William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
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
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.
Point out through a dateline on a transparency the birth dates of Frost,
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
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
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
The William Carlos Williams Review, published since 1975, prints
articles, reviews, biographical information, unpublished letters, and other