Everyone should read William Carlos Williams. Even if you don’t read a lot of poetry–perhaps especially if you don’t read a lot of poetry–pick up his work. I know I write a lot about poetry here on Style by Joules, a blog that’s mostly about fashion, and that many of my readers probably don’t even make it this far into one of them. But if you’re reading this, do yourself a favor and read this book.
Okay, enough praise singing. First: an overview. William Carlos Williams is a superstar of contemporary poetry. He revolutionized the genre. Before his time, poetry had a decidedly more lyrical feel–long flowing lines with lots of rhyming and flowery description–and since he penned his last verse poetry has taken his short-lined, enjambed free verse and run with it. He wrote from the early 1900s through the 1960s, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among his many honors.
Why is his poetry so well loved? I think because of his minimal, accessible aesthetic. His poems are, on the whole, short and simply worded. The enjambment he uses perfectly paces his work. I find that his poetry often reads like haiku, a genre well known for being accessible and delightful to consume.
The similarities between his work and haiku don’t end in style, though–they also are similar in subject matter. Williams focuses on simple images and moments in a minimalistic way. He presents a scene or an object to a reader in a way that says: here, have a look at this. He takes an almost transcendental attitude toward nature and unassuming objects and scenes. He will, for example, describe a simple morning in a poverty stricken neighborhood in a way that makes a woman yawning while gazing out her window feel almost sublime.
Poverty is a common focal point for William’s poetry. I think that this focus on poverty as a place of beauty and transcendence makes Williams a truly American poet. Using verse to paint a glorious epic of a turnpike instead of the French countryside or some other bucolic scene was something nobody had really done before–except maybe Walt Whitman (in spirit).
William’s often liked to say “no ideas but in things.” He loved celebrating the humble, the simply materialistic. Some of my favorite poems of his are highly focused, abstract descriptions of flowers, trees, even wallpaper. His poems are lean and sharp, often opening with jarring or confessional lines that pull the reader in, almost as if he’s leaning in and furtively whispering the poem in confidence.
Reading through his Selected Poems is an edifying experience. As a poet, I found it gratifying to see that not all his poetry is brilliant–that he took time to really hone his style (his earliest poems are almost nothing like his best-loved works) and that he continually grew and changed as a poet throughout his life. While I liked his middle poetry the best, others might prefer his later works which trade in short, brief poems for long sweeping epics like Paterson, which describes a small American town in broad, verbose stanzas. I think the only times Williams really falls down for me are when he gets too directly political or too saccharine and sentimental in his later poems.
Williams inspired me so much that, after finishing this book, I sat down and wrote an incredible number of poems that melded a bit of his style with my own writing style. I literally laid awake almost an entire night, unable to fall asleep because more poems kept coming to me. I’ve often struggled with line breaks and using enjambment just right, but reading through his poetry really shined a light on how to make the most effective use of these devices. I’m very happy with the poetry I produced after reading his work, and I think this is the highest praise I can give any writer.
Now go read this book.