William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
About the Poet
A much admired homebody whose verse captures humanistic truths, William Carlos Williams managed a forty-one-year career in medicine alongside a considerable contribution to modern literature. His background as a jazz disciple allied him with poets Hart Crane, Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. cummings, all proponents of variable meter. Unlike the more flamboyant, Europeanized literary experimenters of the age, he remained tethered to small-town American life. Rebelling against the nihilism and academic elitism of modern art, the substance of his work returned poetry to the common citizen.
Born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford Park, New Jersey, Williams was a first-generation American. His studies at the Château de Lançy in Geneva and the Lycée Condorcet in Paris did little to alter his New World identity. In his late teens, he discovered the works of Walt Whitman and John Keats and began imitating their style. Because of rigid upbringing, he established the stable career that his parents expected and relegated writing to off-hours relaxation as a form of mental and spiritual liberation.
Williams entered professional studies at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where he met fellow students Ezra Pound and H. D. From them, he acquired a delight in the unfettered creativity of free verse. After switching from dentistry and obtaining an M.D. in 1906, Williams interned in New York City slums at the French Hospital and the Nursery and Child's Hospital. He completed an advanced degree in pediatrics from the University of Leipzig and settled into practice. He married Florence "Flossie" Herman, with whom he had two sons, William and Paul.
Williams operated a medical practice in his Rutherford home from 1910 to 1952 and delivered some 2,000 infants, while maintaining a second-floor studio for his writing. From lines scribbled on prescription pads and typed while he rested between patients, he submitted polished human-centered verse to magazines and journals. He published his first stand-alone volume in 1909 as Poems, an unremarkable start privately printed at a cost of $50. The Tempers (1913) was the first of many verse collections grounded in the vital vernacular of ordinary folk.
Williams maintained a slow, steady evolution into a significant spokesman for localism and the American idiom. Like Frost, he began to focus on everyday figures and objects. He developed mythic and classic allusions without straying from a workaday intent. In Transitional (1915), he moved into free verse, a venue that suited his contemporary flow of Al Que Quiere! [To Him Who Seeks] (1917), Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), Sour Grapes (1921), and In the American Grain (1925), the culmination of his intense study of national themes and attitudes. He followed with Collected Poems (1934), An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935), Adam & Eve & the City (1936), Complete Collected Poems (1938), The Broken Span (1941), and Journey to Love (1956), but published nothing that elevated his literary reputation among average readers. Angered by the success of more erudite poets, he founded alternative magazines to provide a voice for populist poems. In addition to writing verse, he translated the work of Philippe Soupault and published four novels, three collections of short fiction, four anthologies of essays, a libretto, a play, a volume of letters, and an autobiography. At the height of his artistry, he composed a personal epic, Paterson, published in four installments from 1946 to 1951. In 1963, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) earned him the Pulitzer Prize and a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948; in 1951, he transferred his practice to his son. In 1952, during the McCarthy era, Williams served only a few months as national poetry consultant, an appointment marred by accusations that his poem "Russia" was pro-Communist. Public humiliation and the failure of the literary community to support him precipitated a stroke, followed by diminished sight. He died at home in his sleep on March 4, 1963, and he was buried at Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
Williams, the maverick genius, is remembered for mentoring poets Allen Ginsberg and Kay Boyle and for influencing Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov. A posthumous collection, The William Carlos Williams Reader, was issued in 1966; a fiction anthology, William Carlos Williams: The Doctor Stories, appeared in 1984. Libraries at the University of Buffalo and Yale house his personal papers.
Heavy with implications, "The Young Housewife" (1920) displays Williams' penchant for freezing a moment in time. The unnamed subject is distantly erotic in the poet-speaker's fantasy of her in a negligee or standing at the curb without a corset. She captures his attention by lifting her arms to tame an errant strand of hair. Retreating into metaphor, the observer rolls soundlessly by in his car as though deliberately distancing himself from her housewifely chores. The brief tension in crushing dried leaves derives from his declaration in lines 9 and 10 that she is a dried leaf. Drama emerges from the demands of housekeeping, which wither the beauty of a woman walled up in the wooden cubicle of "her husband's house" and only occasionally freed to the outdoors to dicker with tradesmen.
From the same period, "Portrait of a Lady" (1920) ventures more openly into erotic contemplation, a subject that embroiled Williams in domestic conflict with his wife, who harbored no illusions about his fidelity. The poet-speaker attempts to locate the source of female loveliness by fluctuating between metaphor and artistic representations of womanhood. Moving downward from thighs to ankles, his mind debates breaching the "shore," a euphemism for propriety. At the poem's climax in line 15, sand at the lips yanks the admirer earthward. After he returns to the polite abstraction of apple blossom petals, his better judgment urges him to write sedate, nonsexual verse.
