ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 16

 - William Carlos Williams


The poetry of William Carlos Williams is presented and analyzed. His use of enjambment to surprise and transform is examined in order to highlight Williams’s interest in depicting creative and cognitive processes. The Imagist qualities of much of Williams’s poetry is considered alongside his engagement with modernist art–particularly the preoccupation of Duchamps and Cubist painters with the process of representing sensual perception. His free verse, which includes the innovative use of white space and carefully, visually balanced lines, establishes his position as one of the most visually-oriented poets in all of modernism.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 16 - William Carlos Williams

Chapter 1. Introduction: William Carlos Williams [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I’m going to talk about William Carlos Williams today. It may be that I end up carrying a little bit of Williams over to next time – to Marianne Moore, his friend, contemporary, and really close collaborator, in a sense, in the New York scene of modernism in the teens, twenties, thirties, forties, and on into the fifties.

This is the man, as a young man, William Carlos Williams. If you open your anthologies to page 284, in the long and useful head-note that Jahan Ramazani provides you, there’s this quotation from a letter in the middle of page 284 that Williams wrote to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry whom thirteen years later Hart Crane would write to in defense of his poem, “At Melville’s Tomb.” And Williams says in this letter to Monroe:

Most current verse is dead from the point of view of art… [It’s dead, it’s lifeless; and what Williams cares about is something he calls “life.”] Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive of life as it was the moment before [and I think that’s how we know it in Williams’s life: whatever is subverting whatever was a moment before. And subversive is probably an important and suggestive word there] – always new, irregular. [He wants what is new, and what is new is going to be what is irregular, and what is irregular has in some sense subverted what was in place before. He continues.] Verse to be alive [to have what Pound, I think, would have called “the impulse”] must have infused into it something of the same order [it has to have life in it, or what he calls] some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution, an ethereal reversal, let me say. I am speaking of modern verse.

Like certain of our other poets, Williams is self-consciously modern. He’s defining what “modern” means, and he’s defining it as a quality of experience that he calls “life,” that has the quality of disrupting whatever was in existence before. And this is a quality and energy that he wants to have in his poetry itself. This is Williams a little bit older, Williams in 1924, when he has established himself through the poems in a volume called Spring and All, as one of the major modern poets in America.

Chapter 2. William Carlos Williams Poem: “The Red Wheelbarrow” [00:04:08]

He is the author of a poem – have you ever seen it? – called “The Red Wheelbarrow.” And that might be a good place to begin. That’s on pages 294 to 295. Of course, I’m joking. Probably that’s the one poem everybody in this class has read before they came to this class. It is better known than “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” even. It is also distinguished, I think, as being the second shortest modern poem after “In a Station of the Metro,” a poem that it’s related to in certain ways.

In fact, a link between Williams and Pound is important, it’s relevant. Pound was a friend and rival for Williams throughout his career. Williams is sometimes seen in his early stages as a kind of Imagist or at any rate as a poet influenced by the Imagist aesthetic. Imagism is, of course, a visual metaphor, and Williams is above all a visual poet, a poet of the eye.

so much depends
upon a red wheel
barrow glazed with rain
water beside the white

Well, I think you have to see that poem to start to really be able to read it. It, I think, probably does involve some subtle vocal and auditory experience, but it’s first of all a poem that meets you and challenges you through the eye, as a visual object in some sense on the page. The kind of seeing that Williams’s poems call for is – we can think of it as a way of reading that his poems themselves demand. In other words, there’s a kind of link between how he sees the world and the way in which he asks us to read him. His poems model a kind of seeing.

Unlike “In a Station of the Metro,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or let me call it instead “So Much Depends,” is a poem without a title. This title, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” was like the title “This is Just to Say” in the poem that follows, the almost equally famous poem. These are titles Williams added later to his work. In Spring and All – that volume, the first edition, 1923 – the poem appears simply as a text on the page. And that’s important. It’s part of – it’s as important as the title is for “In a Station of the Metro.” Simply presenting the poem on the page to us, as Williams does, doing without a title, Williams asks us to, in some sense, read and encounter this poem without a frame, without some kind of pre-established boundary or explanatory introduction or entry. That choice increases the immediacy of our experience. It’s as if Williams were asking you to kind of press up close to the poem, face it, just as he is facing the thing he is writing about; or asks us to face not the thing that he’s writing about so much as his act of writing and seeing, his act of writing as it embodies a way of seeing. The poem has a suggestion that it requires as a poem the same kind of calm intensity of concentration that the poet’s observation of the wheelbarrow exemplifies. So again, I think the kind of seeing that the poem does models a way of reading.

