William Carlos Williams

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Discussion Topics

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What neglected virtues does William Carlos Williams encourage in “Tract”?

What is the explanation of the fascination felt by so many readers of Williams’s very short poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”?

Does Paterson succeed as an American equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922)?

Consider Williams as a poet of understatement.

Williams brought the experiences of a practicing physician to many of his short stories. Identify several of these stories.

What “essential qualities of the American character” are revealed in In the American Grain?

Other Literary Forms

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Best known as a poet, William Carlos Williams nevertheless wrote in a variety of literary forms (some of them defying categorization) including poetry, novels, short stories, prose poetry, essays, autobiography, and plays. Paterson, his extended poem published in four separate volumes (1946-1951), with a fifth volume serving as a commentary (1958), is his most famous and enduring work.


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William Carlos Williams received numerous awards, including the Dial Award in 1926, the National Book Award in 1950, the Bollingen Award in 1953, and, posthumously, the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1963.

Other literary forms

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William Carlos Williams is best known for his poetry, but he did not limit himself to that form. His short-story collections include The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories (1932), Life Along the Passaic River (1938), Make Light of It: Collected Stories (1950), and The Farmers’ Daughters: The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (1961). Among his novels are The Great American Novel (1923), A Voyage to Pagany (1928), and the Stecher trilogy, composed of White Mule (1937), In the Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952), and his best-known collection of plays is Many Loves, and Other Plays (1961). He also wrote criticism and an autobiography. His essay collections include In the American Grain (1925) and Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (1954). In addition, he and his mother published two translations, Last Nights of Paris (1929) by Philippe Soupault and A Dog and the Fever (1954) by Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas.


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William Carlos Williams’s recognition was late in coming, although he received the Dial Award for Services to American Literature in 1926 for the “Paterson” poem and the Guarantor’s Prize from Poetry in 1931; Louis Zukofsky’s Objectivist issue of Poetry in 1931 featured Williams. The critics, other poets and writers, as well as the public, however, largely ignored his poetry until 1946, when Paterson, book 1 appeared. From that time on, his recognition increased steadily. He was made a fellow of the Library of Congress, 1948-1949, and appointed consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress in 1952, but he never served because of political opposition to his alleged left-wing principles. In 1948, he received the Russell Loines Award for Paterson, book 2, and, in 1950, the National Book Award for Selected Poems and Paterson, book 3; in 1953, he shared with Archibald MacLeish the Bollingen Prize for excellence in contemporary verse. He received the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1954 and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1956. Finally, in May, 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and the Gold Medal for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. A solid collection of essays.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Analyzes Williams’s political convictions as reflected in his writings, and compares them with those of philosopher John Dewey.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. An examination of the development of Williams’s poetry, focused on his fascination...

(This entire section contains 1041 words.)

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with the effects of poetry and prose, and his friendship with Kenneth Burke. Using Burke’s and Williams’s theoretical writings and correspondence, and the works of contemporary cultural critics, Bremen looks at how the methodological empiricism in Williams’s poetic strategy is tied to his medical practice.

Coles, Robert. William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1975. This examination of Williams’s work aims at an understanding of Williams as a poet and writer who was fascinated with the meaning and values of America. Coles offers a study of both poems and stories. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Dietrich, R. F. “Connotations of Rape in ‘The Use of Force.’” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (Summer, 1966): 446-450. Argues that the language of the story suggests a sexual encounter: The wooden spatula is a phallic symbol; the girl’s bleeding is a violation; the idea of its being a pleasure to attack her suggests rape. Contends the sexual connotations suggest the savagery of human nature that lies close to the surface.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989. Considers the autobiographical aspects of certain works by Williams. Adds new insight into Williams’s conception of the self and its relationship to the world. Supplemented by thorough notes and an index.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A very fine single-volume study of Williams’s substantial contributions to the short story and the essay.

Gregory, Elizabeth. Quotation and Modern American Poetry: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads. Houston, Tex.: Rice University Press, 1996. Studies of Williams, T. S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. A useful introduction to Williams and his work. Establishes the author’s significance within the milieu of his fellow modernist writers.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995. The founder of the publishing firm New Directions excerpts his Byways verse memoir of the many poets he has published over the years, capturing both humorous and poignant memories of poet-physician Williams.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998. Offers more than a dozen practical and innovative essays on using Williams’s work to inspire writing by students and adults, including the use of both his classics and his neglected later poems.

Levertov, Denise. The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Edited by Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1998. An engaging and lively collection of correspondence providing testimony of their remarkable friendship and a seedbed of ideas about American poetry. Levertov introduced herself to Williams in 1951 with a fan letter and their correspondence continued until his death. The letters chronicle their search (individually and together) for a set of formal poetic principles.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. A good examination of postmodernism and Williams’s poetry and literature.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Essential reading; a thorough and insightful biography.

Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Devotes a chapter to Williams’s improvisations in Kora in Hell. Discusses Williams’s debt to the French for his prose improvisational genre; discusses the unpredictable nature of the genre and how it works against the reader’s expectations.

Paul, Sherman. The Music of Survival: A Biography of a Poem by William Carlos Williams. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968. One of the best introductory monographs on Williams’s poem “The Desert Music.” This volume is useful because it lucidly examines Williams’s poetic methods, which were also utilized in his prose.

Sayre, Henry M. The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Sayre ably demonstrates the influence that modernist painters and photographers had on Williams’s poetry and prose, and he examines the visual effects of the graphic presentation of Williams’s poetry on the printed page.

Townley, Rod. The Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. In this work, both the life and art of Williams are examined. The author gives critical attention to both Williams’s emotional and spiritual crises and examines the imaginative world of his early poems. Contains bibliographical references and an index.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987. A well-written introduction to the American literary modernists. Includes a substantial chapter on Williams. This book is tied to the Public Broadcasting Service television series of the same name.

Wagner, Linda W. “Williams’ ‘The Use of Force’: An Expansion.” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (Summer, 1967): 351-353. Disagrees with the rape interpretation of the story, arguing that nothing could be further from the Doctor’s intention and that his use of force can be attributed to other reasons.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. 1964. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Whitaker’s discussion of the short stories in chapter 6 of this general introduction to Williams’s life and art focuses primarily on the stories in The Knife of the Times; includes a brief discussion of the oral style of the stories and the transformation of their anecdotal core.

Williams, William Carlos. Interviews with William Carlos Williams. Edited by Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: New Directions, 1976. Contains an introduction by Linda Wagner-Martin. Williams speaks candidly about himself and his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.


Critical Essays