Spring and All,
William Carlos Willams
In a frenzy that could have only taken place in my final term of grad school, I signed up for a seminar on Spring and All, by the classic American poet, William Carlos Williams. It would have been fine had I been studying poetry, but I was on the fiction track, and so began an encounter with the archetypal volume that, to be frank, was so over my head I was dizzy. And though I was for a good portion of that seminar completely lost, reader, I’m hear to say I love this book, and it’s now among my favorites.
So given I don’t know much about poetry, or WCW, here’s what I do know: the volume, which was published in 1923, is one of the major collections published by Williams (who was born in 1883), perhaps the best known of contemporary literary physicians. And though the collection was written early in his career, it defined him as a major influence of the American Modernist movement. While his peers, like Pound, lived and worked abroad, finding influence in European and Asian forms, Williams intently remained in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, aiming to forge a distinctly American language—raw, vernacular, reflective of the time and place in which he lived. And he achieved it in Spring and All, which is a hybrid form of both poetry and prose.
Even if you don’t know the collection, you likely know it’s most well-known poems, I and XXIII. The first, the title poem begins:
By the road to the contagious hospitalunder the surge of the bluemottled clouds driven from thenortheast—a cold wind.
Or the its most well-known poem, The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.
During that grad seminar, I clung to the familiarity of those particular poems, and yet there were other pleasures, less understood by me in my reading, but which all the same stunned with impressions, objects, moments. “Civitas,” the instructor stated, was point from which Williams meant to make art—from the perspective of the social body. The patient in the ward, the overworked hospital staff, each poem was Williams’ attempt at a new American form, revivifying a desolation of consciousness, and rather than elevated images that failed to portray a felt link to contemporary life, like American realist painters of that post WW1 period, he found meaning and relevance in the realistic, in unembellished subject and form. The intent was not to describe life, but replicate it on the page.
Williams famously described his creative method as “No ideas but in things,” and though I struggled with the form his ideas took, I understood completely how much life was contained in each and every thing.
Watch Allen Ginsburg read from Spring and All, here.