From the Transcendental to the Immanent Sublime: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 1913-1917

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 109)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 13,377 words

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[(essay date spring, fall, and winter 2003) In the following essay, Hatlen discusses the influence of the poets H. D., Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens on Williams during the years 1913-1917, and Williams's ultimate liberation from that influence.]

Until 1917, William Carlos Williams found his way forward as a poet primarily in dialogue with three other "strong" poets among his contemporaries, Ezra Pound, H. D., and Wallace Stevens. I mark 1917 as a crucial turning point, because in that year Williams moved away from traditional models in the radically experimental "Improvisations," eventually collected as Kora in Hell.1 I emphasize Williams's relationships to other poets in these early years because, although several important critical studies have demonstrated the influence of the visual arts on Williams's early poetry,2 that influence becomes decisive, I believe, only with Kora in Hell, which attempts to adapt Cubist and/or Dadaist methods of fragmentation and collage to the literary text. And I select Pound, H. D., and Stevens as especially important to Williams's development during these years because in the crucial "Prologue" to Kora in Hell Williams quotes at length from and argues with letters to him by these three poets.3 Up to and through the World War I years, I want to argue, all four of the poets I have here grouped together were engaged in working through their relationship with a poetics of the Sublime that had evolved through the nineteenth century, reaching a limit-point, or perhaps a final "decadence," in the poetry of the 1890s. In this essay, I will focus primarily on Williams, but as background I will also sketch in the Sublime engagements of Pound, H. D., and Stevens, all of whom were also during these years, in different ways and at different paces, beginning to move beyond the Romantic Sublime toward a more specifically Modernist Sublime. With respect to Williams specifically, I will here describe his early ventures, conducted primarily in the pages of The Egoist, into a poetry of the Archaic Sublime that shows the direct influence of H. D., and a poetry of the Erotic Sublime that looks primarily toward Pound; and I will also propose that with the founding of Others he enters into a dialogue with Stevens turning on the question of how the Sublime stands within the natural world. I will then look at some early poems in which Williams begins to find his own distinctive voice, as he explores the poetics of what I shall call the Immanent (or, sometimes, the Everyday) Sublime.


I begin by reviewing some familiar biographical information. William Carlos Williams met Ezra Pound in 1903, when both were students at the University of Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter both aspiring poets met and fell in love with Hilda Doolittle, daughter of a professor of astronomy at the university. In 1908 Pound moved more-or-less permanently to Europe, first to Venice and then to London; and in 1911 Hilda Doolittle also moved to London, where a few years later...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100918