Last reviewed: June 2017
September 17, 1883
Rutherford, New Jersey
March 4, 1963
Rutherford, New Jersey
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
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams
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.