William Carlos Williams as a Modernist Poet Since the beginning of Modernist poetry during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, many poets have made a large scale contribution to the field of English literature. Being vastly influenced by Imagist poetry which emphasised on clear and sharp use of language, it expanded on its characteristics and broadened its scope with poets from America and Europe, mostly Britain, contributing significant amount of their work to this Movement.
William Carlos Williams, an American medical practitioner, essayist, novelist, playwright and a poet is one of the many poets whose works have made an important contribution to the field of English literature, poetry as well as the Modernist Movement. Williams was influenced by a number of poets and scholars from whom he drew inspiration from. He was influenced by John Keats’ rhyming tradition and metered verse and at the same time was also influenced by Walt Whitman’s’ style of free verse (Poetry Foundation). One significant characteristic of Modernist poetry is the use of free verse in a considerable number of poems by the Modernist poets of the time and Williams wrote quite a number of poems in free verse. Modernist poets were very much keen on doing away with or not using the overly descriptive and lyrical style of writing which was one of the most significant characteristics of Romantic and Victorian age poetry.
Williams’ poems like ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘The Great Figure’ are two of his many poems which follow the free verse style. He was also acquainted with Ezra Pound, who not only influenced Williams’ work but also became his mentor. He joined Pound and a few other poets like Hilda Doolittle who also took a stand against writing in structured and rigid forms of Victorian and Romantic age writing, paving way for the Imagist movement which later provided a base for Modern Poetry. Later, due to the increasing differences in thoughts and values, where Ezra Pound was heavily influenced by European culture and tradition, they drifted apart. Most of the poets of this Movement were very interested in experimenting with forms and styles giving rise to new forms of poetry writing.
After splitting up from under the guidance of Pound, Williams continued to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation. As he was no longer a tutelage of Pound who, as stated before, was influenced by European cultures and tradition, Williams had the freedom to refer to day to day activities in the life of Americans making him one of the influential poets of Modernism during the later parts of the 19th century. Unlike the poems from the era before, which were accessible and understood only by the upper class and educated section of the society and also by those who had a sound intellectual backing to be able to comprehend the poems written in the Victorian era, Williams’ poems catered to the comprehension of the common people by using simple language and structure.
Probably, because of which we find that most of his poems are very short, specific and concise. One example for such a poem is ‘The red wheelbarrow’, one of his most famous of works which consists of a single, simple sentence which runs into eight lines, with the simplest of structures, form and vernacular language. A majority of Modernist poets and writers have exhibited a significant amount of Freudian influences in their writings. Freud, whose ideas, theories and principles, though criticised every now and then, were widely accepted during his period. While most Modernists made use of Freud’s theories of Oedipus complex, Electra complex, Phallocentrism and so on in their work, which is more or less characteristic of Modernist writing, Williams was more drawn towards Freud’s findings about ‘Dreams’. In one of his essays, ‘The Poem as a field of Action’ he borrows from the Freudian idea of dreams. He refers to a poem as a dream, which is a space where ideas can be fulfilled (PF, 1) This, at the same time draws attention to the fact that the Industrial Revolution also to an extent influenced the form and structure of Modern poetry. Ever since the Industrial Revolution “it began to be noticed that there could be a new subject matter and that was not in fact the poem at all” (Williams).
Thus, though Modernists included new ‘subject’ matters, that is, what the works/poems reflect/ portray at first glance, in their work, Williams says that the ‘measure’ of the poem, which is the reality of the poem, has not undergone revolutionary changes (PF). But different Modernist poets across America and Europe contributed differently to the ‘new’ aspect of Modernism which might not necessarily be concerned with new subject matters and measures. Depiction of ‘Alienation’ has become a predominant theme in numerous Modern poems. Though T. S.
Eliot has set a benchmark for the depiction of alienation in Modernist poetry writing, many a poets during this Movement have played key roles in its contribution in order to make the theme of alienation a significant feature of Modernist Poetry. The two World Wars which preceded the Modernist Movement, had left the world with a large scale number of problems. Issues of millions of lost lives, world wide poverty, mass destruction, lack of means to recover and so on weighed on one side of the scale whereas, the emotional beating the people involved in the war across the world took was so damaging that probably even if they were able to sustain themselves economically, the emotional trauma caused could not be cured for years to come. In such a situation, where people were emotionally alienated (sometimes even physically) from the rest of the world seemed to be much more relatable to a vast section of the world. As a result, Modernism which succeeded the World War II, aptly described or showcased the feelings of a sense of alienation and was able to relate to, and connect with a large number of people irrespective of their backgrounds, as it was not just the upper class section of the society that suffered the effects of the World War, thus making Modernist poetry applicable and relatable to the common man, as mentioned before, and also making it relative to the population of that time by talking about shared feelings. Williams’ poem ‘The Great Figure’ is an example for a poem that addresses ‘alienation’. In the poem, the speaker sees a red fire truck enter his line of sight without paying heed to the rain and the ‘gong clangs’ through the ‘dark city’. Though there is no indication of the fire truck leaving, it is clearly implied as the speaker only sees the truck moving; without an indication of it stopping anywhere in the short poem.
