William Carlos Williams was a modernist poet focused on the imagination and the creation of art. He was an advocate of many modern artists of his time that included many fellow poets, writers, and many painters, a lot of them involved in new approaches to art, subject matter, and style. Williams’ greatest insistence was that in his poetry and prose the materials of the work must be drawn from the familiar world, or in other words, from concrete objects and concepts, much like a painter draws his strongest basis for his paintings from a concrete object (Ostrom 3). In short, Williams has much in common with painters and other artists that work from a basis of the concrete world, though he works with words as his medium. He exhibits this through use of style, word placement, word choice, and composition, much like a painter would use style, color choice, shape placement, and composition also. Through examining several of Williams’ poems, including “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives,” “The Rose,” “Nantucket,” “The Attic Which is Desire,” “The Locust Tree in Flower” (first version), and “Tribute to the Painters,” a reader can find the elements that Williams uses to create poetry that, in itself, resembles the paintings of those whose art he admired and encouraged.
Style is one element that Williams has in common with paintings in his works. The best examples of this are in the poems “The Attic Which is Desire,” “The Locust Tree in Flower,” and “Tribute to the Painters.” In “The Attic Which is Desire” Williams positions the words in a slim column down the page so that the reader, as his eye moves down, sees only one small part of the poem rather than getting a lot of details at once; in the middle of the poem, using asterisks and the word “soda” written vertically, he uses actual imagery, composing a primitive picture with the symbols and word that bring to mind exactly the object it is to represent, which is a glowing sign with lights around it that says, “soda” (Tomlinson 73). The poem “The Locust Tree in Flower” also employs the use of a slim column of words. However, the words are separated into three-line stanzas all the way down the page, forcing the reader to fall into a pattern as they read of three lines, stop, three lines, stop, and so on (Tomlinson 93). And in the poem “Tribute to the Painters,” Williams uses one of his most creative styles as it pertains to word sequence and placement on the page. The placement of the words and/or phrases causes the eye and mind to jump, dance-like, from one idea to the next. This placement causes a discontinuity that Williams plays on by picking up on a completely different idea after each caesura when the reader’s mind wishes to connect it with something along the same vein as what they read before. This varied placement of words and phrases causes an ambiguity that borders on abstraction, and, indeed, the poem does represent an abstract painting through this style (Tomlinson 220). Style gave each of these poems its own unique feel, and caused the readers to experience the poems in a unique way than if they had just been written out in paragraph form with no distinct style at all.
Word choice and placement are other important factors in Williams’ poetry that help it relate to paintings. Williams believes, “what cannot be too much stressed, therefore, is…[the] insistence on the poem’s ‘sensuality;'” this he accomplishes through deliberately placing description words and nouns in the best places that give the most to the effect that he desires the reader to get from the poem (Ostrom 11). The poem “The Rose,” for instance, is not varied in style, but the word choice and word placement cause it to take on a different feel. With the image of a rose firmly in the reader’s mind when the reader first begins the poem, Williams continually plays off of this preconceived image by changing it up, making normal assumptions about the rose change to a description that resembles a cubist notion of what a rose might be like. The use of the words “edge,” “metal,” “porcelain,” “geometry,” “majolica,” “glazed,” “steel,” “carried weight,” “cold,” “precise,” and “infinitely fine” does not convey the usual image of a rose, rather they paint the rose image with metallic or shiny colors; with hard, precise lines; and with an inanimate, manufactured, heaviness (Tomlinson 44). The poem “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives” is notable for both word choice and word placement in respective parts of the poem. In the first and last parts of the poem, from line one to line twenty and from line twenty-eight to the end of the poem at line forty-four, the word placement is rather conventional, and the word choice is really of the most importance. In these first twenty lines and last twenty-six, Williams gives a slow-moving description that invokes very strong, very detailed imagery. Words and/or phrases such as “huge,” “descending,” “deep rumbling,” “quicken,” “grey pavement,” “soft light,” “earthcolored,” “covertly,” “leaning pyramid of sunlight,” “narrowing,” “discordant,” “straining,” “inevitable postures,” “horizontal,” “glittering parallels,” “dingy cylinders,” and “oozy” paint a vivid picture in the mind, complete with color, movement, sound, perspective, and a light source. The middle five lines of the poem are positioned in such a way as to quicken the reading, to speed up the movement of the poem, and bring to mind the characters rushing about after the general introduction and description of the overall image (Tomlinson 29-30). “Nantucket” is another of Williams’ poems that demonstrates this vivid imagery through word choice. Words such as “lavender,” “yellow,” “white,” “smell of cleanliness,” “sunshine,” “glass,” and “immaculate” bring to life the picturesque scene in the poem. Though the poem is much shorter and uses fewer words than “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives,” such well placed adjectives still help to give color and an overall description of the scene through the imagination (Tomlinson 72). Through use of word choice and placement, the imagery of Williams poems is enhanced, making the scenes and images he wishes to get across more vivid in the minds of his readers to the point that, like a painting, it can be enjoyed, with many of the same qualities, as a picture in the mind.
Creating a composition that is pleasing to the eye and complements the subject matter of the piece of art work is one of the most challenging aspects of creating art. Williams employs composition in an effective way, though his medium of words is rather strict and mostly unbending in the small number of ways it can be arranged. One of the best examples out of the selection of poems being examined that shows this is “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Each new, three-line stanza reveals more about the tree and the state it is in, and the entire poem follows a linear movement as if one was looking at a painting or a picture of the tree, and their eye were to follow the lines of the tree slowly up to the branches, where they would finally reach the blossoms, and, then, follow the blossom’s descent to the ground (Tomlinson 93). This “movement of the eye” is what composition in visual art tries to create; the painting, picture, sculpture, or drawing is arranged in such a way that the eye is carried, either through colors, lines, shapes, forms, or a combination of any of these, on an intentional path throughout the picture. In “Tribute to the Painters,” Williams uses a more complicated composition, but nevertheless, the pattern of the words leads the mind through the ideas and images in an intentional way that allows the poem to invoke certain aspects of the aesthetic feeling that it gives to the reader (Tomlinson 220). Through use of structured stanzas or the breaking up of stanzas, phrases, and so on, Williams incorporates this idea of composition into his poetry, leading the mind through the invoked images as a painter would lead the eye of an onlooker through a painting.
William Carlos Williams presents, through words, images and ideas in his concrete-centered poetry the way a painter would present the image of his own subject matter through paint and canvas, shading and color. He combines concepts and elements of visual art into his works, and even though the art of poetry has been, throughout history, an art of strict forms and styles, Williams, through his implementation of modern concepts in poetic and prose theory, believing that “only for man’s sake must art exist…not merely as a testament to man’s greatness,” creates a unique genre of poetry that evokes aesthetic feelings and vivid imagery like other arts do through visual methods (Ostrom 5). Through all of this, Williams has become like the great painters with his poetry, both mastering the concepts and elements of art in general and promoting them as well.
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Ostrom, Alan. The Poetic World of William Carlos Williams. London and Amsterdam: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.
Rosenthal, M. L., ed. The William Carlos Williams Reader. By William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1965.
Tomlinson, Charles, ed. William Carlos Williams Selected Poems. By William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1985.