Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
An influential American poet, Williams also wrote fiction and nonfiction. His works include Paterson and In the American Grain. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.
Paterson (Book I) seems to me the best thing William Carlos Williams has ever written; I read it seven or eight times, and ended lost in delight….
[Over] and above the organization of argument or exposition—the organization of Paterson is musical to an almost unprecedented degree: Dr. Williams introduces a theme that stands for an idea, repeats it over and over in varied forms, develops it side by side with two or three more themes that are being developed, recurs to it time and time again throughout the poem, and echoes it for ironic or grotesque effects in thoroughly incongruous contexts….
The subject of Paterson is: How can you tell the truth about things?—that is, how can you find a language so close to the world that the world can be represented and understood in it?…
There has never been a poem more American (though the only influence one sees in it is that of the river scene from Finnegans Wake); if the next three books are as good as this one, which introduces "the elemental character of the place," the whole poem will be the best very long poem that any American has written….
Williams' bad poems are usually rather winning machine-parts minus their machine, irrepressible exclamations about the weather of the world, interesting but more or less autonomous and irrelevant entries in a Lifetime Diary. But this is attractive….
The first thing one notices about Williams' poetry is how radically sensational and perceptual it is: "Say it! No ideas but in things." Williams shares with Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens a feeling that almost nothing is more important, more of a true delight, than the way things look. Reading their poems is one long shudder of recognition; their reproduction of things, in its empirical gaiety, its clear abstract refinement of presentation, has something peculiarly and paradoxically American about it—English readers usually talk about their work as if it had been produced by three triangles fresh from Flatland. All three of these poets might have used, as an epigraph for their poetry, that beautiful saying that it is nicer to think than to do, to feel than to think, but nicest of all merely to look….
Williams' poetry is more remarkable for its empathy, sympathy, its muscular and emotional identification with its subjects, than any modern poetry except Rilke's. When you have read Paterson you know for the rest of your life what it is like to be a waterfall; and what other poet has turned so many of his readers into trees?… Williams' knowledge of plants and animals, our brothers and sisters in the world, is surprising for its range and intensity; and he sets them down in the midst of the real weather of the world, so that the reader is full of an innocent lyric pleasure just in being out in the open, in feeling the wind tickling his skin….
Williams' 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. Williams loves, blames, and yells despairingly at the Little Men just as naturally and legitimately as Saint-Loup got angry at the servants: because he feels , not just says, that the differences between men are less important than their similarities—that he and you...
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and I, together, are the Little Men.
Williams has a real and unusual dislike of, distrust in, Authority; and the Father-surrogate of the average work of art has been banished from his Eden. His ability to rest (or at least to thrash happily about) in contradictions, doubts, and general guesswork, without ever climbing aboard any of the monumental certainties that go perpetually by, perpetually on time—this ability may seem the opposite of Whitman's gift for boarding every certainty and riding off into every infinite, but the spirit behind them is the same….
Williams' poems are full of imperatives, exclamations, trochees—the rhythms and dynamics of their speech are being insisted upon as they could not be in any prose. It is this insistence upon dynamics that is fundamental in Williams' reading of his own poems: the listener realizes with astonished joy that he is hearing a method of reading poetry that is both excellent—for these particular poems—and completely unlike anything he has ever heard before. About Williams' meters one remark might be enough, here: that no one has written more accomplished and successful free verse….
That Williams' poems are honest, exact, and original, that some of them are really good poems, seems to me obvious. But in concluding I had rather mention something even more obvious: their generosity and sympathy, their moral and human attractiveness.
Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 205-12, 215-26.
[William Carlos Williams] is remarkably alert to the subtler life of the senses: how it feels to be a growing thing of any kind, or to come into birth; how the freshness of the morning or the feel of a particular moment in a particular season impresses itself upon us; what impact the people glimpsed in myriad transitory situations have upon us at the moment of the event. This alertness is intimately related to his faith in the power of art to reveal the meaning of experienced reality and even as he says, 'to right all wrongs.'
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 113-14.
Has any other poet in American history been so actually useful, usable, and influential? How many beginning writers took Williams as their model: were encouraged to write because … Well, if that's poetry, I believe I might be able to write it, too! Surely his practice has opened up many people to poetry—to the potential poetry in themselves and in their everyday world—in a wholly exemplary way, converting the commonplace, the trivial, the traditionally "ugly" into poetry of a highly personal and a thoroughly public order….
James Dickey, "William Carlos Williams" (1964), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, pp. 191-92.
