Williams was born in 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey, and spent most of his life living and working in the same vicinity. His father was of British birth and was raised in the West Indies; his mother was born in Puerto Rico and spoke mostly Spanish in the home. As a teenager, Williams lived for two years in Europe - attending schools in Switzerland and France -before returning to finish his education in the United States. He entered the University of Pennsylvania medical school, and while at Penn met both Pound and H. D. Williams was fascinated and somewhat awed by Pound, who though younger was already more accomplished and committed as a poet. After receiving his medical degree in 1906, Williams decided that he would attempt one of the most difficult dual careers imaginable, working both as a doctor and a poet.
Williams' first volume of poetry, published at his own expense, was by no means a success: even his friend Pound dismissed it as derivative and unoriginal. Williams was not deterred, however, continuing to write even as he set up his medical practice, married, and began a family. His second volume, The Tempers (1913), was published in London with Pound's assistance. The poems in The Tempers, though generally stronger than those of his first volume, still relied heavily on styles inherited from poets such as Browning, Yeats, and Pound. "I should have written about things around me," Williams later commented, "but I just didn't know how ... I knew nothing of language except what I'd heard in Keats and the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood."
It was over the next few years that Williams made his most important strides toward discovering his original poetic voice. In large part, this discovery was made possible by Williams' decision to reject the "old world spirit" and its "old forms" and embrace the "New World spirit" of "things around me." Williams was receptive to the ideas of the Imagist movement, and he was inspired by his contacts with the literary and artistic avant-garde in New York. He saw the paintings in the Armory Show, met artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray, and Steiglitz, and became a member of the group surrounding the magazine Others. Williams also began to question the influence of Pound's poetics on his work: "I can now put the Poundesque aside," he proclaimed in 1915, just as he began writing the first of his important early lyrics.
The poems of Williams' three pivotal volumes - Al Que Quiere (1917), Sour Grapes (1921), and Spring and All (1923) - were marked by a new intensity ofvision and a greater subtlety in language and form. In his characteristic poems of the late 1910s and early 1920s, Williams sought to capture a sense of lived reality and of the particularity of the physical world. In aesthetic terms, Williams' poems depart from the model of the typical Imagist lyric: his subject was often the urban or semi-urban industrial landscape, and he portrayed scenes, objects, and human figures that would traditionally be viewed as ordinary, unattractive, or antipoetic. Further, Williams' move towards the use of a more authentic and spontaneous language - a language as close as possible to typical American speech - distances his poetry from the more self-consciously literary styles of Pound and Eliot.
Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of Williams' poems is their appeal to the visual imagination. In a 1929 survey, Williams responded that his strongest characteristic was his "sight," and went on to affirm his "ability to be drunk with a sudden realization of things others never notice." We can see this attention to physical detail in many of his poems: a poem like "Young Sycamore" (1927), for example, is almost entirely composed of physical details presented in sparse, hard-edged language. Parts of the physical world that might appear inconsequential to another poet are often what Williams chooses to highlight. Here, for example, Williams delights in the "young tree / whose round and firm trunk / between the wet // pavement and the gutter / (where water / is trickling)" and the "young branches on / all sides - / hung with cocoons - ." As J. Hillis Miller has suggested, the sycamore is treated "as an object in space, separated from other objects in space, with its own sharp edges, its own innate particularity."1
If "Young Sycamore" represents Williams' visual poetic at its most fully developed, we see the beginnings of his aesthetic as early as the mid-1910s. Two poems written in 1916 - "The Young Housewife" and "Pastoral" -display Williams' search for an appropriate language, style, and form during this period. In "The Young Housewife," we find a clear expression of Williams' developing voice.
At ten A.M. the young housewife moves about in negligee behind the wooden walls of her husband's house. I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands shy, uncorseted, tucking in stray ends of hair, and I compare her to a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car rush with a crackling sound over dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
AsJames Breslin suggests, such traditional elements as rhyme, conventional meter, figurative language, and literary associations have been to a great extent purged from Williams' "matter-of-fact verse."2 The poem's language is relatively straightforward - though words like "uncorseted" and "noiseless" move closer to a register of literary diction - and its tone is, for a poem of 1916, highly restrained. Nevertheless, Williams by no means rejects traditional literary devices in the poem. We find examples ofboth onomatopoeia (as the car's wheels "rush with a crackling sound") and alliteration ("wooden walls of her husband"s house,' "comes to the curb / to call"). The use of symbolism is also more overt than it will be in Williams' later poetry. The poem's imagery moves toward a larger social significance through the connotations of words ("walls," "solitary," "fallen"), the explicit comparison of the woman to a fallen leaf, and the extension of this image into a symbol of the leaves crushed by the speaker's car.
