July 5, 2011

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams [USA]

William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, the city where he would live most of his life as a practicing doctor, writer, and family man. Indeed, in many respects, Williams was one of the most American of USA poets, insisting upon American literary and social values at a time when many of his friends and colleagues such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein were arguing for more international perspectives and were living in Europe.

Yet Williams’ position was not necessarily uncosmopolitan. His father, William George, had born in England and was to remain a British citizen all of his life. He thought himself a socialist, having been influenced by George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian writings. In Rutherford he was a founder of the Unitarian Society, and he made certain his sons received full training in the classics. Williams’ mother, born into a family from a Martinique and Puerto Rico, had studied art in Paris at l’Ecole des Arts Industrielles. At home she preferred to speak her native Spanish, and made certain that her children were educated in French, the language she most loved.

For most of his early years, Williams, along with his younger brother Edgar, attended the Rutherford public schools. But during the father’s absence on trip to Argentina in 1897, Williams’ mother took her sons to Europe in hopes of refining their education. The family lived in Geneva, and the boys attended private school at the Chateau de Lancy. She had hoped that her children would learn French, but most of their classmates were from British families, and it was only when the Williams’ moved to Paris, and the boys were enrolled in the Lycée Condorcet, that they could properly focus on the language. However, without that knowledge they had difficulty with the instruction, and the family returned to the United States in 1899.

Williams and his brother were sent to Horace Mann High School in New York City, commuting from New Jersey to the upper West Side of Manhattan for three years. It was while attending school there that Williams decided to devote his life to writing, but his parents forced both brothers to seek more stable careers. In 1902 Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dentistry, and soon transferred to the medical school. It was there that he met Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), whose father was a professor at the university. It was his friendship with the two, expressly Pound, that was to influence Williams for a great number of years, and he worked in tandem and in opposition to Pound’s developing poetics. It was Pound who helped Williams move away from the English poetic tradition to American figures such as Walt Whitman and to the continental tradition. At Penn he also came into contact with the American artists Charles Demuth, who remained his close friend until Demuth’s death in 1934.

Williams graduated medical school in 1906, serving for a while in The French Hospital in New York. However, determining to improve his pediatric skills, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1909, staying there until the following year. The same year he moved to Leipzig, Williams self-published his first volume of poetry, Poems. Pound’s response to the book was brutal—and as honest as he would remain throughout their lives: “I hope to God you have no feelings. If you have, burn this before reading.” Williams, he proclaimed, was out of touch with the work being produced in the literary centers of Paris and other European cities. Poems, he declared, is second rate. “Individual, original it is not. Great art it is not. Poetic it is, but there are innumerable poetic volumes poured out here in Gomorrah [London]…There are fine lines in it, but nowhere I think do you add anything to the poets you have used as models.” Clearly Williams took Pound’s statements to heart, producing in 1913 The Tempers, which more fully represented the rhythms and accents of American speech that would characterize Williams’ writing for the rest of his life.

Returning to the United States after Leipzig, Williams began medical practice in Rutherford, and was appointed physician for the Rutherford public schools. During this period he returned to his relationship with a local girl, Florence Herman, marrying her in 1912. The following year they moved to the house where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

While practicing medicine, Williams continued to write, involving himself with founder, Alfred Kreymborg, and the poets surrounding the magazine Others. Organizing a summer retreat his house in the New Jersey Palisades, Kreymborg brought together Williams and a number of important artists and writers of the day, including Man Ray, Malcolm Cowley, Walter Arensberg, Mina Loy, Marcel Duchamp, Wallace Stevens, and Maxwell Bodenheim. It was in the pages of Others that Williams first began to explore his ideas of the representing the American landscape and language, while also abandoning a metrical based prosody.

In 1920 Williams published his first major collection of poetic writings, prose poems, along with a preface that presented many of his aesthetic ideas. Two years later, he explored similar territory in his experimental fiction, The Great American Novel. In the same year he published a work central to his aesthetics and his poetic achievements, while at the same time, arguing within the text of the book itself, with some of Pound’s ideas expressed pointedly in their continued correspondence. The work, Spring and All, is one of the most important literary documents of American poetry.

Through the rest of the 1920s, Williams would continue to explore new poetic territory, along with fiction and essays on the American scene, such as In the American Grain of 1925.

The Great Depression found the Williams’ in financial disarray since he had invested much of his money in the stock market, and his small-town patients often did not have the money to pay. Williams often waived his fees, and was forced to take on greater work. Accordingly, some of his poetry moves closer to political criticism during this period, but his commitment was to remain aloof from a poetry centered in social and political issues.

