, androgenetically, but for the virgin, Kora. And yet, there was a way out, a hole at the bottom of the pit for the artist, in the timeless world of the imagination, the enchanted circle, the jeweled collar encircling the unicorn's neck. In the final tapestry of the series, the Unicorn kneels within the fence paling, (pomegranates bespeak fertility and the presence of Kora), at ease among the flowers here with him forever on the eight day of creation, a world evoked for Williams, from the imagination, the source from which even St. John must have created his own eighth day in his own time.
What was of central importance to Williams was not the artist, then, whose force is primarily directional and whose presence is in any event everywhere, but the icon which motivates the artist and urges him on: the icon of Kora, the image of the beloved. And this figure appears, of course, everwhere in Williams' writing, assuming many faces, yet always, finally one. Asked in his mid-seventies what it was that kept him writing, Williams answered that it was all for the young woman whose eyes he had caught watching him from out in some audience as he read his poems…. With them Williams places his own icon of the lovely virgin. In that world of art, in that garden where spring is a condition of permanence, where the earthly garden chimes perfectly with the garden of paradise, the eye of the unicorn is still and still intent upon the woman. (pp. 315-17)
Paul Mariani, "The Eight Day of Creation: William Carlos Williams' Late Poems," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1975, pp. 305-18.
Williams felt himself engaged in a struggle to break Pound's and Eliot's leadership of the reshaping of modern poetry. Towards Pound, who was Williams's mentor, hectoring and generous friend, and cautionary symbol of the dangers of the poet as esthete, Williams fluctuated between fascinated warmth and hostility. He ridiculed Pound's arty posturings and enjoyed the brilliant vaudeville of Pound's cultural blasts, but his poems were not much influenced by Pound's enthusiasm for Cavalcanti, the Seafarer, or Li-po: he fished in the Passaic, not the Yangtze, for the materials of his art. Pound was a negative model, a mental vagabond, who proved what a blessing it was to have a vocation apart from poetry. (pp. 1-2)
Williams's strength … derived from his refusal to repudiate the American experience, however ugly and impoverished it seemed to him at moments; he was "of the people, not above them."…
Eliot's glacial manner, as if he were the exclusive custodian of poetic tradition, nettled Williams, who claimed—it was partly an act—he was, by contrast, a yokel, an upstart democratic crow, a village explainer.
Nor was Eliot's expatriation or religious conservatism, however based in personal agony, likely to appease Williams's defensive wrath. The impact of "The Waste Land" he often described not only as a personal defeat, but as a catastrophe of the magnitude of an atomic bomb. Eliot, he moaned, "gave the poem back to the academics." "I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I'm sure it did." This melodramatic language is partly just sour grapes, the personal pique of an insecure poet who did not forgive easily, and partly an inquest into Williams's salvaging operation that turned him more determinedly to his "homemade world." Ironically, Williams became the authority for the poets of the fifties, sixties and seventies that Eliot was for the poets of earlier decades. And like Eliot he must bear some responsibility for mischief created in his name: the fetish of spontaneity and formless "plain-spoken" verse.
Williams's poems carry the unmistakable imprint: Made in America. That was not always the case. Williams's first stumbling steps as a poet were utterly conventional….
At his own pace Williams refined his techniques, seeking to imbue his poems with the "tactile qualities of words," to step over "from feeling to the imaginative object." Williams developed slowly and circuitously….
Williams did his best work in the 1950's, wedding feeling and form in the masterful syntheses of such poems as "Pictures From Brueghel," "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," and "The Desert Music."
In these last works Williams made use of supple, three-line units of poetry (tercets), not as a gimmick, but as an instrument to evoke, like Peter Quince at the clavier, the delicate timbres of love and death, to blend the motions of dance with a mature, wondering talk on the "miracle of reunion."…
Throughout his career Williams wrote short stories and novels. They were not sidelights but important supplements to his pioneering efforts to contrive an American idiom. His patients and fellow citizens were handy subjects, and he recorded their speech and tribulations with brutal candor and ingenuous tenderness….
