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WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
American writer William Carlos Williams avoided artificiality and sentimentality in his work by producing clear, direct verse about common, everyday subjects. He is known for his innovative language and precise detail, as well as attention to line breaks. Initially acclaimed for his poetry, Williams eventually also won acceptance as a writer of prose. His poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” recited by the poet, demonstrates Williams’s clear style and creative page layout.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American writer, whose use of simple, direct language marked a new course in 20th-century poetry. Unlike some other writers of his time, such as T. S. Eliot, Williams avoided complexity and obscure symbolism. Instead, he produced lyrics, such as this one from “January Morning” (1938), that contain few difficult references: “All this—/ was for you, old woman./ I wanted to write a poem/ that you would understand.” Williams’s greatest achievement as a writer was the epic Paterson (5 volumes, 1946-1958), which is a landmark of 20th-century poetry.
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father, William George Williams, was from Britain, and his mother, Helene Raquel Williams, was a Puerto Rican-born woman of Basque and French descent. Williams grew up in a household that spoke French, Spanish, and British English. He entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1902, and while there formed friendships with several poets who would go on to great fame: Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Hilda Doolittle. After an internship in New York City, Williams studied pediatrics at the University of Leipzig in Germany. By late 1912, Williams had returned to Rutherford, set up a private practice, and married his fiancée of several years, Florence Hermann.
Although he developed a busy practice as a doctor, Williams also was a prolific writer, and for much of his life he published a book at least every two years.
His most important prose works are The Great American Novel (1923); In the American Grain (1925), a collection of essays on figures from American history; and White Mule (1938), the first novel in a three-book series following the life of one family.
In addition to Paterson, Williams’s various poetry collections include The Collected Early Poems (1938), The Collected Later Poems (1950), and Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), which is a collection of works written from 1950 to 1962.
Williams began to achieve public recognition for his writing in 1950, when he won the National Book Award in poetry for the third volume of Paterson. Three years later he won the Bollingen Prize—awarded by Yale University for achievement in American poetry—and in 1963, after his death, Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Pictures from Brueghel.
Poetry was, for Williams, a crucial and necessary—yet sometimes ignored—means of communicating. In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955), he wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” Williams’s ideas were basically humanistic: respect yourself and others, love those you can, and try to make the world a better place. He tried to live up to these ideals through both his writing and his medical practice. One quality that Williams admired greatly was persistence; he loved old people who kept their vigorous response to life, just as he admired artists who kept improving and perfecting their work.
Williams’s straightforward approach to writing marked a new direction for poetry. In shaping his idea of what this new poetry should be, Williams emphasized four qualities. The first was the use of commonplace subjects and themes. The poet must write about things people can respond to, things people have seen and know. Otherwise, literature stands separate from its readers.
The second principle for the new poetry was the poet’s duty to write about real events or objects in a language that all people could understand, with an ear for the way people actually speak. Williams called his language “the American idiom” and stressed repeatedly that it was different from formal English in that it allowed for speech patterns that could violate grammatical rules. He delighted in experimenting with short poems that were little more than fragments of speech capturing individual moments, thoughts, feelings, or images, as in “This Is Just To Say” (1934): “I have eaten/ the plums/ that were/ in the icebox…”
The third attribute for the new poetry was specificity. Williams objected to traditional poetry that talked in generalities, such as poems that treated love, death, anger, and friendship as abstractions rather than as real things. Fighting against what he called aboutness, Williams coined the phrase “No ideas but in things.” This meant that his poetry made its point by focusing attention on concrete reality. To show an emotion such as love, he would write about the everyday gestures that represented the emotion, such as a heartfelt apology. Also, Williams paid attention to simple objects, like red wheelbarrows, that other poets ignored, and he found poetic qualities in these everyday objects.
The fourth principle of Williams’s new poetics was the poet’s responsibility to write about his or her locale, or in the wording he preferred, local. Williams believed that only by knowing a small fragment of life thoroughly could anyone hope to understand the total picture of human existence. Much of his own writing efforts for more than a decade went into the epic Paterson, a long poem presenting his local, which was industrialized New Jersey. Nature, represented in the poem by the Passaic River and its well-known falls, met with industry in the town of Paterson, where the falls provided waterpower to the area. In the work Williams made a number of statements about modern life—for instance about the importance, to cities and people, of observing and maintaining specific details in order to maintain a sense of individuality and importance.
Toward the end of his life Williams was recognized as an important influence on younger poets. Long before he was esteemed by critics, such poets as Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov paid tribute to old “Doc Williams,” the man who meshed two careers into one highly productive life. Williams’s letters to these poets and to others resulted in numerous collections, including The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams (1957) and several volumes published after his death, such as The Last Word: Letters between Marcia Nardi and William Carlos Williams (1994), Pound/Williams: Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (1996), and The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams (1998).
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The International Society of Doctors in Literature, ISDL (formerly Confederation of Doctors in Literature, CODIL), is a non-governmental, non-political and non-profit organization committed to the promotion of literature and other creative endeavours among members of the noble profession of medicine.