During the 1930s, Williams found readership and appreciation from some of the Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky, who arranged to have Williams’s Collected Poems 1921-1931 published by the Objectivist Press. By the late 1930s, Williams’ work was taken up by the avant-garde publishing house, New Directions, and for the first time his work became readily available. During these middle and later years, he continued to work on poetic ideas, struggling through his multi-volume long poem, Paterson, works of fiction and drama, and later poems—which some readers and critics found to be his best writing, but which was dismissed as of lesser importance than his earlier works by readers and writers interested in more innovative work. Among the single volumes of this later period were The Desert Music (1954) and Pictures from Brueghel (1962). In 1953 he shared the Bollilngen Prize with Archibald MacLeish, and he received the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Bruegel. He was appointed to the post of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1952, but the offer was rescinded because of an outcry among conservative groups who complained that Williams had purportedly had Communist sympathies and that he had publically defended Ezra Pound.

Williams died in 1963.


Poems (Rutherford, New Jersey: Privately printed, 1909); The Tempers (London: Elkin Mathews, 1913); Al Que Quiere! (Boston: Four Seas, 1917); Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: Four Seas, 1920); Sour Grapes (Boston: Four Seas, 1921); Spring and All (Paris: Contact Editions, 1923); The Cod Head (San Francisco: Harvest Press, 1932) Collected Poems 1921-1931 (New York: Objectivist Press, 1934); An Early Martyr and Other Poems (New York: Alcetis Press, 1935); Adam & Eve & The City (Peru, Vermont: Alcestis Press, 1936); The Complete Collected Poems (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1938); The Wedge (Cummington, Massachusetts: Cummington Press, 1944); Paterson (Book One) (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1946); Paterson (Book Two) (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1948); Selected Poems (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949; enlarged, 1968); The Pink Church (Columbus, Ohio: Golden Goose Press, 1949); Paterson (Book Three) (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949); The Collected Later Poems (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1950; revised, 1963; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965); Paterson (Book Four) (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1951); The Collected Earlier Poems (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1951; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1959); The Desert Music and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1954); Paterson (Book Five) (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1958); Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1962; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1963); Paterson (Books 1-5 and Notes for Book 6) (New York: New Directions; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1964); The Collected Poems, Volume 1 1909-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986); The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1988).

For the complete library of Williams' audio recordings, click below:

Chicory and Daisies


Lift your flowers
on bitter stems
Lift them up
out of the scorched ground!
Bear no foliage
but give yourself
wholly to that!
Strain under them
you bitter stems
that no beast eats—
and scorn greyness!
Into the heat with them:
luxuriant! sky-blue!
The earth cracks and
is shriveled up;
the wind moans piteously;
the sky goes out
if you should fail.


I saw a child with daisies
for weaving into the hair
tear the stems
with her teeth!

(from Al Que Quiere!, 1917)


Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force, the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his had has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem once by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

(from Sour Grapes, 1921)

The Widow’s Lament in Springtime

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirtyfive years
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

(from Sour Grapes, 1921)

from The Descent of Winter


My bed is narrow
in a small room
at sea

The numbers are on
the wall
Arabic 1

Berth No. 2
was empty above me
the steward

took it apart
and removed

only the number
· 2 ·

on an oval disc
of celluloid

to the white-enameled

two bright nails
like stars

the moon

(from The Descent of Winter, 1928)

Young Sycamore

I must tell you
this young tree
whose round and firm trunk
between the wet

pavement and the gutter
(where water
is trickling) rises

into the air with
one undulant
thrust half its height—
and then

dividing and waning
sending out
young branches on
all sides—

hung with cocoons—
it thins
till nothing is left of it
but two

eccentric knotted
bending forward
hornlike at the top

(from Collected Poems, 1934)


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

(from Collected Poems, 1934)

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

(from Collected Poems, 1934)

for a selection from Williams' manifesto/poetry collection Spring and All, click below:

To hear William Carlos Williams read three of his most famous poems, click below:


selections of poetry and prose
from Spring and All as published in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I 1909-1939 (New York: New Directions, 1986. Copyright ©1982, 1986 by William Eric Williams and Paul H. Williams; editing copyright ©1986 by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

The Descent of Winter
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I 1909-1939
(New York: New Directions, 1986. Copyright ©1982, 1986 by William Eric Williams and Paul H. Williams; editing copyright ©1986 by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

“Young Sycamore,” “The Attic Which Is Desire:,” “Poem,” and “This Is Just to Say”
Reprinted from Collected Poems as published in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I 1909-1939 (New York: New Directions, 1986. Copyright ©1982, 1986 by William Eric Williams and Paul H. Williams; editing copyright ©1986 by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

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