Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963
One of the finest American poets of his generation, Williams was also a novelist, playwright, editor, essayist, and practicing physician. Rejecting the poetic style established by Eliot as overly academic, Williams sought a more natural poetic expression. He endeavored to replicate American speech forms and to capture the idiomatic cadence of both life and speech in America. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is his collection Paterson, a poetic depiction of urban America. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 9.)
[In the main], Doctor Williams' topics are American—crowds at the movies
with the closeness and
universality of sand,
turkey nests, mushrooms among the fir trees, mist rising from the duck pond, the ball game:
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
It is spring. Sunshine … dumped among factories
… down a red dirt path to four goats….
Essentially not a "repeater of things second-hand," Doctor Williams is in his manner of contemplating with new eyes, old things, shabby things, and other things, a poet. Metre he thinks of as an "essential of the work, one of its words." That which is to some imperceptible, is to him the "milligram of radium" that he values. He is rightly imaginative in not attempting to decide; or rather, in deciding not to attempt to say how wrong these readers are, who find his poems unbeautiful or "positively repellant."…
Facts presented to us by him in his prose account of The Destruction of Tenochtitlan, could not be said to be "new," but the experience ever, in encountering that which has been imaginatively assembled is exceedingly new. One recalls in reading these pages, the sense augmented, of "everything which the world affords," of "the drive upward, toward the sun and the stars"; and foremost as poetry, we have in a bewilderingly great, neatly ordered pageant of magnificence, Montezuma, "this American cacique," "so delicate," "so full of tinkling sounds and rhythms, so tireless of invention."
One sees nothing terrifying in what Doctor Williams calls a "modern traditionalism," but to say so is to quibble. Incuriousness, emptiness, a sleep of the faculties, are an end of beauty; and Doctor Williams is vivid. Perhaps he is modern. He addresses himself to the imagination. He is "keen" and "compact." "At the ship's prow" as he says the poet should be, he is glad to have his "imaginary" fellow-creatures with him. Unless we are very literal, this should be enough. (p. 215)
Marianne Moore, "A Poet of the Quattrocento," in The Dial (copyright, 1927, by The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of J. S. Watson, Jr. and Scofield Thayer), March, 1927, pp. 213-15.
The lack of celerity in [Williams'] process, the unfamiliarity with facile or with established solutions wd. account for the irritation his earlier prose, as I remember it, caused to sophisticated Britons. "How any man could go on talking about such things!" and so on. But the results of this sobriety of unhurried contemplation, when apparent in such a book as In the American Grain, equally account for the immediate appreciation of Williams by the small number of french critics whose culture is sufficiently wide to permit them to read any modern tongue save their own.
Here, at last, was an America treated with a seriousness and by a process comprehensible to an European.
One might say that Williams has but one fixed idea, as an author; i.e., he starts where an european wd. start if an european were about to write of America: sic: America is a subject of interest, one must inspect it, analyse it, and treat it as subject. There are plenty of people who think they "ought" to write "about" America. This is an wholly different kettle of fish. There are also numerous people who think that the given subject has an inherent interest simply because it is American and that this gives it ipso facto a dignity or value above all other possible subjects; Williams may even think he has, or may once have thought he had this angle of attack, but he hasn't.
After a number of years, and apropos of a given incident he has (first quarterly number of transition) given a perfectly clear verbal manifestation of his critical attitude. It is that of his most worthy european contemporaries, and of all good critics. It is also symptomatic of New York that his analysis of the so-called criticisms of Antheil's New York concert shd. appear in Paris, a year after the event, in an amateur periodical.
The main point of his article being that no single one of the critics had made the least attempt at analysis, or had in any way tried to tell the reader what the music consisted of, what were its modes or procedures. And that this was, of course, what the critics were, or would in any civilized country have been, there for. This article is perhaps Williams' most important piece of critical writing…. (pp. 398-99)
Very well, [Williams] does not "conclude"; his work has been "often formless," "incoherent," opaque, obscure, obfuscated, confused, truncated, etc.
I am not going to say: "form" is a non-literary component shoved onto literature by Aristotle or by some non-literatus who told...
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["Paterson" is] epic in intent, if by "epic" one is willing to understand "the sustained handling of a society-enclosing subject matter." As such, "Paterson" is related to such poems as Pound's "Cantos," Eliot's "The Waste Land," and Crane's "The Bridge." If one may define traditional epic as "the celebration in narrative verse of great deeds performed by a single hero or set of heroes," this latter-day type of epic may be distinguished at once from the traditional by the fact that its development is not narrative but symphonic, and by the additional fact that time in this "modern" epic tends to become a continual present.
This modern epic is symphonic in its development because it does not tell a tale but, rather, orchestrates multiple themes of the human position…. [Its] subject is always in some sense what may be called "the racial memory"—the reflective conciousness in which past and future-anticipated blend at every moment with the present awareness of the poet-teller.
