“A Poem Should Not Mean But Be” – William Carlos Williams

Few novice poets today are familiar with this major talent, the wholly original and inimitable physician William Carlos Williams. A medical doctor all of his days and exquisitely attuned to both the strengths and limitations of poetry in capturing and explaining our lives and souls discursively.

Poets fall out of favor routinely, though, then are resurrected and canonized (as in the august literary canon–we should all be so fortunate).

But consider this, in his hey day Williams’ straightforward, unvarnished poetics, caused a stir. Quite a stir. And I’m betting the fickle fashion  of poesy will once again laud his singular unpretentious genius with a newly revived appreciation and gratitude.

Said Williams years ago–

A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there is nothing sentimental about a poem I mean there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant …. Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. The effect is beauty, what in a single object significance–into an intense expression of his perception and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech he uses. [ital/bold mine] It resolves our complex feelings of propriety ….When a man makes a poem, makes it mind you, he takes words as he finds them– interrelated about him, and composes them without distortion  which would mar their exact significances–into  and ardors an intense expression of his perceptions isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”

We’ve always liked to assume we were immensely talented Big Shots deserving of eternal acclaim for unforgettably getting down on paper once and for all what it means to be human (with a capital H) and thankful we weren’t instead thrust down the evolutionary ladder until our diction, metaphorical skills and one note repertoire improved.  God forefend! To be traumatically transmorgafied by the diety into “pointless” albino frogs (see previous point here) who can’t carry a tune, nevermind the burden of significance.

The critic and poet himself, Randall Jarrell (1949), wrote an astute appreciation of Williams’ poetry for James Laughlin’s highly regarded New Directions Publishing Co.  I have relied heavily on his observations in WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: SELECTED POEMS.


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
This entry was posted in American Literature, poetry, randall jarell, William Carlos Wlliams and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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