Well, what is that way of reading? How does the poem embody in its construction – which it calls attention to – how does it embody in its construction a mode of perception, a way of seeing? How has Williams organized this language on the page, by what principles? Looking at it, well, as I suggested before, it’s not a poem, I think, that we begin by hearing, and we have to start reading it and seeing it before we can even think about how to really speak it properly. It is not a metrical poem. This is not iambic pentameter. It is a free verse poem.

Chapter 3. Free Verse and the Prologue to “Kora in Hell” [00:10:06]

In the prologue to Kora In Hell, which is the prose I asked you to read for today at the back of the book, there are a number of sentences and ideas that are important. I’ll call attention to just a few. On page 958, Williams says, “Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty, it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand manner will save it.” And he identifies here, as elsewhere, this property of novelty with a kind of verse that eschews rhyme and meter, a whole host of existing poetic conventions. Again, in the head note to the Williams selection, there’s a quotation from Williams on the subject of meter on page 285 from his prose statement, “The Poem as a Field of Action.” He says:

I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure…. I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenation of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet.

So much for “The Silken Tent,” Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, et cetera. Williams is insisting that modern verse, the kind of verse he describes, has to break with these models and has to proceed by patterns that it itself invents. Free verse is in that sense Williams’s chosen medium; free verse meaning a poem not patterned by metrical scheme or rhyme, or indeed some other, in a sense, pre-existing principle or pattern. Nonetheless, free verse does always have some kind of operative pattern, sometimes very strict and structuring ones, and this short poem is a good example.

In fact, as you examine it, you see a series of four stanzas, four two-line groups – since Williams might not like the word “stanza” – four two-line groups. And the pattern is long-short, three or four syllables followed by two. And this is itself almost like a metrical or rhyme scheme. In fact, you could say this poem is more strict than a sonnet, that it’s more limited in the range of choices that it allows. It isn’t, however, presented to us as sonnets are, as an instance of a received verse form that is at least in its general pattern invariant and again pre-existing. Instead, the poem presents itself as a kind of ad-hoc arrangement, as a kind of structure that the poet has chosen to work within, reflecting the contingencies of this moment, the occasion, the poem’s purpose.

The poem’s shape – and this is one reason it’s hard to speak, it’s hard to hear – organizes Williams’s speech in a manner that disregards or disrupts normal familiar syntax. It does so specifically through enjambment, by carrying one line over to the next. Williams’s enjambments have here, as throughout his poetry, the effect of breaking up language: breaking it up; forcing us to, in fact, slow down our reading; to stop taking language’s sense-making for granted; and, in a sense, to get into the poem. The white space in a Williams’s poem is – you can think of it as a space for thought, a space where we are invited, allowed, required to think about choices, to ask ourselves about what possible connections can be made at a given moment.

In this poem Williams specifically breaks words up into their component parts – wheel, barrow, rain, water – without hyphens, as if what he was looking at – a red wheelbarrow – consisted of those three terms: redness, the wheel, the barrow. These are its component elements. He points out, in effect, in this device, how in this case two nouns that are made of compounds – they’re really compounds – represent things that are compounds, things that are made up of other things that have parts.

As he establishes this pattern, “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water,” you want to carry it forward, don’t you – now that we’ve learned what he’s doing – into the next stanza, ‘beside the white / chickens,” as if “white chickens” were the same kind of compound as “rainwater” and “red wheelbarrow.” But they’re not quite, and Williams is, in a way, teasing us. White chickens aren’t made up of “white”-ness and “chicken”-ness in the same way that a wheelbarrow is made up of a “wheel” and a “barrow.” He’s doing something a little different here. No sooner has he, in effect, established a certain pattern of cognition – showed us how to read his enjambments – than he breaks that pattern. He revises how it works. It’s just been put in place and now it’s changed and in fact it’s over, it’s done. The poem is done.

