William Carlos Williams was born in the late 19th Century (September 17, 1883) and died in the midst of rock’n’roll revolution and post-modernist art in the middle of the 20th Century (March 4, 1963). A doctor, majoring in pediatrics and obstetrics, Williams kept his twin medical and literary careers separate to the public but they were very much co-existent and co-dependent.
He may have said “no one believes that poetry can exist in his own life” but it was not without constant attempts to disprove his own theory. Perhaps Williams, a tough critic of inferior works (both from his own canon and his contemporaries; he professed to hate T. S. Elliot’s longer work, The Waste Land and had similar disdain for Pound’s rambling Cantos) chose to believe that one’s life was indeed the cost for creation of poetry. Indeed he spent a large part of his 79 years wanting to give life – both literally and figuratively. For Williams, the craft of writing was intertwined with his other profession. He spent his life creating as a doctor; charged with delivering new babies into the world. It can be said that he helped to create life, did his bit, in this environment, just as he attempted to create new poetic life.
Williams began his career with an attention to form that rivalled his poetic colleague Ezra Pound. Traditional and adhering to the poetics of language from the time (very European influenced), there was nothing spectacular about Williams’ early work, largely conceived while he was working as a doctor, written out quickly in the spaces allowed to him between seeing patients. His patients did not know that their doctor was on his way to a noted literary career.
The change in Williams’ work as a writer was influenced by modern art. He adored the Cubist works and modernist images of painters like Charles Demuth and Stuart Davis; as well as being taken by the Dadaist and anti-art schemes of Marcel Duchamp. From these artists, and other European painters (notably Cezanne and Picasso) Williams realised that he could modernise himself; that is to say modernise his own writing. He wanted to – basically – write poems that looked like scenes artists were painting. He wanted to create poetic sequences that were self-contained, taut, trim, evoking a scene that might well be painted by a modernist artist. And within that, why not create an American form of poetics? Williams’ travels through Europe (he was schooled in Switzerland and Paris) had influenced his decision to write based on his own experiences. He was interested – again, taking from painters – in putting the world that he saw on paper. He wanted to promote his own Americanism – his very American voice – through his writing. William Carlos Williams, who would later openly criticise Elliot, saying “he walked out on America”, was passionate about creating an American version of poetics. It is seen immediately in his most famous work:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
It is a deceptively simple poem, short – to the point of being one sentence – just eight brief lines. But is it a complete sentence? There is no capital letter to begin, but a full-stop to conclude. Is this actually one half of a sentence? So much depends on the actual title of the poem, and from there on the very line, “so much depends upon”. With that construction, Williams is pointing out to the reader the dynamic control he is using: he is telling the reader to look out for what comes next (in this case the red wheelbarrow of the title, a further clue of its importance) but then of course, the line “so much depends upon” runs on to include the red wheel barrow being “glazed with rain water” and happening to be “beside the white chickens”. So in 15 words (plus the three-worded title, which is repeated to set up the dynamic effect) Williams has told the reader all that is required; all that he wants the reader to know – and all that he is allowing the reader to know. Is this thing which demands importance, since “so much depends upon” it, actually that important at all? Like a painted scene, the reader can imagine the image conjured of the titular wheelbarrow with glistening rain, some pale chickens standing beside it. The presumably rural setting is something the reader needs to imagine – as no suggestion is made of where this is taking place. The simple, direct language evokes the scene that Williams is both metaphorically and (almost) literally painting. The scene starts and stops with these words, in terms of the poem. But it can go on in the mind of the reader to mean anything else. The language is influenced by dialogue. Williams was obsessed with catchphrases like “did you hear that?” The way the poem opens, with the line “so much depends upon” is very dialogue-esque: The sentence starting with “so”; the emphatic description that relates to necessity over actual quantity; the reader is never told why this object/scene is important, rather it is announced (in the work) that it holds importance. The relevance and weight of this scene can be decided by the reader as much as it has been controlled by the writer. There is the very clear analogy to a physical Americanism within these words to match the colloquial dialogue-styled lines. The wheelbarrow is “red”, the chickens are “white”, the “rain water” is not given colour, but we can assume – particularly if we were to imagine the scene painted with brush on canvas – that this water would be portrayed as blue. There you have the colours of the American flag. A proud note to not only the poem’s heritage, but the poet’s also.
