Williams William Carlos Essay Research Paper I

Williams, William Carlos Essay, Research Paper

I. Introduction

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Williams, William Carlos (1883-1963), American writer, whose

use of simple, direct language marked a new course in

20th-century poetry. Unlike some other writers of his time, such

as T. S. Eliot, Williams avoided complexity and obscure

symbolism. Instead, he produced lyrics, such as this one from

“January Morning” (1938), that contain few difficult references:

“All this-/ was for you, old woman./ I wanted to write a poem/

that you would understand.” Williams’s greatest achievement as

a writer was the epic Paterson (5 volumes, 1946-1958), which is

a landmark of 20th-century poetry.

II. Life and Works

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Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father, William

George Williams, was from Britain, and his mother, Helene Raquel

Williams, was a Puerto Rican-born woman of Basque and French

descent. Williams grew up in a household that spoke French,

Spanish, and British English. He entered the University of

Pennsylvania Medical School in 1902, and while there formed

friendships with several poets who would go on to great fame:

Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hilda Doolittle. After an

internship in New York City, Williams studied pediatrics at the

University of Leipzig in Germany. By late 1912, Williams had

returned to Rutherford, set up a private practice, and married his

fianc?e of several years, Florence Hermann.

Although he developed a busy practice as a doctor, Williams also

was a prolific writer, and for much of his life he published a book

at least every two years. His most important prose works are

The Great American Novel (1923); In the American Grain (1925),

a collection of essays on figures from American history; and

White Mule (1938), the first novel in a three-book series following

the life of one family.

In addition to Paterson, Williams’s various poetry collections

include The Collected Early Poems (1938), The Collected Later

Poems (1950), and Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems

(1962), which is a collection of works written from 1950 to 1962.

Williams began to achieve public recognition for his writing in

1950, when he won the National Book Award in poetry for the

third volume of Paterson. Three years later he won the Bollingen

Prize-awarded by Yale University for achievement in American

poetry-and in 1963, after his death, Williams won a Pulitzer Prize

for poetry for Pictures from Brueghel.

III. Poetic Ideas

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Poetry was, for Williams, a crucial and necessary-yet sometimes

ignored-means of communicating. In “Asphodel, That Greeny

Flower” (1955), he wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from

poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is

found there.” Williams’s ideas were basically humanistic: respect

yourself and others, love those you can, and try to make the

world a better place. He tried to live up to these ideals through

both his writing and his medical practice. One quality that

Williams admired greatly was persistence; he loved old people

who kept their vigorous response to life, just as he admired

artists who kept improving and perfecting their work.

Williams’s straightforward approach to writing marked a new

direction for poetry. In shaping his idea of what this new poetry

should be, Williams emphasized four qualities. The first was the

use of commonplace subjects and themes. The poet must write

about things people can respond to, things people have seen and

know. Otherwise, literature stands separate from its readers.

The second principle for the new poetry was the poet’s duty to

write about real events or objects in a language that all people

could understand, with an ear for the way people actually speak.

Williams called his language “the American idiom” and stressed

repeatedly that it was different from formal English in that it

allowed for speech patterns that could violate grammatical rules.

He delighted in experimenting with short poems that were little

more than fragments of speech capturing individual moments,

thoughts, feelings, or images, as in “This Is Just To Say” (1934):

“I have eaten/ the plums/ that were/ in the icebox…”

The third attribute for the new poetry was specificity. Williams

objected to traditional poetry that talked in generalities, such as

poems that treated love, death, anger, and friendship as

abstractions rather than as real things. Fighting against what he

called aboutness, Williams coined the phrase “No ideas but in

things.” This meant that his poetry made its point by focusing

attention on concrete reality. To show an emotion such as love,

he would write about the everyday gestures that represented

the emotion, such as a heartfelt apology. Also, Williams paid

attention to simple objects, like red wheelbarrows, that other

poets ignored, and he found poetic qualities in these everyday


The fourth principle of Williams’s new poetics was the poet’s

responsibility to write about his or her locale, or in the wording

he preferred, local. Williams believed that only by knowing a small

fragment of life thoroughly could anyone hope to understand the

total picture of human existence. Much of his own writing efforts

for more than a decade went into the epic Paterson, a long poem

presenting his local, which was industrialized New Jersey. Nature,

represented in the poem by the Passaic River and its well-known

falls, met with industry in the town of Paterson, where the falls

provided waterpower to the area. In the work Williams made a

number of statements about modern life-for instance about the

importance, to cities and people, of observing and maintaining

specific details in order to maintain a sense of individuality and



Toward the end of his life Williams was recognized as an

important influence on younger poets. Long before he was

esteemed by critics, such poets as Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth

Rexroth, Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov paid tribute to old

“Doc Williams,” the man who meshed two careers into one highly

productive life. Williams’s letters to these poets and to others

resulted in numerous collections, including The Selected Letters

of William Carlos Williams (1957) and several volumes published

after his death, such as The Last Word: Letters between Marcia

Nardi and William Carlos Williams (1994), Pound/Williams: Letters

of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (1996), and The

Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (1998


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