Rewind: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams died on 4th March 1963. Alongside being a practicing paediatrician and physician, Williams is perhaps best known as the author of a large body of poetry including ‘This Is Just To Say’. Consisting of three short stanzas, it could easily fi t on the back of a postcard. Short and sweet in more than one way, the poem turns the incredibly mundane into a meditation on something, but just what that something is is hard to say. I’ve heard the poem described only semi-jokingly as “The shortest and best poem about death ever written”, and the fi nal stanza (“Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold”) does have something unnervingly morbid about it beyond evoking the taste of chilled plums.

Williams’ poetry is generally considered Imagist, and like many of his other compositions ‘This Is Just To Say’ draws on free verse and haiku. His most anthologised work is eight lines long and about a red wheelbarrow – again, making the everyday into something transcendent and beautiful; something worth consideration. His poems have been compared to the photographs of his contemporaries Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, and they have an undeniable close observational quality to them. The lack of punctuation in his poetry further emphasises the ambiguity and objectivity that photography can similarly offer.

Williams goes against the notion that the ‘great’ novel or epic, the lengthy masterpiece of fiction that takes into account humanity’s struggles with itself, with nature and with existence, is the pinnacle of literary expression. Instead, the postcard-length descriptions of small details that would be mere footnotes in a longer book – or even a longer poem – are given a gravity and signifi cance of their own. T.S. Eliot responded to modern life and what he saw as a fracturing Western culture by trying to encompass everything he could allude to in ‘The Waste Land,’ and by scouring it as if with a wire brush. Williams, meanwhile, found the same uncertainty in a coldbox of plums or an old wheelbarrow and embraced it lyrically.

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The understatement and brevity of many of his poems (‘This Is Just To Say’ might have been adapted from a note Williams’ wife left on the kitchen table) mean a real consideration of the beauty and profundity of the everyday is forced upon the reader. His poetry is perhaps only rivalled within modernist writing by Hemingway’s apocryphal six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”