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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



10. Rhythms
in Poetry


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities
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Activities
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Activities: Author Activities


William Carlos Williams - Teaching Tips

Back Back to William Carlos Williams Activities
  • Students may assume that Williams is an "easy" poet, especially in comparison to Eliot and Pound, who composed more allusive poetry. The challenge with Williams will be to show students that these poems are more complicated than they appear. "The Red Wheel-barrow" and "This Is Just to Say" provide good starting points because they seem so straightforward. While in a sense they are, it is important to discuss with students how the form of "The Red Wheelbarrow" complements the subject. The line breaks and carefully crafted stanzas (three words, then one word) control not only the cadence of the poem, but the eye and ear of the reader. Williams forces us to stop and consider each image separately, as if we are looking at a series of photographs or Chinese ideograms. Only at the end of the poem can we see the entire image. Writing the poems out in paragraph form can help emphasize the inventiveness of Williams's economy and line breaks. The concentration on everyday images and colloquial speech in all his poetry is also clearly illustrated in these works. You might then broaden discussion by exploring how these poems compare with some of the imagist works of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Amy Lowell.

  • It is also helpful to point out to students how Williams's modernism differs from that of Eliot and Pound. Like the expatriate poets, Williams wanted to remake poetry, to wrest it from what he considered the stale and outmoded Victorian verse. Williams felt it was necessary, however, to write uniquely American poetry, verse grounded in his native idiom, landscape, and culture. He did not look to Europe for a sense of tradition, but rather set out to begin a new direction, though he certainly took much from poets like Walt Whitman. Unlike Frost, whose poetry Williams felt continued many of the stereotypes of America as rural, agricultural, innocent, and basically moral, he saw America in a less positive light. Like Eliot and Pound, he often showed the darker, more corrupt side of modern America. While Frost, Eliot, and Pound often make judgments and pronouncements about culture and society in their work, Williams resisted speaking more generally about human nature or the modern condition. He preferred to let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. His famous saying "No ideas but in things" speaks to this belief that the poet should deal with the concrete rather than the abstract. Like fellow poets H.D., Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound, Williams probably saw Lawrence Binyon's exhibition of Chinese art at the British Museum, 1910-12, and he was certainly struck by Pound's use of Chinese poetics in "Cathay" (1915), about which he said that "the Chinese things" were "perhaps a few of the greatest poems ever written."




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