William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was an American poet closely associated with modernism and imagism. Williams is often counted as being among a group of four major American poets who were all born in a twelve-year period that began in 1874. The group also consists of Robert Frost. who was born in 1874; Wallace Stevens. who was born in 1879; and Hilda "H.D." Doolittle. who was born in 1886. Of these four, Williams died last, several weeks after Frost. (Stevens was first to die, in 1955, while H.D. lived until 1961).
In addition to his writing, Williams had a long career as a physician practicing both pediatrics and general medicine. He was affiliated with what was then known as Passaic General Hospital in Passaic, New Jersey. where he served as the hospital's chief of pediatrics from 1924 until his death. The hospital, which is now known as St. Mary's General Hospital. pays tribute to Williams with a memorial plaque that states "we walk the wards that Williams walked". [ 1 ]Life and career
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. His grandmother, an Englishwoman deserted by her husband, had come to the United States with her son, remarried, and moved to Puerto Rico. Her son, Williams's father, married a Puerto Rican woman.
Williams received his primary and secondary education in Rutherford until 1897, when he was sent for two years to a school near Geneva and to the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He attended the Horace Mann School upon his return to New York City and, having passed a special examination, was admitted in 1902 to the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. from which he graduated in 1906. [ 2 ] [ 3 ] Upon leaving University of Pennsylvania, Williams did internships at both French Hospital and Child's Hospital in New York before going to Leipzig for advanced study of pediatrics. [ 2 ] He published his first book, Poems. in 1909.
Williams married Florence Herman (1891–1976) in 1912, after he returned from Germany. [ 2 ] They moved into a house in Rutherford, New Jersey, which was their home for many years. Shortly afterward, his second book of poems, The Tempers. was published by a London press through the help of his friend Ezra Pound. whom he met while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Around 1914, Williams had his first son, William E. Williams, followed by his second son, Paul H. Williams, in 1917. [ 4 ] His first son would grow up to follow Williams in becoming a doctor. [ 5 ]
Although his primary occupation was as a family doctor, Williams had a successful literary career as a poet. In addition to poetry (his main literary focus), he occasionally wrote short stories, plays, novels, essays, and translations. He practiced medicine by day and wrote at night. Early in his career, he briefly became involved in the Imagist movement through his friendships with Pound and H.D. (whom he also befriended at the University of Pennsylvania), but soon he began to develop opinions that differed from theirs.
In 1920, Williams was sharply criticized by many of his peers (such as H.D. Pound, and Wallace Stevens) when he published one of his most experimental books, Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Pound called the work "incoherent" and H.D. thought the book was "flippant." [ 7 ] The Dada artist and poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven critiqued Williams's sexual and artistic politics in her experimental prose poem review entitled "Thee I call 'Hamlet of Wedding Ring'", published in The Little Review in March 1921. [ 8 ]
A few years later, Williams published one of his seminal books of poetry, Spring and All. which contained the classic poems "By the road to the contagious hospital," "The Red Wheelbarrow ," and "To Elsie." However, in 1922, the year before Williams published Spring and All . T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land which became a literary sensation and overshadowed Williams's very different brand of poetic Modernism. In his Autobiography. Williams would later write, "I felt at once that The Waste Land had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit." And although he respected the work of Eliot, Williams became openly critical of Eliot's highly intellectual style with its frequent use of foreign languages and allusions to classical and European literature. [ 9 ] Instead, Williams preferred colloquial American English. [ 10 ]
–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!
fromPaterson: Book I
In his modernist epic collage of place, Paterson (published between 1946 and 1958), an account of the history, people, and essence of Paterson, New Jersey, he wrote his own modern epic poem, focusing on "the local" on a wider scale than he had previously attempted. He also examined the role of the poet in American society and famously summarized his poetic method in the phrase "No ideas but in things" (found in his poem "A Sort of a Song" and repeated again and again in Paterson ).
