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William Carlos Williams

Why William Carlos Williams was One of the Greatest Poets of the Last 100 Years


Language has rarely achieved the brilliance it reached at the hand of this US poet.

It would be hard to find a reader of poetry or lover of language today who does not recognize William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) as one of the most important US poets of the 20th century. But above all as a touchstone for calibrating the poetic present. He incarnated a fortuitous combination of science and rhythm that not only changed the prosody of language but also the entire poetic imagination. Williams studied medicine in Pennsylvania and at the same time began a career that would turn him into a goldsmith of language who touched words one by one and appeared to turn them into something shiny and different. He sought, in his words, “a writing in which the world becomes what it is.”

“I will make a big, serious portrait of my time,” he pledged at the start of his career. And in effect, he managed to complete a great and clear portrait of his United States at the beginning of the century, but in the strangest way: in each poem he created a short or medium-length portrait of a situation or a person, but he never showed us that person’s face. For example, in his poem “Portrait of a Lady,” we see her thighs, her knees, but she never looks at us and we don’t look into her eyes. The same happens in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which is a description of the painting by Brueghel, in which of Icarus there is nothing more than a pair of legs drowning: Williams describes the painting and, at the end, unsignificantly, he does not show us Icarus, but the insignificant splash the hero left behind him.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel when Icarus fell it was spring  a farmer was ploughing his field

the whole pageantry

of the year

was awake tingling


the edge of the sea

concerned with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings’ wax


off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning

He circles and hovers and reduces and reduces the space until it is sufficiently small to allow a meticulous and faithful description of the things. He always writes about what he knows because it is in front of him. In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” possibly the most famous modern American poem of all, there is a miniature epiphany that at the time unleashed a poetic revolution:

so much

depends upon

a red

wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

The sound of the words is meant to be the thing in itself and the language, stripped as much as possible of its connotations, was meant to achieve the status of an object itself. We can grasp his poems as someone grasps a painting. Through the prosody and the description of the objects (not ideas of things but the things themselves) he paints his portraits and at the same time suggests that the best portrait of someone or something is what surrounds them at that moment. So much depends on that red wheelbarrow.

In his mysterious restraint there is also the glimpse of a notion of a ghost that promises that Williams sketched everything with premeditation and flexibility, but precisely that status of “object,” of honesty, that his verses acquire inhibits our possibility of finding it out, to our pure delight. We listen to the words and the rhythm like one who listens to footfalls.

Let the snake wait under

His weed

and the writing

be of words, slow and quick, sharp

to strike, quiet to wait,

— through metaphor to reconcile

the people and the stones.

Compose. (No ideas

but in things) Invent!

Saxifrage is my flower that splits

the rocks.

“The only human value of anything,” he said, “writing included, is intense vision of the facts.” In the end, everything tried to tell the truth (and with metaphors reconcile people with rocks), simultaneously translating reality to deliver it with the precision of a doctor issuing a diagnosis.

Williams wrote poems about things to retain the things so that only the poem would exist. He tried to imitate himself and the world around him with a language that “dogs and cats could understand.” He left a generous vernacular catalog of portraits of reality. But, of course, if he only wrote about what he saw before him, and if the best portraits were situations, Williams was describing a “a big, serious portrait of himself.” His complete poems are a map of a great face. A great self-portrait in fragments.

In March 1963, William Carlos Williams died in his sleep at home from a cerebral hemorrhage that was not unexpected. Two months later he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Pictures from Brueghel, which contains so many portraits without a face that in the end were of him.

“I will make a big, serious portrait of my time, Only give me time, / time to recall them/ before I shall speak out”

Tagged: Poetry, Poets, William Carlos Williams

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