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William Carlos Williams
The happy doctor among blooming branches

Better Know a Poet Laureate: William Carlos Williams

Poetry can be written without strict adherence to rules of rhythm and rhyme.

Appointed to his position in 1952, a combination of cold war McCarthyism and poor health prevented William Carlos Williams from actively serving his term. However, his influence on American poetry remains as steady now as at his death fifty years ago.

Williams was at the vanguard of early 20th Century attempts to rid poetry of the perceived overindulgences of previous generations. He is known for eschewing abstractions, fixed form and excess verbiage for a more precise image-centered style, based on common speech and undirected by exacting traditional forms. "The Great Figure" illustrates how these values, along with Williams' often used short line, can be employed to create a poem surprising in its clarity and swift in its movement.

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Williams was a doctor who practiced medicine in the town he was born--Rutherford, New Jersey--even after he was recognized as one of the leading poets in the nation. In "The Complaint" we can see Williams on a house call, which in the light of the poem is shown to be more than "strictly business" as the room comes alive. Interestingly, a number of abstractions find their way inside the poem, despite Williams' reputation for strident objectivity.

The Complaint

They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
perhaps vomiting,
perhaps laboring
to give birth to
a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
with compassion.

William Carlos Williams, "The Great Figure" from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.

William Carlos Williams, “The Complaint” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.


William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams
Amazon Says: Book by Williams, William Carlos more...
Amazon Says: Book by Williams, William Carlos less...
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Selected poems by William Carlos Williams
Amazon Says: With the publication of this book, Charles Tomlinson's edition of Williams's Selected Poems, New Directions has introduced a gathering larger and more comprehensive than the o more...
Amazon Says: With the publication of this book, Charles Tomlinson's edition of Williams's Selected Poems, New Directions has introduced a gathering larger and more comprehensive than the original 1963 edition.Opening with Professor Tomlinson's superbly clear and helpful introduction this selection reflects the most up-to-date Williams scholarship. In addition to including many more pieces, Tomlinson has organized the whole in chronological order."It isn't what he [the poet] says that counts as a work of art," Williams maintained, "it's what he makes, with such intensity of purpose that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity." less...
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