William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet
associated with Modernism and Imagism. He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey to
an English father and a Puerto Rican mother. He received his primary and
secondary education in Rutherford, then spent two years abroad at a school near
Geneva and the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He later attended medical school at the
University of Pennsylvania, then became a pediatrician and general practitioner.
On a trip to Europe in 1924, Williams visited two of the leading Modernist
writers, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. He became involved in the Imagist movement
but soon began to disagree with the leading Imagists, Pound and T. S. Eliot. He
disliked Pound's and Eliot's frequent use of allusions to foreign languages and
Classical sources. Williams preferred to draw his themes from what he called
"the local." Williams most famously summarized his poetic method in the phrase
"No ideas but in things" (found in his poem "A Sort of a Song"). He advocated
leaving aside traditional poetic forms and unnecessary literary allusions, in an
effort to see the world as it is. Marianne Moore, another skeptic of traditional
poetic forms, wrote that Williams had used "plain American which cats and dogs
Williams was influential because of his willingness to mentor
other poets. He was a significant influence on several American literary
movements of the 1950s: the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black
Mountain school and the New York School. He personally mentored Theodore
Roethke, Allen Ginsberg (a major Beat poet) and Charles Olson (a leading figure
of the Black Mountain school, along with Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, who
studied under Williams). Williams was also friends with Kenneth Rexroth, the
founder of the San Francisco Renaissance. A lecture Williams gave at Reed
College influenced three other important members of that Renaissance: Gary
Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. Like Pound, Williams did not approve of the
more chaotic aspects of free verse. For instance, he was not enamored of the
formlessness of some of the Beats. Williams believed more in the interplay of form
His most anthologized poem is "The Red Wheelbarrow," considered a statement and
example of the Imagist's style and philosophy. However, Williams, like Pound,
had long rejected the Imagist movement by the time the poem was published as
part of Spring and All in 1923. Today Williams is more strongly associated with
the American Modernist movement; he sought to renew language through the fresh,
raw idiom that grew out of America's cultural and social heterogeneity, at the
same time freeing it from what he saw as the worn-out language of British and
Williams wanted a fresh American poetry centered on everyday circumstances of
life and the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the
"variable foot" and for the most part didn’t use traditional forms or meter in his poems.
In May 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies, (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel's great picture, The Kermess
Dedication for a Plot of Ground
This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in St. Thomas,
Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed
the oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her "baby,"
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them—they being
motherless—fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.
She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived here fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and—
If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.
The Uses of Poetry
I've fond anticipation of a day
O'erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,
Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat's long sway.
For, lest o'ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We'll draw the latch-string
And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy's transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.
The Cold Night
It is cold. The white moon
is up among her scattered stars—
like the bare thighs of
the Police Sergeant's wife—among
her five children . . .
No answer. Pale shadows lie upon
the frosted grass. One answer:
It is midnight, it is still
and it is cold . . . !
White thighs of the sky! a
new answer out of the depths of
my male belly: In April . . .
In April I shall see again—In April!
the round and perfects thighs
of the Police Sergeant's wife
perfect still after many babies.
I think I have never been so exalted
As I am now by you,
O frost bitten blossoms,
That are unfolding your wings
From out the envious black branches.
Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine
The twigs conspire against you
They hold you from behind
You shall not take wing
Except wing by wing, brokenly,
Shall not endure for ever.
It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loth to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.
April Is the Saddest Month
There they were
dog and bitch
halving the compass
Then when with his yip
oh how frolicsome
she grew before him
through the shrubbery
They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
to give birth to
a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
Youth And Beauty
I bought a dishmop—
having no daughter—
for they had twisted
fine ribbons of shining copper
about white twine
and made a tousled head
of it, fastened it
upon a turned ash stick
slender at the neck
when tied upright
on the brass wallbracket
to be a light for me
as a girl should seem
to her father.
Go to sleep—though of course you will not—
to tideless waves thundering slantwise against
strong embankments, rattle and swish of spray
dashed thirty feet high, caught by the lake wind,
scattered and strewn broadcast in over the steady
car rails! Sleep, sleep! Gulls' cries in a wind-gust
broken by the wind; calculating wings set above
the field of waves breaking.
Go to sleep to the lunge between foam-crests,
refuse churned in the recoil. Food! Food!
Offal! Offal! that holds them in the air, wave-white
for the one purpose, feather upon feather, the wild
chill in their eyes, the hoarseness in their voices—
sleep, sleep . . .
Gentlefooted crowds are treading out your lullaby.
Their arms nudge, they brush shoulders,
hitch this way then that, mass and surge at the
lullaby, lullaby! The wild-fowl police whistles,
the enraged roar of the traffic, machine shrieks:
it is all to put you to sleep,
to soften your limbs in relaxed postures,
and that your head slip sidewise, and your hair loosen
and fall over your eyes and over your mouth,
brushing your lips wistfully that you may dream,
sleep and dream—
A black fungus springs out about the lonely church
sleep, sleep. The Night, coming down upon
the wet boulevard, would start you awake with his
message, to have in at your window. Pay no
heed to him. He storms at your sill with
cooings, with gesticulations, curses!
You will not let him in. He would keep you from
He would have you sit under your desk lamp
brooding, pondering; he would have you
slide out the drawer, take up the ornamented dagger
and handle it. It is late, it is nineteen-nineteen—
go to sleep, his cries are a lullaby;
his jabbering is a sleep-well-my-baby; he is
a crackbrained messenger.
The maid waking you in the morning
when you are up and dressing,
the rustle of your clothes as you raise them—
it is the same tune.
At table the cold, greenish, split grapefruit, its juice
on the tongue, the clink of the spoon in
your coffee, the toast odors say it over and over.
The open street-door lets in the breath of
the morning wind from over the lake.
The bus coming to a halt grinds from its sullen brakes—
lullaby, lullaby. The crackle of a newspaper,
the movement of the troubled coat beside you—
sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep . . .
It is the sting of snow, the burning liquor of
the moonlight, the rush of rain in the gutters packed
with dead leaves: go to sleep, go to sleep.
And the night passes—and never passes—