William Carlos Williams Essay

Essay/Term paper: William carlos williams- a poet on a mission

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"Among the poets of his own illustrious generation, William Carlos Williams was the man on the margin, the incorrigible maverick, the embattled messiah." (Unger 402) Throughout his career, Williams has always been known as an experimenter, an innovator, and a revolutionary figure in American poetry. He is regarded as an important and influential poet because of his unique and unusually plain style. Living a life that was rather conventional, using a writing style that was essentially breaking the mold, and having a style that most critics were unsure about, Williams established a new genre to the poetic world.


William Carlos Williams; born on September seventeenth, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey; was the first of two sons born to the middle class status of George and Raquel (Helene) Williams. Having an English father and a Puerto Rican mother, with ancestry from the French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish sides, Williams had an interesting mix of culture from birth (Bloom 4338). As he grew older in his middle class household, his father provided him with a fertile background in the arts and literature, introducing him to Shakespeare, Dante, and the Bible (DISC 1). To further elevate his level of knowledge, Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded a Doctorate in Medicine, and later visited the University of Leipzig, for post-graduate study (Bloom 4338). Williams fulfilled his parents" lofty standards by becoming a general practitioner with his degree from Pennsylvania. Their standards, unfortunately, did not match up with those of Williams himself. He did not wish to become a doctor, but found himself becoming infatuated with poetry. He often found himself torn between what he wanted to do, and what his parents wished for him to do. He was caught, because his love was not as promising a career as becoming a doctor. However, as made evident out by Gale Research in their DISCovering Authors series, a career in medicine could actually assist Williams in his writing passion. From his medical practice, he was able to earn enough money to give him the financial freedom to experiment with his writing dream (3).
Williams carried on with his medical practice for forty-one years in the same town, until he retired to writing full-time in 1951(Bloom 4338). This shows that Williams was happy with the simple things. He found what he liked, pursued it, and eventually ended up doing what he wished – he wrote poetry.
Williams spent the vast majority of his life in the small town of Rutherford, New Jersey, leaving only to attend college. He established a small medical practice in Rutherford in 1910 and, shortly after, married a young woman, whom he met at the University of Pennsylvania, by the name of Florence Herman in 1912. Following his marriage, he had two children, namely William-Eric and Paul-Herman (Bloom 4338).
As Williams" writings ultimately became acknowledged, he began to produce works which received positive feedback. He received a myriad of awards and honors from all parts of the country. Locher itemized these decorations as ranging from honors within the community, to awards from major universities, all the way up to the Pulitzer Prize which he received in 1963 (575). Although Williams viewed his work as somewhat conventional, it is apparent that others had finally begun to realize his unique flavor and recognize that the topics which he wrote were true.
William Carlos Williams passed away on March 4, 1963, a man who lived a life so plain, yet his early stages were spoon-fed with nothing but knowledge for the mind. He seemed to accomplish all he was on this planet for except for one thing, his final and most lengthy poem – a poem that was never completed, but maybe was never meant to be.


After one reads a selection of poems by Williams, he might think that Williams could be mentally disturbed. This notion could easily be proven false by a thorough analyzation of his poems. Williams is actually quite the opposite. The following selection is entitled "The Rose Fades…":
The rose fades
and is renewed again
by its seed, naturally
but where

save in the poem
shall it go
to suffer do diminution
of its splendor (Williams 195)

In the poem "The Rose Fades…" Williams discusses the issue of life"s fading away. Life is symbolized by the "rose" and seems to be the main theme on which he builds. However, the "poem" is another topic. Each symbol, in its own sense, represents a larger picture from which is comes. The "rose" gives the picture of nature, while the "poem" is a representation of the arts. The whole issue of the "rose" fading shows that Williams can see that life, no matter of what form, eventually fades away. On the other hand, the "poem" does not even fade in the first place, it "suffer[s] no diminution of its splendor." It seems that what Williams is trying to say is that from all of the hardships that people have in life, they will return; and the arts will always be there to guide their path.


