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William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams passport photograph,1921
Born (1883-09-17)September 17, 1883
Rutherford, New Jersey, United States
Died March 4, 1963(1963-03-04) (aged 79)
Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S.
Occupation Writer, medical doctor
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Pennsylvania
Literary movement Modernism, Imagism
Notable works "The Red Wheelbarrow"; Spring and All; Paterson
Spouse Florence Williams

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was an American poet closely associated with modernism and imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine with a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Life and career

Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. His grandmother, an Englishwoman deserted by her husband, had come to the United States with her son, remarried, and moved to Puerto Rico. Her son, Williams's father, married a Puerto Rican woman of French Basque and Dutch Jewish descent.

Williams received his primary and secondary education in Rutherford until 1897, when he was sent for two years to a school near Geneva and to the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. He attended the Horace Mann School upon his return to New New York City and, having passed a special examination, was admitted in 1902 to the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1906.[1][2] Upon leaving University of Pennsylvania, Williams did internships at both French Hospital and Child's Hospital in New York before going to Leipzig for advanced study of pediatrics.[1] He published his first book, Poems, in 1909.

Williams married Florence Herman (1891–1976) in 1912, after he returned from Germany.[1] They moved into a house in Rutherford, New Jersey, which was their home for many years. Shortly afterward, his second book of poems, The Tempers, was published by a London press through the help of his friend Ezra Pound, whom he met while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Around 1914, Williams had his first son, William E. Williams, followed by his second son, Paul H. Williams, in 1917.[3] His first son would grow up to follow Williams in becoming a doctor.[4]

Although his primary occupation was as a family doctor, Williams had a successful literary career as a poet. In addition to poetry (his main literary focus), he occasionally wrote short stories, plays, novels, essays, and translations. He practiced medicine by day and wrote at night. Early in his career, he briefly became involved in the Imagist movement through his friendships with Pound and H.D. (whom he also befriended at the University of Pennsylvania), but soon he began to develop opinions that differed from theirs.

In 1915 Williams began to associate with a group of New York artists and writers known as "The Others."[5] Founded by the poet Man Ray, this group included Walter Conrad Arensberg, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore and Marcel Duchamp.

In 1920, Williams was sharply criticized by many of his peers (such as H.D., Pound, and Wallace Stevens) when he published one of his most experimental books, Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Pound called the work "incoherent" and H.D. thought the book was "flippant."[6] The Dada artist and poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven critiqued Williams's sexual and artistic politics in her experimental prose poem review entitled "Thee I call 'Hamlet of Wedding Ring'", published in The Little Review in March 1921.[7]

A few years later, Williams published one of his seminal books of poetry, Spring and All, which contained the classic poems "By the road to the contagious hospital," "The Red Wheelbarrow," and "To Elsie." However, in 1922, the year before Williams published Spring and All, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land which became a literary sensation and overshadowed Williams's very different brand of poetic Modernism. In his Autobiography, Williams would later write, "I felt at once that The Waste Land had set me back twenty years and I'm sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit." And although he respected the work of Eliot, Williams became openly critical of Eliot's highly intellectual style with its frequent use of foreign languages and allusions to classical and European literature.[8] Instead, Williams preferred colloquial American English.[9]

–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!

from Paterson: Book I

In his modernist epic collage of place, Paterson (published between 1946 and 1958), an account of the history, people, and essence of Paterson, New Jersey, he wrote his own modern epic poem, focusing on "the local" on a wider scale than he had previously attempted. He also examined the role of the poet in American society and famously summarized his poetic method in the phrase "No ideas but in things" (found in his poem "A Sort of a Song" and repeated again and again in Paterson).

In his later years, Williams mentored and influenced many younger poets. He had an especially significant influence on many of the American literary movements of the 1950s, including the Beat movement, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain school, and the New York School.[10]

One of Williams's most dynamic relationships as a mentor was with fellow New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg. Williams included several of Ginsberg's letters in Paterson, stating that one of them helped inspire the fifth section of that work. Williams also wrote the introduction to Ginsberg's important first book, Howl and Other Poems in 1956.

Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948 and after 1949, a series of strokes. Severe depression after one such stroke caused him to be confined to Hillside Hospital, New York, for four months in 1953. He died on March 4, 1963, at the age of 79 at his home in Rutherford.[11][12] He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.[13]


"The rose fades, and is renewed again ...."

