Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February Poetry Challenge

For forty years, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a pediatrician. Perhaps his medical education and practice trained him to observe details and see their importance. That skill served Williams well as a poet.

Williams’ earliest work was heavily influenced by two poets with very different styles--John Keats and Walt Whitman. The differences between the poets who most influenced him may have helped Williams develop his own unique voice.

Williams was also strongly influenced Ezra Pound, whom he met during his student years at the University of Pennsylvania. A leader of the Imagist movement in England, Pound emphasized direct, clear and sparse language and the juxtaposition of objects. Unlike the Symbolists, he believed poetry should allow objects to be signs, like x in algebra, which can have different meanings. The purpose of the image is to help the listener or reader see with new eyes, not to insist that the image symbolizes one specific thing. The Imagist poem generally pictures a particular instant, asking the reader to visualize the juxtaposition of objects. If the poem succeeds, the reader “sees” the image and gives it meaning—or at least continues thinking about it. The poet does not tell the reader what to feel.

Williams initially responded positively to this movement, but later broke with it. Williams became convinced that American poets—even Pound and T, S. Eliot—were too dependent on European Culture. He sought a distinctively American voice. He objected to the frequent use of allusions to classical verse and the salting of many poems with phrases in other languages. Williams determined that American poetry should focus on everyday circumstances in the lives of ordinary people. He is also known for the axiom, “No ideas but in things.”

Williams proposed that succinct language and abandonment of formal rhythm and meter fit the American culture well. Williams experimented with line breaks in order to reflect American speech patterns. Some of his poems have been called “chopped-up prose.” Yet, they read as poetry. Williams wanted readers raised on European poetry to find their expectations counted by his unusual line breaks.

Barbara Larsen has written three poems (more accurately a triptych) heavily influenced by the style of William Carlos Williams, and, in fact, copying the structures of three of his poems.

Three Poems After William Carlos Williams


As the snake
slithers across
the path

before me
one sinuous segment

into the next
like strung
S’s s

I recoil


so much depends

a morning cup
of tea

cradled in hands
as I study sky

on water


This is just to say

I have taken
a walk
instead of
getting supper

for which
you are probably
and eagerly waiting

Forgive me
it is what I needed
and I’m trying not
to feel guilty

-- Barbara Larsen

From All in Good Season: New and Selected Poems by Barbara Larsen (Beach Road Press, 2005), p. 66. Used by Permission of the author.

In a sense, what Larsen has done is un-Williams-like, since his intent was to break from traditional and expected forms, and thus be more spontaneous. On the other hand, when Williams began writing poetry, he depended to some extent on the forms of others for inspiration.

Section I of Larsen’s poem mimics the pattern of Williams “Poem (As the Cat),” Section II reflects off “The Red Wheelbarrow” (Williams’ most frequently anthologized poem); and III borrows from “This Is Just to Say.” The second and third of these poems can be accessed from the Website of the American Academy of Poets at http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/119. The AAP Website, which is a treasure chest for lovers of poetry, publishes only poetry for which they have permission from the copyright owner. “Poem” can be found at http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/williams/4510; it is not clear whether or not this Website obtains copyright permission, as it should.

The Challenge for February

Write one or more poems in the style of these short poems by William Carlos Williams. You may follow Larsen’s example and create a triptych, or may write a poem inspired by only one of William’s short poems. The language should be clear and concise. The winning poem or poems will be published on this blog.

Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send your poem to wildamorris [at] ameritech [dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces). Or you can access my Facebook page and send the poem in a message. Be sure provide your e-mail address. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog, if it is a winner. The deadline is February 15. Copyright on poems is retained by their authors.

NOTE: It should be said that Williams did not write only brief poems in this style. In his later life, he frequently preferred to create more regular stanzas of three stair-stepped lines.

If you would like to learn more about William Carlos Williams and his place in the history of American poetry, you may want to purchase The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry

Books by William Carlos Williams:
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962
William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems (American Poets Project)
Selected Poems (William Carlos Williams)
Paterson (Revised Edition)

© 2011 Wilda Morris