William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883. He began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, at which time he made the decision to become both a writer and a doctor. He received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended Ezra Pound. Pound became a great influence in Williams’ writing, and in 1913 arranged for the London publication of Williams’s first collection, The Tempers.

Returning to Rutherford, where he sustained his medical practice throughout his life, Williams began publishing in small magazines and embarked on a prolific career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions.

Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh–and singularly American–poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. His influence as a poet spread slowly during the twenties and thirties, overshadowed, he felt, by the immense popularity of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; however, his work received increasing attention in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor.

Williams’s health began to decline after a heart attack in 1948 and a series of strokes, but he continued writing up until his death in New Jersey in 1963.

His major works include Kora in Hell (1920), Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), the five-volume epic Paterson (1963, 1992), and Imaginations (1970).


Portrait of a Lady

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady’s
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze — or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
— As if that answered
anything. — Ah, yes. Below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore —
Which shore? —
the sand clings to my lips —
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
— the petals from some hidden
appletree — Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.


To Waken an Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
the snow
is covered with broken
seed husks
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.


The Desolate Field

Vast and grey, the sky
is a simulacrum
to all but him whose days
are vast and grey and —
In the tall, dried grasses
a goat stirs
with nozzle searching the ground.
My head is in the air
but who am I . . . ?
— and my heart stops amazed
at the thought of love
vast and grey
yearning silently over me.


Willow Poem

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loth to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river —
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.


Blizzard

Snow falls:
years of anger following
hours that float idly down —
the blizzard
drifts its weight
deeper and deeper for three days
or sixty years, eh? Then
the sun! a clutter of
yellow and blue flakes —
Hairy looking trees stand out
in long alleys
over a wild solitude.
The man turns and there —
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.


Spring Storm

The sky has given over
its bitterness.
Out of the dark change
all day long
rain falls and falls
as if it would never end.
Still the snow keeps
its hold on the ground.
But water, water is seething
from a thousand runnels.
It collects swiftly,
dappled with black
cuts a way for itself
through green ice in the gutters.
Drop after drop it falls
from the withered grass stems
of the overhanging embankment.

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