Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (sometimes known as WCW) (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963), was an American poet closely associated with Modernism. He was particularly concerned with developing poetry in a recognizably American idiom.
He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a town near the city of Paterson. He attended public school in Rutherford, New Jersey until 1897, then was sent to study at Château de Lancy near Geneva, Switzerland, the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, France, for two years and Horace Mann High School in New York City. Then, in 1902, he entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School .
In college he met and became friends with Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and the painter Charles Demuth. These friendships supported his growing passion for poetry. He received his M.D. in 1906 and spent the next four years in internships in New York City and in travel and postgraduate studies abroad (e.g., at the Univ. of Leipzig where he studied pediatrics). He returned to Rutherford in 1910 and began his medical practice, which lasted until 1951.
He was a dedicated physician who had an open ear for his patients' problems. In his life he helped women giving birth to more than two thousand babies. For him, his medical career was a way to finance and support his final goal of becoming a poet.
In 1912 he married his fiancée Florence (Flossie, "the floss of his life") Herman, they moved into a house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford; and his first book of serious poems, The Tempers , got published.
From then on he lived mainly in Rutherford until he passed away. One exception was a trip to Europe when he met fellow writers such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Later he did some trips for poetry readings and lectures.
Although he was a doctor, he had a full literary career. His work consists of short stories, plays, novels, critical essays, an autobiography, translations and correspondence. He wrote at night and spent weekends in New York City with friends - writers and artists like the avant-garde painters Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and the poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. He became involved in the Imagist movement but soon he began to develop different opinions than the major imagist poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Williams was a very active member of his community (his parents were strong supporters of the Unitarian church in Rutherford) and he didn't hide his political opinions. He aligned himself with liberal Democratic and left wing issues. In 1949 he published a booklet/poem The Pink Church that was about the human body but was misunderstood as being pro-communist. This supposed pro-communism led to his losing a consultantship with the Library of Congress in 1952/3, a fact that led to him being treated for depression. Williams' had a heart attack in 1948, his health began to decline, and after 1951 a series of strokes followed. William Carlos Williams died on March 4, 1963 at the age of seventy-nine. Two days later, finally a British publisher announced that he was going to print his poems – one of fate’s ironies, since he was always against English influence on American poetry. During his lifetime, he had never been recognized in Britain as much as in the USA. In May 1963, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters .
The Poetry Society of America continues to honor William Carlos Williams with an annual award in his name for the best book of poetry published by a small press, non-profit, or university press.
Williams is best known for his poem The Red Wheelbarrow, which is considered the model example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also This Is Just To Say). He also coined the Imagist motto "no ideas but in things." However, Williams did not personally subscribe to Imagist ideas, which were more a product of Ezra Pound and H.D.. Williams is more strongly associated with the American Modernist movement in literature, which rejected European influences in poetry in favor of regional dialogues and influences. In particular, his call for more regionalism in American literature came on the heels of his brief collaboration with Ezra Pound in editing an early draft of T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Wasteland. T.S. Eliot's poem exemplified what Williams disliked about European influences on American poetics. Williams simplified the mystery of what makes good poetry when he said: "If it's not a pleasure, it's not a poem."
Meter and Form
Williams disagreed with the values proclaimed in the works of Pound and especially Eliot. He felt both were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams tried to invent an entirely fresh form, an American form of poetry whose subject matter was centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people.
The concept of the variable foot evolved from years of visual and auditory sampling of his world from the first person perspective as a part of the day in the life as a physician. The variable foot is rooted within the multi-faceted American Idiom. This discovery was a part of WCW's keen observation of how radio and newspaper influenced how people communicated and represents the "machine of words" (as he decribed a poem on one occasion) just as the mechanistic motions of a city can become a consciousness. Williams usually uses a kind of organic rhythm i.e., the poem is shaped to reflect the movement of thought, speech, or action in the poem. Therefore, WCW didn’t use traditional meter in most of his poems.
Williams often referred to the convergence of his profession as physician and poet as the badge that allowed him into the underbelly of humanity, and the route of discovery of these various rhythms. His correspondence with Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) also exposed him to the relationship of sapphic rhythms to the inner voice of poetic truth:
"Asteres men amphi kalan selannan aps' apukpuptoisi faenon eithos oppota plithoisa malista lampsi gan epi paisan"
"The stars about the beautiful moon again hide their radiant shapes, when she is full and shines at her brightest on all the earth" Sappho.