Williams was no Chekhov, that other beloved doctor-artist. His stories and the "Stecher" trilogy—novels about an immigrant family trying to endure the raw, exploitative demands of American life and push their way into the middle class—don't have the gloss of high art or the carved grotesque humor of Flannery O'Connor's stories (they are too discursive for that), but [Robert] Coles is surely correct in his judgment [in "William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America"] that Williams is "a novelist who has a sharp eye for that intersection of the private and the public which determines the moral character of human beings: how they combine their obligations to the demands of the world with their sense of what they want for themselves and those they call their own."
So time and the fickle spin of fashion has caught up with Williams and vindicated his experiments and dogged career. (p. 2)
Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1975.
[Williams] listened to Pound, but was never really his follower, even in the years of "Imagisme." As time passed and Williams became more certain of his role and direction as a poet, he submitted less and less to his friend's arbitration of literary tastes and models. Pound criticized Williams for his "lack of education."… Williams—not always patiently—observed, diagnosed, and made up his mind about his friend and himself. His responses to Pound were often ambivalent, and he recognized early, and to a certain extent counted on, Pound's intellectual opposition to his own stance. Despite ample provocation on both sides, the two inevitably stopped short of open warfare. (p. 384)
Certainly they remained friends, if friendship is the appropriate term for such a complex and ambivalent relation. But Williams was never properly a part of "Imagisme" or of the literary and artistic movement which was beginning to revolve around his friend in London during the year before the outbreak of the First World War….
The Pound Era did not directly shape Williams' work or aims; rather it was almost exactly at the moment of that era's inception that Williams' poetry and intentions began to stand out in contradistinction to his self-exiled friend's. The existence of Ezra Pound was to remain a strong and pressing consideration for Williams throughout his life. He clearly understood, however, well before T. S. Eliot came on the scene, that his main chance as an artist lay in excelling, like Whitman, as an "honest reflex." This he did during the decades dominated by Pound's eccentric brilliance and Eliot's Waste Land, choosing bread over caviar to the end. (p. 406)
Geoffrey H. Movius, in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), September, 1976.
[The title of William Carlos Williams's poem "The World Contracted to a Recognizable Image"] is quite explicit and is bound up with what Williams says in the poem. The title leads us to expect a short, compact poem, or at least one in which each word carries much weight. Actually, the word "small" in the first line seems to echo the "contracted world" referred to in the title. The first stanza is typical of much of Williams's poetry: a rather plain, bare statement of something ordinary but containing an element of surprise. The poet tells us how, at the conclusion of an illness, his attention focused on a Japanese picture on the sickroom wall, but we wonder why this picture "filled [his] eye."
The first line of the second stanza increases our puzzlement: the picture struck the poet as idiotic. The second line helps clear up our puzzlement: the picture is idiotic but in the weakened condition he was in then it was all the poet recognized. In other words the picture assumed greater significance than it would normally have.
The whole of the second stanza actually deals with a complex intellectual, emotional and aesthetic process. At work in the first two lines is an "internalizing" of the picture which took place as it filled the poet's eye. The third line is the longest, the most complex, and the most important one in the poem. The wall, something confining which may stand for the indifferent, concrete, material world, was drawn into the picture. This turns the picture into a microcosm, "the world contracted to a recognizable image." (In this respect, it should be stressed that in Japanese art a picture often stands for a microcosm.) There is a fusion between the external, objective world and the world of representation. The picture may be idiotic—and so is the world, the poet seems to imply—but the important thing is that the "wall-world" come alive for the poet in that picture. The picture thus conveys a sense of life, of renewal, of recovery after illness, a feeling which is emphasized by the use of "clung" in the next line. The fly in the last line, then, would symbolize fragile, transient life to which the poet clings all the more because it is fragile. As in Blake's poem "The Fly," significance is imparted to something small, insignificant and short-lived, which, by the way, is in keeping with the tenets of Williams's poetry….
On a deeper level what the poet "clung to" "as to a fly" was the sudden illumination prompted by the fusion of the objective world and of the world of representation, which gave the poet a new perception of things; this imaginative leap gave him access to the world of form, of beauty, of art, something transient, evanescent which the poet tries to recapture through his poem.
Edmond Schraepen, "Williams's 'The World Contracted to a Recognizable Image'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1976 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Fall, 1976, p. 7.