William Carlos Williams and the American Poem

Citation metadata

Author: Charles Doyle
Editors: Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz
Date: 1987
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,114 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

For criticism, the important question is: what criteria are we to apply in judging Williams 's poems? Many American poets, of the past two decades in particular, have signified their approval of his work either by imitating it or advancing it. Critical difficulty is encountered not so much in characterizing his discoveries concerning `the poem' as in deciding which among his typical poems are successful, and good, poems, and why this is so.

At the beginning of his career, and by now the point has been made often enough, William's poems were highly literary, modelled on approved masters in the English tradition, both in diction and measure. When he broke away from this stale sense of poetry, it was first through the influence of Pound and Imagism. As he suggests in the Preface to Kora in Hell, Williams, at this period, escaped from a common mental attitude of the literary poet—considering, or thinking about, one thing in terms of another. Simile, analogy and metaphor he rejected as inappropriate to his sense of `the poem', preferring to assert the necessity of keeping one's eye on the object.... Such insistence on the specific individuality of the object, as opposed to its likeness and relation to other objects, is distinctly American, as is the aim for `vividness' rather than propriety.

Seeing clearly was, for him, the great virtue, as it was for his painter friends Demuth and Sheeler. Throughout Williams's career we encounter the isolation of the moment of clear perception or experience as if it were hard won from the ever-encroaching flux. In a constant state of alertness the artist makes his discoveries, but he is also active, and morally so, a selector, who `must keep his eye without fault on those things he values, to which officials refuse to give the proper names.' ... Genuine contact is made through concentration on the object with great intensity, to `lift it' to the imagination. An object lifted to the imagination yields up its `radiant gist'. Sometimes this is simply discovered, while at others (given that the field of energy does not stop at the skin or outer envelope of the human being), the process is completed by the poet by means of invention or structuring. In poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams draws our attention simultaneously to the world out there and to our relationship with it, which must be fresh, now. Here is one significance of his assertion that `Nothing is good save the new,' ... which is far from claiming that a thing is inevitably good merely because it is new.

`Nothing is good save the new' because what is important is here and now, our immediate experience. In the face of centuries of traditional poetic form, which had run into the nineteenth-century mire of `moral homily' (seeing the poem as aiming for perfection in long-established verse-forms along with the expression of edifying or uplifting material), Williams had the insight to see that the significance of the poem is not...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000858