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,...
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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 experience in relation to the art of poetry; and he finds it over and over again. (p. 157)
All the appurtenances of the closed poem, especially the stanza, become anathema to Williams from the beginning. Rhyme itself seems to him meretricious; when he uses it (and he uses it as well as anybody), it is with a slur. The poem must not be governed by meters—any meters—nor by periods and paragraphs (stanzas), nor by the figures of speech. What is left? Nothing. The raw material of the poem is all. It is the same process that Whitman went through: a rebirth. (pp. 161-62)
Had Williams been as good a theoretician as he was a poet he would probably be the most famous American poet today. But Williams cannot explain, fortunately for him, or he explains badly when he does. It is the poem he is after. His kind of poem may be the chief development of the American poem since Leaves of Grass. When it is successful, as it is an amazing number of times, it abolishes the dualism of form-content, expression-artistry, and all those other dualisms which get in the way of art. Williams' almost mystical repetitions about "the line" (and somewhat wildly in Paterson about the Language) are a decree against critical speculation about forms. He knows that forms are not predetermined, not inherited, not traditional. He knows, too, that forms do not matter for the honest artist, whether he uses them or not. It is when form becomes a fetish that he draws back and howls. (pp. 164-65)
Williams knows too much about poetry to set up a critical shop or lay out a curriculum like Pound. He is the godfather, all the same, of nearly all the existent avant-garde poetry, all the free poetry that exists in the English world today. This is recognized by the young poets who long ago branched away from the cultural highway and took to the backstreets and bohemias of the land. Williams is no bohemian; he is a serious man of letters (as the stuffy expression goes) but he is closer to the life of the poet than any of his contemporaries. (p. 165)
I do not mean that Williams' works are perfection or even that he has written a score or two of poems which will set him beside Milton or Catullus or Marlowe. It is hard to judge such work comparatively; it is too new, too unlike anything else. But there is one sure sign of its value; it has already penetrated the poetry of a whole generation of American poets, not the ones we read month after month in the apple-pie-order journals of letters or the fat anthologies, but in the less-known, less-official magazines and pamphlets strewn over the countryside, which Williams has always lent his hand to. With D. H. Lawrence, Williams is the leader of what authentic American poetry is being written today. Little enough of it is up to his mark, yet the tendency is the right one. The example is there in Williams' poems, not in his criticism. And it is being followed. When I read his poems I feel I am reading a foreign language, my language. After all, there is practically no American poetry to speak of, and nearly all of it has come in the twentieth century, and a good portion of that has been written by William Carlos Williams. (pp. 168-69)
Karl Shapiro, "William Carlos Williams: The True Contemporary," in his In Defense of Ignorance (copyright © 1960 by Karl Shapiro; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1960, pp. 143-69.
There is no simple way to speak of [Williams' Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems]. It is so singularly the work of a man, one man, that it moves thereby to involve all men, no matter what they assume to be their own preoccupations….
The insistence in our lives has become a plethora of plans, of solutions, of, finally, a web of abstract commitments—which leave us only with confusions. Against these Dr. Williams has put the fact of his own life, and all that finds substance in it. He had earlier insisted, "No ideas but in things," meaning that all which moves to an elsewhere of abstractions, of specious 'reliefs,' must be seen as false. We live as and where we are. (p. 117)
What device, means, rhythm, or form the poem can gain for its coherence are a precise issue of its occasion. The mind and ear are, in this sense, stripped to hear and organize what is given to them, and the dance or music Williams has used as a metaphor for this recognition and its use is that which sustains us, poets or men. (p. 118)
Coming then to the later poems, what can be said now is that there is all such truth, such life, in them. I cannot make that judgment which would argue among the poems that this or that one shows the greater mastery. I think there must come a time, granted that one has worked as Williams to define the nature of this art, when it all coheres, and each poem, or instance, takes its place in that life which it works to value, to measure, to be the fact of. (p. 120)
Robert Creeley, "The Fact" (1962), in his A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays, edited by Donald Allen (copyright © 1970 by Robert Creeley), Four Seasons, 1970, pp. 117-20.
