William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet, author, and medical doctor. He was a prominent figure in Imagist and Modernist poetry, and critics regard Williams as a quintessentially American poet. Williams often disagreed with his contemporaries and, unlike many of the poets of his time, attempted to write in the vernacular of his fellow Americans. As the first-ever winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and holder of the position of Consultant in Poetry (which would later become the Poet Laureate), Williams is a titan in American poetry.

William Carlos Williams William Carlos Williams

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Table of contents

    William Carlos Williams: Biography

    William Carlos Williams was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey. As a teenager, he was sent to school abroad in Geneva and Paris. When he returned to the United States, he attended the Horace Mann School, a prestigious science and mathematics-based school in New York.

    Williams's father was English and raised in the Caribbean, and his mother was Puerto Rican. As a result, Williams grew up speaking Spanish at home. It was during his time at Horace Mann High School that Williams began to experiment with writing poetry. Upon graduation, Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and met fellow student Ezra Pound who would become a lifelong friend to Williams and fellow leader of the Modernist poetry movement.

    William Carlos Williams, Photograph of Williams, StudySmarterFig. 1 - William Carlos Williams was among the most prominent Imagist poets.

    Williams did his post-graduate medical training in the United States and Germany before opening a medical practice in his hometown, Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams is one of the few poets of his time who chose to pursue a full-time career unrelated to poetry, and his writing was inspired by the average Americans who lived in Rutherford and came to his practice.

    Williams married a woman named Florence, affectionately known as Flossie, and the couple had two sons. Williams worked at his medical practice during the day and spent his time writing poems in the evenings. Throughout his literary career, Williams published various poetry collections, short stories, novels, and founded his own literary magazine.

    In 1942, Williams was asked to take up the position of Consultant Poet to the Library of Congress which would later become the title "Poet Laureate," however, Williams initially refused the offer due to his failing health. Williams changed his mind in 1952, but The Library rescinded their offer; by that time, America was living in the era of McCarthyism, and Williams was identified by the government as a communist poet, despite these accusations proving baseless.

    McCarthyism refers to the actions of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. McCarthy repeatedly accused public figures of being communists, leading to widespread fear of communism and the repression of left-wing government officials and famous Americans.

    Posthumously, Williams has been treated with higher regard than he was during his lifetime. Though he received prestigious awards such as the first National Book Award and Consultant Poet position, Williams was often overlooked in favor of more popular and outspoken contemporary poets such as T. S. Eliot. Toward the end of his life, he served as a valuable mentor for many younger poets of the Beat generation, including Allen Ginsberg.

    William Carlos Williams: Death

    In 1948, William Carlos Williams suffered a heart attack. This was followed by a series of small strokes that continuously worsened his health in the following years, contributing to Williams' institutionalization for a depressive episode in the 50s. Williams died in 1963 at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.

    William Carlos Williams: Facts

    William Carlos Williams is well-known for his poetry and published three major poetry collections including Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), and Pictures from Bruehgel and Other Poems (1962) for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. One of Williams's most famous poems, Paterson, was an epic poem published in five separate volumes from 1946-58. The 5 volumes were first published as a full set in 1963.

    Williams also wrote short stories, novels, and plays. Many of the short stories in his collection, Life Along the Passaic River (1938) are drawn from his experiences as a physician. His first prose novel, Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), was not well-regarded by his peers. He published various other novels including White Mule (1937) and its sequel, In the Money (1940), both of which follow again the life and times of a common American family. He also wrote plays including A Dream of Love (1948) which followed a man who sleeps with his secretary and tries to convince his wife it was to strengthen their marriage.

    William Carlos Williams, Doctor holding stethoscope, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Williams drew writing inspiration from his experience as a physician.

    Williams Carlos Williams: Writing Style

    From Williams' amateur teenage poetry to his final publications in the 1960s, William Carlos Williams's poetic style transformed. Williams' early, unpublished poetry was inspired by his poetic idol John Keats (1795-1821), however, as Williams began to publish his first professional works of poetry, he became increasingly associated with the Imagists. Williams's Imagist poetry is most clearly showcased in his first collection, Spring and All (1923), especially in "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) and "This Is Just To Say" (1934). These poems are sparsely worded; "The Red Wheelbarrow" contains just 16 words while "This Is Just To Say" contains 28.

    Imagism was a poetic movement in the 1900s in which poets wrote with clear, concise language to convey precise imagery.