If the first lines of the poem and the first stanzas are, in a sense, made to interrupt and disrupt and thereby freshen our habits of seeing, to make us see these things in some new way, this last stanza does away with the habit of seeing that the poem itself has just constructed, just introduced us to. Williams prevents us from settling into a convention of perception, even in a poem that is as small and as brief as this one. There’s really only enough time in the poem’s essentially introduction and three parts following to establish a pattern and break it.

What this brief moment of heightened perception allows us to see, to experience, is something small and large. What is it that depends on the red wheelbarrow? Williams only says “so much,” “so much.” The idea is, I think, the beautiful one that the world, when it’s glazed with rain water – it’s a kind of aesthetic effect, an aesthetic effect that implies a light that does the glazing, that’s somewhere behind our shoulders and the poet’s, as he looks at these objects, this light, which comes after rain and is a product of change, of the energy of the world as it transforms; suddenly allows this world to be seen in visible detail, apprehensible in its component parts; and the ordinary gestalt of perception is interrupted, freshened and re-oriented. We see something, something ordinary, newly and freshly. It stands out. And what we see in miniature in the limited space of the moment, or of the poem, is a world, well, what we see is the elements out of which the world is made, elements ordinarily held in a kind of complex mutual dependency: a kind of complex of relations that we simply take for granted in the words that we use and in the way that we see things, just as we put together “wheel” and “barrow” and “rain” and “water,” without thinking about it. What the red wheelbarrow holds, then, and what in that sense depends on it is something pretty heavy, and that is the sense of a whole world; or better, the sense of the world in its wholeness, which is something affirmed in this attractively modest, momentary, poetic perception.

So much for “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Spring and All: and there’s that idea again, in the title, spring as a season of newness: for Williams, beginning his career, spring registering his own beginnings, registering modernness, a vision of the world in its newness. Well, Spring and All is a beautiful book, and one I wish I could show you, but the last time I saw it at the Beinecke it disappeared and no one has seen it in a couple of years. They have a lot of paper over there. I guess it’s easy to lose things. Maybe it’s available again, we’ll look and see. It’s a beautiful, plain book, robin’s egg blue for spring, I suppose. It seems – it’s not large; it’s small. It almost has no ornament. In all of this, it seems to exemplify the American virtues of plainness and directness and simplicity; again, a long way from Hart Crane. And the book is really so American that it was published in Dijon. Williams is a polemically American poet, even more than Crane in certain ways, more than Frost even, and yet Williams has a very important and vital relationship to European modernism and to French modernism in particular, and more particularly to French painting. And to understand how Williams is writing, what he’s trying to get at, it’s helpful to remember what he was looking at.

Here’s a Braque, Georges Braque, 1908. It’s on the way to cubism and, I think, sort of helpfully on the way to cubism because it looks back to a realist tradition with its, in a sense, conventional, perspectival space that’s yet being broken up into planes, that allow us to register the painting as a painting, that force us to, really. And I suppose even more striking is this: one of many great late Cezanne paintings of Le Mont Sainte-Victoire where here, again, the perspectival space of the painting is being turned into almost a kind of abstract field of color patterns. Again, these are painters interested in foregrounding their action of seeing through the ways in which they foreground self-consciously the materiality of the medium in which they are working.

The aim in postimpressionist painting, and then in cubism, really, is to again break up that gestalt of perception that Williams is also opposing himself to: to break it up and grasp, in some sense, the dynamism in the world before us, precisely through acts of seeing that call attention to themselves and to the way in which that seeing is rendered. If you have read the prologue to Kora in Hell, which starts on page 954, you know that Williams begins with an anecdote about Marcel Duchamp, part of the New York art world that Williams also participated in through his friend, the dealer and taste maker Walter Arensberg: “Once when I was taking lunch with Walter Arensberg… I asked him if he could state what the more modern painters were about…” And then he gives several as examples, including Duchamp, all of whom were then in New York, and:

[Arensberg] replied by saying that the only way man differed from every other creature was in his ability to improvise novelty and, since the pictorial artist was under discussion, anything in paint that is truly new, truly a fresh creation is good art. Thus, according to Duchamp, who was Arensberg’s champion at the time, a stained glassed window that had fallen out and lay more or less together on the ground was a far greater interest than the thing conventionally composed in situ.

