Authors: William Carlos Williams

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Poet

September 17, 1883

Rutherford, New Jersey

March 4, 1963

Rutherford, New Jersey

Biography

William Carlos Williams was a major American modernist poet to whom recognition came late in his career, and who influenced many subsequent poets in their search for a contemporary voice and form. Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883, to a mother born in Puerto Rico and an English father. Both parents figure in a number of Williams’s poems. In 1902 Williams began the study of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and while a student formed important friendships with Ezra Pound and the painter Charles Demuth. In 1910 Williams began his forty-year medical practice in Rutherford, marrying Florence Herman in 1912.

Williams’s first book of poems, entitled Poems and privately printed by a local stationer, was replete with the kind of archaic poetic diction and romantic longing typical of much American magazine poetry at the time. (In later years, Williams refused to allow the book to be reprinted.) As a result of Pound’s directive that he become more aware of avant-garde work in music, painting, prose, and poetry, Williams’s next book, The Tempers, reflected Pound’s pre-Imagist manner—a variety of verse forms, short monologues, and medieval and Latinate allusions. Williams responded with enthusiasm to the Imagist manifestos of 1912 and 1913, and much of his subsequent poetry reflects the Imagist emphasis upon concrete presentation, concision, and avoidance of conventional rhythms. Williams developed these principles in his own way, arguing that the new conditions of America itself and the primitive state of its literature demanded eschewing European literary conventions and traditions, and developing an American poetics of international standard, yet expressive of the American language and landscape. Al Que Quiere! reflects Williams’s working out of these and associated strategies, his developing an aesthetic that insists upon the ultimately creative reward of despair and destruction, and the importance of passionately engaging the object world of the native landscape with a kind of preconscious energy that breaks the conventions of perceptual habit. The 1920s volumes Sour Grapes, Spring and All, and The Descent of Winter (the latter two works can be found in the collection Imaginations) bring these concerns to fruition.

William Carlos Williams

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By unknown (believed to be passport photograph) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Carlos Williams

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[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After 1913, Williams formed friendships with a number of important writers and painters working in and around New York, including Marsden Hartley, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Sheeler. He saw his hopes for native expression confirmed by the arrival in New York of such major modernist figures as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia at the time of World War I. He was doubly disappointed in the early 1920s by the exodus of these figures and many American artists to Paris and by the success of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Both events signified to Williams the triumph of the international school of modernism against which he had spiritedly set himself in the 1918 “Prologue” to his Kora in Hell.

Williams labored on his writing for the next twenty years, largely unrecognized except by readers of the short-lived small magazines that printed experimental American work. What some critics consider Williams’s finest book, the prose and poetry sequence Spring and All, was printed in Paris in an edition of only three hundred and not reprinted in full until 1970, seven years after his death. The sequential format suggesting multiple but loosely linked relationships among the twenty-seven poems and interspersed prose illustrates Williams’s inventiveness on the levels of individual poems and overall formal structure. This book contains the famous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” later printed by Williams as a separate poem, and often anthologized as the quintessential Imagist expression.

In the 1930s, Williams’s work took a more overtly political turn, although he had always shared the view of Pound and Eliot that the work of the poet was central to the health and potential of a civilization and that the state of a culture was reflected in its response to its serious artists. These concerns form a central theme of Paterson, his long poem initially conceived and published in four books (1946 to 1951; Williams added a fifth book in 1958). The past and present of this New Jersey city are examined in a collagelike mix of poetry and prose—including newspaper accounts, histories, and letters Williams himself received while writing the work—to dramatize the lack of creative response to the rich potential of the landscape. The theme is an extension of that in Williams’s book of historical essays, In the American Grain. Paterson’s once-famous falls serves as a central motif representing the unrealized promise of native language and expression, its insistent and ever-present roar ignored amid the scenes of exploitation, sterile love affairs, and mindless escapism documented throughout the poem.

In 1951 Williams suffered the first of a series of strokes that forced him to retire from medicine and, gradually, came to affect his vision and typing ability. Williams’s restricted life, and his severe depression of 1952 to 1953, color the tone and subject matter of the poems in The Desert Music and Journey to Love. These poems are written in the three-step line Williams had initially used in part of the second volume of Paterson, and many of his critical statements of the 1950s are concerned with his concepts of the “variable foot” and “the American idiom” behind this development in his poetics. Essentially, both concepts are restatements of his career-long concern with a nonliterary language to treat the local American scene and a rejection of the conventional rhythms and forms of English poetry. Nevertheless, the descending three-step line proves an ideal structural and visual form for these more meditative poems, many of which delve into memory to discover formerly unrealized significance. Williams’s major achievement of these years is generally considered “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”—a poem of reconciliation to Florence Williams, considered by W. H. Auden “one of the most beautiful love poems in the language.”

Never one to rest in any one mode, for his final book of poems, Pictures from Brueghel, Williams returned to the more concentrated, pictorial strategies of his early career. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry shortly after the poet’s death.

In the 1950s, Williams became an important figure for poets seeking an alternative to the neoclassical poetics of T. S. Eliot and his followers, and such figures as Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, and Denise Levertov acknowledged a large debt to his example. Since that decade, too, Williams’s career-long achievement has gradually come to be more and more fully recognized. Although still not accorded the status of Eliot and Stevens by some critics of modernism, on the whole these two—along with Williams and Pound—are considered the four major figures of American modernist poetry.

Author Works Poetry: Poems, 1909 The Tempers, 1913 Al Que Quiere!, 1917 Kora in Hell: Improvisations, 1920 Sour Grapes, 1921 Spring and All, 1923 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, 1946–1958 The Clouds, 1948 Selected Poems, 1949 Collected Later Poems, 1950, 1963 Collected Earlier Poems, 1951 The Desert Music, and Other Poems, 1954 Journey to Love, 1955 Pictures from Brueghel, 1962 Selected Poems, 1985 The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909–1939, 1986 The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume II, 1939–1962, 1988 Long Fiction: The Great American Novel, 1923 A Voyage to Pagany, 1928 White Mule, 1937 In the Money, 1940 The Build-up, 1952 Short Fiction: The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories, 1932 Life along the Passaic River, 1938 Make Light of It: Collected Stories, 1950 The Farmers’ Daughters: The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams, 1961 The Doctor Stories, 1984 The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams, 1996 Drama: Many Loves, and Other Plays, pb. 1961 Nonfiction: In the American Grain, 1925 A Novelette, and Other Prose, 1932 The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, 1951 Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, 1954 The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, 1957 The Embodiment of Knowledge, 1974 A Recognizable Image, 1978 William Carlos Williams, John Sanford: A Correspondence, 1984 William Carlos Williams and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 1989 Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, 1996 (Hugh Witemeyer, editor) The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, 1998 William Carlos Williams and Charles Tomlinson: A Transatlantic Connection, 1998 The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke, 2004 Translations: Last Nights of Paris, 1929 (of Philippe Soupault; with Raquel Hélène Williams) A Dog and the Fever, 1954 (of Francisco de Quevedo; with Raquel Hélène Williams) Miscellaneous: The Descent of Winter, 1928 (includes poetry, prose, and anecdotes) Imaginations, 1970 (includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) Bibliography 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 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. 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. 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.

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