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William Carlos Williams: Doctor and Poet

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams and Modern Poetry

William Carlos Williams gave modern poetry short, sharp injections of real life in the form of minimalist poems, helping it break free of tired convention and dubious traditions.

A doctor for near on 50 years in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams also wrote poems, scribbling and typing his snatches of life in between delivering babies and looking after mostly working-class families.

When asked how he managed to fit these two busy occupations into his schedule he replied: 'they are two parts of a whole, that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.'

His most famous poems include "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This Is Just To Say", the latter a poem about plums in an icebox. It was this focus on ordinary everyday things that made Williams so different to anyone else writing at the time.

'The only universal . . . is the local . . .' wrote the poet, meaning that his poetic truths could be found within a 20-mile radius of New York, as he went about his business as a physician. He wanted his poems to be truly American as opposed to European which is what he thought contemporaries such as T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound were producing.

I'd like to explore the influences behind this idea and take a closer look at several poems, all of which can be found in this excellent book, a comprehensive collection of short and long poems.

William Carlos Williams and Imagism

Williams came into contact with poet and radical Ezra Pound in his younger days and it was Pound who encouraged him to simplify his work.

Ezra Pound wanted a new poetry for a new age and, inspired by English philosopher T.E. Hulme, formed a loose collective of writers. They became known as the Imagists, rejecting romanticism and Victorian techniques, and promoting clarity and simple visual images in their poetry.

Briefly, Williams became known as an Imagist but later distanced himself to become what some call an Objectivist. These are really only labels. Williams the poet knew exactly what he wanted from his work which was inspired by his local environment and shaped by his compassionate and discerning eye.

The Poem as a Field of Action

'Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I've said it time and time again.'

If you look through the poems of Spring and All (1923), the first book to bring recognition to William Carlos Williams, you'll find all sorts on display. A wheelbarrow, a rose, a ball game, a faucet, a pot of flowers, a farmer, a hospital—they're all given similar treatment—the poet uses his imagination to take them out of grounded reality and bring 'many broken things into a dance.'

Many of these poems are short and narrow and look 'thin' on the page. They have lean lines, odd silences, hesitations, observations 'rooted in particulars.' What unites them all is William Carlos Williams's vision. He saw a 'poem as a field of action' the words becoming physical and visual energy.

He can spot a flock of birds, some trees, or a person on the street and this will form the irritation around which the pearl is made, layer on layer. What's striking is the attention to detail, the spontaneous reaction to a small local event, the imagination taking over, making at times a surreal or emotional connection.

"The Red Wheelbarrow"

so much depends

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a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


William Carlos Williams and His Influence

This little poem is responsible for a whole shift in the poetic consciousness of America and the English-speaking world, but it took a good 25 years for its influence to be felt. It appeared a year after T.S.Eliot's "The Waste Land", a vast sprawling poem full of allusion, foreign languages and quotations, which Williams hated.

When it was first published, in 1923, it challenged people's idea of what a poem should be, how it should appear on the page. It also took root in the minds of many young poets and influenced people like Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley.

I love the zen-like quality of this poem. The simple observation of a wheelbarrow in somebody's garden and the importance it holds for someone, for a whole world, becomes a focal point of existence. How come 'so much depends' on such an object?

  • The form of the poem is the field within which language plays. That play has a rhythm and Williams wanted the rhythms to be expressions of local speech, what he heard each day. You can for instance picture a friend of the poet's musing on the importance of that red wheelbarrow and starting a conversation...'so much depends upon..'

His poetic imagination turned a mundane scene into a memorable poem.

No Ideas but In Things

William Carlos Williams's poems, especially his earlier work, broke new ground and helped poetry move into the modern era.

His poetry is still fresh, taken out of the air of New Jersey on an ordinary working day and transformed into profound poetic sketches. Full of vivid imagery and reflecting the American way of life which was so important to him, they were in complete contrast to T.S.Eliot's work and other poets writing at the time.

Many still do not like his poems, seeing them as shallow and with no artistic merit or poetic skill. I think to enjoy his work you have to put aside notions of classic rhyming poetry and go with the idea of spontaneity, of the poet using as few words as possible to create this field of local character.

With Williams, you can learn about spontaneity, how to observe a small detail, an object, a trait, and give it new life with a twist of the imagination. His most famous saying 'No ideas but in things' is actually a line from a poem, Paterson, but it still resonates today.

  • Williams wanted his poems to focus on specific things, their details, to let the reader conjure up images as they read. So ideas about things or objects such as a wheelbarrow would be individual and unique, directly observed, served up fresh.

Poets have been searching for concise language in which to form their poems for centuries, so Williams wasn't the first to attempt short compact poetry by any means, but his unique take on this theme definitely helped shape poetry for the modern era.

When asked how he managed to write poetry whilst working as a doctor he replied....'it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.'

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth

Visual Poetics

In addition to his work as a doctor, Williams was also actively assessing the artistic scene and became friends with photographers and artists of the time. People like Charles Demuth, Alfred Stieglitz and Marcel Duchamp gave him new ways to think about the form of his poetry, the visual impact they made on the page.

