Happy Birthday, William Carlos Williams: “My whole life / has hung too long upon a partial victory.”


“No ideas but in things.” – from “Paterson”, by William Carlos Williams

The first poems I read of William Carlos Williams, in high school English class, were the red wheelbarrow one and the one about the plums. I imagine that’s the case for most of us.

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Who could ever have predicted the poem would become a Twitter meme? Life is strange.

More beneath the jump.


I was an eager reader as a child. I was open and inquiring. I read whatever I wanted to read, no age brackets imposed. I loved popular literature for teens, too, but the great figures and great works also made an impression. However, William Carlos Williams was beyond me. The red wheelbarrow poem especially. I had an English teacher who walked us through it, helped us see what Williams was doing. But I still felt like I had to squint at the page to see it. The plums poem was alluring but also confusing to me. I loved the last stanza, and I tried to ask myself why. I interrogated my responses – without even knowing I was doing it. I wrestled with things. I loved adjectives in those days (this took on an obsessive form that astonishes me to this day: I kept EXTENSIVE lists of adjectives) – and the adjectives in that final stanza JUMPED off the page, and I could see the icy steam coming out of the freezer, and the frosty plums inside, and their juicy red delicious fruit. So I liked it on the adjective level. But I was still a bit confused as to why this poem was in all the big Poetry books. Like: WHY. Instead of dismissing it because I “didn’t get it,” I wanted to UNDERSTAND. There was clearly a REASON this poem was in all the books. I wanted to know WHY.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I got all the bits about the wheelbarrow and the rain and the chickens. They were images. Like other poems have images. What I COULDN’T get was those first two lines. They threw me off. Wait, what do you MEAN “so much depends upon.” WHAT depends upon? And why?

Similarly with the plums poem, I understood the story of the poem, but the title threw me off. Was it an apology? A defense of himself? If I were in charge of the poem, I probably would have called it “Plums.” So I puzzled about that too.

It took me a long time reading his poems over the years to really get it. Within one or two readings of the red wheelbarrow/plum poems, I had them memorized. And I realized some things as I thought about them. (I am not an academic person. I respond to things emotionally. But with WCW, I was challenged to go beyond the emotions, since I had NO emotional response to the poems.)

So. In thinking about it: I realized that the red wheelbarrow poem launched a three-dimensional image in my head, fully fleshed out: the rain-wet grass, the wheelbarrow, the white chickens in the yard. The images were not poetic (in the same way that, say, T.S. Eliot’s images were, and – unlike WCW – I had a STRONG emotional response to Eliot, dating from around the same time). There are zero metaphors to puzzle out. The images are right there. As the years went on, those images are still there. I don’t even need to recite either poem. William Carlos Williams’ name came up, or he’s mentioned in a book review briefly or whatever, and WHOOSH: there are the cold plums, there is the red wheelbarrow. I still had no idea WHAT it was he saw and WHY. In college, I thrilled to Yeats, to Plath. They were my “people”, and their poems are much more intricate, with opaque imagery filled with references to history/myths that I had to look up to try to understand what the poem was saying.

My old and good friend Ted has a lovely post on William Carlos Williams. I highly recommend you check it out (and all of Ted’s work!)

My admiration for William Carlos Williams grew, as I read more and more poetry. He is overshadowed in many ways by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. He’s not really a “poet’s poet” but it is true that the more you know about him, the actual man, the more interesting the poems become.

He was a doctor his whole life. Poetry was not his source of income. Like Wallace Stevens, he had an actual “career” separate from his poetry. Second of all, his battles with Ezra Pound (as well as his regard for Ezra Pound) are well-known, and through their broadsides against one another, you start to get a picture of poetry at that time. They were both American, yet Pound had chosen to live as an expatriate. Williams scorned ex-pats. Williams stayed in Rutherford, New Jersey where he was born. He never moved. He traveled to Europe, but his focus was always on America, on the slang and language of America, and creating something that was “new” in that particular lexicon. Interestingly enough, Ezra Pound’s command to poets “Make it new” was somehow not enough for William Carlos Williams: He thought that Pound, and others, by living in Europe, were connecting themselves unnecessarily to an increasingly dead European tradition. In that way, Williams was a real radical. He was a socialist, and that’s pretty apparent in a lot of his poems, but his belief that the world could be made anew, totally, goes along with his political views. Williams went further than Ezra Pound in theories about “new-ness”.

Pound had taken Williams under his wing (as he did with so many other poets), arranging for publication of his work, chatting him up to the powers-that-be, pushing him into the spotlight. In this case, the “student” surpassed the teacher. Williams felt that poetry should be plain and simple and direct. Williams openly lambasted poets like Pound and Eliot, attacking their ideas and language directly. The battles are all very entertaining (I love literary dust-ups), but more than that: illuminating.

Williams’ ideas about objects are fascinating to me. He wrote:

No ideas but in things. The poet does not … permit himself to go beyond the thought to be discovered in the context of that with which he is dealing … The poet thinks with his poem.

The first sentence is the key to it all, the key to the plums, to the wheelbarrow. To Williams, the divinity, the revelation was in the object itself.

Once I came across those quotes, years after I first read the Plums and Wheelbarrow poems, I realized that I had experienced just that in my initial reading – it was all there for me as an uncomprehending teenager. I would think about those poems and the images would spin in front of my eyes, and they had a strange staying power that other images in other poems do not have. (Williams has many imitators. Just read The New Yorker. The difference is that the majority of the Williams-imitators write poems that are purely descriptive – where you get a laundry list of prettily described objects: the tree, the tea cup, frost on the window – and you forget the poems a second after you’ve read them. The images do not spin, in other words.)

Williams stayed relevant and up to date. He loved new and bold work. He wrote the introduction to the publication of fellow New-Jersey-ite Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example. He remained a radical.

Here is one of my favorites of his poems. Maybe it’s because I hail from the Ocean State.

Flowers By the Sea

When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s
edge, unseen, the salt ocean

lifts its form – chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone

but color and the movement – or the shape
perhaps – of restlessness, whereas

the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem.

Williams’ poems are separate from autobiography, theory, philosophy, even thought. He is one of the most transcendent poets. I get it now. Perhaps it is because I am older now. And I have lost much. I can now perceive the glory in simple objects. I can see how they ground us onto the earth, I can see the magic in them.

And you know what? Yes. Yes. “So much depends upon.” Everything depends upon.

Quotes about/from William Carlos Williams below the jump.

Before we get started, I must mention:

I never even considered the possibility that a movie would exist – directed by one of my favorite filmmakers – as a tribute to the influence of William Carlos Williams on future generations, as well as a tribute to the city where he lived. AND that the film would be the miracle of kindness, softness, contemplativeness that it is. If you have not seen Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch, all I can do is beg you to do so. In a rough harsh world, it is an oasis … a place where kindness to one another actually seems possible. Glenn Kenny – born and raised in New Jersey himself – wrote the review to read.


William Carlos Williams on Paterson:

I took the city as my ‘case’ to work up … It called for a poetry such as I did not know, it was my duty to discover or make such a context on the ‘thought’. To make a poem, fulfilling the requirements of the art, and yet new, in the sense that in the very lay of the syllables Paterson as Paterson would be discovered…it would be as itself, locally, and so like every other place in the world. For it is in that, that it be particular in its own idiom, that it lives.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “Red Wheelbarrow”:

Simplicity is the hallmark of William Carlos Williams’ most original work, which never loses its mysterious freshness. Like Wordsworth, Williams sought a common language to close the gap between poetry and everyday experience. “The Red Wheelbarrow” invites us to cast off habit and look at life again with childlike wonder. The poem is an extension of Imagism, a modernist Anglo-American movement influenced by unrhymed Asian poetry (such as haiku and tanka) that strictly limits the number of lines and syllables. In Imagist poetry, sharp physical details are presented but not explainedL the images must speak for themselves.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

He became a close friend of H.D. and Ezra Pound. In 1909 he published Poems, which he later stigmatized as “bad Keats” laced with bad Whitman. There was hope, then: two irreconcilable voices were struggling with his tongue. He also traveled to London, stayed with Pound and met Yeats. He divided his life only half jokingly into a B.C., before Pound, and an A.D., after their friendship commenced.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 7, 1959:

Did I write you about visiting poor old Bill Williams, very mournful, enjoying one day out of seven, waiting for the end, the nervous system cracking, but not the mind and courage.

William Carlos Williams, after he read Joyce’s Ulysses:

Joyce is too near for me to want to do less than he did in Ulysses, in looseness of spirit, and honesty of heart — at least.

Wallace Stevens on Williams’ poetry:


Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Williams’s true precursor, necessarily composite and in some sense imaginary, was a figure that fused Keats with Walt Whitman. Such a figure has in it the potential for a serious splitting of the poetic ego in its defense against the poetic past. The “negative capability” of Keats sorts oddly with Whitman’s rather positive capability for conveying the powerful press of himself.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 20, 1947:

Had a free week-end with the Williams’ very much like the lunch. He took me to see his old Spanish mother–91, and was like a Dickens character patting her hands and laughing and making her laugh and saying, “Mama, would you rather look at us or 20 beautiful blondes? He called your friend at NBC: “that wooden-faced ass behind the glass, the typical indifferent American artisan; to hell with the company!” I read the galleys of Paterson: Book II–much better than Book One even–the best poetry by an American, I’d say, after four readings.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity…William Carlos Williams is rare among modern poets in extolling married love and kitchen-centered domestic bliss.

William Carlos Williams:

Our own language is the beginning of that which makes and will continue to make an American poetry distinctive.

Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World:

The voice he was listening to, and the voice that struck paydirt for him, was a matter of a complex crossing with Keats, especially the Keats of the Hyperion fragments and the odes. Why this should have been so is difficult to say with any exactness, for Williams himself probably did not understand why. What he thought he was “capturing” was the voice of the classics–the stately rhythms and sharp straightforward idiom of the Greeks as he thought they must sound should they be discovered walking the streets of his Paterson. But there was something more, a kinship Williams had felt with Keats for over half a century, the plight of the romantic poet who would have spoken as the gods speak if only he had had the power to render their speech in the accents of his own debased language. Hyperion is in part the portrait of the dying of the ephebe into the life of a major poet, and Keats had aborted it at the very moment that his poet was undergoing that transformation.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, December 12, 1958:

A good letter from Bill Williams. “Floss has just finished reading me your terrible wonderful poems…” and at the end, “The book took too much out of me which I don’t have any more to give.”

Thomas R. Whitaker on “A Unison”:

In this composed testament of acceptance, Williams’s saxifrage (“through metaphor to reconcile / the people and the stones”) quietly does its work … Not since Wordsworth has this natural piety been rendered so freshly and poignantly.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (1948):

Keats was my god. Endymion really woke me up.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “Red Wheelbarrow”:

As an object, Williams’s sparkling wheelbarrow is both surface and structure. Hence, like Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee jar, it can be seen as an analogue to the poem itself. Indeed, each of Williams’s neat, tiny stanzas has a recessive wheelbarrow shape: the first line is the wheelbrrow’s long handles, while the daringly terse, one-word second line mimics the sloping cart. The poem’s title, like a novelty cookie cutter, seems to be busily stamping out pointy stanzas from the sludgy batter of language.

If the wheelbarrow is the artwork, then the milling chickens are perhaps partly a cartoon version of art’s restless, hungry audience with its pecking questions and complaints and short attention span.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

“No ideas but in things” was the credo he espoused in his epic, Paterson, which, like Pound’s Cantos, extends the principles of Imagism, and also rebukes those symbolists who invest “things” with foreign significance. In Paterson, he called his poetry “a reply to Greek and Latin with the bare hands”; his work, unlike Pound’s or Eliot’s, is all but devoid of “literary” English. Its distinctiveness comes, as he insisted, from contact with native materials. He founded a magazine with Contact as its defiant title.

Michael Schmidt:

His temperament never visited the Waste Land: he is an heir of Emerson and Whitman, not of Melville and Dickinson.

William Carlos Williams on the “Objectivist” movement, which he helped found

The poem being an object (like a symphony or a cubist painting) it must be the purpose of the poet to make of his words a new form. Being an object, [the poem] should be treated and controlled – but not as in the past. For past objects have about them past necessities – like the sonnet – which have conditioned them and from which, as a form itself, they cannot be freed.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

The world is largest in the American summer, for Williams and Stevens, even as it was for their forefather, Emerson. Spring and All celebrates not this world, but the more difficult American skepticism of a hard spring, imperishably rendered in its magnificent opening lyric, “By the road to the contagious hospital,” with its harsh splendor of inception, at once of vegetation, infants, and of Whitmanian or American poems.

Frank O’Hara, famously:

Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and [Hart] Crane and [William Carlos] Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.

William Carlos Williams, from Kora in Hell, on Ezra Pound:

E.P. is the best enemy United States verse has. He is interested, passionately interested–even if he doesn’t know what he is talking about. But of course he does know what he is talking about. He does not, however, know everything, not by more than half. The accordances of which Americans have the parts and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond the attempts of his thought. It is a middle-aged blight of the imagination.

I praise those who have the wit and courage, and the conventionality, to go direct toward their vision of perfection in an objective world where the signposts are clearly marked, viz., to London. But confine them in hell for their paretic assumption that there is no alternative but their own groove.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “Red Wheelbarrow”:

What “depends / upon” the wheelbarrow? For Williams, it is the act of focus, the effort to see clearly.Within its frame, art establishes relationships, even if the result of chance. The red wheelbarrow is merely “beside” the chickens, momentarily juxtaposed. But silvered with rain, it seems to glow with the numinous, as if the object world were sanctified by consciousness.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

[“Paterson”] is about the difficulties of bringing the particulars into poetry, and in the course of attempting this process it suggests the blockage of feeling and thought in the modern city. But like Hart Crane in The Bridge, Williams emerges from the waste land. Cyclical in structure, the poem recalls Pound’s Cantos, in which a combination of plainspokenness and finesse ushers different kinds of matter toward complete expression. Pound insisted that Williams was interested in “the loam,” while he was interested in “the finished product” (“The Poem as a Field of Action”). But a good deal of loam exists in The Cantos, and much of the finished product in Williams.

Elizabeth Bishop:

William Carlos Williams wrote entirely on the typewriter. Robert Lowell printed – he never learned to write. He printed everything.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

The best lyrics and Book 1 of Paterson are of a higher order, though they also betray darker anxieties of influence than even Williams’s defiances dared to confront. They display also another kind of agon, the anxiety as to contemporary rivals, not so much Pound and Eliot as Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, heirs to Keats and to Whitman, even as Williams was.

William Carlos Williams:

A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words as [the poet] finds them inter-related about him and composes them – without distortion which would mar their exact significance – into an intense expression of his preoccupations and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Many American poets have sought to embrace all of America. What attracts them is perhaps that the country is so large, sprawling, and hard to handle. This grandiose sensuality goes back to Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I embrace multitudes.” In the twentieth century, America’s chief lovers included William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. For both, America seemed a center of intense, multifarious feelings. They differ from regionalists, such as Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost, whose relations even to their regions were more ambiguous.

Michael Schmidt:

His prose is often wonderful, especially in In the American Grain (1925), which sets itself the task of re-seeing America by means of the lives of its explorers and writers. His account of the conquest of Mexico has no parallel in American prose. He “renames the things seen” and makes America more coherent in its diversity, more American, in the process.

William Carlos Williams:

The rhythmic pace [of my poems] was the pace of speech, an excited pace because I was excited when I wrote.

Marianne Moore:

I think [William Carlos Williams] wouldn’t make so much of the great American language if he were plausible and tractable. That’s the beauty of it – he is willing to be reckless. If you can’t be that, what’s the point of the whole thing?

Robert Lowell:

I was trying to write like William Carlos Williams, very simple, free verse, imagistic poems.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Admirable as Paterson is (particularly its first book), does even it resolve the antithesis in Williams between his “objectivism” or negative capability, and his own, agonistic, powerful press of himself? Mariana ends his vast, idealizing biography by asserting that Williams established “an American poetic based on a new measure and a primary regard for the living protean shape of the language as it was actually used.” Hillis Miller, even more generously, tells us that Williams gave us a concept of poetry transcending both Homer and Wordsworth, both Aristotle and Coleridge.

William Carlos Williams on Shakespeare in The Descent of Winter:

It is his anonymity that is baffling to nitwits and so they want to find an involved explanation–to defeat the plainness of the evidence.

When he speaks of fools he is one; when of kings he is one, doubly so in misfortune.

He is a woman, a pimp, a prince Hal–

Such a man is a prime borrower and standardizer–No inventor. He lives because he sinks back, does not go forward, sinks back into the mass–

He is Hamlet plainer than a theory–and in everything.

You can’t buy a life again after it’s gone, that’s the way I mean.

Michael Schmidt:

He cast a spell not only on his contemporaries. Robert Lowell revered him, as did many of his generation. Allen Ginsberg regarded himself as a disciple. (Williams wrote an introduction to Ginsberg’s first book). Charles Olson believed himself to have received from the master the divine fire and perhaps the apostolic succession. Adrienne Rich found his example enabling in her difficult and decisive transition.

Marianne Moore, reviewing Kora in Hell (1921):

Compression, colour, speed, accuracy and that restraint of instinctive craftsmanship which precludes anything dowdy or labored – it is essentially these qualities that we have in his work.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

William Carlos Williams has attracted more followers in the last half-century than has W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot. He resides at the center of much postwar poetry, especially in the United States, his example helping foster the trend toward “open” and “organic” forms. Writers who trace their branches to his roots regard many other important poets of the century as merely makers of “literature.” Although these older poets may once have been liberators, Williams seems to have liberated poetry from them.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

William Carlos Williams was, at his best, a strong American poet, far better than his hordes of imitators. Like Ezra Pound’s, Williams’s remains a fairly problematical achievement in the traditions of American poetry. Some generations hence, it will become clear whether his critics have canonized him permanently, or subverted him by taking him too much at his own intentions. For now he abides, a live influence, and perhaps with even more fame to come.

Bloom was right about “perhaps with even more fame to come.” Hello, Jim Jarmusch.

William Carlos Williams, 1913 letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine:

Most current verse is dead from the point of view of art…Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive of life as it was the moment before–always new, irregular. Verse to be alive must have infused into it something of the same order, some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution, an ethereal reversal, let me say, I am speaking of modern verse.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

For all his advocacy of poetry rooted in American experience, Williams was fascinated with the Cubist dissection of space and the Dada use of “found” objects, as expressed in his prologue to Kora in Hell and exemplified by his experiments in verbal collage.

Michael Schmidt:

He took a strong dislike to T.S. Eliot, that “renegade American” who had thrown in his lot with the old culture. The Waste Land was a “catastrophe” not only because of its stylistic choices but because it was so darned negative … His hostility to Eliot coarsened some of his polemics, but it drove him vigorously to advocate and create an American poetry and idiom that had few points of contact with the traditional mainstream.

William Carlos Williams:

“I don’t play golf, am not a joiner. I vote Democrat, read as much as my eyes will stand, and work at my trade day in and day out. When I can find nothing better to do, I write.”

Marianne Moore, reviewing Collected Poems (1934):

“The senseless unarrangement of wild things,” which he imitates, makes some kinds of correct writing look rather foolish; and as illustrating that combination of energy and composure which is the expertness of the artist, he has never drawn a clearer self-portrait than “Birds and Flowers”:

What have I done
to drive you away? It is
winter, true enough, but

this day I love you.
This day
there is no time at all

more than in under
my ribs where anatomists say the heart is.–

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

He most famously expressed his conception of poetry in the poem beginning “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow,” as if objects in the world be allowed to retain their nature without being conceptualized into abstract schemas and literary archetypes.

William Carlos Williams:

As Marianne Moore used to say, a language dogs and cats could understand. So I think she agrees with me fundamentally.