It may well be that in discarding so fundamental an attraction as narrative, these poems doom themselves to dullness. All of them can certainly be dull, and even impenetrable, at times. But partial failure does not preclude partial or even great success….
[The] action-hero [of the heroic epic] is too grand and too simple a figure to express the scope of our times. And straight narrative is too single a method for the complexities of our world….
"Paterson" is the process of an intellectual Ulysses, of the intellectual-hero rather than of the action-hero, of the reflective man seeking to evoke and to enter the meaning of the landscape of his life. (p. 37)
Paterson is more than the town built around the falls of the Passaic. At those falls a great stone outcropping causes a bend in the river and makes—if only in Williams's imagination—a natural shape that suggests the figure of a...
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Having abandoned the borrowed nineteenth-century 'Composition' of his youth, Williams began with the 'Impression'. From 1913 to 1916 the portrait and the pastoral were his best media. If one were to turn for an analogy in painting for the poems in the collection Al Que Quiere, it would be to the Ashcan school of realism, in which the dignity of human life was rendered by impressionistic means. Williams' 'townspeople', although not products of the East Side slums, were similarly treated; for example, the old man who collects dog-lime from the gutter but whose walk is more majestic than that of the Episcopal minister. (p. 39)
The background of general revolt in art inspired … a sense of fellow-feeling in which Expressionist and Constructivist painters, the Blaue Reiter group and the Cubists, thought of themselves as one movement—the 'modern' movement. Williams, as it happened, was acquainted with a mixed group; mystical Cubists …, Dadaists …, and Expressionists…. In a period when he was producing improvisations, sedulously studying such a profoundly constructive, or 'synthetic', Cubist as Gris …, Williams' work was a composite plagiarism or generalised imitation of European innovations. While not being a painter himself he had joined the ranks of the painters who were poets 'on the side'; Abseitigen like Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, Hans Arp, and Lajos Kassák.
The advantages in taking as an aesthetic point of reference the European modern movement in art rather than the English tradition in poetry were very great for an American bent on releasing the native ground to the imagination. Williams' well-known aversion for T. S. Eliot was not merely personal envy of the success of The Waste Land, but a rejection of the philosophy, including the philosophy of art, of a literary tradition in which he felt he could play no part. He was persuaded, furthermore, that no American faced with his local conditions and his own temperament could find a use for Eliot. A comparison between The Waste Land and Williams' lyric, 'By the road to the contagious hospital', published within months of each other, suggests how far apart in their sense of the ground Eliot and Williams really were. Eliot in London was abstracting spiritual values, or an absence of them, from the air; Williams, in the physical waste-land of his own part of New Jersey, detected an irrepressible force in the soil. (pp. 43-4)
Williams' analogies for invention in poetry in the late twenties were drawn from physics rather than from linguistics. While superficially sharing with the New Critics the principle of the autonomy of the poetic object, he did not share the preoccupations of Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom with literary precedent. (p. 65)
The mechanical-plastic analogy of [Williams'] Objectivist phase resulted in a conception of the poem as an abstract design of inter-connected working parts, where the projective power of the verse was derived entirely from the organisation of those parts. But this analogy represented only one possibility to Williams. By 1944 … another analogy less consonant with the scientific age and more closely related to human capacity for projective power had presented itself again. It came from jazz. (pp. 70-1)
Rather like the jazz revivalists of the early forties …, Williams tried to find what American poetry had escaped the blight of The Waste Land. (p. 75)
Williams' notion of the variable foot bears a straightforward relation to the metrical organisation of jazz. The great rhythmic variety of the blues depends entirely upon the varying syllabic quantity compressed or expanded within the strictly temporal feet of its classic stanza. Its variety depends upon verbal improvisation, which in turn depends on performative flexibility within the vocal phrasing…. Where such easy rhythmic variability is present the poem may be said to swing, or in Williams' terms to possess the quality of measure. But swing or measure as a perceptual phenomenon depends entirely upon the relation between the phrasing and a steady beat, whether sounded or merely sensed. It defies notation, or scansion, because it is derived not from a time-signature but from performance.
What was merely 'hot' in manner was, as Williams knew, no substitute for swing, which requires not tension but relaxation in the performer…. Projective verse, [however] is the product not of a relaxed performer but a tense one. Like...
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Williams was not, like Dickens or like Faulkner, an impersonator. But the habit of listening to voices extended to his own voice, so that he could write down the way he heard himself phrasing things:
It's all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should
be a song—made of
scissors, a lady's
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Note the urgency and immediacy of the opening paragraph [of The Use of Force]: "They were new patients to me, all I had was the name, Olson. Please come down as soon as you can, my daughter is very sick." The two sentences might have been punctuated as four, but William Carlos Williams, anxious to get to his point, uses commas to keep us flowing with him. Here and throughout he omits quotation marks for the direct address, another device to convey urgency. From the first rushing sentences Williams comes on like the Ancient Mariner, grabbing our lapels to tell of the doctor's compulsion. At first we think we might have a classic rescued-from-death tale, since early on we read, "As it happens we had been having a...
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