William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an iconic figure in American poetry, and one of the leading members of the Imagist movement in the United States. His poems have been heavily anthologized and reprinted, and most students of American literature are familiar with his works, especially “The Red Wheelbarrow.” In addition to being a highly prolific poet who changed the face of American literature, Williams was also a practicing pediatrician for most of his life, and saw no apparent conflict between his two professions.
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, and spent much of his life on the East Coast of the United States, although he did study abroad during his formative and college years. His work was heavily influenced by his friend and contemporary, Ezra Pound, as well as by his mother, who was a very important part of his life through adulthood. He took his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and began practicing in 1910, marrying Florence Herman shortly thereafter.
As a pediatrician, Williams was beloved by his patients and their parents, many of whom knew little about his double life as a poet. In the world of poetry, Williams was highly esteemed even during his lifetime for his innovative, unique work. Although Williams was born during the tail end of the Romantic era, his work was as spare, simple, and non-romantic as it was possible to get, hallmarks of the Imagist movement. The Imagist movement rejected traditional Romantic poetry in favor of new values in writing. Imagist poetry tends to be about the lives of real individuals, and it is written in a simple, almost colloquial way with forced rhythms that mimic local dialects. This radical departure from traditional subject matter and meter was not always well received by critics, but it was the cornerstone of later movements in writing and the arts.
The poetry of Williams is sometimes cryptic, but is usually a brutally plain illustration of a simple scene or fact, as is the case in “This Is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow.” However, much of his poetry was also very political, including “Paterson,” Williams' famous epic poem about the struggles of the working class. Much of his work had strong Socialist notes, and opened a window into the lives of the lower classes for the rest of society. His influence can be seen in the field of protest poetry, which also uses the power of the written word to criticize or bring to light social problems.
In 1963, Williams was recognized posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1962 shortly before his death. His work continues to be acclaimed by poets of all ages, and often serves as an introduction to modern poetry for students. The appeal of much of his work is in fact so universal that people who profess to hate poetry often have a soft spot in their hearts for William Carlos Williams.