In his later years, Williams mentored and influenced many younger poets. He had an especially significant influence on many of the American literary movements of the 1950s, including the Beat movement. the San Francisco Renaissance. the Black Mountain school. and the New York School. [ 11 ]
One of Williams's most dynamic relationships as a mentor was with fellow New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg. Williams included several of Ginsberg's letters in Paterson. stating that one of them helped inspire the fifth section of that work. Williams also wrote the introduction to Ginsberg's important first book, Howl and Other Poems in 1956.
Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948 and after 1949, a series of strokes. Severe depression after one such stroke caused him to be confined to Hillside Hospital, New York, for four months in 1953. He died on March 4, 1963, at the age of 79 at his home in Rutherford. [ 12 ] [ 13 ] He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. [ 14 ]
"The rose fades, and is renewed again. "
The poet and critic Randall Jarrell said of his poetry, "William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird." [ 15 ] R. P. Blackmur said of Williams poetry "the Imagism of 1912. self-transcended." [ 16 ]
Williams's major collections are Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), and Paterson (1963, repr. 1992). His most anthologized poem is "The Red Wheelbarrow", an example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also "This Is Just To Say "). However, Williams, like his peer and friend Ezra Pound, had already rejected the Imagist movement by the time this poem was published as part of Spring and All in 1923.
Williams is strongly associated with the American modernist movement in literature and saw his poetic project as a distinctly American one; he sought to renew language through the fresh, raw idiom that grew out of America's cultural and social heterogeneity, at the same time freeing it from what he saw as the worn-out language of British and European culture. In 1920, this project took shape in Contact. a periodical launched by Williams and fellow writer Robert McAlmon. "The two editors sought American cultural renewal in the local condition in clear opposition to the internationalists—Pound, The Little Review. and the Baroness." [ 17 ] Yvor Winters. the poet/critic, judged that Williams's verse bears a certain resemblance to the best lyric poets of the 13th century. [ 18 ]
Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh and uniquely American form of poetry whose subject matter centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the "variable foot" which Williams never clearly defined, although the concept vaguely referred to Williams's method of determining line breaks. The Paris Review called it "a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse." [ 19 ]
One of Williams's aims, in experimenting with his "variable foot", was to show the American (opposed to European) rhythm that he claimed was present in everyday American language. Stylistically, Williams also worked with variations on a line-break pattern that he labeled "triadic-line poetry " in which he broke a long line into three free-verse segments. A well-known example of the "triadic line [break]" can be found in Williams's love-poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower ." [ 20 ]
In a review of Herbert Leibowitz's biography of William Carlos Williams, "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams. book critic Christopher Benfey wrote of Williams's poetry: "Early and late, Williams held the conviction that poetry was, in his friend Kenneth Burke's phrase, 'equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.' The American ground was wild and new, a place where a blooming foreigner needed all the help he could get. Poems were as essential to a full life as physical health or the love of men and women." [ 21 ] Williams expressed this viewpoint most famously in a line from his poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" in which he wrote:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there. [ 22 ]
This Is Just To Say (wall poem in The Hague)
The U.S. National Book Award was reestablished in 1950 with awards by the book industry to authors of 1949 books in three categories. Williams won the first National Book Award for Poetry. recognizing both the third volume of Paterson and Selected Poems. [ 23 ]
In May 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize 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 by presenting the prestigious William Carlos Williams Award annually for the best book of poetry published by a small, non-profit or university press.Bibliography Poetry collections Books, prose
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American writer and pediatrician, developed in his poetry a lucid, vital style that reproduced the characteristic rhythms of American speech.
William Carlos Williams's major work, Paterson (1946-1958, published entire 1963), a five-volume impressionistic poem, is an attempt to define the duties of the poet in the context of the American environment. Its appearance firmly established him as a major poet, and his work became greatly influential on the new generation of American poets.
Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1883, in Rutherford, N.J. He was educated in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his medical degree in 1906 from Pennsylvania, where he met poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. After interning for two years in New York hospitals and studying pediatrics at the University of Leipzig, Williams began practicing pediatrics in Rutherford in 1910. He continued his medical career for more than 40 years, writing in his spare time. That his profession allowed little time for study and writing probably accounts for both the unevenness of much of his verse and the naiveté of his poetic theory. He died in Rutherford on March 4, 1963.Development of the Poet
The lifelong tension in Williams between a romantic poetic sensibility and a confused modernist poetic theory was largely the result of the conflict between the two major influences in his development: his loyalty to Ezra Pound and his devotion to his mother. Pound had actually launched him as a poet in 1912, when he arranged for publication of six poems in the English Poetry Review and wrote an encouraging and affectionate introduction to his friend's verse. Williams acknowledged the influence of Pound's teachings (which he never fully understood) in I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). Here Williams wrote, "Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D." The Tempers (1913), Williams's first commercially published volume, was accepted by the publisher primarily through Pound's influence. Kora in Hell (1920) was partly inspired by a book Pound had left in Williams's house.
But if it was Pound who shaped Williams's ideas about poetry, it was his mother who shaped the man himself and the verse he actually created. As a result, he consistently uttered contradictory statements and often appeared to deny the poetry written out of his deepest self. If Pound represented "realism" and "science," authority and discipline, and the conscious will, Williams's mother stood for romance, freedom and impulse, and the unconscious springs of the creative miracle itself. A Spanish Jew, Williams's mother seemed out of place in industrial New Jersey. The feelings Williams held for her are evident in his statements in I Wanted to Write a Poem about her "ordeal" as a woman and a foreigner, about her interest in art, which became, as he says, his own, and about his feeling that she was a "mythical" figure, a heroic "poetic ideal."
The conflict between the influences of Pound and his mother affected Williams all his life and finally resolved itself into the artistic problem of how to write essentially "romantic" poetry while professing an antiromantic, behavioristic theory of poetics. The conflict came violently to the surface twice in Williams's career. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922, should have been an occasion for rejoicing for Williams, as it was for Pound, because Eliot's masterpiece exemplified the characteristics Pound and Williams had been demanding of contemporary poetry.
Yet for Williams the poem was clearly a shattering experience. Eliot's poem seemed to him, reflecting on it years later in I Want to Write a Poem, a "great catastrophe to our letters," a work of genius which by its very brilliance seemed to make unnecessary his own groping experiments in developing a distinctively American poetry written in a native idiom. Overawed by the stylistic brilliance and the learning of Eliot's poem, yet profoundly unsympathetic to its description of modern culture as a "waste land," Williams felt defeated in his effort to create a new sort of poetry rooted in common experience in a specific locality, his "Paterson."
The second trauma involved the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Pound's Pisan Cantos in 1948 while Pound was under indictment for treason for making broadcasts during World War II for the Italian Fascist dictator, Mussolini. Williams's inability to accept an appointment to the chair of poetry at the Library of Congress, because of a stroke, just at the time when Eliot and the other fellows of the Library were voting to grant the prize to Pound, and the resulting congressional controversy over the award, exacerbated Williams's difficulty in reconciling his sincere patriotism with his affection for Pound. His deferred appointment was attacked in Congress as a strengthening of the un-American Ezra Pound "clique" among the fellows; the attacks delayed Williams's recovery. As his wife later wrote, "Coming after the stroke, it was too much; it set him back tragically, kept him from poetry and communication with the world for years."
In many respects Williams's Autobiography (1951) was a form of therapy, for within it he was able to exorcise many of his frustrations and resentments. In the end, the shock and painful self-examination resulting from the affair had a salutary effect on his work; his chief poems after this period, Journey to Love (1955), "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," and Paterson, Book V (1958), are the most self-assured and fully achieved of his career. He was freed from an excessive dependence on Pound's example, and his mother's influence became increasingly dominant. He did not live to complete the book he planned about her, but his projected Paterson, Book VI clearly revealed the essentially romantic sensibility she had nurtured.