To consider another of Williams’ brief poems, simply called Poem is to see this same technique applied:
As the cat
the top of
first the right
then the hind
into the pit of
This time there is a capital letter at the start of the poem – but no full stop. This is a series of short snapshots without a conclusive end. Williams uses the poem to convey the movement of a cat, “over the top of/the jamcloset” and eventually “into the pit of/the empty/flowerpot”. But perhaps the cat doesn’t stop there – even though the poem does.
Again, this could be a painted scene – effectively, with words and paper, Williams has painted the reader a picture of a cat in motion. It could be frames of a film, each stanza in this short poem could be a single frame of film, a flicker and crackle of black & white stock whirring between each of the three-line word sets.
To look at both of these poems together – beyond the images that they evoke (paintings, photographs, filmed scenes) they are indeed inspired by everyday life; maybe not Williams’ own life (as we shall see later) but certainly simple, everyday life. A wheelbarrow standing proud. A cat jumping down in to a vacant flowerpot.
“you will think the light
comes from somewhere else” – Frank O’Hara
William Carlos Williams was not the first poet to explore ideas of Americanism in poetry – and of course he was not the last. But his innovations – his use of everyday language, taken from his own life, often taken from his patients’ mouths, as if extracted with a tongue depressor, put him in a line that perhaps started with Walt Whitman and continued on through Williams to reside in Charles Bukowski’s re-tooling of everyday language in his poetry.
Bukowski of course was more interested in using his own voice, where Williams wanted poetry to still be told through a universal voice. In that sense closer influence can be seen in selected works by Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell and Frank O’Hara. (O’Hara’s universal tone is often comic, slightly frazzled, smug and removed. Not as even-handed as the broad brush-strokes of Williams’ linguistic sweeps). But certainly Bukowski, though he might not like to admit it (“Cummings dead, W.C. Williams dead, Frost dead, so forth, and I never believed much in them, but they were kind of there before I arrived…”) owes a debt of influence in his writing of the American life to Williams. Like Bukowski, Williams was not a patriotic flag-waver, his interest in America came from his disenchantment; his part-disenfranchisement.
This invention of a fresh American form, abstracted from Whitman’s solipsism, saw Williams focus on everyday American life. But in actual fact, his trick was to focus on everyday American lives – and he used his own life as a tool in the equation. Sometimes he used himself as a form of bait. In the 1930s, as Williams moved away from just writing poetry and concentrated for a brief period on short stories, his work began to show political viewpoints. Not necessarily his own, at least not to start with, Williams saw first-hand from his medical patients the effects of The Depression. His stories began to reflect the voices of the hard-done-by; the downtrodden. Indeed his fiction would draw heavily on his work as a doctor.
Other times, Williams used himself, as perhaps any writer would; filtering his own life into writing, rather than netting the stories of others. His wife, Florence Herman, became the ‘Floss’ of many of his poems, and indeed was the basis for a character in his 1937 novel, White Mule – as well as appearing, in varied forms, in some of his plays.
For further – and more obvious – proof of Williams’ use of his own life in writing, in 1951 he published his Autobiography. In this, he focused on his life as a medical practitioner and divulged the crucial influence it had on his writing. It was, in particular, helpful to his construction of female characters.
But this idea of writing poetry in everyday language, of creating a poetic world from the everyday, for Williams, comes from his interest in modernist art. And perhaps his idea that “no one believes poetry can exist” in their own life also comes from the art world. The fact that though painters such as Picasso and Cezanne acquired fame during their life, they went on to a further level as artists after their death. The artists no longer did the talking; instead their work had to speak for them. Is that what Williams was saying with regard to poetry and poets? That one could be a poet while they were writing – actively revising, reworking material, and creating fresh new worlds with each scribbled sentence – but that the writer would cease to be at death. And from that point the writing would be deemed poetry; the writing could now really come alive, would be free to take on a life of its own, as its own thing, separated out from the poet’s own life to in fact become something other, something supported of and by itself. In this instance: poetry. Alone in the world to stand proud away from its human influence.