Which is an interesting model for what Williams himself might be seen as doing in poetry, that in some sense he’s taking the stained glass window and seeing it laid out on the floor, maybe broken on the floor. Duchamp painted this famous work, Nude Descending a Staircase, and it is clearly all about here rendering in pictorial form the kind of multiframe vision that photography and motion pictures allow us to see, to again here grasp in representation some sense of the movement and energy that compose the world that we see before us.

The other dimension of the Duchamp anecdote that’s nice, and about Williams is telling, is that a stained glass window that has fallen out is something you come upon or find. And Duchamp is, of course, most famous for his – let me turn to the next image – his ready-mades. This a facsimile of the – or that is another version of his most famous ready-made fountain, a urinal, which he signed with the pseudonym, R. Mutt 1917, and presented as a work of art. The Art Gallery has this work. This too is, as it were, a facsimile of the original, now lost: a snow shovel, another ready-made; this one with the excellent title, In Advance of the Broken Arm. Duchamp takes postimpressionism to New York in the form of dada – a movement with its importance for Williams, too, including, I think, Duchamp’s mischievousness and his willingness to provoke the subversive – to take Williams’s word – and to play with expectations about what constitutes art, as Williams in certain ways would play with our expectations about what could constitute a poem or poetic statement.

Chapter 4. William Carlos Williams Poem: “The Great Figure” [00:30:34]

In New York and elsewhere, Williams is in contact with a whole range of modernist American artists influenced by the European art I’ve just been talking about, but also working in a distinctively American mode. This is a work by Charles Demuth, 1921. I’m sorry, I’m behind on producing my image lists but I’ll get those for you. And here’s another. And again here: an urban scene, that is realist in its mode of representation, and yet the foregrounding of the lines created by the different shapes of the buildings call attention to this as indeed a kind of constructed image that seems to be moving out of the realm of realist representation to something more symbolic and certainly avowedly created by the artist. Demuth goes further in the same direction in what is probably his best known work. This is called The Great Figure Number 5. If Williams was busy looking at these artists I’ve just been talking about, they also were looking at him, and Demuth’s painting is a tribute to Williams and a little homage; also, I think, a little joke about Williams’s own poem, also from Spring and All, that we know as “The Great Figure” on page 291. Well, I’ll read this; again, rain and light:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
with weight and urgency
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

And this is Demuth’s rendering of that moment that draws out the way in which the poem finds and makes an exalted symbol from this ordinary perception, and it’s got “Bill” up top, and “W.C.W.” down in the bottom, and “Carlos” underneath the 5, as part of this friendly tribute.

The poem’s interesting to look at next to “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Here’s something else that’s red, right? And again, the poem is concerned with a moment of perception. Here, the poem really tries to render the process by which perception takes place, or rather the kind of context in which it does, which “The Red Wheelbarrow” doesn’t. “The Red Wheelbarrow” really kind of takes something seen, almost fragmented, out of a continuum of perception that we can feel implied but isn’t made explicit in the poem. In this case, we are given the kind of context out of which a detail, something arbitrary, contingent, and ordinary, springs out; springs out of the rush of things and catches the eye and the imagination and the intention of the poet. “In a Station of the Metro” is a poem about metropolitan, urban perception. So, is this poem. Here, instead of a present moment that’s briefly suspended, as in Pound’s poem or as in “So Much Depends,” this poem is just as much about memory in the rush of ongoing experience, of a kind of ongoing temporality figured here by the firetruck “moving” – and there’s that participial word, “moving” – a kind of ongoing action.

In the midst of this, something catches the poet’s attention. He acts as a perceiver. He says “I saw” in that action, expressed in a verb in the past tense; intervenes in and cuts into this blurry, perceptual, participial flow of things that is the fire truck rushing by. It fixes on a figure, in this case a number, and carries that away and out of the experience. That “5” on the fire truck, it’s something utterly ordinary like a wheelbarrow or a shovel, a snow shovel, and it’s a kind of found object. And yet here for Williams – he makes something of it, or plays with the act of making something with it. It is something he calls, with some joking, some seriousness, “the great figure”: a great figure, a symbol. But a symbol of what exactly? Well, perhaps a symbol of the very capacity of the ordinary to arrest our attention and become significant, become objects of perception; perhaps a symbol of the five senses themselves. What do you think? That seems possible, too. The five senses whose powers are behind, for Williams, the way we create figurative language, the way we create figures and poems and discover symbols and discover meaning in the world around us: “Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive of life as it was the moment before – always new, irregular.”