In providing pieces of art that would go beyond him into the lives of the young, William Carlos Williams takes up in his final books a problem which he thought to solve in 1928 by his Objectivist theory. The theory asserts that past objects like the sonnet, having about them past necessities which have conditioned them and from which, as a form itself, they cannot be freed, must give way to objects consonant with the present; no art will long endure the attacks on its vitality which time makes. (p. 278)
For Williams as for Ezra Pound, art, science, and literature became permanent products of the state and along with the state's "social justice," the bases on which states would be judged. Their permanence—again not always distinguishable from form—lay in the very way they colored the present—often in terms of the state's "being a second body for the human mind"—and Williams' preoccupation with literature, science, and art as indications of Paterson's development as city and as man reflects the centrality which he assigns their suasive powers. Moreover, as the history of culture became for Pound the history of ideas in action, so, too, did it for Williams, except that for Williams ideas passed through an intermediary stage of "things." No ideas, Williams insisted, but in things, but things of action, and, in "A Reading of Paterson III" (1970), Charles Doyle indicates that much of the revision to that book was to make static scenes active. Nonetheless, "things" do have form and, if Williams' Objectivist theory was correct, these forms must in time be subject to decay. (p. 280)
[What] is indicated by Williams' last two books [Paterson V and Pictures from Brueghel] is not quite a reopening of the problem of the immortality of the art so much as a new probing of the immortality of the artist by virtue of his art. The emphasis is to be put on the intelligence shaping the poems rather than on the poems, and, as if to point this stress, Williams chooses subjects for them that make incontrovertable his indebtedness. Both books use established art works to explore those instants when experience crystalizes into artistic inspiration, and, like the set pieces of art school, mastery lies not in the choice of subject but in the artist's skill at execution. (p. 281)
Jerome Mazzaro, "The Descent Once More: 'Paterson V' and 'Pictures from Brueghel'," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1970, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. 1, No. 6, 1970, pp. 278, 280-1.
Williams sought from the beginning a poetic Americanism. (p. 33)
[When] he appropriated a poetic form invented by French poetry, Williams changed it and transformed it into a method of exploration of language and of the subterranean strata of the collective soul. Kora in Hell is a book that could have been written only by an American poet and it should be read in the perspective of a later book which is the centre of Williams' Americanism, his Ars Poetica: In the American Grain (1925)…. [His] novels, short stories, and theatrical works … are extensions, irradiations of his poetry. The frontier between prose and verse, always hard to trace, becomes very tenuous in this poet: his free verse borders on prose, not written prose but spoken prose, with everyday language; and his prose is always rhythmic, like a coast bathed in poetic waves—not verse but the verbal surge and resurge that is the creator of verse.
Since he first began to write, Williams revealed his distrust of ideas. It was a reaction against the symbolist aesthetic shared by most poets of that time and in which, in his case, were combined American pragmatism and his profession as a doctor. In a famous poem he defined his search: 'To compose: no ideas but in things.' Except that the things are always beyond, on the other side: the 'thing itself' is intangible. Thus Williams does not depart from things but from sensation. But in turn, sensation is shapeless and instantaneous; one cannot construct or create anything with pure sensation; the result would be chaos. Sensation … itself must be transformed into things. Language is the agent of change: sensations become verbal objects. A poem is a verbal object, a fusion of two contradictory properties: the liveliness of the sensation and the objectivity of the things.
Sensations become verbal things through the operation of a force that to Williams is not essentially different from electricity, steam or gas: the imagination. In some reflections of 1923 (included among the poems of the first edition of Spring and All as 'displaced prose'), Williams says that imagination is 'a creative force that makes objects'…. Williams twists the neck of traditional aesthetics: art does not imitate nature, it imitates its creative procedures. It does not copy its products but its mode of production. 'Art is not a mirror reflecting nature, rather, the imagination rivals the compositions of nature. The poet becomes nature and works like nature.' Of course, we are dealing with ideas that appear in many poets and artists of the period. (pp. 34, 36)
Williams conceives the poetic imagination as an activity that complements science and rivals it. Nothing is farther from magic than Williams…. To Williams artists—it is significant that he depends upon and draws inspiration from the example of Juan Gris—separate the things of the imagination from the things of reality: cubist reality is not the table, the cup, the pipe, and the newspaper of reality; it is another reality, no less real. This other reality does not deny the reality of real things: it is another thing which is simultaneously the same thing. 'The mountain and the sea of a picture of Juan Gris,' says Williams, 'are not mountain and sea but a picture of mountain and sea.' The poem-thing is not the thing: it is another thing that exchanges signs of intelligence with the thing.
[This is the] non-imitative realism of Williams. (pp. 36-7)
In his search for the American language, Williams finds (hears) the basic measure, a metre of variable foot but with a triadic accentual base. 'We know nothing', he says, 'save the dance: the measure is all we know.' The poem-thing is a verbal, rhythmic object. Its rhythm is the transmutation of the language of a people. Through language Williams leaps from things and sensations into the world of history.