The poet and critic Randall Jarrell said of his poetry, "William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird."[14] R. P. Blackmur said of Williams poetry "the Imagism of 1912 , self-transcended."[15]

Williams's major collections are Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), and Paterson (1963, repr. 1992). His most anthologized poem is "The Red Wheelbarrow", an example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also "This Is Just To Say"). However, Williams, like his peer and friend Ezra Pound, had already rejected the Imagist movement by the time this poem was published as part of Spring and All in 1923.

Williams is strongly associated with the American modernist movement in literature and saw his poetic project as a distinctly American one; 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 European culture. In 1920, this project took shape in Contact, a periodical launched by Williams and fellow writer Robert McAlmon: "The two editors sought American cultural renewal in the local condition in clear opposition to the internationalists—Pound, The Little Review, and the Baroness."[16] Yvor Winters, the poet/critic, judged that Williams's verse bears a certain resemblance to the best lyric poets of the 13th century.[17]

Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh and uniquely American form of poetry whose subject matter centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. He came up with the concept of the "variable foot" which Williams never clearly defined, although the concept vaguely referred to Williams's method of determining line breaks. The Paris Review called it "a metrical device to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse."[18]

One of Williams's aims, in experimenting with his "variable foot", was to show the American (opposed to European) rhythm that he claimed was present in everyday American language. Stylistically, Williams also worked with variations on a line-break pattern that he labeled "triadic-line poetry" in which he broke a long line into three free-verse segments. A well-known example of the "triadic line [break]" can be found in Williams's love-poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower."[19]

In a review of Herbert Leibowitz's biography of William Carlos Williams, "Something Urgent I Have to Say to You": The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams, book critic Christopher Benfey wrote of Williams's poetry: "Early and late, Williams held the conviction that poetry was, in his friend Kenneth Burke's phrase, 'equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.' The American ground was wild and new, a place where a blooming foreigner needed all the help he could get. Poems were as essential to a full life as physical health or the love of men and women."[20] Williams expressed this viewpoint most famously in a line from his poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" in which he wrote:

        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
         yet men die miserably every day
                     for lack
of what is found there.[21]

Legacy, awards and honors

The U.S. National Book Award was reestablished in 1950 with awards by the book industry to authors of 1949 books in three categories. Williams won the first National Book Award for Poetry, recognizing both the third volume of Paterson and Selected Poems.[22]

In May 1963, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The Poetry Society of America continues to honor William Carlos Williams by presenting an annual award in his name for the best book of poetry published by a small, non-profit or university press.

Williams's house in Rutherford is now on the National Register of Historic Places. He was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009.[23]


Poetry collections

  • Poems (1909)
  • The Tempers (1913)
  • Al Que Quiere! (1917)
  • Sour Grapes (1921)
  • Spring and All (1923)
  • Go Go (1923)
  • The Cod Head (1932)
  • Collected Poems, 1921-1931 (1934)
  • An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935)
  • Adam & Eve & The City (1936)
  • The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906-1938 (1938)
  • The Broken Span (1941)
  • The Wedge (1944)
  • Paterson Book I (1946); Book II (1948); Book III (1949); Book IV (1951); Book V (1958)
  • Clouds, Aigeltinger, Russia (1948)
  • The Collected Later Poems (1950; rev. ed.1963)
  • Collected Earlier Poems (1951; rev. ed., 1966)
  • The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954)
  • Journey to Love (1955)
  • Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962)
  • Paterson (Books I-V in one volume, (1963)
  • Imaginations (1970)
  • Collected Poems: Volume 1, 1909-1939 (1988)
  • Collected Poems: Volume 2, 1939-1962 (1989)
  • Early Poems (1997)
  • By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916-1959 New Directions Publishing (Sept. 2011)

