Category Archives: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams: Things About Things

wcw-1-sized.jpg Like most famous phrases, William Carlos Williams’ admonition, “No ideas but in things” suffers from its simplicity.

It’s easy to imagine Dr. Williams answering endless hands in a press conference—what “things” particularly, what he meant by “ideas,” whether it was the act of describing or the things described that produced meaning—until he charges from the room sorry he’d said anything at all.

Or maybe Williams was being sly, knowing we’d plow through things to get at ideas, applying new ideas of our own along the way.

My first exposure to Williams came when my freshman composition teacher in college assigned a 500-word essay on “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which I’ve now memorized:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

500 is a small to me now. I’ve heard enough about the poem to sneeze 500 words, but when I tell my current students about the assignment they have the same reaction I did—two pages on THAT?

When I teach “The Red Wheelbarrow” to a class, I can tease out the structural regularities of this seemingly simple poem—its organization as one sentence, the consistent word count for each stanza (3-1), the syllabic structure (4-2, 3-2, 3-2, 4-2), the enjambment of every stanza, and the regular iambic meter (unstressed, stressed) that flickers in and out as the poem proceeds. Somebody is in control. The poem isn’t accidental or sloppy.

They uncover patterns and violations of patterns readily enough, but those discoveries don’t make this poem art. The things—in this case, the red wheelbarrow and its peripherals—are so mundane. Technical control, by itself, won’t overcome skepticism. It is a poem, a few members of the class will admit, but it’s a poem about nothing.

When I point out Williams didn’t think so—that, in fact, the only lines about meaning, “So much depends / upon,” suggest otherwise—they reluctantly search for why these things could be so critical.

Williams might have laughed at our technical analysis. He claimed in a radio interview that he wrote the poem “unconsciously” and thought about its meaning only later. His only technical impulse, he contended, was to put sensation in a “clean” form a reader could readily absorb.

In answer to “So much depends / upon,” the class finds basics: red, clear, and white…or a tool, weather, and a food source. For a farmer, some surmise, tools, precipitation, and livestock are important. Or all these visual things—the wheelbarrow is still, the rain has already fallen, the chickens are uncharacteristically silent—emphasize sight as the primary sense. Still, for many students, these are desperate readings, trying to create sense. These “interpretations” reinforce their vision of Williams as a con man, goofing on us by asking us to make something of nothing.

Quite rightly, a member of my class always points out that we supplied the farmer, not Williams, and that, while the poem is all sight, he actually says nothing to help us know whether that’s important. We decide it is. So much depends upon us, not the objects of the poem, the poem, or the poet. Williams has it backwards.

Yet, oddly, it’s my students’ objections that convince me of Williams’ genius and the genius of “No ideas but in things.” He—with the slightest help from me—makes them seekers. Those few and simple and defiant things give rise to a host of ideas, speculations, and heady sense-making. I wonder if, without that red wet wheelbarrow and those virginal silent chickens, they would exercise their eyes and brains so vigorously. Something more complicated and less goofy might not provoke them so.

If students respect the poem—and I’d guess converts run about 37%—they start to see it as a still life not ultimately about things but how things and ideas are inexorably linked.

“The theory is,” William Carlos Williams said in an interview, “that you can make a poem out of anything…you don’t have to have conventionally poetic material. Anything that is felt, and is felt deeply, or deeply enough, or even just gives amusement is material for art.”

Robert Coles says Williams, “Insists on the particular, the concrete, the palpable, that which is there…shunning the blandishments of an abstract kind of mind that is all too proud of itself and all too unwilling to keep itself connected to and rooted in life’s everydayness.”

Yes and no. Williams begins in particularity—in things—but his amusing little pictures, even when they seem aloof and unemotional, lead naturally to big ideas. Poetry is typically lyrical (centered in language and ideas) or narrative (centered in story), and much of Williams’ work seems to fit in the lyrical camp. However, often the narrative in Williams’ poems is the moment of perception. The poems coerce readers to reexamine common things and the way we look at them in the first place.

Mystery calls stories forth.