Chapter 5. William Carlos Williams Poem: “Spring and All” [00:38:21]

The poem that’s placed just after this in the anthology is one of Williams’s greatest and it, too, as it appears in the volume Spring and All has no title but is given a title here – the title of the volume itself – but was known rather for a long time simply by its first line, “By the road to the contagious hospital.” The poem is about the continual newness that Williams calls life, something that’s continually constructing the world around us. And the poet in this poem gets at it – like the postimpressionist painter, even perhaps like the dadaist – by calling his and our attention to the act of constructing his poem, and in particular as that construction is felt, as it’s kind of brought to our consciousness through enjambment. Williams’s poetry, like the world he sees, is constantly enjambed, segmented, renewed by that act. Let’s look at how enjambment works here.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines – Lifeless [again, dead] in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches [that is the first verb in the poem] – They [he now says, suggesting all of these things] enter the new world
naked, cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them [these things, the things of the
world] the cold, familiar wind – Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined [like a series of Imagist poems] –
It [now not “they” but “it,” which is again now here a world felt in its
wholeness] quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of
entrance – Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

It’s a great poem, and enjambment is a key part of its energy. The first enjambment that is striking, is bold – it’s one of the really famous ones, in fact, in modern poetry – is that second line, “under the surge of the blue.” It invites us to read “the blue” as a noun, and to feel and hear that phrase, “the surge of the blue,” as a kind of conventional expression of lyric romantic exaltation. But we’re wrong. “Blue” is an adjective, and we learn this as the poem turns and the enjambment supplies the information that this blue, this kind of exalted thing is actually “mottled,” marred or flawed, even, in some sense. And here the newness that the poem is going to celebrate is going to be something we might feel mottled – that is, cold, flawed – which is part of its claim to be new, part of its claim to represent something really real; not to be found in previous books of poetry, but something to be found in the living.

So, at this moment it seems enjambment means disestablishment, that word of Williams’s, the subversion of life as it just was, a surprise of perception. But as in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” if you think we’ve now learned what enjambment means in a given context, Williams is going to do something else. The next lines are also sharply enjambed: “mottled clouds driven from the / northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the / waste of broad, muddy fields.” That is itself a bold thing to have done in poetry, to break off a line at the definite article. I’m not sure that there’s an example in poetry previously to align these examples of lines ending in “the” with. There may well be, but it’s yet a novel and bold thing for Williams to do. But it works differently from the previous example where the “blue” invited us to read that phrase as a kind of noun, expressive of romantic exaltation, and then gave us the surprise that no, it doesn’t function that way, and what you thought was pure and exalted is in fact mottled and messy. These enjambments don’t have any kind of interpretive surprise like that. The lines are just broken that way. They don’t change how we read the grammar of the phrases, they don’t force us to recast our expectations.

Together, though, as a series of enjambments, these lines evoke a state in which the world is freshly taking shape, coming at us in forms that we have to confront, that give us abrupt insistent impressions, which are sometimes full of meaning and sometimes not. The way Williams is constructing this poem is a poetic version of the action that the poem’s describing: the going forward into spring against the cold, through which eventually, one by one, objects are defined; defined and organized and energized and animated as Williams sees it. As I say, the verb does not come in the poem until we see that phrase “spring approaches,” almost at the middle or slightly beyond the middle of the poem. And then there is that next sentence, “they enter the new world naked”: “they” being deliberately vague, evoking the things of the world but in a humanized way, a humanized way as we come to feel them and see them. They enter the world just as we do, naked. And we re-enter it naked with them, you could say. This is a poem about emergence that identifies modern poetry – modern verse, as Williams calls it in his letter to Monroe – identifies modern verse with the process by which the perceptual world takes shape, grips down, rooting itself in ordinary fact and things, and from which a kind of energy is drawn and we begin to awaken.

This is probably a good place to end. I want to stress the resonance and suggestiveness of Williams’s investment in what is naked. It’s a way of envisioning the world in its primary terms. It’s also a way of calling forth a kind of human energy that is primary and again, as Williams imagines it, modern. And here he is in the buff; I guess, skinny dipping in New Jersey with a couple of sticks to pretend he’s Pan. So, go enjoy the spring day, keep your clothes on, and we’ll talk about maybe a little more Williams but definitely Marianne Moore next time.

[end of transcript]

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