William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American writer and pediatrician, developed in his poetry a lucid, vital style that reproduced the characteristic rhythms of American speech.
William Carlos Williams's major work, Paterson (1946-1958, published entire 1963), a five-volume impressionistic poem, is an attempt to define the duties of the poet in the context of the American environment. Its appearance firmly established him as a major poet, and his work became greatly influential on the new generation of American poets.
Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1883, in Rutherford, N.J. He was educated in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his medical degree in 1906 from Pennsylvania, where he met poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. After interning for two years in New York hospitals and studying pediatrics at the University of Leipzig, Williams began practicing pediatrics in Rutherford in 1910. He continued his medical career for more than 40 years, writing in his spare time. That his profession allowed little time for study and writing probably accounts for both the unevenness of much of his verse and the naiveté of his poetic theory. He died in Rutherford on March 4, 1963.
Development of the Poet
The lifelong tension in Williams between a romantic poetic sensibility and a confused modernist poetic theory was largely the result of the conflict between the two major influences in his development: his loyalty to Ezra Pound and his devotion to his mother. Pound had actually launched him as a poet in 1912, when he arranged for publication of six poems in the English Poetry Review and wrote an encouraging and affectionate introduction to his friend's verse. Williams acknowledged the influence of Pound's teachings (which he never fully understood) in I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). Here Williams wrote, "Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D." The Tempers (1913), Williams's first commercially published volume, was accepted by the publisher primarily through Pound's influence. Kora in Hell (1920) was partly inspired by a book Pound had left in Williams's house.
But if it was Pound who shaped Williams's ideas about poetry, it was his mother who shaped the man himself and the verse he actually created. As a result, he consistently uttered contradictory statements and often appeared to deny the poetry written out of his deepest self. If Pound represented "realism" and "science," authority and discipline, and the conscious will, Williams's mother stood for romance, freedom and impulse, and the unconscious springs of the creative miracle itself. A Spanish Jew, Williams's mother seemed out of place in industrial New Jersey. The feelings Williams held for her are evident in his statements in I Wanted to Write a Poem about her "ordeal" as a woman and a foreigner, about her interest in art, which became, as he says, his own, and about his feeling that she was a "mythical" figure, a heroic "poetic ideal."
The conflict between the influences of Pound and his mother affected Williams all his life and finally resolved itself into the artistic problem of how to write essentially "romantic" poetry while professing an antiromantic, behavioristic theory of poetics. The conflict came violently to the surface twice in Williams's career. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922, should have been an occasion for rejoicing for Williams, as it was for Pound, because Eliot's masterpiece exemplified the characteristics Pound and Williams had been demanding of contemporary poetry.
Yet for Williams the poem was clearly a shattering experience. Eliot's poem seemed to him, reflecting on it years later in I Want to Write a Poem, a "great catastrophe to our letters," a work of genius which by its very brilliance seemed to make unnecessary his own groping experiments in developing a distinctively American poetry written in a native idiom. Overawed by the stylistic brilliance and the learning of Eliot's poem, yet profoundly unsympathetic to its description of modern culture as a "waste land," Williams felt defeated in his effort to create a new sort of poetry rooted in common experience in a specific locality, his "Paterson."
The second trauma involved the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Pound's Pisan Cantos in 1948 while Pound was under indictment for treason for making broadcasts during World War II for the Italian Fascist dictator, Mussolini. Williams's inability to accept an appointment to the chair of poetry at the Library of Congress, because of a stroke, just at the time when Eliot and the other fellows of the Library were voting to grant the prize to Pound, and the resulting congressional controversy over the award, exacerbated Williams's difficulty in reconciling his sincere patriotism with his affection for Pound. His deferred appointment was attacked in Congress as a strengthening of the un-American Ezra Pound "clique" among the fellows; the attacks delayed Williams's recovery. As his wife later wrote, "Coming after the stroke, it was too much; it set him back tragically, kept him from poetry and communication with the world for years."
In many respects Williams's Autobiography (1951) was a form of therapy, for within it he was able to exorcise many of his frustrations and resentments. In the end, the shock and painful self-examination resulting from the affair had a salutary effect on his work; his chief poems after this period, Journey to Love (1955), "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," and Paterson, Book V (1958), are the most self-assured and fully achieved of his career. He was freed from an excessive dependence on Pound's example, and his mother's influence became increasingly dominant. He did not live to complete the book he planned about her, but his projected Paterson, Book VI clearly revealed the essentially romantic sensibility she had nurtured.
