Williams William Carlos

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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(1883-1963) Although he was deemed a "poets' poet" for most of his life, William Carlos Williams is today considered to be one of the most important modernist writers (see modernism). He employed a large variety of forms and genres (novels, short stories, essays, autobiography, prose poems, long poems, and plays), but he is best known for his short free verse poems dealing with mundane objects in a language that was everyday, yet highly structured (see prosody and free verse). While heavily influenced by European movements—especially cubism, surrealism, and dadaism—he nevertheless always insisted on the necessity of a genuinely American poetry, based on the American idiom and on contact with the immediate experience of local life and surroundings (see EUROPEAN poetic influences). He insisted that "[p]lace is the only universal" ("Axioms" 175) and distanced himself from the cosmopolitanism of the expatriates Ezra pound and T. S. eliot. Instead he looked for role models in modernist American painters and photographers, such as Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles Sheeler, and, similar to Wallace stevens and Marianne moore, he sought to translate the findings of European modernism into an American context.

Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey and, except for several short stays in Europe, spent most of his life there with his wife and his two sons—practicing (since 1910) as a small-town pediatrician, while simultaneously writing his poetry (sometimes in-between patients) and mixing with a crowd of avant-garde artists in nearby New York City on the weekends. After youthful imitations of the romantic John Keats and Walt Whitman, Williams brought out his first "official" book of poems The Tempers at the age of 30. The date of the small booklet is significant, since 1913 was also the year when Pound inaugurated the school of "Imagistes" in London (see imagist school) and the New York Armory Show brought modernist European painting in to a large American public for the first time. In the years to come, New York experienced the development of a genuine artistic avant-garde, which manifested itself in the opening of numerous (mostly short-lived) little galleries and magazines. Williams, while never aligning himself with any particular "school," quickly became a regular mem ber of this sizzling scene, visiting galleries and private salons, as well as editing and contributing to various "little mags," including Others and Contact (see poetry journals). The years between 1917 and 1923 also saw the publication of his most important early volumes: Al Que Quiere! (1917), Sour Grapes (1921), and spring and all (1923), as well as the "surrealistic" prose poems of Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920). These works, however, remained largely unacknowledged by critics, and Williams did not earn a literary prize until 1926, when he was given the Dial Award. Several smaller prizes followed in the 1930s and 1940s, but it was only in the 1950s that he received broader recognition with, among other honors, the National Book Awards Gold Medal for Poetry (1950), the Bollingen Prize (1953), and the Fellowship of the American Academy of Poets (1957). Posthumously he received the Pulitzer Prize for his last volume, Pictures from Brueghel (1962) in 1963.

The poems of his earlier years are often characterized as still lifes, poetry of things, or even linguistic objets trouvés ("found objects"), reminding many critics of Marcel Duchamp's dadaistic "antiart" of the same period (such Duchamp's notorious "Fountain" of 1917). Descriptions such as these reflect Williams's concentration on the particular, mundane object, which he makes us see in a new light by putting it in the context of a formal piece of poetry Famous examples of this artistic strategy are such poems as "Between Walls" (1938), "This Is Just to Say" (1934), or the famous "Red wheelbarrow," from Spring and All, which declares that "so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow." Williams famously stated, "[I]t is no longer what you paint or what you write about that counts but how you do it: how you lay on the pigment, how you place the words to make a picture or a poem" ("American Spirit" 218). The aim of such a formal transformation is the cleansing of the world and of language, the renewal of our perception of the world beyond hackneyed cliché and stereotype. "No ideas but in things" ("A Sort of a Song" [1944]) was Williams's often repeated (and often misunderstood) credo; his poetry is a permanent attempt at "seeing the thing itself without forethought or afterthought but with great intensity of perception," as he notes in the prologue to Kora in Hell (1957). Visual perception is what Williams, as well as the more skeptical

Stevens, is particularly interested in, and many of his poems are structured along these lines. While the resulting dominance of images and the short free verse form align him with the school of imagism, Williams's concept of the poem itself as a tangible and autonomous object, "a small (or large) machine made of words"—his description in the ("Author's Introduction" to The Wedge) (1944) was further developed by Louis zukofsky and the objectivist poets in the early 1930s.

During the political and economical crisis of the 1930s, Williams's avant-garde poetry came heavily under attack from leftist critics who demanded that the poet should devote himself to the "real" problems of "the people." Probably as a reaction to this criticism, but also as a consequence of Williams's own political stance, his next book of poems, An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935), included a number of working-class portraits (reminiscent of the photographs of Walker Evans), as did his short stories and novels, which he started writing at the time. All in all, however, the 1930s were a period of artistic crisis for Williams, especially since the New York scene of artists had not fulfilled his hopes for a cultural renewal, and, with the success of Eliot's the waste land (1922), he saw poetry fall back into the hands of "academics."

The 1944 volume The Wedge in some ways marks the overcoming of that crisis; after the end of World War II, Williams entered a new phase of creative development, characterized mainly by two linked projects: the work on his long poem paterson (see long and serial poetry) and the development of a new prosody—the "triadic" or "step-down line." The latter he discovered while writing a passage for book II of Paterson (1948, later separately republished as "The Descent"), which, fittingly, begins:

The descent beckons as the ascent beckoned.

The five books of Paterson (1946-63), which build on the central anthropomorphic metaphors man/city and woman/flower, rank with other famous long poems of the early 20th century, including The Waste Land (1922), Pound's cantos (1930-70), and Hart Crane's THE BRIDGE (1930). Moreover Williams's idea of a structured, yet flexible "variable foot" influenced Charles olson's concept of "Projective Verse" (see ars poeticas). Williams's volumes of poetry in the 1950s, The Desert Music (1954) and Journey to Love (1955), are written almost completely in this "new measure," which he himself considered to be his "solution of the problem of modern verse" (Selected Letters 334).

By the middle of the century, when he was already in his sixties and partly paralyzed by several strokes, Williams had become a tutelary figure for many younger poets, whom he supported and promoted—especially those of the just emerging beat generation (among them Allen GINSBERG, from Paterson, New Jersey) and the black mountain school gathered around Olson, Robert duncan, and Robert creeley, including Denise levertov. But his influence did not remain limited to the United States; it was soon spreading to Europe as well, to such poets as Charles Tomlinson in Britain.

It was only after his death in 1963, however, that any discernible academic interest in Williams emerged. Studies initially concentrated on his double life as poet and physician, his complicated lifelong friendship with Pound, comparisons of his work with that of Stevens and Marianne moore, and the influence of painting on his poetry. In the meantime all aspects of his work have been broadly covered by studies, and Williams has become a well-established member of the literary canon. His poetry forms a substantial part of an American tradition that comes from Whitman, Pound, and Moore and leads to Ginsberg, Creeley, and Levertov.


Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. Diggory, Terence. William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of

Painting. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked.

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Markos, Donald W Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Riddel, Joseph N. The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Coun-terpoetics of William Carlos Williams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974. Terrell, Caroll F., ed. William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet.

Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1983. Williams, William Carlos. "The American Spirit in Art." In A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and

Artists, edited by Bram Dijkstra. New York: New Directions, 1978, pp. 210-220.

-. "Axioms." In A Recognizable Image: William Carlos

Williams on Art and Artists, edited by Bram Dijkstra. New York: New Directions, 1978, pp. 175-176.

-. Selected Letters, edited by John C. Thirlwall. New

York: New Directions, 1957.

Franz Meier

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