POETRY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (1883–1963)

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Born in Rutherford, New Jersey (where he also died), William Carlos Williams was unusual among modern poets in that he had a long career as a physician, practicing both pediatrics and general medicine. He was, in fact, chief of pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital from 1924 until his death. Nevertheless, Williams was a prolific writer who produced novels, short stories, and nonfiction prose. But it is for his poetry (of which he published numerous collections in his lifetime) that he is most remembered. Together, his body of poetry makes him one of America’s greatest poets and one of the greatest of all modernist poets, one who never ceased to seek innovative ways to express in his poetry the texture of life in a rapidly changing modern America.

Williams’ poems include a unique book-length epic poem, Paterson, which was initially inspired by his reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the 1920s but was not published until it appeared in five different segments between 1946 and 1958, as Williams spent decades fine-tuning the work. Paterson was published as a single volume in 1963, including the five previously published volumes, plus a sixth section left unfinished at Williams’ death. The poem treats the town of Paterson, New Jersey (where Williams lived for many years with his wife and two sons), as a sort of microcosm of America; thus, while it is entirely focused on that one town, it can be taken as an epic of America as a whole.

Paterson is a unique and distinctive work, one of the most interesting literary artifacts to have been produced by an American writer. It is, however, for his shorter poems that Williams is best known. His early work is often associated with the imagist movement in poetry, which sought to produce striking, but unsentimental, images through the use of clear, precise language. During this time, Williams became a friend of the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972), a leader of the imagist movement. However, Pound and Williams differed dramatically as poets, with Williams’ poems being much simpler, more accessible, and less intellectual.  The phrase “no ideas but in things,” which appears several times as his poetry, has often been cited as a summary of Williams’ poetic technique. The two also had political differences. Williams, though not an openly political writer, leaned to the Left and to sympathy with the working class. Pound’s extreme right-wing views, on the other hand, eventually led him to become a supporter of Benito Mussolini and the Italian fascists during World War II, which led to his arrest on charges of treason after the war and his subsequent confinement in a mental hospital, where he was held from 1945 to 1958.

Though Williams published his first collection of poetry in 1909, it was not until 1923, with the publication of Spring and All (which contains both poetry and prose) that he became a major figure. Spring and All shows the strong influence of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the year before, but, again, Williams poetry is far less intellectual than Eliot’s, while his view of the confusions of the modern world was far less grim than Eliot’s or Pound’s. Instead of rejecting the modern world, Williams acknowledged its flaws but hoped to use his poetry to encourage his fellow Americans to greet the changing world around them in a positive way.

Williams’ early poetry is well-represented by the well-known “Danse Russe,” first published in 1916. Here, Williams takes an everyday domestic moment and amusingly turns it into a moment of mock exotic drama. The title (which means “Russian Dance” in French, evoking the rich tradition of Russian ballets such as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) seems to suggest something romantic and exotic, but of course it is also a homonym for “Dance Ruse,” suggesting that the speaker is not performing an impressive, balletic dance but is instead merely pretending to be doing so in a somewhat comic fashion. In fact, there is a note of good-natured, self-effacing humor that runs through this entire poem, as the speaker pokes gentle fun at himself for being unable to resist dancing naked in front of a mirror while everyone else in the house is asleep. It is a moment of solitude, of loneliness, but of a loneliness that the speaker celebrates, rather than regrets. As always, the speaker in the poem is not necessarily to be equated with the poet, though the reference to “Kathleen” in the third line might well identify this as the Williams household, given that they employed a nanny by the name of Kathleen McBride at the time the poem was written. But, whether or not the speaker is to be thought of as Williams, it is clear that he is experiencing a very human moment that he himself regards as a bit silly. He does not, however, mock or deride himself for his silliness, but instead embraces it fully as part of being human, just as he embraces his loneliness as a central part of being human, and just as he embraces the physical (and thus mortal) nature of his body and nature in general. In this sense, the poem shows the influence of Walt Whitman, one of Williams’ early poetic heroes.

“Danse Russe”

If I when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen

are sleeping

and the sun is a flame-white disc

in silken mists

above shining trees,—

if I in my north room

dance naked, grotesquely

before my mirror

waving my shirt round my head

and singing softly to myself:

“I am lonely, lonely.

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”

If I admire my arms, my face,

my shoulders, flanks, buttocks

against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

Another well-known humorous poem by Williams is “Portrait of a Lady” (1920), which gently parodies the conventions of love poetry by imagining a young man composing a poetic tribute to his lady, only to have his compositions interrupted with skeptical questions that undermine his flights of rhetoric. Whether one interprets the interruptions as coming from the lady being addressed or from the speaker himself as he composes his poem (probably in solitude), the effect is quite funny, even as it calls serious attention to the inauthenticity and exaggeration of many love poems. Eventually, the questions become more impatient and demanding, largely because the speaker seems to be trying to ignore the questions, presumably because they break the flow of his poetry. The result is a suggestion that he might perhaps be more in love with himself and his own language than with the lady in question, something that the lady might very well suspect and that might be motivating her interruptions (if they are hers). On the other hand, if we imagine the questions as coming from the speaker’s own internal voice, then the suggestion is that he himself suspects the inauthenticity of his poetic delarations. Note that, for convenience, I have italicized the interruptions in the text below, even though these italics do not appear in the original poem, which is thus a bit more ambiguous than I make it here. It is, of course, clear from the jumbled and confused imagery of the poem that it is already a mess, even without interruptions. Are the lady’s knees a “southern breeze” or a “gust of snow?” And the sudden introduction of the shore late in the poem does not really seem consistent with the other imagery of the poem, which might motivate the insistent demands that the image be explained (and the speaker’s refusal to do so). Finally, note that the Fragonard reference indicates that the painting that the speaker had just cited was not, in fact, painted by the eighteenth-century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), but by the somewhat later French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). It is, in fact, the 1767 painting “The Swing,” probably Fragonard’s best-known painting. This is a key moment in the poem, as the speaker attempts to impress the lady by demonstrating his knowledge of French painting, only to get it wrong. This moment is probably funnier if it is the lady doing the interrupting here, undermining his mansplaining by demonstrating her own superior knowledge. In either case, even if the speaker is simply correcting himself, this reference to a painting calls attention to a long tradition of the representation of women in stereotypical, stylized, and subtly eroticized ways.