Until the last few years of his life William Carlos Williams was almost entirely neglected by the literary critics. Not only the academic critics, but the "little magazine" critics, too, acted, for the most part, as if he did not exist…. The young poets had all the while been reading Williams' poems, of course, and … [as] a result, Williams' importance as an influence in modern poetry grew until he became, in the late fifties, perhaps the greatest single force in American poetry. (Introduction, xi)
Williams has insisted, in prose theory as in poetic practice, upon the necessity for drawing the poem's materials from the familiar world, and in so doing he has turned frequently to the world of nature, and of flowers especially, for his particulars…. The unfortunate part of this view of Williams is that it is deceptive and even belittling, for these are only the paraphernalia of his poetic world, not its center. The true focus of his attentions is men…. What is deceptive about this anthropocentric world is that, like the other physical materials of his poems, his people are the ones he sees in the everyday world about him: he has not sought out the rare, the exotic, in the human realm any more than he has in the nonhuman. (pp. 3-4)
Underlying and informing all of Williams' work is his complex of ideas about the nature of art and art's relation to the well-being of both the individual and society. For in Williams' concept of the thing, art can have only one dedication: man. Art for Art's sake is for him an unintelligible statement, and art for the greater glory of God is unthinkable as all modes of formalized worship and religion are unthinkable; only for man's sake must art exist, but not merely as a testament to man's greatness or as diversion from the actual world. The spirit bearing it, its origin and its end, must be its intention for men's use. In his typically American way, Williams has worked against the American popular tradition that art is by definition useless—at best a luxury, at worst an escape from the pressures of actuality—and therefore separated from, and opposed to, the "practical" and the "useful." Rather, he makes of it the same [demand] that as a self-consciously pragmatic nation we would make of the "productive" disciplines: usefulness…. If a man is to fulfill himself as a unique being, it is only through the agency of art that he can do so. Art—and specifically the poem—is the usable means by which men may most fully realize their potential humanity: it is the means to self, a real identity, for men both as individuals and as members of the collective whole. (pp. 5-6)
[Whatever] in the poem does not deal with men directly, but presents the nonhuman—this will be an illumination of men too, for this is that physical, actual world, or part of it, in which they live. What cannot be too much stressed, therefore, is Williams' insistence on the poem's "sensuality." It is not a simply intellectual power that makes the poem for him an indispensable condition of life; it is … the poem's rootedness in the physical world of actuality. (p. 11)
One of the major difficulties in Williams' poems is … the masculine, harsh, at times almost brutal, directness of his language. In considering the things, the ideas, the emotions, the tempo of his world, showing the reader its frequent beauties-in-ugliness. Williams can use only the language available to him as he lives in that world. (p. 153)
Williams believes that the poet must "refresh" words by stripping away their conventional connotations and redirecting the reader's attention away from the haze of the purely ideational and back to the reality in and of the things represented, which have in themselves sufficient associational values. (p. 157)
If his poems often seem flat, they do so because the intellectual and emotional life of modern America is flat; we have not yet forged the language with which to communicate the heightened moments of our lives—even to ourselves. Yet where Williams does manage to find the language capable of being refreshed, he causes it to go past mere elegance to a harmoniousness, a propriety, that draws the reader into the poem's world and satisfies him in its purity. (p. 170)
Alan Ostrom, in his The Poetic World of William Carlos Williams (© 1966 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.
[William Carlos] Williams has much to say about American speech and about the fact that it is different from English—"a language which has not been taught to us in our schools, a language which has a rhythmical structure thoroughly separate from English."… The important fact about the relation between Williams' poetry and speech is not that it embodies American, but simply that it is close to speech in general. (pp. 160-61)
Many passages from Williams' various writings explicitly reveal his sense that the new philosophy of Einstein had called in doubt the old, accepted forms of poetry; and an air of defiance against old shibboleths breathes through letters, articles, and autobiography. It is, of course, partly a matter of disposition: if there had been no Einsteinian revolution, Williams would have found foes or windmills to tilt at. But one can go beyond all this; Williams abhors the given principles that have been handed down and seeks instead new ones that may be derived from the relationship of separate entities, as Marie Curie's discovery followed "a dissonance in the valence of uranium"; and one can view his style as a Baconian retreat from the previously accepted order of static truths into the very texture of the world. (p. 181)
The poetry of William Carlos Williams is art of our time: avoiding greatness, beauty, and truth as traditionally conceived, it is our very own. And its most important single feature is the permissiveness given to the life and movement of its texture that a firmly fixed pattern would preclude. The work of later poets who acknowledge Williams as their father is similarly characterized: form does not contain or constrain the particulars of the work but is discovered, so it is said, at each moment as the writing proceeds. (p. 186)
A. Kingsley Weatherhead, in his The Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Some Other Poets, University of Washington Press, 1967.
Williams could see poetry in racing fire trucks, factories, smoking chimneys, even garbage trucks and junk piles…. Dr. Williams believed there are no ideas except in things, and all things were treasured by him, both for themselves and for the emotion that lay behind them…. Using the material at hand—material many another poet would have shrugged off as too prosaic to write about—Dr. Williams' poems were like snapshots—rough, direct, staccato glimpses of life.
Bernard Dekle, "William Carlos Williams: Poet and Baby Doctor," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 91-5.
Like "The Waste Land" and the "Cantos" Williams's "Paterson" is a long poem of the sort we used to call a "philosophical epic." Like them, it is very far from being an epic. It is a more or less elegiac revery composed of narrative, descriptive and lyric elements dissociated and consciously recombined in the manner of a cubist picture. It is the biography of a city and of a river (considered as a mythic man). It is also an autobiography, and a portrait of another mythic figure, that demigoddess the American Mind or Soul in her middle age, whom Whitman had known in her promising girlhood, and with whom Williams conducted a passionate and often callow love affair all his life.
Kenneth Rexroth, "Behind the Mask of the Plain Country Doctor: William Carlos Williams" (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in New York Times Book Review, December 26, 1971, p. 7.
No writer of the older generation had a greater or more direct influence on the Beats than did William Carlos Williams…. He was the poet of the direct statement, the plain man who spoke plainly of the things that mattered most to him. He withstood the influence of Eliot, ignored the New Critics and the academic poets who followed their lead, and simply went his own way, his lines growing shorter, more austere, more pointed with each poem.
In this way, a whole generation of poets grew up looking to William Carlos Williams as an established poet who wrote simply and directly from the heart….
William Carlos Williams was always passionately and self-consciously an American poet. Anything but a chauvinist, he resented deeply what was being done to America—how the land, the people, and their resources were being plundered for the personal gain of a few—and this resentment spilled out to become one of the dominant themes of Paterson.
Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, pp. 18-19.