Critics sometimes call William Carlos Williams’ poetry “revolutionary,” but I can’t speak to the wider influence of his approach. I can attest, however, to the liberating effect he has on me. If something makes the world new, it can be poetry. Any subject—even chickens and a wheelbarrow—can remind us we’re alive.


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Poetry, Reading, Teaching, Tributes, William Carlos Williams, Writing

Showing and Telling Redux

Up the block, the L passes over our street and, if you’re talking when the train arrives, noise obliterates any conversation.  In my family, whoever is speaking gets to supply a concluding statement when the roar evaporates…

… and that’s why lettuce makes a poor undergarment.

… so Grandmother didn’t even need to swallow one goldfish, much less twenty.

… the moral of the story is, don’t let infants paint.

… then I decided “Chuckles” wasn’t a good wrestling name, after all.

My daughter says we could turn these statements into real fiction, but, as stories go, they seem flawed—all telling (no showing) and too easy because the teller never has to do the work of reaching that moment.

These endings, however, do spur me to think. What transforms observations or moments into a story? What makes a narrative?

The difference between narrative and lyrical poems seems helpful here.  A lyrical poem is emotional. As the term suggests, its underlying tone—its music, if you like—organizes its contents.  In contrast, while narrative poems have tone, sequence controls them.  Put simply, one event leads to the next.

But the difference seems more complicated. What’s an event?  What do you do with information like description or dialogue?  If you think of reading psychologically, every sort of information spurs the mind to search, looking for connections or leading to conjectures about anything that may prove important. Where is the narrative then, in the writing or in the reader’s mind?

As demonstration, consider this lyrical poem by William Carlos Williams, “Nantucket”:

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—

Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed

The poem sidesteps events altogether, appearing to be pure description. It contains no real verbs, only participles functioning as adjectives—the flowers can be described as “changed” by the curtain, the tumbler can be described as “turned down,” and the key can be described as “lying” next to the bed, but they don’t do anything. Initially, the objects don’t even seem particularly interesting.  Flowers, curtains, a clean smell, a glass try and pitcher, some glasses turned over, and a key beside a bed. A pretty still life, but still.

Yet my mind makes these details into a story.  Nothing in the poem directly tells me so, but the key, the flowers, and the glasses turned over suggest a Nantucket hotel room.  I think of Nantucket as a place for visiting rather than residing, and those usually familiar flowers are “changed” here along with everything else.  These simple things cry for explanation.  I know the poet has used “glass” twice, but why substitute “tumbler” for an object containing liquid—why not “goblet”?  And what should I do with the secondary meaning of words like “tumbler,” which is also someone who performs athletic leaps, rolls, and somersaults… or the workings of a lock?  What about “immaculate,” which is not only absolutely clean but also Mary’s sexless conception?  Out of context, the word “lying” suggests something false or misleading.  Is that important?

And there’s also Williams’ characteristic voyeurism.  Is he outside the room or inside it?  If he is outside looking through those curtains, how does he smell cleanliness or see any detail beyond the flowers?  Which is imagined—how someone outside the room might envision it or how someone in the room might see all the particulars described?

I have a way to answer these questions—this poem is about an affair.  The room is a getaway.  The key is phallic.  That immaculate white bed awaits tumbling.  And though no one outside that window could imagine the lie, what happens when afternoon wanes changes everything, unlocking an entirely new life.

So I’m left with a big question—does the poem tell this story or do I?

Visiting Bloglily this week, I encountered her questions about flash fiction, stories that use 500 words or less, and I began to think how few words a story might require.  With the right words and an active imagination, could three words be a story—could one word?  I’m not suggesting we replace art galleries with index cards reading, “A man on a horse in the Alps” or “A block of blue in a field of black,” but what’s more important, the thing or our mind’s reading of it?

Put another way, what are we doing when we listen to music, hearing the notes or making the connections between them?

My family’s silly statements in the wake of the L are only stories if listeners supply what’s missing. Authors deserve credit for coming up with evocative detail—that’s their art—but perhaps they deserve more credit for what they omit.


Filed under Chicago, CTA, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Home Life, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, William Carlos Williams, Writing