/William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Poet and Physician

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Physician-Poet

Life:

  • Poet, novelist, essayist, playwright and Doctor
  • Born in Rutherford, NJ on September 17, 1883
  • Received MD from University of Pennsylvania
  • Continued medical training in NYC, then pediatrics in Germany
  • Interned in decrepit Hell’s Kitchen
  • Opened a practice out of his home, providing free care to families during the Great Depression
  • Chief of pediatric medicine at Passaic Hospital from 1924 until his death
  • Delivered over 3000 babies in Rutherford, NJ
  • Married Florence Herman (Flossie) in 1912, subject of love poem Asphodel
  • Except for one year studying medicine in Leipzig never lived outside of Rutherford, NJ

Poetry:

  • Influenced directly by Ezra Pound, who published his first poems in 1913
  • Departure from from “studied elegance” of Keats as well as “raw vigor” of Whitman
  • Poetry was “domestic” and rife with empathy, sympathy and emotion
  • Among the founders of the “Imagist Movement” (see notes on back)
  • Continued the struggle to compose poetry in the “American idiom”
  • Work was overshadowed by T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”
  • Invented the “variable foot”, stepped line, or triadic form of poetry
  • Found success in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a mentor to Beat poets (i.e. Allen Ginsberg)
  • In 1952 he was declared a Communist not renewed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (Poet Laureate)
  • Won Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1963 posthumously for Pictures from Brueghel (1962)
  • Continued writing until his death March 4,1963

Major works:

  • Kora in Hell (1920)
  • Spring and All (1923)
  • The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
  • Asphodel (1955)
  • This Is Just To Say (1962)
  • Paterson (1963)

 


William Carlos Williams was a revolutionary poet and an innovator of the Imagist movement in the early 20th. His mother was a native Puerto Rican and his father was an Englishman. His early aptitude for math led him to pursue medicine at the prodding of his parents; his mother and grandmother having a significant influence on his education and later writing. Even awhile he studied medicine, his creativity flourished as he befriended Ezra Pound and was able to lead a very productive “double life” as a physician and a poet and author.

Williams quote

Unlike many of his contemporaries Williams did not seek inspiration from Europe. Instead he found inspiration in the lives of his patients and domestic American life; in his own words he didn’t speak English but instead “the American idiom”. In accord with the Naturalist movement his subjects were not the romantic European type. As an intern in Hell’s Kitchen he was able “to follow the poor defeated body into those gulfs and grottos…, to be present at deaths and births, at the tormented battles between daughter and diabolic mother.”

Williams’ humanity and democratic spirit, reminiscent of the Whitman he grew up on, enabled him to be a devoted and caring family physician as well as a sympathetic and empathetic writer. Virtually unknown outside of the literary world he was not well regarded by his peers; even attacked for his “tantrums”, his un-Americanism and amorality. Williams of openly hostile to critics, established writers and conventions.

His greatest gift to poetry was the invention of the “variable foot”, or a line broken into three segments; in his words “it represents the culmination of all my striving after an escape from the restrictions of all the verse of the past”. He was never fully appreciated as a poet until he was “rediscovered” by the Beat generation of poets in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Paterson of Williams
NJ Paterson 1903 Early Factory View

Eliot’s publishing The Wasteland in 1922 and it’s success disillusioned Williams. He strove to bring back the social consciousness of Whitman in a modern world but with hope, not the bleak negativity of Eliot. He turned his focus to prose and his devotion to America and the struggles of American life during the Great Depression. The next thirty years were spent writing his five volume poem “Paterson”; his epic about the industrialization of America, the slums that it produced and the hope that could grow there.

Even as his health deteriorated after a stroke in 1948 and retiring from medicine he remained productive with some of his finest work released in the years before his death. His final book “Pictures from Brueghel” won him the Pulitzer prize posthumously in 1963.

Williams in 1963
Pulitzer Prize Medal

 

 

“The poem springs from the half spoken words of the patient…. When asked, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.” — WCW

 

Notes on the Imagist Movement

Ezra Pound, one of the founders of Imagism, said that there were three tenets, or rules, to writing Imagist poetry.

  1. Direct treatment of the subject. That is, the poem should deal directly with what’s being talked about, not try to use fancy words and phrases to talk about it.
  2. Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation. Use as few words as possible.
  3. Compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in the rhythm of the metronome. In other words, create new rhythms instead of relying on the old, boring ones.