This is to be contrasted with a poem from "Pictures from Brueghel" titled Shadows:
"Shadows cast by the street light under the stars, the head is tilted back, the long shadow of the legs presumes a world taken for granted on which the cricket trills"
Though readers are still able to sense a certain rhythm they are often aided by the visual appearance of the poems. The rhythm exists but is invisible to the reader. It is not trapped in an artificial structure (e.g. iambic pentameter).
“Triadic” / “Stepped line’’
WCW never stopped searching for the perfect line. He experimented with different types of lines and eventually found the “triadic” or “stepped line ’’, a long line which is divided into three segments. This line is used in Paterson and in poems like “To Elsie” http://www.poets.org/poems/poems.cfm?45442B7C000C07060170. After some time he decided that he had to move on and didn’t use this concept anymore
Example: "Sunday in the Park"
From Paterson Vol. II
"Outside outside myself there is a world, he rumbled, subject to my incursions —a world (to me) at rest, which I approach concretely—"
Here Dr. Paterson walks through the park of the city and thinks about poetic methods. The triadic follows the breathing of the poet and his steps through the park (maybe the park even is hilly, so the steps in the line would resemble his steps down a hill) and the inner movement of the poem.
“No ideas but in things”
While he disliked Ezra Pound's and especially T.S. Eliot's (see The Wasteland) frequent use of allusions to foreign languages, religion, history or art, Williams drew his themes from what he called "the local."
In this context he also coined the expression "No ideas but in things", his famous summation of his poetic method. What he meant is that poets should leave traditional poetic forms and unnecessary literaty allusions aside and try to see the world through the eyes of an ordinary person.
According to Williams, a poet must write about "things with which he is familiar, simple things - at the same time to detach them from ordinary experience to the imagination" (Williams, The Autobiography, 197), to put it in other words: "Write about what you know." Here his work as a physician in a rural town helped him in many ways: He could draw from his patients' conversations when they came to see him; he had access to many different households when he helped women to deliver babies or when he made regular house visits to older patients; and his environment contained many scenes of nature, ranging from the beginning life of a plant to decaying pieces of metal. Since the industrial city of Paterson was nearby, he could also draw from industrial themes.
Williams and Modern Art
During his time in New York City (about 1906-1910), Williams became friends with the avant-garde modern artists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Around this time he got to know the Dadaist movement. That is why many of his earlier poems are influenced by Dadaist and Surrealist principles. In general, he found modern art very inspiring. Just like Marcel Duchamp’ with his “objets trouvés ”, he started experimenting with montage and other modern art techniques. Duchamps, for example, showed the formal properties of a urinal or a bicycle wheel by their displacement and by renaming them (He called the urinal "Fountain"). Some modernist artists also modelled objects of everyday life as wireframes that just showed their form, but took away their traditional use by using wire as material.
I this tradition, Williams displaced everyday language, showing that all language is poetic. He took unchanged fragments of everyday language out of their original context and reassembled them into a poem. He made these fragments poetic and in the same moment he took away their original use; what remained was a hollow "wireframe" that was filled with new poetic properties.
WCW did not choose his phrases "trouvés" randomly or by accident. He wanted to show that things which before had been seen as not poetic by traditionalists do have certain poetic qualities i.e., a list of ice cream flavors, advertising slogans or a grocery list:
"2 partridges 2 Mallard ducks a Dungeness crab 24 hours out of the Pacific and 2 live-frozen trout from Denmark" (Williams, Collected Poems 2, 208-09)
Here again one of Williams aims is to show the truly American (opposed to European traditions) rhythm which is unnoticed but present in everyday American language.
For the cover of his "Kora in Hell ", Williams used a picture of modern artist Stuart Davis (1894-1964).
Williams even was involved in the "Armory Show" in 1913 (read the link). He was part of a group of artists called Others. They gathered in his house in April of 1916. See also the external link on Williams and the visual arts and on the armory show at the bottom of the page.
