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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Born 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.

Of 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.

In 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.

Influenced 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.

With 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 to verse.

The 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 imaginative response.

With 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.

In 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
Danse Russe (1916)
The Young Housewife (1917)
Portrait of a Lady (1920)
The Great Figure (1921)
Spring and All (1923)
The Pot of Flowers (1923)
The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
The Rose (1923)
To Elsie (1923)
Young Sycamore (1927)
The Flower (1930)
The Poor (1938)
Burning the Christmas Greens (1944)
The Descent (1954)
The Pink Locust (1955)

Other Works
Poems (1909)
The Tempers (1913)
Al Que Quiere! (1917)
Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920)
Sour Grapes (1921)
In the American Grain (1925)
A Voyage to Pagany (1928)
White Mule (1937)
Collected Poems 1906-1938 (1938)
In the Money (1940)
Paterson (1946)
Autobiography (1951)
The Build Up (1952)
The Desert Music (1954)
Jouney to Love (1955)
Collected Stories (1961)
Pictures from Breghel (1962)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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