Williams excited debate about American imagism with "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923). Some analysts question whether it achieves the purpose of poetry. Others declare it a purist classic of imagism for its haiku-like form, simplified beauty, and muted tension. Depersonalized of poultry owner or user of the wheelbarrow, the poem rivets attention on a specific still life. The stark depiction of red and white and the glazing of rain are the substance of the visual scene, but the poetic tension resides in the first line, "so much depends." Williams gives force to the brief observation with the pointed suggestion that humble farm life is a precarious existence, often made or broken on primitive equipment and the amount and pattern of rainfall.
With a botanist's meticulous eye, Williams composed "Queen Anne's Lace" (1923), a minutely detailed, impressionistic study of the small white blooms that form the compact flower head known as Queen Anne's lace. A member of the carrot family, it is a standard among American wildflowers and thus often overlooked as nothing special. The poet's transformation of the white flower into sexual stirring demonstrates a ready embrace of beauty and passion.
Williams, a master of surprise, disarms the reader with a fresh approach to sexual attraction. The irony of the flower's "taking / the field by force" reverses the romantic notion of femininity compromised by heavy-handed male passion. As though examining a human patient, the poet-speaker imagines arousing the flower to "the fibres of her being." Implicit in his reverie is the inborn flaw, the purple center that mars the unblemished whiteness of each stalk. Williams expresses its uniqueness in an optical corollary: If the flower were totally white, the field would vanish in the unity of color. As it exists in nature, the flower's modified purity halts the scene from "[going] over" into the nothingness of perfection.
"Spring and All" (1923), one of Williams' most anthologized poems, abandons normal sentence structure to string together surreal impressions of an emerging season. The setting, on an unremarkable drive to "the contagious hospital," suggests the contagion of emergence, which will soon spark "upstanding" twigs, leaves, and shoots of myriad types to spring back to life. Similarly contagious is his anticipation of an end to the sterile lifelessness of late winter and his joy in nature's constant state of flux. The ambiguity of "they" in line 16 expands the thrust of inanimate life to include humanity as well. By allying the uncertainty of birth in "the cold, familiar wind," he implies that newborns also quicken, "grip down and begin to awaken."
Like a scene from a film, "Danse Russe" [Russian Dance] illustrates the two sides of Williams' life — the creative and the mundane. With dispassionate observation, his nervous, short lines establish the household rhythm in the family's sleep, a bland, non-threatening peace. In wild counterpoint, the rush of activity in the north room characterizes the disquiet that inflames and compels the poet, whose nudity suggests an unflinching study of self. Line 12 speaks the blunt truth of the poet's singularity — a loneliness that sets him apart from satisfied domesticity. Like a closet dervish, he can pull the shades and relish a moment of pride in rebellion without openly challenging his family's serene conventionality.
"This Is Just to Say" (1934), which is less structured than the poems of the 1920s, illustrates Williams' ability to strike to the heart of meaning with a single, deft phrase. The first-person admission of eating plums intended for someone's breakfast begs for understanding. Building on sibilance and concluding on "so cold," the poem implies that sweet, fruity taste contrasts the coldness of a human relationship that forbids sharing or forgiveness for a minor breach of etiquette.
As though reprising Christmas tradition in a momentary conflagration, "Burning the Christmas Greens" (1944) is a sensory encounter that overlays green boughs with the red flame that devours them. Gathered at the "the winter's midnight," a metaphor for the winter solstice, when day and night are equal in length, the armloads of hemlock serve their purpose and give place to bare mantle and walls when Christmas passes. The color tensions — green fronds heavy with snow, green transformed to red fire, then to black and white ash — unite human observers in the wonder of a post-Christmas ritual. In a retreat to pagan, pre-Christian paradox, the flame stands up from the grate like "shining fauna," a description of the people as well. In an act that tips the balance of the solstice, they become one with all nature in their rise to passion and return in death to simple elemental matter. Williams implies that nature refrains from balance with a constant shifting to extremes.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Select several imagistic works by Williams, such as "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "Burning the Christmas Greens," that alter substance with a flash of surprise or an unforeseen gestalt. Compare his visual method to that of Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Willem De Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, and other painters, sculptors, and muralists ofhis day.
2. Summarize Williams' commentary on art in "The Desert Music." Contrast his purpose to that of T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, or Marianne Moore.
3. Compare Williams' view of the ugliness, monotony, and crassness of everyday life with similar themes and subjects in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Robert Frost's "'Out, out . . .," and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.
4. How does Williams elicit eroticism in "Portrait of a Lady"?
5. Is Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" poetry or not? Defend your answer.