William Carlos Williams brought a style to poetry that had never before been seen. Along with his work, came a long line of critics who were in disbelief -- some saying his poetry was un-American, and others who were not sure why his work was even regarded at all (DISC 3). Like all people who are leaders and set trends, Williams encountered his fair share of disbelievers, but in the end they were all proven wrong.
Williams" writings were about real life -- the simple things, the things that people thought about and dealt with every day. As Alan Ostrom wrote, "Flowers, says the romantic young man, are the subject of William Carlos Williams" poems; familiar ordinary things, says the critic" (3). Many readers looked for lofty poetry laced with symbolism and gorgeous thoughts. Because this great fairy-tale style poetry was the main product of the time, Williams" works were often misunderstood and overlooked. The people expected a glamorous type of writing, but what he gave them was a plain style rebelling from all that was standard, and aimed at expressing the feelings of the average American.
Williams seemed to love controversy and the idea of being different. Perhaps this can be linked back to his ethnic variety and early education in the arts by his parents. Unger illustrates his dare to be different in the following:
Williams, ignoring the shapes in which poetry had been cast, sought always to rediscover poetry itself. And yet his dismissal of entrenched forms of English poetry -- his lifelong crusade against the iambic pentameter, and his endlessly burning scorn for the sonnet – should not blind his readers to the fact that his searchings and concerns were exclusively directed toward formal solutions. (403)
Contrary to those who believed that Williams was writing nonsense, he took those steps to make a statement. He wanted poetry not only to be mystical and magical in the mind, but also to be mystical and magical in the heart – something real, not a dream.
To the poetry readers of the time, the idea of change was completely outrageous and out of line. For anyone to take a step as bold as to redesign the essence of the poem from the ground up was unheard of. But Williams did it. He threw out all of the rules, disregarded the verbal bashings he received, and picked himself up from the countless times he was knocked down – from childhood through adulthood, and ultimately death. His thoughts, willingness, and competitive spirits will live on forever in the hearts of those who always seek the truth.

Bloom, Harold, ed. The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism: Twentieth-Century American Literature, Volume 7. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

DISCovering Authors, "William Carlos Williams."

Ostrom, Alan. The Poetic World of William Carlos Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.

Paul, Sherman. The Music of Survival: A Biography of a Poem By William Carlos Williams. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968.

Unger, Leonard, ed. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner"s Sons, 1974.

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Later Works of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Books, 1950.








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William Carlos Williams 1883-1963

American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and autobiographer.

An important American poet, Williams also wrote short stories, most notably the collections The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life along the Passaic River (1938). Williams was a devoted, practicing physician during most of his literary career, and much of his work demonstrates his respect and concern for his patients and their life situations. The poverty, suffering, and means of survival among the ordinary, poor people of his native New Jersey inform most of Williams's short fiction, which often features conversations written in "the American idiom," his term for the vernacular language essential to shaping his vision of the American experience. Unconventional in form and episodic in construction, his realistic, and sometimes graphic, stories often juxtapose vivid images from life to convey their messages. Williams received a lukewarm critical reception to his short fiction during much of his career. However, many scholars have since recognized that his stories significantly influenced the development of the short story form in twentieth-century American literature.