Although Williams thought of himself as a "realist," in reaction against what Pound had called the "messy, blurry, sentimentalistic" 19th century, he was actually a sort of modern Walt Whitman. Under Pound's tutelage he had denigrated Whitman, only to reverse himself later when postwar critics demonstrated that it was neither naive to approve Whitman nor unflattering to be said to resemble him. Williams never seemed to realize that Pound himself was much more indebted to Whitman than he ever cared to admit. Over a lifetime of contradictory writing and lecturing, Williams revealed little understanding of Leaves of Grass, and it is likely that he read it only superficially.
It was typical of Williams's critical innocence that in the 1940s and 1950s he vehemently continued to expound the modernist poetics first elaborated by Eliot and Pound a generation earlier, seemingly unaware that these theories had long since ceased to be revolutionary and were, in fact, the essence of the academic New Criticism he scorned. Unwittingly, Williams theoretically agreed with the very critics who slighted his work for its romanticism.Williams's Works
As always, there was a tremendous gap between what Williams intended—"autotelic," "pure," aristocratic poetry exhibiting primarily metrical expertness—and what he actually wrote—Whitmanesque poetry celebrating the native and the local that affirmed the beauty and meaning of the commonplace in American democracy. Williams's best work, from Al Que Quiere (1917) on, was characterized by a tension between romantic feeling and the concern to confront the brute facts of reality.
"Gulls," one of the best early poems, suggests that the harshness of the gulls' cries makes a better hymn than those sung in the churches, which outrage "true music." "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital," which Williams intended as a pure imagist poem, actually concludes with the supposedly "neutral" poet affirming the possibility of life even in the urban wasteland. The workmen in "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper" are not machines that react to stimuli but artists who shape and create their own ends.
When Williams tried to "think out" poetry in terms of the imagist theory of the separation between the artist and his material, he usually failed. His greatest poems, such as the late "A Unison," resemble the opposite sort of response, wherein the poem itself becomes a religious celebration of the union of man, nature, life, and reality in the Emersonian tradition.
Wallace Stevens's insightful Preface to Williams's Collected Poems (1934), calling him a "romantic," deeply offended the poet, who thought he had been writing "scientific" poetry like his idol, Pound. Yet Stevens's assessment of the real sensibility behind the poetry was penetrating: "He is a romantic poet. This will horrify him. Yet the proof is everywhere." Williams indeed was so horrified that he never allowed the Preface to be reprinted. Randall Jarrell's Introduction to Williams's Selected Poems (1949) is still the best short criticism of the poet's work. Ignoring Williams's often contradictory and confused opinions, Jarrell pinpointed the central qualities of the best poems, "their generosity and sympathy, their moral and human attractiveness."
Williams's major work, Paterson, begins at the head-waters of the Passaic River in the past and proceeds downstream, both geographically and temporally. Book IV, which takes place at the currently polluted mouth of the river, seems an exception to the affirmations of most of his work. But he was committed to using the actual facts of his locale and refused to ignore the decline and degeneration, the blight and perversion that characterized contemporary Paterson. The measure of his commitment to affirmation, however, can be marked in Book V and the unfinished Book VI of the poem, in which he strove to correct Book IV 's impression of despair and denial. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," one of his last and finest poems, seems completely free of irrelevant imagist baggage; in it Williams stands firm as a prophet of creative personality.
Other volumes of verse by Williams are Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Earlier Poems (1951), and Desert Music (1954). His essays include the reinterpretations of American history in In the American Grain (1925), Selected Essays (1954), and I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). His plays include A Dream of Love (1948) and Many Loves (1950). He also wrote novels: A Voyage to Pagany (1928); a triology concerning an American immigrant family, White Mule (1937); In the Money (1940); and The Build-up (1952). The William Carlos Williams Reader (1966) brings together whole poems and excerpts from his most important prose.Further Reading on William Carlos Williams
Williams's Autobiography appeared in 1951, and his Selected Letters was published in 1957. See also John Malcolm Brinnin, William Carlos Williams (1963). Specialized studies include Linda Welsheimer Wagner, The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1964) and The Prose of William Carlos Williams (1970); J. Hillis Miller, ed. William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966); and Joel Conarroe, William Carlos Williams' "Paterson": Language and Landscape (1970). There are sections on Williams in Randall jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968).