Williams also uses syntax to underline the woman's situation as part of her husband's property. In the first stanza, the prepositions suggest her imprisonment ("behind / the wooden walls") and her status as property ("of her husband's house"). In the second stanza, the more active verbs emphasize the woman's movement and the language suggests her freedom from restraint ("uncorseted"): her desires, now freed from the confines of the house, are suggested by the strong trochaic rhythms and the frequent use of both caesura and enjambment. Finally, in the third stanza, the more controlled syntax and smoother rhythms evoke the social isolation of the doctor as he passes noiselessly by the woman's house.
To the speaker (a version of the poet himself) the woman seems like a fallen leaf, but Williams' ambiguous construction ("I compare her to a fallen leaf") suggests the possibility that his simile is inaccurate. Williams' self-consciousness about the use ofsuch metaphorical constructions indicates his modernist awareness of the potential for falsity created by poetic discourse. The speaker can only "compare" her to something in a futile attempt to make sense of her existence: he has no access to her emotional life or even to the details of her life within the house.
Another early poem in which Williams declares his developing aesthetic is "Pastoral" (1917):
When I was younger it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors.
Even more clearly than in "The Young Housewife," Williams displays a hard-edged, clean, and accurate modern style. The poem is a kind of ars poetica in which Williams rejects his earlier attempt to "make something of myself" and embraces a poetics of engagement with the flux of life. His diction is even plainer than in "The Young Housewife," and the form of the poem seems as simple and unpretentious as the "houses of the very poor" he admires. What Williams finds most important in his observation of a poor, semi-urban neighborhood is not any explicit social significance; instead, he focuses on the neighborhood's visual appearance - its lines and colors. The poem's title is at least partly ironic: this "pastoral" is not an idealization of rural life, but a no-nonsense description of a scene that most poets would find distastefully mired in the real world, with its "cluttered" yards and "furniture gone wrong."
Spring and All (1923) was the volume that established Williams not just as an important force in American poetry, but as the leader of a new American avant-garde. The book consists of twenty-seven untitled but numbered poems, introduced and accompanied throughout by sections of prose that attempt to define Williams' poetics. Spring and All represents an advance from Williams' previous poetic work in several respects. As Breslin suggests, it is the first of Williams' volumes to illustrate "the poem as a field of action." For the most part, the poems in the volume are not organized according to any fixed narrative or thematic consideration; instead, they proceed from the experimental impulse to create fluid and multifaceted relations between objects, ideas, and emotions. Secondly, Williams' manipulation of poetic form has moved beyond that of the earlier lyrics. Williams commented that Spring and All "was written when all the world was going crazy about typographical form," and although the experiments with typographical form in Spring and All seem relatively modest when compared with the more radical experimentation of Guillaume Apollinaire's Calligrammes (1918) and Cummings' Tulips and Chimneys (1923), the poems constitute a continuing experiment in free-verse form, ranging from the perfectly symmetrical stanzas of "The Red Wheelbarrow" (poem XXII) to the asymmetrical typography of poem IV ("Flight to the City"), poem IX ("Young Love") or poem XXV ("Rapid Transit"). Williams' use of the page as a space for visual and typographical experimentation is even clearer when the poems are read in the context of the prose sections with which they are interspersed.
Finally, the poems in Spring and All can be read as illustrations or examples of the argument Williams makes in the prose sections. The most important word in the prose of Spring and All is certainly "imagination": Williams attempts at several points in the book to define the poetic or artistic imagination. Toward the close of the volume, Williams provides his most coherent account of the imagination:
Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations ... It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action ... it creates a new object[.]
We might paraphrase Williams' rather cryptic comment by suggesting that for him the imagination was the faculty that allows the poet to take the most ordinary materials and free them from their their conventional associations: the imagination "attacks, stirs, animates, is radio-active in all that can be touched by action." Rather than "a removal from reality" in the Stevensian sense, the imagination is a means of discovering a new notion of reality; it is a "dance," a "dynamization" by which the writer can "free the world of fact from the impositions of'art.'" Williams adopts an effective simile to describe the effect of the imagination: "As birds' wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight." The imagination cannot function without reality as its base, yet it constantly transforms our understanding of the object world.