Biographical Information

Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he spent his entire life. During his adolescence, a heart ailment forced him off the sports fields and led him to study literature. Nevertheless, from 1902 to 1906 Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he made lasting friendships with American poets Ezra Pound and H. D. By the time Williams had established his own medical practice in 1910, he had published his first book, Poems (1909). During the next decade, Williams married Florence ("Flossie") Herman in 1912, started a family in 1914, and published two more books of poetry. In the 1920s Williams extended his literary efforts to prose, producing the prose "improvisations" of Kora in Hell (1920), the short novel The Great American Novel (1923), the historical essays of In the American Grain (1925), and his first full-length novel, A Voyage to Pagany (1928). Williams's short stories began appearing in the 1930s. Scholars have surmised that his growing frustration at the mild response to his poetry prompted Williams to write fiction, including the novels White Mule (1937)—his first popularly acclaimed work—and the first volume of The Stecher Trilogy, which is based on the people and the circumstances of his wife's youth. The 1940s and 1950s marked Williams's most productive period. He published two novels, three plays and a libretto, another collection of stories entitled Make Light of It (1950), his autobiography, and many collections of new and previously published poetry, most notably the five-book epic poem Paterson (1946-1958), which is widely considered a masterpiece of American literature, and Selected Poems (1948), which won the 1949 National Book Award. Following a series of heart attacks and a bout of depression from 1948 to 1953, Williams retired from his medical practice, but continued to write. In 1961 he published his final collections of stories, The Farmers' Daughters, and plays, Many Loves and Other Plays. After he died on March 4, 1963, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures from Brueghel (1962) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal for poetry.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Williams, the doctor-narrator in most of his short fiction, believed that the short story form was "a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally." Most of the eleven stories in The Knife of the Times represent Williams's experiences with some of his patients and neighbors during the early years of the Great Depression, showing their fortitude and perseverance while dealing with social and individual suffering. The "knife" in each of these stories refers to more than the hardships of dire economic reversal, often focusing on "couples" and their unions and separations. The title story, for instance, portrays a lesbian relationship between Ethel and Maura, who cope with the "knife" of their homosexuality. "Old Doc Rivers," perhaps the best known story of the collection, relates the anecdotes of a legendary small-town doctor, who "would go anywhere, anytime, for anybody," but tragically succumbs to shifting American cultural values and ultimately to the "knife" of drugs and alcohol. Life along the Passaic River contains nineteen stories about similar themes and situations, but the tone is darker, the focus turned more toward children characters, and the locale assumes significance, reflecting Williams's belief that "In a work of art place is everything." In a series of vignettes that dissolve into one another, the title story offers detailed descriptions of the industrialized riverscape and the people who live there, focusing on the conflict between industry and nature. In "The Use of Force," Williams's most frequently anthologized story, a doctor attempts to diagnose a child's fever, but the child refuses to allow an examination, so the doctor must resort to forceful methods. "Jean Beicke," one of Williams's favorite stories, centers on the life and death of an eleven-month-old girl, including a vivid description of the child's autopsy. Make Light of It comprises the stories from Williams's first two volumes and twenty-one other stories in a section entitled "Beer and Cold Cuts," of which all but two had been previously published. The Farmers' Daughters includes all of Williams's previously collected short fiction and the uncollected title story, which recounts the relationship between two southern farmers' daughters and their doctor. The Doctor Stories (1984) collects several doctor-themed stories from Life along the Passaic River.

Critical Reception

The technique and style of Williams's stories have often been compared to that of Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, early Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence. The stories of Life along the Passaic River have received the most critical attention, particularly "The Use of Force," which has been interpreted variously in terms of its implications about violence, practical applications in the field of medical ethics, sexual connotations, psychological aspects, and autobiographical factors. Many critics have emphasized the autobiographical quality of much of Williams's work: "His temperament . . . was neatly split between that of a feeling, observing doctor and that of the practicing poet. . . . He was a poet-physician. These two-parted identities stand behind his every word," observed George Monteiro. Most scholars have agreed that Williams's innovations in the short story form were revolutionary. Linda Welshimer Wagner has pointed out that "the apparently effortless telling, the informal (and often unresolved) plot, the emphasis on character presented through salient details, and above all, the reliance on dialogue—these trademarks of a Williams's story occur repeatedly in contemporary writing." James G. Watson has likewise remarked on Williams's contributions to the American short story: "Declining the formulas of tradition and the acceptable contemporary conventions, Williams chose to state frankly the intimate passions and passionate brutalities that he said were flashes struck from the materials of life." Commenting on Williams's literary accomplishments, Wagner concluded that his "short stories may have had as deep an effect on contemporary fiction as his poems have had on modern poetry."

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