Reading William Carlos Williams

Context N°11

by Linda Wagner-Martin

William Carlos Williams might have been surprised to find CONTEXT reprinting sections of his 1923 prose-poem and poem collage, “Spring and All.” Then again, writing for all of us truly common readers, the pure products of public and state schools as has never before been true in Western history, perhaps he would have simply nodded. And smiled.

It was a gentle, a craggy, smile—less a no-nonsense smile than some of his brusque poems might have suggested. For Williams was a gentle man, despite his sexual pecadillos, his tendency to support his immediate family less well than his patients, his need to run from Rutherford, New Jersey (to Europe, several times, and, frequently, to New York City). His gentleness kept him from cutting the throats of people who could have been considered his competitors—instead, his address at 9 Ridge Road became a stable meeting place, a permanence that poets traveled to: Denise Levertov, Hayden Carruth, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Rakosi, Robert Bly, Carol Berge, Robert Creeley, Robert Coles and the younger. And the older. Despite his normal frantic busyness, Williams met them all with that same gentle smile. Almost a half smile.

The smile persevered even after the several strokes, one massive, that entailed speech training as part of his general recovery. Two years after that stroke, Dr. Williams was giving poetry readings again—punctuated with the unexpected halts, stammers, silences that effectively brought his listeners into the loop of “reading.” Working to say the words mimicked the kind of mental processes that had been involved in his finding those words in the first place, especially his late works:

The smell of the heat is box wood
             when rousing us
                     a movement of the air

stirs our thoughts. . . .

Be Patient that I address you in a poem,
             there is no other
                     fit medium

Like his “All this— / was for you, old woman. / I wanted to write a poem / that you would understand,” this caveat was Williams’s prolegomenon for the sixty years of his poetic career (he died in the spring of 1963, a restless but still gentle 79). The poem for his daughters-in-law, “To Daphne and Virginia,” continued,

The mind
           lives there. It is uncertain,
                  can trick us and leave us

agonized. But for resources
           what can equal it?
                  There is nothing. We

should be lost
           without its wings to
                  fly off upon . . . .

Williams as poet placed himself in relation to the people of his existence; from those relationships came his poems. It was a techique based on little but emotion, a technique which few other modernists had discovered.


One of the gifts that Williams brought to modern and contemporary poetry was his recognition of the difficulty of finding language, of choosing words. Many of the better established modern poets—Eliot, Stevens, even e. e. cummings—were more interested in polishing the word, moving it into patterns that defied past aesthetic forms. Their art was the art of construction, reconstruction. Williams’s was the art of bringing emotion into words.

Not for nothing was Williams a close friend of Kenneth Burke, whose notes for Williams’s interest in Native American culture—as well as language in general—turn up in the Beinecke Library Williams Collection. The process of language was one of the avenues Williams opened which Robert Creeley followed, for instance: Wittgenstein was never the whole story. But because Williams was poised to be a scientist, because he had literally gone from secondary school into the University of Pennsylvania medical school (skipping those four years of undergraduate college that have since come to be considered a requisite), he had to find his own way through the labyrinth of the world’s scientific words: he had to see that no meaning existed without the exact word. Alone, he moved from the scientific precision of academic language to a speech-like voicing that tried to recreate the human connection: from medical textbook to lyric, Williams was a gifted (but consistently unsure) pioneer in the uses of language. His search for the word was no less tortured at the turn into the twentieth century than it is today: as he wrote before the publication of any of his books, in the imitative language that to him sounded the way a poem should—though not necessarily his poem “I will write of the leaves and the moon in a tree top! / I will sing then the song, long in the making—”

Williams’s earliest poems are troubling try-pieces, some based on the rhythms of chant, some drawn from archaic sources—and that pose as real poetry because of their reliance on “thy” and “thou.” Embarrassing to Ezra Pound, that quintessential maker of things new, and H. D., who was less quick to judge the ebullient Williams, his poems showed that he had been trained on the classics of the Western world. No wonder Pound sent him “reading lists” for the next fifty years; no wonder H. D. and Marianne Moore considered him an untaught savage—though a man always gentle, excited by the word, and particularly by the way the two of them used it. (Williams cared more for H. D.’s imagist poems than for anything Pound ever produced.)