Why Fragonard's “The Swing” Is a Masterpiece of Rococo Art - Artsy

“The Swing” (1767), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Portrait of a Lady

Your thighs are appletrees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky

where Watteau hung a lady’s

slipper. Your knees

are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of man was Fragonard?

As if that answered

anything. — Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune

drops that way, it is

one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

the sand clings to my lips —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

— the petals from some hidden

appletree — Which shore?

I said petals from an appletree.

Williams best-known poem (and one of the best-known of all American poems), “The Red Wheelbarrow,” originally appeared in Spring and All. It is an extremely brief imagist description of a simple object, the red wheelbarrow of the title. Yet it has an amazing ability to generate a variety of different meanings. At the simplest level, the poem is simply a statement of respect for the importance of modest farm implements such as a wheelbarrow, which can provide crucial support in many farming activities, while farming itself provides the food on which we all depend in order to live. So, indeed, a lot depends on wheelbarrows, though the red color, contrasted with the white of the chickens, seems designed simply to produce a striking visual image. One reading of this poem, then, might be that it is designed to illustrate the importance of such images in poetry, while also potentially suggesting that wheelbarrows are more valuable to the world than are poems,

Of course, the poem itself is a simple object, and this brief statement about a wheelbarrow can be taken as a self-reflexive commentary on poetry and on the reading of poetry, which would place so much significance on every little aspect of the poem. For example, one might note that the poem consists of four stanzas, each of which consists of a three-word line and a one-word line, so that it is, in fact, meticulously constructed, even though it seems so casual. But one might also note that “wheelbarrow” is a single word (as the title of the poem emphasizes) but that the second stanza must break it into two words in order to keep the structure consistent, suggesting the lengths to which poets have sometimes gone in order to impose order and structure on their poetry, which perhaps should be more concerned with creating striking images than symmetrical formal structures.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens

Another very famous Williams poem is a sort of companion to “The Red Wheelbarrow” entitled “This Is Just to Say” (1934). Another very brief poem, this one describes not so much an everyday object as an everyday experience. This poem again, though, raises questions about just what it is that makes it a poem, which then raises fundamental questions about the nature of poetry itself. The text of the poem seems to be a note of apology left by someone who has eaten some plums that someone else was saving. It has no rhymes or regular rhythms, and only appears to be a poem because of its visual separation into three stanzas of four lines each. But, because it has this form (and because it was written by someone we recognize as a great poet), it is only natural to read this poetic “note” more closely and carefully than we would an ordinary note. For example, we know that fruit often has symbolic meaning in poetry, sometimes suggesting fertility and perhaps a subtle eroticism. Moreover, plums have long functioned in several different world cultures as symbols of perseverance and hope, and of beauty thriving in adverse circumstances. And, of course, in the Biblical tradition of the story of Adam and Eve, the eating of fruit that one was not supposed to eat was a trigger for all of human history (and human suffering), leading Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden and into the secular world.

However, if one reads this poem as a comment on poetry itself, then the specific meaning of the poem is less important than the simple fact that it is a poem and therefore will be treated differently than if it were merely a note stuck on a refrigerator. That fact, however, can itself be interpreted in different ways. It could, for example, be taken as a comment on the pretentiousness of poetry in general, thus resembling “Portrait of a Lady.” Then again, it could be taken as an expression of admiration for the ability of poetry to produce such rich effects from relatively modest material. It could also be taken as an illustration of Williams’ “no ideas but in things.” There are no fancy ideas here, just some simple things (such as plums) and a simple experience to which we can all probably relate. Moreover, the tone of the poem in this sense is quite open to interpretation as well. Is it cynical in its suggestion that we probably make poetry out to be grander than it is? Or is it playful in its exploration of the surprising effects poetry can achieve?

Similarly, some readers have taken the meaning poem quite seriously—seeing it as a critical comment on human nature (perhaps with the story of the Adam and Eve in mind) and on our inability to resist temptation and our tendency to try to fulfill our own desires before thinking of the needs of others, even loved ones. Other readers, though (and I would put myself in this camp) have seen the poem as more playful. Eating plums, after all, is hardly a cataclysmic event. It is, perhaps, more in line with Prufrock’s pondering of whether he should dare to eat a peach, as if that act might disturb the universe. Moreover, the “sorry, not sorry” nature of the apology (note the description of the plums in the final stanza) also points toward the fact that the writer of the note is hardly suffering from extreme guilt. “I apologize for ruining breakfast,” he seems to be saying, “but it was worth it.”

“This Is Just to Say”

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold