William Carlos Williams: Classic American Poet

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Editor: Jonathan Vereecke
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 206)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,713 words

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[(essay date 1964) In the following essay, Wagner laments the long-standing paucity of critical recognition of Williams and discusses Williams’s own forays into critical writing in an effort to explicate “the contemporary poetic process.” Quoted material in this essay has been removed due to copyright restrictions.]

William Carlos Williams has recently been called “the first American classic.” During his lifetime, the poet acknowledged his debt to such figures as Sappho, Theocritus, and Aristotle; his poetic techniques follow those of not only the ancient but also of the Renaissance and Romantic poets, in many respects. Yet, throughout Williams’ literary career—fifty years of prolific writing—he has been considered a “maverick”; his techniques “inexplicable,” his critical theory, “nonsense.” The pervasiveness of this misunderstanding forced Williams to assume the role of critic himself, although his interest lay primarily in poetry. However, in his case, the two areas of writing proved to be complementary; and both his poetry and his criticisms provide ample proof of his reliance on traditional poetics.

Termed “the giant among American poets” and “the finest of all contemporary American poets” in current criticism, the recipient of the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry has finally come to be recognized by critics and readers alike. Although Williams’ career as a poet began formally in 1909 with the publication of Poems, he wrote for more than thirty years with little critical notice other than that of his friends, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Robert McAlmon. When formal critics did begin mentioning Williams, they did so casually, as if motivated more by his companions than by his poetry. Some saw him simply as a member of a category; he was an “Imagist,” a “romantic,” a “primitive,” an “objectivist.” Others were satisfied to credit him with “a good ear” and a modicum of luck. Still others kept silence, indicating perhaps that the congenial doctor-poet (titles so arranged in their evaluation of his abilities) was beneath attention, an embarrassingly eager novice, even after years of practice.

This variation in critical opinion stemmed from the fact that Dr. Williams’ poems did not slide easily into pre-established categories: his techniques were used so individualistically that few criteria for their evaluation existed. Many critics took refuge from his “inexplicable” work by commenting on his subject matter—an important consideration, but hardly the only one. Others made vague and irrelevant statements that only baffled the reader; i.e., Babette Deutsch’s conclusion that Williams’ poems had “the sense of brightness on the air, of cool winds and clear waters,” or Richard Wilbur’s that Williams’ “successes are not susceptible of analysis.”

Critics, in short, hedged. They avoided Williams’ poems because neither criteria for evaluation nor terminology existed, and creating such was a precarious business at best. Relying on standards already established, they were regularly misled.

Because Williams himself believed intensely that the poem was of lasting value, and that a knowledge of technique was crucial to the poem, he rose to the challenge of this often invalid criticism: he wrote his own. He felt...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420125412