Michael Schmidt on “This Is Just to Say”:

The entire poem is conducted in a tone of apology and in visual terms, until at the close there is a sudden switch of senses to taste and temperature. He has, as it were, changed key by changing sense register. Without that simple sleight of language the poem would be inert.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, July 2, 1948:

All the prose parts of Paterson are lifted, not made up. I don’t know whether your point is right or not–the first two books cry out for the next two, and perhaps the proportions will come out right in the end. As it is the letters are literally left hanging. I think of their effectiveness in two ways: 1) so terrifyingly and typically real, and yet I don’t think I’d want to read many of them straight–too monotonous, pathological. Yet in the poem they are placed and not pathological, the agony is absorbed. 2) Aren’t they really hardest on Williams himself (Paterson), a damning of his insensitivity. She’s mad, but he, like Aeneas can’t handle her and shows up badly. I think that’s their purpose in the poem. Paterson has been like water to me, and my judgment may be subjective.

William Carlos Williams on “The Poem as a Field of Action”:

I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure…I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenations of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In his prologue to Kora in Hell, written in 1918, William Carlos Williams, a doctor living in New Jersey, attacked the expatriates Eliot and Pound for merely warming over European conventions and for betraying American life and speech. Williams sought to express neither what the cosmopolitan Eliot called “the mind of Europe,” nor the distinctive character of a limited region, as Frost, Masters, and Sandburg were doing, but a national experience.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, June 30, 1948:

I read the Williams review on the train with great interest but not absolute agreement–having just worked over the book again [Paterson] a day or two before. At least, I agree all right with what you say and think you’ve done an awfully good job in the first part, of presenting the poem. But really when I re-read it all (the poem) I still felt he shouldn’t have used the letters from that woman–to me it seems mean, & they’re much too overpowering emotionally for the rest of it so that the whole poem suffers. I noticed in Eberhart’s review in The Times he said the prose parts were made-up, but I don’t think they are, are they? However==it has wonderful sections, and I think Williams has always had a streak of insensitivity…

And then maybe I’ve felt a little too much the way the woman did at certain more hysterical moments. People who haven’t experienced absolute loneliness for long stretches of time can never sympathize with it at all.

William Carlos Williams:

The only realism in art is of the imagination.

Robert Lowell, The Nation, June 19, 1948, on Paterson:

[His interior monologue] is interrupted by chunks of prose paragraphs from old newspapers, textbooks, and the letters of a lacerated and lacerating poetess. The material is merely selected by the author. That the poetry is able to digest it in the raw is a measure of power and daring–the daring of simplicity; for only a taut style with worlds of experience behind it could so resign, and give way to the anthologist.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

After the publication of The Waste Land, Williams campaigned against it: its sinister merit was so powerful that it might well block the movement toward and indigenous American verse … Published a year after The Waste Land, the title poem of Williams’s Spring and All opens with a “waste of broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds,” but things that seem dead in Williams’s poem, unlike those in Eliot’s waste land, are slowly reborn into their particular lives: “clarity, outline of leaf.” Williams felt that Eliot had imposed a shape on material that should have been allowed to take its own shape.

William Carlos Williams in his introduction to the first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” 1956:

Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “This is Just to Say”:

With its offhand title, “This Is Just to Say” pretends to be no more than a memo, jotted in haste on a scrap of paper. But it is a highly original love poem whose casualness is a deft tribute and token of intimacy and respect. The note has been left in a kitchen, female space usually ignored by major literature. The poet knows that he is an intruder, a vandal disrupting the orderly center of life. His palpable sense of trespass turns the kitchen into Eden and the pilfered plums into forbidden fruit.

William Carlos Williams:

[A poet should work] particularly, as a physician works upon a patient, upon the thing before him.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “This Is Just to Say”:

The disdainful frigidity of the Petrarchan lady takes amusing new form: the omnipotent mistress now rules the icebox, which has supplanted the blazing hearth as the vital center of the modern kitchen. The poem’s narrow shape actually resembles an icebox, a two-tiered fortress (block ice above, perishables below) that was transformed during Williams’s lifetime into the streamlined electric refrigerator. Opening like a vault, the icebox is analogous to a book or poem, which stores up reshaped experience for future pleasure.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (1948):

[The Waste Land was] a great catastrophe… [It stopped] the rediscovery of a primal impulse, the elementary principle of all art, in the local condition. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it … Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself–rooted in the locality, which should give it fruit.

Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn on “This is Just to Say”:

Hovering over the poem is an invisible figure similar to the one in John Donne’s “The Flea”–a strong, silent female companion whose favor is begged and whole judgment is comically feared. Williams exaggerates his apprehension and psychological distance to set the stage for reconciliation. His poem is an offering and bribe to convert his “cold” to “sweet.” Hence the “delicious” fruitiness of the final images have the tactile lushness of a kiss.

William Carlos Williams:

We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels.

William Carlos Williams, echoing his pal Ezra Pound’s command “Make it new”:

Nothing is good save the new.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Williams based his poetry in the language as spoken in the United States. He disapproved of Pound’s and Eliot’s expatriation and called the publication of The Waste Land (1922), “the great catastrophe” that, by its genius, interrupted the “rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principles of all art, in the local conditions” (Autobiography). He refused to present himself as an artist, insisting instead that he was like other men; he used slang to avoid pretentiousness and preferred to be thought a fool rather than a subtle artificer. His object was to communicate with the world directly.

William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (1923):

There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world.

William Carlos Williams:

I take contact to mean: man without the syllogism, without the parody, without Spinoza’s ethics, man with nothing but the thing and the feeling of that thing.

William Carlos Williams on “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

The particular thing offers a finality that sends us spinning through space.

William Carlos Williams:

To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force–the imagination.

During William Carlos Williams’s final illness, he said to his friend Robert Lowell (nickname “Cal”):

“Tell me honestly, Cal. Am I as good a poet as Shelley?”

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18 Responses to Happy Birthday, William Carlos Williams: “My whole life / has hung too long upon a partial victory.”

  1. Jessie says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I’ve not come across WCW before. But I really enjoy the way he forces objects to stand for themselves. It’s beautiful, and more moving the longer it stays with me. I find it particularly striking in comparison with your(also tremendous and moving) post on Mary Oliver (and Moby Dick), who also used direct observational language about the natural world but pushed through into an open space behind the words.

    I have been thinking hard to find a point of likeness with WCW and I am struggling. Malevich’s colour compositions give me a similar feeling although I think what underwrites it is the opposite intention! Magritte, perhaps, in things like Empire of Lights, but for his eerieness.

    (As I write this, this song comes on my shuffle so I probably needn’t search any further.)

    I think the nearest I can come is Bill Callahan, who sings directly and simply in his lovely sonorous voice about things like rivers and horses. And states of being too; like his Winter Road contains the amazing lines “A Donald Sutherland interview comes on the truck radio/ He apologises to all he’s loved and sired/ Long shot of my face” (not even my favourite line of the song: “The blinding lights of the kingdom/ can make you weep” rides a key change down my heart). But even Callahan has a particular emphasis on figuration and catharsis that takes his work somewhere very different from WCW.

    I’ve been happily dabbling in these thoughts all day, so thank you!

    • Jessie says:

      Hannibal does it too, insists on objects as things in themselves. But then again Hannibal is basically a phenomenological treatise in the form of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted (Homoerotic) Fantasy.

  2. sheila says:

    Jessie – I absolutely love your thoughts on Hannibal and the objects – you have mentioned it before in SPN re-caps and I think that is just so brilliant.

    I, too, am trying to find a comparison with others. Maybe Joseph Cornell’s magical little boxes – filled with objects like clay pipes, or fake parrots, or bouncing rubber balls. Regular objects, found in trash bins and second-hand stores – elevated to something mystical, something beyond itself. He saw the value in trash. He moved it into the realm of the mythic: celebrity worship (Emily Dickinson, Lauren Bacall) – the postmodern Gods.

    But maybe Cornell imbues objects with meaning MORE than themselves.

    I think it is very very hard to do what WCW does. Like those bad New Yorker poems that just list objects – but somehow the poem has zero resonance. It disperses the second after you read it.

    How does he do it then?? Those plums! What staying power those plums have.

    I don’t know – and thank you for all those song links – I will listen in a bit. That Donald Sutherland line – wow.