Books, prose

  • Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) - Prose-poem improvisations.
  • The Great American Novel (1923) - A novel.
  • Spring and All (1923) - A hybrid of prose and verse.
  • In the American Grain (1925), 1967, repr. New Directions 2004 - Prose on historical figures and events.
  • A Voyage to Pagany (1928) - An autobiographical travelogue in the form of a novel.
  • Novelette and Other Prose (1932)
  • The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories (1932)
  • White Mule (1937) - A novel.
  • Life along the Passaic River (1938) - Short stories.
  • In the Money (1940) - Sequel to White Mule.
  • Make Light of It: Collected Stories (1950)
  • Autobiography (1951) W. W. Norton & Co. (1 February 1967)
  • The Build-Up (1952) - Completes the "Stecher trilogy" begun with White Mule.
  • Selected Essays (1954)
  • The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams (1957)
  • I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet (1958)
  • Yes, Mrs. Williams: A Personal Record of My Mother (1959)
  • The Farmers' Daughters: Collected Stories (1961)
  • Imaginations (1970) - A collection of five previously published early works.
  • The Embodiment of Knowledge (1974) - Philosophical and critical notes and essays.
  • Interviews With William Carlos Williams: "Speaking Straight Ahead" (1976)
  • A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists (1978)
  • Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (1996)
  • The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (1996)
  • The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (1998)
  • William Carlos Williams and Charles Tomlinson: A Transatlantic Connection (1998)
  • The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke (2004)


  • Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays of William Carlos Williams (1962)

See also


  1. ^ a b c Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Williams' Life and Career". Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  2. ^ Davis, Heather. "William Carlos Williams". Penn Current. Retrieved 2011-10-27. 
  3. ^ "William C. Williams". U.S. Census 1920. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  4. ^ "Mrs. William Carlos Williams". New York Times. 20 May 1976. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  5. ^ "Poetry Archive bio on Williams". Retrieved 2012-10-14. 
  6. ^ Burt, Stephen. "Poetry Foundation bio on Williams". Retrieved 2012-10-14. 
  7. ^ Gammel, Irene, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, 272.
  8. ^ Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1954.
  9. ^ Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain. New York: New Directions, 1999.
  10. ^ X. J. Kennedy & Dana Gioai, An Introduction to Poetry, New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc, 1998. ISBN 0-321-01556-8
  11. ^ Casey, Phil (1963-03-05). "Poet Williams Dies of Stroke. Works in 40 Volumes Likened to Chekhov.". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  12. ^ "William Carlos Williams Dies. Physician Long a Leading Poet. Won Many Literary Honors Over Half a Century. Was 79 Years Old. Combined Two Professions. Won Literary Awards.". The New York Times. 1963-03-05. Retrieved 2008-04-11. 
  13. ^ Strauss, Robert (2004-03-28). "Sometimes the Grave Is a Fine and Public Place". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. 
  14. ^ Jarrell, Randall. "Fifty Years of American Poetry." No Other Book: Selected Essays. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
  15. ^ Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2
  16. ^ Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 264-65.
  17. ^ Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry. New York: Arrow Editions, 1937.
  18. ^ Interview with Stanley Koehler, Paris Review, Vol. 6, 1962.
  19. ^ Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, ISBN 978-1-57958-240-1
  20. ^ Benfey, Christopher (2011-12-15). "The Blooming Foreigner". The New Republic. Retrieved 2011-12-07. 
  21. ^ Williams, William Carlos. "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Collected Poems. NY: New Directions, 1962.
  22. ^ "National Book Awards – 1950". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
    With Neil Baldwin and Ross Gay essays from the Awards 50(?) and 60-year anniversary publications. Baldwin covers the award-sharing book: "The edition of the Selected Poems brought out in 1949 has of necessity over the past half-century been emended and expanded many times...."
  23. ^ Santi, Angela Delli (2010-06-01). "N.J. to Bon Jovi: You Give Us a Good Name". CBS News. Retrieved 2012-10-14. 

Further reading

  • Herbert Leibowitz. “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 496 pages.
  • Gammel, Irene. “The Poetic Feud of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and the Baroness”. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. 262-285.

External links


  • Profile at
  • Profile at the Poetry Archive with poems written and audio
  • Profile at Modern American Poetry Society
  • Profile and poems written and audio at
  • Stanley Koehler (Summer–Fall 1964). "William Carlos Williams, The Art of Poetry No. 6". The Paris Review. 
  • National Book Foundation Poetry Blog

Archive and works

  • William Carlos Williams Papers at Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • Listen to William Carlos Williams read his poems
  • Archive at the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Department.
  • Archive at SUNY Buffalo Libraries.
  • Works by or about William Carlos Williams in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • The William Carlos Williams Review. Journal.
  • William Carlos Williams Research Collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.
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