Most of the poems by William Carlos Williams that are anthologized today, most of the poems that people know, come from the first decade of Williams’s writing—the years when he was not only unknown but, if known at all, considered some kind of wild man of American poetry. More properly, of American speech. Other ambitious United States poets were staking their claims to greatness on the fact that they were happily derivative of British speech and language patterns: highly educated, for the most part, such American poets as Conrad Aiken, Eliot, John Gould Fletcher, Dos Passos and e. e. cummings, Amy Lowell and of course Pound wanted to claim the tradition of the English language in toto. Williams’s poems sounded wrong to most ears so trained. It was those ears, however, that were wrong. Williams’s voice in his poems was the colloquial, and definitely uneducated, outbreak of passion that no properly refined reader could recognize. Or it was the starkly phrased report of that passion—or that person—without any pointed moralizing. In either case, polite readers turned away.

One of Williams’s most important books, published in 1917, was the collection Al Que Quiere! Drawn from the language of his Spanish-speaking family, especially his all-important mother who was Puerto Rican, and given the passionate exclamation mark (used by no practicing poet of the time except perhaps e. e. cummings), Williams’s title was a defiant “to him who wants it,” a thumbing of his by-now experienced nose at what the academic (and accepted) modernist poets and critics thought of his work. Whereas in his first attempts to publish, he had used “William Williams” as his writing name, alternating with “W. C. Williams,” he had begun using his Spanish-flavored given name as a signature of rebellion. (People in educated circles spoke French and Italian; very few even recognized Spanish.) Al Que Quiere! includes more than twenty of Williams’s poems familiar to readers today; yet as a book, it received nothing but grudging notice when it was mentioned at all in omnibus reviews.

Williams’s 1923 Spring and All is, in many ways, an answer to the icy stillness that greeted Al Que Quiere! (Between the two came his English titled collection, also a key book in Williams’s oeuvre, Sour Grapes. It was received with even less enthusiasm.) So by the time of the early 1920s, when United States publishers were searching for new writers in order to take advantage of American prosperity—and interest in new forms of art—Williams, still undiscovered, still paying to publish his own collections through near-vanity press avenues, spoke out.


It was there all along: the route to the true American language. Intentionally rough, the bluff Dr. Williams reacts here as well to the spectacular reception of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams privileges emotion as it creates the power of the imagination, and then comments directly on Eliot’s erudite tapestry of words. (It is, after all, 1923; The Waste Land, like Joyce’s closely watched Ulysses, appeared in 1922.) As Williams writes in Spring and All,

         I love my fellow creature. Jesus, 
                         how I love him: endways, sideways, 
                         frontways and all the other ways--but 
                         he doesn't exist! Neither does she. I 
                         do, in a bastardly sort of way.
                              To whom then am I addressed? To 
                         the imagination. [. . .]
                               If I could say what is in my mind in 
                         Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so.
                         But I cannot. I speak for the integrity 
                         of the soul and the greatness of life's 
                         inanity; the formality of its boredom; 
                         the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill! 
                         kill! let there be fresh meat. . . . 
                               The imagination, intoxicated by 
                         prohibitions, rises to drunken heights
                         to destroy the world. Let it rage, let it 
                         kill. The imagination is supreme.

Spring and All is a mixed-form “poem”about, among other things, spring, the season that undoes us.With a Coleridgian emphasis, Williams vaunts the results of that undoing:

                             All thought of misery has left us. 
                         Why should we care? Children laugh-
                         ingly fling themselves under the wheels 
                         of the street cars, airplanes crash gaily 
                         to the earth. Someone has written a 
                              Oh life, bizarre fowl, what color are 
                         your wings? Green, blue, red, yellow, 
                         purple, white, brown, orange, black, 
                         grey? In the imagination, flying above 
                         the wreck of ten thousand million 
                         souls, I see you departing sadly for the
                         land of plants and insects, already far 
                         out to sea. (Thank you, I know well 
                         what I am plagiarizing).

Plagiarizing, or at least borrowing, Williams never runs for the safe assurance of shoring up the myriad fragments of his text. In The Waste Land, as in his much later Four Quartets, Eliot returns to his chosen, stable still point. Williams, in contrast, wants anarchy: he creates the chaotic by misnumbering sections of his poem, inverting chapter markers, and juxtaposing the formal poems with the usually raucous prose, prose intentionally reasonless—exuberant, meandering, yet cohesive with the force of the writer’s unfettered imagination. The imagination here—as in Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations, The Great American Novel, and In the American Grain, all products of the early mid-1920s—assumes the reins to lead the poet, and the reader, to the truth.

“To Elsie,” “At the ballgame,” “Spring and All,” and the twenty-some other poems embedded in the prose text of Spring and All—each insists on the poetry of life that births itself, regardless of its formal qualities, from the imagination given language. By separating out the poems, as editors until recently did, by omitting Williams’s intentionally lush, capricious prose, readers have been denied the efficacy of the poet’s creation. The warning was there all along. Williams had written in his “Chapter VI”:

    Yes, the imagination, drunk with
                          prohibitions, has destroyed and recre-
                          ated everything afresh in the likeness 
                          of that which it was. Now indeed men
                          look about in amazement at each other
                          with a full realization of the meaning 
                          of "art."

To restore the flavor of the kind of coherence that Spring and All as a whole illustrates, look at the two sections which follow the quoted passage above:

It is spring: life again begins to 
                         assume its normal appearance as of 
                         "today." Only the imagination is unde-
                         ceived. The volcanos are extinct. Coal 
                         is beginning to be dug again where the 
                         fern forests stood last night. (If an 
                         error is noted here, pay no attention to 
                                       CHAPTER XIX
                        I realize that the chapters are 
                         rather quick in their sequence and that 
                         nothing much is contained in any one 
                         of them but no one should be surprised 
                         at this today.
                              It is spring. That is to say, it is 
                         approaching THE BEGINNING. . . . 
                         Suddenly it is at an end. THE WORLD 
                         IS NEW.

It is at this point, after these dozen pages of Williams’s euphoric, insistent prose, that he places poem I (untitled, named by only its Roman numeral), the poem readers know as “Spring and All.” Remember that it opens “By the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds driven from the / northeast—a cold wind. . . .”

With the narrative precision that often marked Williams’s art, this poem—announcing spring—is followed by the gentle flowering of “II” (“Pink confused with white”) and then Williams leads the reader back to his prose prolegomenon. Among the wise sentences in this section: “The imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art,’ takes the lead! Her feet are bare and not too delicate. . . .”

“Chapter I,” subtitled “Samuel Butler,” follows, in which Williams argues against the British literary traditions—named as “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism” [making readers see that revering the traditions of art is a kind of plagiarism]. “They have their great weapons to hand: ‘science,’ ‘philosophy,’ and most dangerous of all ‘art.’ ”

Williams follows this announcement of his attempt to create a truly new aesthetic with the poems “The farmer in deep thought” and “The Easter stars are shining” and then he returns to his aesthetic, this time an exploration of the “traditional” poetic elements he so disdains. From this several-page section, his tenet of revolt:

What I put down of value will have  
                         this value: an escape from crude sym-
                         bolism, the annihilation of strained 
                         associations, complicated ritualistic
                         forms designed to separate the work
                         from "reality"--such as rhyme, meter
                         as meter and not as the essential of the
                               The work will be in the realm of the
                         imagination as plain as the sky is to a

That Williams sustains this remarkable formal melange for sixty pages (in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1) is proof of the integrity of a powerful, and hungering, imagination set loose. Aesthetic freedom is a natural result.


More years ago than I like to remember, I made the prediction that Williams would come into the twenty-first century renowned as a master of fiction. Win some, lose some. At least Williams is still with us, while other poets as important—Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, e. e. cummings, and even Pound—are struggling to maintain their pages in conventional anthologies. James Laughlin always commended me for my industry—during the 1960s and 1970s—for keeping Williams’s name in circulation. Clearly, today’s response to Williams has nothing to do with what such academics as James Breslin, Jim Guimond, Fred Eckman, Charles Tomlinson and others wrote in the 1970s; it has to do with Williams’s writing.

Eclipsed through the 1980s and 1990s by the critical world’s attention to various kinds of theory, William Carlos Williams’s strain of American writing is ready to resurface. Part of the twenty-first century’s interest in Williams will come from the continuous excavation of Walt Whitman, newly perceived at least in part from the perspective of gay theory. But more of it accrues from the recent prominence of the Beats, occasioned first by their literal deaths (Ginsberg, Corso, Levertov) but more importantly by their relevance to college-age readers. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, though seldom assigned for classes, handily sells more than 100,000 copies every year; Robert Creeley’s recent Lannan Award for Lifetime Achievement brings the most dedicated of Williams’s friends to a visibility that sometimes seemed to have gone underground. Even before the terror of 9-11, today’s readers tended to be unimpressed by traditional greatness captured in traditional forms. They were people in search of their own aesthetics, one comprised of electronic images, incredibly fast-paced insights, subjectively unique perspectives—undergirded with both passion and gentleness. William Carlos Williams would have recognized these readers. Above all, he would have welcomed them.

Selected Works by William Carlos Williams

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New Directions, $14.00.
The Build-Up. New Directions, $9.95.
Imaginations. New Directions, $14.95.
In the American Grain. New Directions, $10.95.
In the Money. New Directions, $19.95.
Paterson. New Directions, $12.95.
Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. New Directions, $9.95.
White Mule. New Directions, $12.95.
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. New Directions, vol. 1: $40.00; vol. 2: 37.50

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