William Carlos Williams: Overview

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Author: Linda W. Wagner
Editor: Jim Kamp
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,479 words

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William Carlos Williams is one of the leading figures of American modernist poetry whose critical recognition supports the impact his poems and fiction had throughout the modern and contemporary periods. Williams was a writer's writer in that his reputation existed chiefly among other writers—Ezra Pound, H. D., Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway—at least until New Directions began publishing his work in the late 1930s. Most of Williams's first dozen books were privately printed or subsidized. Some were collections of poems; others were an innovative mixture of poetry and prose, or of prose-poem form. Regardless of apparent genre, Williams wrote consistently in a mode based on the rhythms of the speaking voice, complete with idiomatic language, colloquial word choice, organic form and structure, and an intense interest in locale as both setting and subject.

This most American of poets was born of mixed parentage, and part of his fascination with the identification of—even the definition of—the American character may have stemmed from his own feeling of dislocation. His short early poems as well as his collection of essays on American historical figures, In the American Grain, present personae and scenes germane to the United States: "a young horse with a green bed-quilt/on his withers shaking his head?" "A big young bareheaded woman/ in an apron, Flowers through the window / lavender and yellow / changed by white curtains." The fact that these scenes and characters are presented with neither apology nor psychological justification emphasized the aesthetic position that the thing was its own justification. Whether echoing John Dewey, Henri Bergson, or William James, Williams's innate pragmatism led him to a concentration on the unadorned image (as a means to universal understanding, truth) that opened many new directions in modern poetry. Williams did not use the image as symbol, a substitute for a larger idea; he was content to rest with the assumption that the reader could duplicate his own sense of importance for the red wheelbarrows and green glass between hospital walls, and thereby dismiss the equivocation of symbolism. As he said so succinctly in Paterson, "no ideas but in things."

Allied with the notion of presentation was the corollary that the author was...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420008692