Inspired by the modernists' approach to life and art—he attended the avant-garde exhibition at the 1913 Armory Show—he sought to create a fresh kind of poetry, breaking away from the old traditions.

Williams wanted spontaneity and real-life in his verse and for the form to be 'always new, irregular.'

It's interesting to note that Williams and artist Charles Demuth were life-long friends. One of Demuth's paintings—"Red Chimneys"—was finished in 1921, a couple of years before Williams's famous "The Red Wheelbarrow" poem was published. Coincidence or was there a direct link between image and poem?

When Williams wrote his poem "The Great Figure", based on his seeing a fire engine (No 5) speed past him one rainy night, Demuth painted I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold and dedicated it to his friend.

The Red Chimneys by Charles Demuth

The Red Chimneys by Charles Demuth

"This Is Just To Say"

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

One of his most famous, from his Collected Poems (1934) is full of suggestion. The title itself could be a sort of casual note to a lover or friend following a night's stay. You can picture the perpetrator guiltily eating those juicy plums one after the other whilst upstairs someone sleeps on.

The language reflects an ordinary moment of real time, a thought bubble rising from a kitchen somewhere in New Jersey on a late Saturday morning. The form allows the words to flow initially—the act has taken place—only the end stanza causes the reader to hesitate and perhaps slightly regret having eaten them all!

Again, the poem is open-ended, spontaneous, a casual remark given this uniquely minimal form.


As the cat

climbed over

the top of

the jamcloset

first the right



then the hind

stepped down

into the pit of

the empty


Analysis of "Poem"

Although this poem is essentially about a cat stepping carefully over a closet—a jamcloset—it also is open to a different interpretation. To start with you could argue that the whole poem is a metaphor for someone dealing with a sticky situation (hence jamcloset), having to tread slowly, softly, because of potential danger.

But the use of the word 'pit' related to the flowerpot could mean that the person has gone from the frying pan into the fire. The precarious situation they find themselves in is far from over. It's open-ended.

The Cat Climbed Over

There's a simplicity about many of Williams's poems. The language is accessible despite unusual forms and line breaks. Note also how his opening word here gets the poem going, the use of an adverb 'as', a sort of casual approach. He captures another domestic scene almost like an artist sketching.

Would this poem be as successful if it was in a different form? For example, which works best:


As the cat climbed over

the top of the jamcloset


As the

cat climbed

over the top

of the jamcloset


As the cat

climbed over

the top of

the jamcloset

a) these lines are too long - the cat is rushed, you don't get the hesitation.

b) these lines are too short, abrupt and artificial.

c) these are more balanced, giving realistic movement to the cat.

"The Poor"

It's the anarchy of poverty

delights me, the old

yellow wooden house indented

among the new brick tenements

Or a cast-iron balcony

with panels showing oak branches

in full leaf. It fits

the dress of the children

reflecting every stage and

custom of necessity -

Chimneys, roofs, fences of

wood and metal in an unfenced

age and enclosing next to

nothing at all: the old man

in a sweater and soft black

hat who sweeps the sidewalk -

his own ten feet of it

in a wind that fitfully

turning his corner has

overwhelmed the entire city

"The Poor" Analysis

This five stanza poem gives us Williams's ideas about the poor. He sees the incongruous mix of old with new, and could be using sarcasm when he says 'It's the anarchy of poverty delights'. Is poverty delightful? Most certainly not in real life but in the context of this poem it forces the reader to stop and think and question.

The poem is full of imagery, typical Williams painting a picture as his stream of consciousness moves ahead. I can see the old man with back bent sweeping the dust out into the wind which is then taken across the whole city.

Four lines per stanza indicate regular time and within this constant the juxtaposed elements of poverty and society—from nothing to an entire city, old wooden house and new brick dwellings—the poet is showing us that the belongings of the poor,next to nothing, suit even what the children are wearing.

Technically, it's in free verse, has enjambment plus alliteration - ...'in a sweater and soft black/hat who sweeps the sidewalk...' and is left open ended with no full stop, a pointer toward poverty being endless, going on despite the efforts of politicians to end it.

Other Work

In addition to his poetry Williams also wrote novels, short stories and essays. An anti-novel appeared in 1923 The Great American Novel and a book of essays In the American Grain was published in 1925.

William Carlos Williams Published Books

1909 Poems

1914 The Wanderer

1917 Al Que Quiere!

1921 Sour Grapes

1923 Spring and All

1934 Collected Poems

1935 An Early Martyr

1936 Adam and Eve and the City

1938 The Complete Collected Poems

1941 The Broken Span

1944 The Wedge

1948 The Clouds

1950 The Collected Later Poems

1954 The Desert Music

1955 Journey to Love

1962 Pictures from Brueghel

1946-58 Paterson


100 Essential Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


McKenna Meyers on August 31, 2015:

Thanks for getting me re-acquainted with the poet and his poetry. I read William Carlos Williams in college and couldn't appreciate his simple style back then. Now I love the simplicity of the images and the brevity of the words. Great job on the hub! It was just like being back in college minus the term paper!

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