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William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

literature

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William Carlos Williams

(1883-1963)

 


 

I  INTRODUCTION

William Carlos Williams (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

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 fiancée 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

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 objects.

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 importance.



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).

icrosoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

 

·      Deep attachment to America; patriotism, equalitarianism and a feeling for the common life and openness to experience (affinity for Whitman)

“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.” (Reading William Carlos Williams”, Linda-Wagner-Martin, Context. A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture No. 11, Online Edition: http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no11/Wagner-Martin.html)

  

·      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.' His poems showed that he had been trained on the classics of the Western world.

·      He was 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. Williams's voice in his poems was the colloquial, and definitely uneducated, outbreak of passion.

·      Resisted Pound’s urgings to go to Europe; clung to his native industrial New Jersey finding the subjects of his poems in what Emerson called “the near, the low, the common”.

·      First volume published: Poems (1909). Conventional, archaic in manner and diction (choice of words).

·      He responds to Imagism maintaining a long transatlantic correspondence with Pound, leading to a marked change in the second volume, The Tempers (1913). These are love songs translated from Spanish and poems in modern manner (e.g. “Portrait of a Lady”).




·      Al Que Quiere: A Book of Poems (1917): full of mastery of the free verse forms (that he will work in for the rest of his career).

“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.” (Linda Wagner-Martin, op. cit.)

·      He preferred Objectivism to Imagism. He tried to define Objectivism in his essays (1920-23) as chief commitment to the reality and integrity of the poetic object rather than to the physical reality of its “subject”. He wrote in a prose passage from the volume Spring and All (1923): “in great works of the imagination a creative force is shown at work making objects which alone complete science and allow intelligence to survive. And also “works of art…must be real, not ‘realism’ but reality itself.”

The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)

·      An example of objective imagism; an effort to devise a verbal representation of a thing in nature.

·      Highlighted the sensuous values of the rain-glazed barrow and the chickens, but it is not just a scene form nature.

·      A metrical composition of rigorously selected images in a symmetrical pattern: sixteen words measured into four two line stanzas of three and one words each.

·      “so much depends”, in Emerson’s terms he reflects that human civilization depends on the interrelated forces of the machine (the wheelbarrow lever), the natural force of fertility (rain), and animal life (the chicken: source of food and symbol of fertility).

·      Sensuous and aesthetic life is given to the traditional wooden barrow transformed by the red paint and the rain water glazing its surface: the poetic image as a unique reality.

·      Renewal of language by placing words and images in fresh contexts that would cleanse them of conventional symbolic associations to reveal new meanings and relationships.

Paterson (4 successive books: 1946, ’48, ’49, ’51)

·      Interest in poetics, a central theme. Poetic form as tentative and relative, subject to varying interpretations in relation to the changing experience of the writer and the reader.








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