William Carlos Williams and the modernist American scene

William Carlos Williams was a unique figure in American poetry. A practicing family doctor who continued to care for his patients throughout his poetic career, Williams grounded his poems in a direct engagement both with the object world and with the contemporary social environment ofthe region where he lived and worked: the area around Rutherford and Pater-son, New Jersey. As he continued to refine his craft throughout the first half ofthe century and into the beginning ofthe second half, Williams produced a body of poetry as impressive as that of any other American writer of his time. It is a poetry that celebrates the local American scene while remaining determinedly experimental in its form and language.

Williams was not alone in attempting to find a poetic language appropriate to the experience of modern America. During the period from 1910 to 1925 American poetry experienced a resurgence that was unprecedented in its breadth and intensity, as a steady stream of emerging new talent transformed the literary landscape. In addition to Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Lowell, H. D., and Moore, the list of important poets publishing their first volumes during these years included Robinson Jeffers, Vachel Lindsay, Conrad Aiken, Stephen Vincent Benet, Carl Sandburg, Alfred Kreymborg, Witter Bynner, Archibald MacLeish, Charles Reznikoff, John Crowe Ransom, E. E. Cummings, Yvor Winters, and Jean Toomer. The careers of many of these poets were propelled by the so-called "little magazines" that published their work, such as Harriet Monroe's Poetry, Kreymborg's Others, and Margaret Anderson's The Little Review. These magazines made possible the publication of poetry that was considered too experimental for the larger magazines and that lacked the popular appeal of more mainstream writing. Though their readership was small in comparison with publications like Harper's and The Atlantic, the little magazines were instrumental in the creation of communities of like-minded writers and intellectuals who saw themselves as provocateurs challenging the prevailing literary culture.

At the same time, the latest developments in European culture were reaching America's shores more quickly than ever before, and poets like Williams and Cummings were profoundly stimulated by the European avant-garde in the visual arts, literature, and music. New York could not yet equal Paris as a center of cultural activity, but it was making rapid strides in that direction. The Armory Show of1913 introduced American poets to painters like Paul Cezanne, Vassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp, while Alfred Steiglitz's "291 Gallery" held shows of work by such artists as Francis Picabia and Constantin Brancusi. The Armory Show, a massive exhibit of two thousand paintings and sculptures, was a defining moment for the arts in America, a cultural "vortex" in which the most advanced European artists were displayed alongside young American painters like Charles Sheeler and George Bellows. For Williams, the paintings of the late impressionists, the cubists, the fauvists and the expressionists was a revelation, suggesting that exciting new directions were possible in all the arts, including poetry. When Cummings graduated from Harvard in 1915, he delivered his commencement address on "The New Art," commenting on a range of avant-garde expression that included Amy Lowell's Imagist poetry and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons as well as art-works by Brancusi and Duchamp, music by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schonberg, and Erik Satie, and dance performances by Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky.

It was a time when poetry was developing in close contact with the other arts, and when poets ardently believed themselves to be participating in the creation of revolutionary new forms. This desire for novelty was expressed most clearly by Williams in Kora in Hell (1920):

Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand manner will save it.

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