The entry of the ‘red’ fire truck during a dark and rainy day seems like a breath of fresh air but this is a temporary change as the truck just passes by without stopping, leaving behind the rainy dark city and also the speaker who happened to chance upon it. This gives the readers a sense of alienation as the speaker is left behind without any indication of human presence around him. Along with ‘alienation’, the poem also reflects the disassociated modern day world. It shows how, since the Industrial Revolution, the world has become so detached and fast paced. It seems like people in the current day world are only concerned about their own self that they do not even bother to stop for a while and take note of the world around them. The red fire truck is symbolic of such a life, that is, the Modern day life. The colour ‘red’ indicates the flashy life people lead and its “tense unheeded” (Williams) movement shows our one directional and fast paced life and the truck leaving indicates how our lives are unstopping and unbothered when the world is “among the rain” (Williams).
Williams, thus, beautifully juxtaposes the theme of alienation and the degenerating state of the world in a matter of few simple words and lines. Modernist Movement focussed on introducing something ‘new’ to various discourses and in quite a number of poems, Williams has made attempts to incorporate the essence of newness in them. In ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ the mentioning of the words “glazed with rain water” is the indicator of something new. Rain is a symbol of life and regeneration. Zaenal Abidin, in his thesis ‘Visual Imagery in William Carlos Williams Poems’ associates rain water with Spring season which is symbolic of new life. In his paper, Abidin also mentions that phrases/lines like “sumac buds”, “raw sods” and “…
opening hearts of lilac leaves” in the poem ‘April’ and “masses of flowers”, “cherry branches”, “…
yellow and some red” in ‘A Widow’s lament in Springtime’ are all indicators of the Spring theme. Thus, Williams tries to portray in his poems, a sense of newness which is more or less a defining characteristic of the Modernist movement. However, in the poem ‘A Widow’s lament in Springtime’, the mood is more reminiscing and melancholic though it is set against a pleasant Spring background. This could be interpreted as the actual representation of the disconnected or detached world post the Industrial Revolution where human emotions took a back seat and the material world captured attention.
On the other hand, though this poem was published in 1921, it is rightly applicable to the post World War II (1945) scenario where the widow’s depressive and self destructive state acts as indicators of the destroyed state of the world and the happy, spring like surrounding acts as an indicator of hope and new beginnings. Either way, the mood set by Williams is more rejuvenating than depressing which makes the poem also classify as an indicator of the ‘new’. Making intertextual references in poetry is also a characteristic feature of Modernist Poetry. However, his practice was not initiated during the Modernist Movement. Plays, novels and poetries dating back to the Renaissance period and prior to it have made use of this practice. Writers and poets have always used it to write back to their literary rivals or in praise of their mentors, friends or idols or in order to humour the readers in unlikely situations. Such references were not limited to just literature, as, paintings with references to Biblical situations have also been a part of the European culture for as long as one can remember. In the case of paintings, the painting which stands as one of the best examples for such a reference during the Modernist Movement is the ‘Dream caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Awakening’ by Salvador Dali in 1944.
Here, Dali has shown the Modern world’s interest in psychology and Freudian theories and has also made references to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s ‘Elephant and Obelisk’ sculpture and as well as to the Theory of Revolution. In the case of poetry, T. S.
Eliot has once again made spectacular intertextual references to literary works from across the world. Williams too took part in making such a reference in his poem ‘Spring and All’ by referring to Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Where Eliot’s interpretation of the world post World War I was more melancholic in nature, Williams took a different approach by looking at it as a new start/ beginning. The title of the said poem, with its reference to spring, once again gives a hopeful tone for the ‘new’ world. It was only after the publishing of ‘Spring and All’ in the year 1923 did Williams shoot to fame making him one of the talented poets in the canon of Modernist poetry. Meanwhile, Williams’ friend and painter Charles Demuth’s painting ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’ was created with reference to Williams’ poem ‘The Great Figure’ which makes Williams’ work also a subject to the practice of intertextual referencing and inspiration.
Although William Carlos Williams was not as famous as most other Modernist poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Hilda Doolittle, James Joyce and the likes of them, his contributions to the vast field of Modernist literature, especially Modernist poetry, cannot be disregarded. A majority of his poems exhibit the distinguished characteristics of Modern Poetry in ways that are simplistic, understandable and relatable which makes him one of the instrumental poets of Modernist Poetry.Works Cited Williams, William C. 1954.
Essay on poetic theory: Introduction. The poem is a field of action. Poetry Foundation. Web. 13 Oct 2009 Williams, William C. The Poem is a Field of Action, NYC.
1954. Print. New Directions Abidin, Zaenal. Visual Imagery in William Carlos Williams Poems.
Diss. State Islamic University, Jakarta, 2010. UINJKT- IR.
Web. 18 Jan 2018. BibliographyPoetry Foundation.orghttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69393/the-poem-as-a-field-of-actionhttps://www.
orghttps://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/william-carlos-williamsWikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_and_Allhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ImagismTucker, Robert L. G.
William Carlos Williams in the 1930s. Diss. U College London, UCL Discovery.
Web. 18 jan 2018