William Carlos Williams

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Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963

One of America's most influential poets, Williams also wrote novels, plays, essays, and a fascinating autobiography. He maintained his practice of medicine throughout his career. Williams' work toward the poetic depiction of urban America ultimately produced Paterson, his finest long poem, which has served as a model for innumerable younger writers. Although Williams was a friend of both Pound and Amy Lowell and although he never abandoned their poetic dictum concerning treatment of "the thing itself," he remained free of the mainstream of Imagism. Williams was awarded posthumously the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1963.

Williams' entire literary career has been dedicated to the struggle to preserve spontaneity and immediacy of experience. His explanations of these aims are certainly not as impressive as Eliot's and in fact lead to such confusing theories as Objectivism. In defense of Williams one can say that his theorizing is innocent, while in the case of the Pounds and Eliots it is calculated and tricky. Williams does not stand or fall on theory; he is willing to void it at a moment's notice. But it is unfortunate for him that he must engage in theory at all. At bottom Williams is not an intellectual, and he is too human, too sympathetic, too natural to become a symbol of the anti-intellectual. Besides, as he says in his published letters, he is illogical. He would never be able to impress the quarterly reviews or the highbrows who consider him a kind of intellectual slob. (p. 144)

Williams is a guinea pig of modern poetry. He lends himself to the literature of the laboratory and a thousand trials and errors of criticism. He even writes a "mythic epic" like Pound and Eliot which all the culture critics seize on as proof that Williams is not a literary imbecile but one you can practically write books about. Paterson is a typical culture poem, the only full-dressed one Williams ever wrote but, according to the critics, the real thing, a kind of New Jersey The Waste Land. Williams is so innocent that he would even do that. In writing his large bad poem Williams was perhaps trying to test the validity of works like the Cantos and The Waste Land, even to compete with them. (pp. 144-45)

Williams is the American poet who tries to fight off Europeanism. He fights it off, singlehanded, but he cannot impress the European with his cause. Neither can he impress the American. Lacking the arrogance of an Eliot or a Pound, lacking philosophy or religion or logic, he is battered back and forth by the literati, who are always armed to the teeth with Positions and who can make anything out of him they want, except a bad poet. (pp. 145-46)

[In] between Kora and Paterson we have close to a thousand pages of some of the best or most interesting American poetry in our history. Almost all of this poetry is in a style which is immediately recognizable as Williams' own; further, it is a workable style, one which permits him to write a poem almost at random. At its best, which is a good bit of the time, it is not "experimental" poetry or crank technique. Naïve it certainly is, even what some writers call primitive; it is precisely Williams' innocence of forms that frees him to respond to daily experience as a poet. Williams went on writing, day after day, year after year, losing manuscripts, not finishing them, giving them away, but never letting up. Poetry to him was a daily function of life, a means of seeing. In a sense, he is our first American poet since Whitman. It hardly matters that his counselors poisoned his mind against Whitman; Whitman is his mentor after all. (p. 154)

It can never be said of Williams that he writes a well-rounded poem like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or even "my father moved through dooms of love." He loathes the fait accompli in poetry or in painting. On the other hand, he does not worship the "fragment" for the fragment's sake. He tries to find the center of his...

(The entire section is 4,440 words.)