William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost
Robert Frost also uses everyday language. His poems are true to the speech of New England country people, his environment. The settings and contents of his poetry are usually of rural origin, like his recurring theme of the cruelty of nature. Robert Frost usually uses traditional devices, i.e. , blank verse, rhyme, narrative or the sonnet form. Williams, in contrast, wrote in "plain American which cats and dogs can read", to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. Though Frost’s settings and speech seem to be similar to Williams’, for Williams they were more a stereotype than reality. That is why he disliked Robert Frost’s writing. Concerning techniques like meter and rhyme, they used almost a completely different set of literary "tools".
- Poems (1909)
- The Tempers (1913)
- Al Que Quiere (1917)
- Kora in Hell. Improvisations (1920, repr. 1973)
- Sour Grapes (1921)
- Go Go (1923)
- Spring and All (1923; repr. 1970)
- The Cod Head (1932)
- Collected Poems, 1921-1931 (1934)
- An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935)
- Adam & Eve & The City (1936)
- The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906-1938 (1938)
- The Broken Span (1941)
- The Wedge (1944)
- Paterson (Book I, 1946; Book II, 1948; Book III, 1949; Book IV, 1951; Book V, 1958)
- Clouds, Aigeltinger, Russia (1948)
- The Collected Later Poems (1950; rev. ed.1963)
- Collected Earlier Poems (1951; rev. ed., 1966)
- The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954)
- Journey to Love (1955)
- Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962)
- Paterson (Books I-V in one volume, 1963)
- Imaginations (1970)
- Early Poems (1997)
- Kora in Hell (1920)
- The Great American Novel (1923)
- In the American Grain (1925, 1967, repr. New Directions 2004 )
- Novelette and Other Prose (1932)
- Autobiography (1951; 1967)
- Selected Essays (1954)
- The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams (1957)
- Imaginations (1970)
- The Embodiment of Knowledge (1974)
- The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (1998)
- A Voyage to Pagany (1928; repr. 1970)
- The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories (1932; repr. 1974)
- White Mule (1937; repr. 1967)
- Life along the Passaic River (1938)
- In the Money (1940; repr. 1967)
- The Build-Up (1952)
- The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (1996)
- A collection of public domain poems (before 1923) of WCW. It includes poems from Poems (1909), The Tempers (1913), Al Que Quiere! A Book of Poems (1917) and the full (!!!) volume of Sour Grapes (1921).
- A small biography and a huge collection of poems from The Complete Collected Poems 1906-1938, An Early Martyr, Journey to Love, Poems, Sour Grapes, The Broken Span, The Clouds, The Wedge. Has a photo of an older WCW.
- Homepage of The William Carlos Williams Review An outdated site that stopped being updated in 1999. Nevertheless it is noteworthy because of a photo of a young William Carlos Williams.
- William Carlos Williams Bibliography 1986 - 1998 - as compiled by the William Carlos Williams Review.
- Biography in a chronological style i.e. date and then event in WCW's life.
- Site of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Department - The William Carlos Williams Collection 1916 - 1973 (bulk dates 1934 - 1962) The Special collection contains letters, galley proof, brochure, story, articles, and poems.
- A video clip to visualize the poem The Great Figure. It's from the WCW program of the Voices & Visions video series over at the Annenberg/CPB Multimedia Collection
- WCW exhibit at the Academy of Poets: Another biography, another late picture of WCW, many poems
- Hear WCW read his own poem To Elsie. The text is also provided on this page.
- Summaries and annotations to several of WCW's poems and books.
- Essay: William Carlos Williams in a World of Painters
- A very long biography and poems.
- PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide
The following photos are part of an American Lit. course page at the University of Virginia.
- Photo of William Carlos Williams
- Signed typescript of Between Walls Source: The Barrett Collection, Alderman Library.
- Cover of the first edition of Spring and All
- Page on Williams and the Armory Show. Source of the link to the picture of Williams and the Others.
- Williams and the visual arts. Pictures by modernist painters related to WCWs work. It also features a self portrait of Williams; his not very well known side as a painter.
- A critical overview of Williams style: William Carlos William’s To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies by Dan Schneider, 6/14/03
- Interview (41 page) with William Carlos Williams and his wife Florence.
- Pictures of WCW (in toddler age, young and older), of WCW and Ezra Pound and of Florence, WCWs wife.
- Photos of modernists and imagists.
- Three high resolution photos of William Carlos Williams.
- High resolution scans of Sappho - A translation by William Carlos Williams Library of Congress, pictures shown there with permission of New Direction.
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