Although Williams thought of himself as a "realist," in reaction against what Pound had called the "messy, blurry, sentimentalistic" 19th century, he was actually a sort of modern Walt Whitman. Under Pound's tutelage he had denigrated Whitman, only to reverse himself later when postwar critics demonstrated that it was neither naive to approve Whitman nor unflattering to be said to resemble him. Williams never seemed to realize that Pound himself was much more indebted to Whitman than he ever cared to admit. Over a lifetime of contradictory writing and lecturing, Williams revealed little understanding of Leaves of Grass, and it is likely that he read it only superficially.
It was typical of Williams's critical innocence that in the 1940s and 1950s he vehemently continued to expound the modernist poetics first elaborated by Eliot and Pound a generation earlier, seemingly unaware that these theories had long since ceased to be revolutionary and were, in fact, the essence of the academic New Criticism he scorned. Unwittingly, Williams theoretically agreed with the very critics who slighted his work for its romanticism.
As always, there was a tremendous gap between what Williams intended—"autotelic," "pure," aristocratic poetry exhibiting primarily metrical expertness—and what he actually wrote—Whitmanesque poetry celebrating the native and the local that affirmed the beauty and meaning of the commonplace in American democracy. Williams's best work, from Al Que Quiere (1917) on, was characterized by a tension between romantic feeling and the concern to confront the brute facts of reality.
"Gulls," one of the best early poems, suggests that the harshness of the gulls' cries makes a better hymn than those sung in the churches, which outrage "true music." "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital," which Williams intended as a pure imagist poem, actually concludes with the supposedly "neutral" poet affirming the possibility of life even in the urban wasteland. The workmen in "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper" are not machines that react to stimuli but artists who shape and create their own ends.
When Williams tried to "think out" poetry in terms of the imagist theory of the separation between the artist and his material, he usually failed. His greatest poems, such as the late "A Unison," resemble the opposite sort of response, wherein the poem itself becomes a religious celebration of the union of man, nature, life, and reality in the Emersonian tradition.
Wallace Stevens's insightful Preface to Williams's Collected Poems (1934), calling him a "romantic," deeply offended the poet, who thought he had been writing "scientific" poetry like his idol, Pound. Yet Stevens's assessment of the real sensibility behind the poetry was penetrating: "He is a romantic poet. This will horrify him. Yet the proof is everywhere." Williams indeed was so horrified that he never allowed the Preface to be reprinted. Randall Jarrell's Introduction to Williams's Selected Poems (1949) is still the best short criticism of the poet's work. Ignoring Williams's often contradictory and confused opinions, Jarrell pinpointed the central qualities of the best poems, "their generosity and sympathy, their moral and human attractiveness."
Williams's major work, Paterson, begins at the head-waters of the Passaic River in the past and proceeds downstream, both geographically and temporally. Book IV, which takes place at the currently polluted mouth of the river, seems an exception to the affirmations of most of his work. But he was committed to using the actual facts of his locale and refused to ignore the decline and degeneration, the blight and perversion that characterized contemporary Paterson. The measure of his commitment to affirmation, however, can be marked in Book V and the unfinished Book VI of the poem, in which he strove to correct Book IV's impression of despair and denial. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," one of his last and finest poems, seems completely free of irrelevant imagist baggage; in it Williams stands firm as a prophet of creative personality.
Other volumes of verse by Williams are Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Earlier Poems (1951), and Desert Music (1954). His essays include the reinterpretations of American history in In the American Grain (1925), Selected Essays (1954), and I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958). His plays include A Dream of Love (1948) and Many Loves (1950). He also wrote novels: A Voyage to Pagany (1928); a triology concerning an American immigrant family, White Mule (1937); In the Money (1940); and The Build-up (1952). The William Carlos Williams Reader (1966) brings together whole poems and excerpts from his most important prose.
Further Reading on William Carlos Williams
Williams's Autobiography appeared in 1951, and his Selected Letters was published in 1957. See also John Malcolm Brinnin, William Carlos Williams (1963). Specialized studies include Linda Welsheimer Wagner, The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1964) and The Prose of William Carlos Williams (1970); J. Hillis Miller, ed., William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966); and Joel Conarroe, William Carlos Williams' "Paterson": Language and Landscape (1970). There are sections on Williams in Randall jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968).