| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
William Carlos Williams
Since his death in 1963, William Carlos Williams’s
centrality among the American modernist poets has been assured by a spate of
critical studies elucidating his innovative poetics, his use of American
language and scene, and his ties to revolutionary currents in the visual arts.
In formal experiment and in modulation of poetic voice from the highly
objective to the intimately autobiographical, Williams’s influence on the
writing of younger generations of poets has been extensive. Beyond this
emphasis on craft, however, lies his essential humanity and what he called
“contact” with the immediate world: from close attention to the flora and
landscape of his native northern New Jersey to his concern with the struggle,
pathos, and comic resilience of the working class. A writer of amazing shifts
and changes, Williams’s interest in process and discovery led him to reflect
the fragmentation and disjunction of modern life.
in Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams spent most of his life there except for
periods of education and travel. For him, remaining in the United States became
an example to set against the expatriation of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Yet
he was far from provincial. From 1897 to 1899 he studied with his younger
brother at schools near Geneva and in Paris. Home again, he commuted to the
Horace Mann School in New York until 1902. Finally deciding a career in
medicine would offer the support his writing demanded, Williams attended the
University of Pennsylvania Medical School, graduating in 1906. After an internship
in New York City, he spent a year in Europe, visiting Pound in London and
traveling on the continent. He was convinced, however, that the United States
provided richer materials for the native writer attentive to the “local” and
the vital language of his people.
mixed heritage, Williams thought himself a quintessential American. His mother
had been born in Puerto Rico of Basque and French-Dutch-Jewish descent; his
father, born in England and raised in the West Indies, retained British
citizenship after settling with his new wife in the U.S. The family spoke
Spanish at home when Williams was a boy. In his parents’ experience—including
his mother’s three years of art study as a young woman in Paris and his
father’s business trips to Latin and South America—as well as in his own
knowledge of the immigrant life of many of his patients, Williams found the
basis for his celebration of cultural diversity.
1912, two years after he began medical practice, Williams married Florence
Herman, daughter of a prosperous local family and later the Flossie of numerous
poems. The next year they bought a house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford to serve
as home and office; here they raised two sons and resided the rest of their
lives. His practice among the poor and the middle class would become a source
of characters, settings, and images throughout his work.
by early reading and imitation of Walt Whitman and John Keats, Williams was to
find his way after publication of Poems 1909 through Imagism and interest in
modernist art to a new attitude toward poetic form and treatment of immediate
reality. Although Ezra Pound, with whom he began a lifelong friendship at the
University of Pennsylvania, could not fully convert him to Imagism’s tenets,
his ideas helped to free Williams from a more conventional Romanticism.
publication of Al Que Quiere! in 1917 Williams first displayed the qualities of
his mature work: the short enjambed lines characterizing his visual style
contrasted with more colloquial verse shaped by what he called the “American
idiom”; the brash, no-nonsense voice of the social man contrasted with a
lyrical, romantic strain; precise, almost photographic recording of scene
contrasted with evocation of intimate emotion. In large measure Williams’s break
with traditional forms and with aesthetic attitudes toward mimesis and beauty
was a response to contemporary movements in painting and photography. In the
work of the Cubists, Dadaists, and Precisionists exhibited at Alfred
Stieglitz’s galleries and at Walter Arensberg’s studio, as well as in the dense
lyrics of Marianne Moore, Williams found support for a radically new approach
early 1920s were for Williams a time of aggressive experimentation. Typical of
the range of his writing during this period are the three poems “Spring and
All,” “The Rose,” and “To Elsie.” In each Williams begins with the importance
of the particular, the near-at-hand, affirming his later insistence in Paterson
on “no ideas but in things.” The potential for quickening he perceives in the
drear landscape and the possibility for renewal of outmoded conceptions
communicated in the painting—these, Williams implies, await only our
Paterson, Book I (1946), Williams undertook the long poem for which he had been
preparing since the preliminary study, “Paterson” (1927). Composed eventually
of five books, this modernist epic centers on the doctor-poet Paterson’s search
for a redeeming language, exploring the estrangement of men and women from their
environment and from each other. Using collage-like techniques, Williams
juxtaposes material from newspapers, letters, documents, and interviews with
passages in lyric, descriptive, and dramatic forms to create a portrait of his
time as significant as those in the long poems of Eliot and Pound.
his later work Williams often employed what he referred to as the “variable
foot,” a triadic or step-down form he first discovered in writing “The Descent”
in Paterson, Book II. Line length in “The Pink Locust,” for example, is
sometimes determined by grammatical units, sometimes by the emphasis Williams
places on phrases or individual words. The speaker’s voice is direct, personal.
Like the pink locust, Williams persisted during the last fifteen years of his
life, weathering a series of heart attacks and strokes and a nervous collapse,
to write a number of psychologically complex and hauntingly beautiful poems. He
is considered the most diverse and challenging poet of his generation.
Theodora Rapp Graham|
Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg
In the Heath Anthology
The Young Housewife
Portrait of a Lady
The Great Figure
Spring and All
The Pot of Flowers
The Red Wheelbarrow
Burning the Christmas Greens
The Pink Locust
Al Que Quiere!
Kora in Hell: Improvisations
In the American Grain
A Voyage to Pagany
Collected Poems 1906-1938
In the Money
The Build Up
The Desert Music
Jouney to Love
Pictures from Breghel
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Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
Search for Wiliams under "Texts" for links to a biography, online works, etc.
Modern American Poetry
Criticism, works online, biography, and links.
The Academy of American Poets
A brief biography, a bibliography, and poetry texts.
The Works of William Carlos Williams
Offers a complete bibliography.
James E. Breslin, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, 1970
Stephen Cushman, William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure, 1985
Bram Dijkstra, Cubism, Steiglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 1969
Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: The Poet and His Critics, 1975
Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, 1981
Emily M. Wallace, ed., A Bibliography of William Carlos Williams, 1968
Mike Weaver, William Carlos Williams: The American Background, 1971
Thomas R. Whitaker, William Carlos Williams, 1968, revised edition, 1989
William Carlos Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem, ed. Edith Heal, 1977