William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

    Contributing Editor:
    Theodora R. Graham

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students' assumption that what appears simple is simplistic can be a problem with teaching Williams's poetry. Some students feel the need to sketch in the house, barn, and fields behind the wheelbarrow and white chickens. For others, lack of experience with innovative line breaks and visual effects causes initial confusion. Many do not at first listen for the voice(s). They do not pay attention to speakers and therefore miss the tonal shadings, irony, humor, and other effects, including the sometimes clinical objectivity of poems related to visual art.

    I recommend that students read poems aloud from the beginning. I read a poem aloud myself in class as a "possible interpretation" and have students comment on or revise the reading. I also use transparencies of shorter poems, occasionally changing the line breaks in an "edited version" to call attention to Williams's technique of fragmentation (not breaking necessarily with a syntactic unit). In addition, I sometimes use art slides that relate to specific poems (Demuth's "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold," "Tuberoses"; Picasso's "The Girl and the Hoop"; Sheeler's "Classic Scene").

    Students often ask if Williams is usually the speaker in the poem. They wonder how autobiographical his work is and ask whether his work as a doctor really influenced the way he wrote and what he wrote about. Those interested in form ask whether a single sentence, broken up on the page, can be a legitimate poem.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Williams champions the American idiom and the "local"--either the urban landscape or one's immediate environment. He pays close attention to ordinary scenes (some purely descriptive; others as compositions as in visual art), the working class and poor. Williams's work often demonstrates the artist's need to destroy or deconstruct what has become outworn and to reassemble or recreate with fresh vision and language. His own "hybrid" background is, in his view, particularly American. He uses his experience as a doctor, married man and father, son and friend, in some of the poems, fiction, and plays. In addition, he demonstrates the need to discover rather than impose order on reality.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    It is important to be familiar with imagist principles and the serious thrust of Williams's "no ideas but in things," as well as his sometime view of the poem as "a machine made out of words." Students should be aware of inductive process and attempt to relate this to Williams's emphasis on particulars, perhaps comparing it with Frost's statement that a poem does not begin with an idea. But whereas Frost embraced and adapted traditional forms, around 1915 Williams began experimenting in shorter poems with innovative line breaks, speaking voices, and a kind of stripped-down language (as he said of Moore, washing words with acid). Readers of Williams should also be familiar with the Armory Show (1913) and how cubist fragmentation and photography became sources for new ideas in the arts through Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery "291" and magazine Camera Work, through gatherings at the home/"gallery" of Walter Arensberg in New York City. Since Williams lived a short train ride from the city, he was able to frequent these shows, gatherings, and even studios, like that of Marsden Hartley, with Demuth, a good friend.

    That the young Williams was at first influenced primarily by Whitman and Keats and began by writing conventional verse makes his departure from tradition all the more radical.

    Original Audience

    Point out through a dateline on a transparency the birth dates of Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, and Eliot --and include on the same sheet how old each poet was in 1912 (the date of what is sometimes referred to as the beginning of a poetic renaissance: the start of Poetry magazine). Audience was created by editors of little magazines (as new audiences for art were stimulated by opening of small galleries in New York), some-- like Williams (see Contact I and II)--poets or fiction writers. Poetry, Others, the Egoist, Criterion (see Little Magazines, ed. F. Hoffman) and other magazines published on both sides of the Atlantic gave poets a place to present their work without considering the strictures of conventional larger-circulation magazines. The Dial, edited in the twenties by Marianne Moore, offered a coveted prize, which Williams was awarded.

    The audience was not mainstream, not large; but it was generally sophisticated and knowledgeable about new developments in the arts and music. It could also be educated by the writers to be responsive to new work.

    Now, of course, the modernists are all anthologized and acknowledged, both in their own rights and as influences for poets of following generations. That does not make them, however, easy to read. And the poems anthologized for secondary-level students often do not present their most controversial, and perhaps interesting, writing.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Students may be asked to discuss how poems begin, or to compare two or more poets' process of revision. They may be asked to compare/contrast the speakers' dilemmas in Frost's "Design" or other "dark" poems and Williams's "These." They could look as well at the forms each poet has chosen and discuss the possible reasons for what Frost would consider the "playing tennis with the net down" of Williams's verse. One could also discuss Williams's relationship to Pound and the latter's influence on early Williams, as well as Williams's negative views of Eliot's expatriation and verse.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. Students generally have a set of strategies for reading that include giving attention to speaker, setting (time of year, time of day, description, etc.), various devices, audience, etc., that they have adapted to their own use as they become more sophisticated readers. I try not to reduce each writer to a set of questions but do suggest that with Williams they read aloud and look carefully at how Williams develops a speaker, how words--used sparingly--can "tell" more because of juxtaposition or because of their place in a visual composition.

    2. Students are particularly interested in interrelations among the arts, in particular with Williams of poetry and visual art. Williams's favorite painter among the cubists was Juan Gris. Some of his work, because it includes what Williams called "the recognizable object" in a new relation to its context, can be interesting to compare with carefully selected Williams poems (and they can see Spring and All for Williams's comments on Gris). Too, Williams's work in relation to that of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Alfred Stieglitz provides stimulating possibilities. Can a linear art such as poetry come close to resembling a spatial art such as painting or photography?


    The secondary bibliography on Williams is very long. An instructor might consult Paul Mariani's edition of the secondary sources, arranged according to periods in Williams's writing, chronologically (published by the American Library Association). And then select more recent articles from this book's lists.

    James Breslin's study of WCW and Thomas Whitaker's shorter introduction in the Twayne series remain useful.

    Specialized studies of Williams and the arts by Bram Dijkstra, Dickran Tashjian, Peter Schmidt, and Christopher MacGowan provide helpful background.

    Williams's Autobiography and I Want to Write a Poem (ed. Edith Heal) offer insights, not always totally reliable, in the poet's own words.

    The William Carlos Williams Review, published since 1975, prints articles, reviews, biographical information, unpublished letters, and other manuscripts.