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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

[4996] Anonymous, William Carlos Williams (1963), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-109601].

Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams was the son of an English immigrant and a mother born in Puerto Rico. After studying in Switzerland and Paris, Williams returned to America permanently, and came to regard with disdain the vogue of expatriate life followed by so many other writers of his generation. In 1902, Williams entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and he later completed his residency in New York City. A practicing physician, Williams often wrote poetry in his office between visits with patients, and his verse bears the mark of a physician’s precise, careful, and relentless seeing. Living and working near New York, Williams knew H.D. and other artists and writers associated with Greenwich Village, Harlem, and New England, and he maintained a life-long friendship with many of them, although they often disagreed heartily among themselves about the missions and direction of modern poetry. Ezra Pound helped Williams publish his first collection of poetry, The Tempers, in 1913. Williams would go on to publish many books of poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and an autobiography, but it is his poetry that has assured his fame.

Williams represents a strand of modernism that is markedly different from the work of expatriate poets T. S. Eliot and Pound. Unlike his contemporaries, Williams wanted to write poetry that used the American idiom and focused on the world available to him in northern New Jersey. When he wrote about art, he wrote from the perspective of an ordinary visitor in the gallery, not as an insider flaunting a special aesthetic education. He affirmed that poetry should sound like common American speech and should not take the form that Pound came to favor, a verse littered with esoteric allusions. The painters he favored were those a bit like himself, artists who celebrated the color and feel of ordinary life.

Williams’s poetry is deceptively simple, and his verse can often achieve an austerity and surprise that link him to symbolism, imagism, and experimentation with haiku. Many of his poems, including the famous and brief “The Red Wheelbarrow” observation, depend on ingenious line breaks and visual organization for their poignancy. Williams’s longest poem, Paterson, is an epic work that takes the industrial city of the title as its locale and chronicles the history of the people and place from its inception to the present. Williams draws on Joyce’s circular structure in Finnegans Wake and echoes Eliot’s use of the modern city in The Waste Land, but the specifically American diction and emphasis on the particular render it starkly original.

One of the most influential modern American poets, Williams received the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1963. His celebration of American colloquial speech and dedication to careful description are continued in the work of countless modern poets.

Teaching Tips

  • 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.”

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Williams is interested in representing the traditions of everyday life. For him, the ordinary often takes on extraordinary overtones. In “Burning the Christmas Greens” Williams describes the ritual of incinerating the holiday tree and greenery. Why does this ritual seem so important to the speaker? What connections does he make between the burning and the bystanders in the last few stanzas? Why are the onlookers suddenly “lost” in the penultimate stanza?
  2. Context: In his architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright employed the technique of tokonama, or the use of a permanent element as a focus for contemplation and ceremony. To what extent does Williams use this strategy in his poetry? What in the poems is equivalent to the hearth that serves as the focus for Wright’s architecture?
  3. Exploration: “The Red Wheelbarrow” is one of Williams’s most famous poems. What is the relationship between form and subject matter? Why do you think it has gained such an important place in American poetry? How does it differ from work by Eliot and Pound? What do you think each of those authors would say about this poem?

Selected Archive Items

[4996] Anonymous, William Carlos Williams (1963), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-109601]. 
Drawing on such predecessors as Walt Whitman, poet William Carlos Williams sought to write in a distinctly “American” voice. In his efforts to capture the American idiom, Williams composed poems about such “trivial” things as plums and wheelbarrows.

[5493] Lewis W. Hine, Paterson, New Jersey–Textiles (1937), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Apartment above the cafe of a retired silk worker living on an eighteen-dollar-a-month pension. Some modernist writers dealt with poverty, class, and social protest in their work. William Carlos Williams wrote a long poem called Paterson.

[7128] Anonymous, Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio (c. 1933), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, ILL,16-OAKPA,5-2]. 
Photograph of entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, looking southeast, near Chicago, an example of how Wright used orientalism in his architecture.

[8950] Pancho Savery, Interview: “Rhythms in Poetry” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages. 
Professor of English Pancho Savery discusses William Carlos Williams’s relationship to American poetry.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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