The liberation of William Carlos Williams

Draper, Jesse Monroe, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Jacob C. Levenson, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Nelson, Raymond J., Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia

In 1923 William Carlos Williams published Spring and All, his first great book of poetry and the culmination of his early career. Critics have generally divided this period of Williams's writing into the imitative verse of his first two books and the more distinctive work beginning with Al Que Quiere. They have explained his improvement by arguing that he suddenly rejected his parents' conventional ideals and immersed himself in his local environment. Careful attention to Williams's biography, however, reveals that his liberation was more gradual and uncertain. His poems, his theoretical prose, and his unpublished letters demonstrate that his parents' values affected him throughout this period. They showed in his detachment from life, they shaped even his rebellion against convention, and they enabled him to fashion a style whose dual allegiance to world and mind tells part of the intellectual history of his generation.

Williams's personal transformation from a conventional boy into a rebellious man closely paralleled the changes in his poetry between Poems (1909) and Spring and All. At twenty-six he was about to emerge from an extended childhood, and his devotion to such values as "innocence" and "perfection" showed in the juvenile content and imitative form of his first book of poems. His letters clearly suggest some subversive impulses, but his early poems rarely hint at anything controversial. These impulses grew stronger during Williams's Wanderjahr in Europe and the first years of his medical practice in Rutherford. True to the form he had already established, he rebelled against Keats by imitating Ezra Pound. He wrote mythological poems that expressed and disguised the anti-conventionality revealed more clearly in his letters to Viola Baxter. Of all Williams's poetry, only The Tempers (1913) avoids direct personal statement so fully. He recognized his rebellious feelings, but close family ties made him voice his emotions through speakers from other places and times. During the coming years he began to participate in the Others group, and his poems became decidedly autobiographical. Despite his repeated calls for "contact" between the writer and his surroundings, he still felt detached from the people around him. Psychologically, he was not yet ready to practice the theory he preached. Though clearly superior to previous work, the poems of Al Que Quiere (1917) often reflected his indecision. During 1917-18 Williams's letters to Edmund R. Brown, his publisher, showed his preoccupation with World War I and his probable involvement in extramarital affairs. His private and professional lives consumed so much of his time that he virtually gave up poetry and instead wrote improvisations and philosophical essays. The latter expressed his changing views about sex and marriage; the former dramatized his internal conflicts and taught him to think of writing as a potential cure for his frequent alienation from the world. Emerging from this psychological "descent" with a clearer sense of himself, Williams immediately began to publish the pictorial poems later collected in Sour Grapes (1921). He declared his newfound independence by attacking the verse of T. s. Eliot and by joining with Robert McAlmon to found Contact magazine. Benefiting from his close observations of the world, his poetic experiments displayed new verbal energy. During the next two years Williams used his technical skills to balance mimesis and expressionism. In the poems of Spring and All, he called attention to the instant of experience, and in sudden revelations of the moment he finally found the liberation and independence he had sought so long.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Williams, William Carlos -- 1883-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation
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