Williams' polemic about the imagination is in part an argument with Stevens that goes back to his prologue to Kora in Hell of three years earlier. In that book, Williams had criticized Stevens' idea of a central imagination as one which creates a poetry of "associational or sentimental value" rather than a poetry of true imagination. He accused Stevens of an "easy lateral sliding" in his poetry: that is, an overreliance on metaphor to relate seemingly disparate objects. As Joseph Riddel suggests, the difference between Stevens' and Williams' ideas of metaphor is something like the difference between metaphor and metonymy: where metaphor seeks to find a fundamental resemblance between things (and ultimately to discover a perfected order in aesthetic or epistemological terms), metonymy "reveals a center which is everywhere and nowhere, in which imagination is a force and not a focus."3 It is Williams' more contingent and more spontaneous sense of the imaginative act (the results of which Stevens called his poetry of "incessant new beginnings") that is displayed in the poems of Spring and All.
"The Red Wheelbarrow" is undoubtedly Williams' most famous poem, partly because it is highly accessible (the vocabulary and syntax are comprehensible to any fifth grader), and partly because it is such a vivid example of the poem adopting Imagist techniques within a highly controlled form. The poem's efficiency of language and its clarity in both verbal and visual presentation have often been pointed out. What makes the poem memorable is its use of syllabic patterning (each line counterbalancing a three-word first line with a single two-syllable word in the second line), its play with rhythm and syntax (splitting a word from its syntactic partner at the end ofeach first line, and splitting a compound word in the case ofstanzas II and III), and its presentation of three discrete images which are linked by the poem's syntax into a single image cluster.
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens
The visual and tactile quality of the poem is more painterly than conventionally literary. The word "glazed" is particularly effective in drawing the reader's attention, since it is the only word in the poem that carries with it an ostensibly aesthetic connotation (suggesting a ceramic or painted surface). Williams, who praised Gertrude Stein for her "formal insistence on words in their literal, structural quality of being words," also treats words as things: what depends upon the red wheelbarrow is, most immediately, the poem itself, or the possibility of making poetry from even the most ordinary of materials. The poem also evokes a prototypical American iconography: not only does Williams describe a common scene ofAmerican rural life, but he uses the colors ofthe American flag (the red wheelbarrow, the white chickens, and the blue water). The "so much depends" of the first line renders the poem open-ended in its larger meaning: the significance of the red wheelbarrow can be seen in economic terms (it contributes to the livelihood ofthe farmer), in aesthetic terms (it adds beauty to its surroundings), in national terms (it represents the possibility of an American way of life), in personal terms (it brings a sense ofsatisfaction or balance to the poet/speaker), and in poetic terms (it generates the reader's pleasure at contemplating the scene). The slow movement of the poem forces us not only to concentrate on the scene, but to partake of the intensity of the poet's emotion and to discover beauty in commonplace objects.
Along with "The Red Wheelbarrow," the most commonly anthologized poem in Spring and All is the poem given the title "Spring and All."
By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast - a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines -
It is already apparent from these first stanzas that this is no ordinary nature lyric celebrating the arrival of spring. We are placed in a setting usually associated with disease and death ("the contagious hospital"), and the season is not given the traditional trappings of spring: the clouds are driven by a "cold wind" and the bushes, trees, and vines are still in their brown, wintry state. Further, the imagery and diction emphasize the desolation ofthe scene: we find the "waste ofbroad, muddy fields," the "patches of standing water," and the "scattering" oftrees. But in the latter part ofthe poem, we begin to witness signs of rebirth rising from the mud. The inclusive indefiniteness of the pronoun in the phrase "They enter the new world naked" allows us to view the process as a kind of birth as well. The prose context of the poem within the text of Spring and All - a book devoted to the renewal of the imagination - also suggests that Williams also had in mind the birth of new forms of poetry.
At first, the panoramic view offers nothing with which the imagination can connect itself, but Williams pushes through the apparent barrenness of the scene to uncover dormant life. Implicitly, the poem argues that Eliot's despair in The Waste Land derives from his cosmopolitanism and his detachment from any specific locality. The scene Williams presents is no waste land but a "new world." In fact, the imagery at the end of the poem strongly evokes Eliot's poem. Where Eliot asks "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?" Williams presents a series of regenerative images.
Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined -It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of entrance - Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken
The poem does not simply describe the physical qualities of a landscape; instead, it focuses on the act ofperception, the slow penetration ofa desolate landscape by an awakening observer. The poem's trajectory follows the thrust of the imagination downward to a new union with the physical environment.
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