Paterson is the result of these preoccupations…. Paterson belongs to that poetic genre invented by modern North American poetry and which oscillates between the Aeneid and the Treatise of Political Economy, the Divine Comedy and journalism. (p. 39)
Williams' poem is complex and uneven. Beside magic or realistic fragments of great intensity there are long disconnected selections. Written in the face of and at times in opposition to The Waste Land and the Cantos, he reveals the effect of his polemic with these two works. In this lies his principal limitation; a reading of him depends on other readings, so that the judgment of the reader unavoidably becomes a comparison. The vision that Pound and Eliot had of the modern world was rather sombre. Their pessimism was steeped in feudal nostalgia and in pre-capitalist concepts; therefore their just condemnation of money and modernity became transformed immediately into conservative attitudes and, in the case of Pound, into fascist attitudes. Although Williams' vision is not optimistic either—how could it be?—it does not have reminiscences of other ages. This, which could be an advantage, is really a disadvantage: Williams does not have a philosophical or religious system, a coherent sum-total of ideas and beliefs. The one that was offered him by the immediate tradition (Whitman) was unusable. There is a kind of vacuum at the centre of the concept of Williams (not in his short poems) which is the very vacuum of contemporary American culture. (p. 40)
Paterson does not have the unity of The Waste Land or its religious authenticity—although Eliot's religiousness is negative. The Cantos, moreover, are a poetry incomparably vaster and richer than that of Williams, one of the few contemporary texts at the height of our terrible epoch. What of it? The greatness of a poet is not measured by the scale but by the intensity and the perfection of his works. Also by his vivacity. Williams is the author of the most vivid poems in modern North American poetry…. [Is] Williams really the most American of the poets of his epoch? I don't know and I don't care about knowing. On the other hand, I do know that he is the freshest and most limpid. As fresh as a stream of brook water, as limpid as that same water in a glass pitcher on a rough wood table in a whitewashed room in Nantucket. Wallace Stevens once called him 'a kind of Diogenes of contemporary poetry'. His lantern, lit in the brightness of day, is the only little sun that it has. (p. 41)
Octavio Paz, "Saxifrage: Some Notes on William Carlos Williams," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1974), June/July, 1974, pp. 33-43.
William Carlos Williams's "Prologue" to Kora in Hell (in Imaginations,… 1970) is one of the most important documents in the history of the avant-garde because of its defensiveness. Williams has been attacked. Pound has called Kora "incoherent" and "un-American," in fact claims that Williams is opaque and that "opacity is not an American quality." Hilda Doolittle wants to rid the poem of all its "flippancies," what she seems to consider self-mockery, un-seriousness. Wallace Stevens refers to Williams's "tantrums." The pseudo-avant-garde, derivative, conventional, déjà vu, confronts the genuine avant-garde—the hitherto undone—and is confused. They aren't up to it. Anything off their beaten paths and they are genuinely lost. Anything hitherto undone is tantrums, flippancy, opacity … they don't see (as Williams does) that they are confronting a new language and they have to learn how to decipher it before they can savor it.
Williams's answer to the rarefied obscurantism of much of the avant-garde dismisses Eliotesque and Poundian posturing, sees the real function of the imagination as breaking through the alienation of the near at hand and reviving its wonder: "… the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose."
Kora in Hell—the poem itself—is an extension and illustration of Williams's own theory of the imagination: "Having once taken the plunge, the situation that preceded it becomes obsolete which a moment before was alive with malignant rigidities." (p. 285)
In the introduction to Spring and All, Williams further clarifies exactly what he sees as the function of the imagination, not a world in itself, separated a la Coleridge from "reality," but a kind of reality-augmenting and intensifying faculty that enables the artist to break through to reality: "To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination."…
Spring and All is a kind of Credo of Williams's later work and explains Williams's "realism" as "not 'realism' but reality itself." He doesn't attempt to create a scholastic definable Realism as movement or attack or approach, but realism as "separate existence," not "representation." In other words, the function of the imagination is to create a Reality more "real" than reality itself. (p. 286)
In The Great American Novel (… 1923), Williams both experiments with current 1920s avant-garde novel styles (notably Joyce and Stein) and also confronts the dynamic and structural problems limiting all writing—the problems inherent in words. (p. 287)
Williams plays Word-Magician/Reality-Creator to show in a sense how the WORD is a kind of platform in the void, a thing that takes shape in the midst of shapelessness. Again back to the artist as God/Creator. The whole Great American Novel is Williams's play-creation, his experimental universe….