    After the publication of Spring and All, Williams moved away from Imagism and stayed within the Modernist school of poetry. William's developed his own Modernist style by focusing on writing poetry that reflected the distinctly American vernacular that he heard and spoke each day.

    One of Williams's most salient contributions to poetry was his use of the "variable foot" in his poetry. Rather than use the predominant English meter in his poetry, Williams developed the variable foot which determined the placement of line breaks in his poetry to better reflect American cadence and intonation. In practice, this meant that Williams rejected rigid poetic structures such as iambic pentameter and instead applied line breaks in order to reflect American patterns of speech. Williams often used enjambment (where a line of poetry carries into the next) to achieve this goal.

    Modernism was a poetry movement of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries that emphasized a breaking with tradition. Modernist poets sought to develop new techniques and styles in poetry while eschewing the poetic conventions of the past.

    A foot in poetry refers to a unit of measurement of rhythmic meter in poems. A foot generally contains a stressed and unstressed syllable.

    Williams developed this poetic style when writing Paterson, his five-volume epic poem which utilized the "variable foot." Paterson's influences include the speech of Williams' neighbors and patients and other Modernist literature such as James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and the poem is also considered a response to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922). While Williams knew Eliot, he disliked "The Waste Land," as he didn't view it as modern poetry given its reliance upon classical themes and styles. With Paterson, Williams wanted to hone a distinctly American approach to poetry without the influence of classical European poets.

    Williams Carlos Williams: Poems

    Throughout his career, William Carlos Williams wrote many poems, the majority concerned with the lives of everyday Americans. Some of his most famous poems include:

    • "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a sparse, 16-word rumination on a red wheelbarrow.
    • "This Is Just To Say" is a brief poem that is categorized as "found poetry" as it is based on a note left by Williams' wife to say she ate all of the plums.
    • Paterson is a five-volume epic set in Paterson, New Jersey that features the plights of Americans who live there and the impact of the nuclear power plant located in Paterson.
    • "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (1955) is an example of Williams's later work that demonstrates his use of the variable foot and confronts the topics of death and love.

    Found poetry is poetry that is adapted from a pre-existing text. The words remain the same while the poet adds embellishments such as line breaks and punctuation. In the case of "This Is Just To Say," the original text is a note left by Williams to his wife which he has adapted into a poem.

    William Carlos Williams, plums in a wooden box, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "This Is Just To Say" was written after Williams' wife left a note saying she ate all the plums.

    William Carlos Williams - Key takeaways

    • William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, and medical doctor.

    • Williams wrote within two schools of American poetry: Imagism and Modernism.

    • His Modernist poetry aimed to reflect the way Americans spoke in real life; his writing was concise and direct.

    • His poems such as "The Red Wheelbarrow," "This Is Just To Say," and Paterson all reflect his Modernist writing style and innovative use of the "variable foot."

    • Williams is influential due to his development of a distinctly American voice in poetry.

    William Carlos Williams William Carlos Williams
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    Frequently Asked Questions about William Carlos Williams

    What is William Carlos Williams known for?

    William Carlos Williams is known for his Modernist poetry and writings. He developed a uniquely American voice in poetry by replicating the cadence and intonation of how Americans spoke in his poetry. He did this by using a concise style and his development of the "variable foot" as a poetic form.

    What was William Carlos Williams's writing style?

    William Carlos Williams wrote in different styles throughout his career as a writer. His early poetry is considered Imagist, in that it utilized clear, concise description. His later work is Modernist, an attempt at creating a new form of poetic expression. He did so by reflecting American vernacular and cadences in his poetry.

    How is William Carlos Williams a modern poet?

    William Carlos Williams is considered a Modernist poet because of his development of a new style of American poetry. Rather than rely upon classical imagery and the formalistic qualities of European poetry of centuries prior, Williams intended to create an American voice in poetry that reflected the way Americans actually spoke.

    Why did William Carlos Williams write "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

    William Carlos Williams wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow" as part of his poetry collection Spring and All. Williams's neighbor, Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., inspired Williams to write "The Red Wheelbarrow," as he enjoyed Marshall's company and had an image of him standing with a red wheelbarrow next to white chickens in the background.

    How many poems did William Carlos Williams write?

    William Carlos Williams wrote and published numerous poems and poetry collections throughout his lifetime. His major poetry collections include Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), and Pictures from Bruehgel and Other Poems (1962).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which piece of art came first?

    Williams is associated with which poetic movements?

    Lines 1-2 in the poem  "Spring and All" quoted below, is an example of what literary device? "By the road to the contagious hospitalunder the surge of the blue"


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