    • Jessie says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Sheila! The Cornell comparison is interesting. I followed the link to your friend Ted’s blog and saw there that people had compared to the Duchamp urinal – another example might be Emin’s My Bed – but I agree with your querying the meaning once it becomes Art. The context overwhelms the object. What seems to be remarkable about WCW is that he seems to sidestep a similar Poetry effect. I think Jeff’s observation below is spot on.

      That McSweeney’s link — the popcorn!!!!!

      • sheila says:

        // What seems to be remarkable about WCW is that he seems to sidestep a similar Poetry effect. //

        Totally! It’s not precious or … too careful. He just lists what is there in a way that you can see it, that you remember it – and the meaning is … I guess up to the reader. It seems beyond meaning – it’s more about emotion and memory, maybe.

        I like thinking about it!

  3. sheila says:

    Perfect timing – just saw this link on McSweeney’s about how William Carlos Williams would be a terrible roommate, due to his stealing of the plums:


  4. Jeff Gee says:

    I’m not sure how he makes them work either, but part of it is surely that he gets us do so much of the heavy lifting without our being aware of it. Two common adjectives and you’ve got not only the (taste of the) plums, but the ice box. ‘Glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens’ and you get not only the red wheelbarrow, you get the whole yard and (at least in my case) half a dozen distinct smells.

    If you try to look directly at the chickens, though, you lose the whole thing, which is probably why list poems can’t bring this off.

    • sheila says:

      // If you try to look directly at the chickens, though, you lose the whole thing, which is probably why list poems can’t bring this off. //

      Great observation, Jeff – thank you!

  5. Guy Nicolucci says:

    Thank you for the post. I came across Williams and poetry very late (I won’t say how late) and one of the frustrations is that I’ve lost the ability to retain a poem no matter how many times I memorize it. The joy is that at least once a year I get to relearn the Locust Tree in Blossom.






  6. Jeff Gee says:

    Thanks for linking to the Glenn Kenny Paterson review. My response to it was so powerful I didn’t trust it. (I grew up a 20 minute bike ride from the Great Falls, & don’t get me started on living down the street from St. Marks on the Bowery when Ron Padgett was reading there pretty much hourly). In a way, it feels to me like a weird, time-warped prequel to Only Lovers Left Alive. I bet the pre-vampire relationship of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton was mighty close to what we’re seeing with Adam Driver & Golshifteh Farahani.

    (And of course Marvin the Bulldog is indelible in the Mia Wasikowska part).

    • sheila says:

      Jeff –

      // My response to it was so powerful I didn’t trust it. //

      Funny, I had the same reaction.

      One of my thoughts the second it ended was: “I can’t believe this exists now. I feel so lucky that this film exists.”

      So yeah, it was that strong a response and I wasn’t sure what exactly had been tapped into. Sometimes the strongest responses are the ones you can trust!!

      I love your thought about Only Lovers Left Alive. I think Jarmusch’s views on coupledom – romance – are … healing? Not sure if that’s the right word. It’s unbelievable that he pulls it off – that people being kind and supportive and loving can ALSO be dramatic without any manipulation.

      I need to see Paterson again – I only saw it once!

      And that final conversation with the Japanese poet by the Falls! BAH. So good!

  7. As it happens I’ve been having a William Carlos Williams moment these past months (also A Hart Crane thing, but that’s another story). “Patterson” it turns out, is great on a long plane trip– read a little, think awhile, read a little more….

    I’ve never been able to work myself to reading his fiction. I should fix that.

  8. Larry Aydlette says:

    The wheelbarrow. Williams always struck me as understanding Zen tenets, Eastern philosophy, before much of the West did. Everything depends upon seeing clearly, and adding nothing to the experience but clarity. I’ve really got to watch that Paterson movie, don’t I?

    • sheila says:

      // Everything depends upon seeing clearly, and adding nothing to the experience but clarity. //

      I love this.

      You know, I really REALLY loved Paterson when I first saw it – and I’m actually slightly afraid to re-visit it my initial feelings were so strong. It’s very gentle and quiet and sweet.

  9. Jessie says:

    I have to share this delight here.

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