[Williams captures] the shorthand of reality with an appropriate jagged, overturned literary shorthand—the methodology of the antimethodological, the same antipattern pattern that he ēnds his career with in Paterson, what in someone else's hands would be mere pyrotechnical "avantgardism," here being turned by W. C. Williams, the Yankee empiricist, into a means of not avoiding, but capturing reality. The American doesn't have the European luxury of anti-reality art, but is constantly tugged back to reality so that all methodologies and techniques no matter how avant-garde become reality-grabbers and recorders. (p. 288)
Interestingly enough, W. C. W. in his poetry—true to avant-garde patterns—moves from a simple, derivative statement to a complex originality. In his prose the shift is from the complex to the simple. It's as if Joyce wrote Dubliners after Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. And then one would have to suspect the seeming simplicity of the "simple surface."
The great pitfall of Williams's objectivity, though, is surfaceness. He theorizes that the surface is all: things themselves, people, conversation, actions. Very Lockean, physiological, the person as a sensory apparatus. Only, at least in White Mule, by avoiding the Kafkaesque expressionist approach, emptying the Total Person with all his layers on the page, and sticking with an almost naturalistic surface (impressionist) presentation, a definite flatness occurs, which fits the nature of the characters, but also—at times—drags. Or is even the "drag" planned?
At the same time, too, when you are brought so solidly into the life of things, are suddenly there, then the mind-life, the extras, nuances, psychic extensions and growths fill themselves in. In a sense this thing-centrism forces the reader to complete the reality with a part of himself. (p. 292)
The avant-gardist is not really a member of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, or the aristocracy, and since he is the outsider his experimentation is "outsiderese." Williams as doctor is an insider, consequently the William Dean Howells Insider in him here surfaces—at least in the prose. In the poetry he remains "difficult"—part of him never really can slip inside U.S. society.
Why should avant-garde Williams choose an immigrant family "making it" as the theme of three novels? Shades of Silas Lapham. Except perhaps as a symbolic incorporation of himself into the rituals of acceptance and conformity. By putting these ego-projections through the initiation rites of capitalism, Williams sidesteps these rites (and their consequences) himself, remains an Outsider. The "making it" trilogy is a kind of continuing anticapitalism exorcism. (pp. 292-93)
White Mule is the first volume of a trilogy. The Build-Up is the third. It suffers not from "actualism" but from "realism"—at times Williams loses the magic of surface imagery, which is the real strength of White Mule, and becomes very "realistic," alienating himself from the essential life of things/actions, and gets trapped in trivia. (p. 293)
Except in the very early Imaginations, Williams is never consciously avant-garde. His experimentalism, instead of being consciously and purposefully added on, in a sense is forced on him by the necessities of his basically realistic (objectivist) purposes. The jagged, juxtaposed collage effects in Paterson are one way to try to break through words to reality. In the White Mule trilogy his method is as straightforward and simple a presentation as possible. Which is also the case in the short stories, the plays, and much of the other poetry. The important thing, though, always is how to be effectively a spokesman for the autonomous kingdom of the imagination. As Williams wrote in a review "A 1 Pound Stein" in 1934 (reprinted in the Selected Essays,… 1954): "It's the words, the words we need to get back to, words washed clean."
This cleansing can be mistaken for either radical experimentalism (Paterson) or cloddish realism (the White Mule trilogy and the short stories), but ultimately they are both experiments at reaching objective reality employing subjectively overused communication symbols (words) within the historical context of just as shabby social conventions. Williams never succeeds, nor does he pretend to succeed. Among the papers found on his death was the statement: "Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words." (pp. 298-99)
Hugh Fox, "The Genuine Avant-Garde: William Carlos Williams Credo," in Southwest Review (© 1974 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1974, pp. 285-99.
In contrast to Stevens, [Williams'] whole effort was to demystify poetry, to overcome the conceptual quality of words with their thinginess. "No ideas, but in things," is a famous Williams aphorism.
Instead of saying something about the universe, poetry, Williams believed, was analogous to facts in their quiddity. He may not have been terribly clear about all this—Pound spoke of him as "the most bloody inarticulate animal that ever gargled"—but [one] is less concerned with elucidating Williams' muddled theoretical statements than with [noting] the poet's intense groping toward a particular view of the autonomy and reality of language: Innocent and unillusioned, unburdened by history or poetic tradition, the imagination for Williams meant the new world, albeit not in Whitman's sense of hopeful anticipation. Reborn things "enter the new world,/cold, uncertain of all save that they enter." (p. 21)
Eugene Goodheart, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), June 9, 1975.