Volume Five, December 2004

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In a pertinent work, theorising on the deep affinities between W.C. Williams’s poetry and the visual arts (including photography), Peter Halter states that the development of Modernism in general and of Modernist literature in particular was the result of “an unprecedented collaboration between painters, poets, musicians, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic.”1 Within this very complex movement, William Carlos Williams stands out as the case of a poet who managed to successfully integrate in his work ideas and concepts from the revolutionary visual arts.
Of all poets who showed a growing interest in exploring and experimenting with the visual arts, Williams’s case is a most complex one. He presents an interesting and challenging perspective on integrating modern painting in his work, because, as Peter Schmidt points out: “Williams paid close attention to three quite different art movements.”2 Schmidt goes on to mention the fact that William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound also tried to “turn paintings into poems and saw poems become paintings.”3 But unlike Williams, none of the poets managed to establish a deeper relationship and involvement with the visual arts. Blake was not interested in collaborating with any art movements of his time. Rossetti and his fellow pre-Raphaelites followed a rather traditional and uniform style and subject matter in their works. As for Pound, his artist friends influenced him in his poems in a rather problematic way and “the single most important influence on Pound – the ideogram – was largely his own invention.”4
Williams, on the other hand, had never been a stranger to the visual arts. His mother initiated him quite early in his life into the intricate and equally challenging world of still lifes as she had studied painting in Paris. Williams even showed some skill as a Sunday painter. Poetry, he said, finally won out as more fitting to a doctor’s busy schedule. In addition to that, Williams’ closest friends were painters and/or collectors and he made regular weekend visits, frequenting the informal salons of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, Alfred Kreymborg, Man Ray, and others.
So it is not surprising that Williams paid close attention to three quite different art movements. The first one was Stieglitz’s school of photographers and precisionist painters; the second one was European Cubism and its American adaptations and the third one was the Dada-Surrealism juncture. To these, one could add Postimpressionism, Vorticism, Fauvism, Expressionism – movements with which Williams was in contact through such artist friends as Pound, Demuth, Hartley, Sheeler, etc.
The visual arts constituted a main and constant source of inspiration in Williams’ poems because all modernist movements stressed the autonomous nature of the work of art and insisted, in the words of the Cubists, on the painting as a fait pictural. In other words, all these movements shunned total abstraction and insisted on the necessity of figuration, pointing out that art could not abandon the connection with the empirical world because, if it did, it lost its deeper meaning. Williams’s poetics bears a close resemblance to the ideas upheld by the modernist movements in the sense that he is cognisant of the double awareness of the work of art as a separate reality and as a contact with the world at large. It is no wonder then that both the object character of the work and its contact with the empirical world are at work in Williams’s poems.
The insistence on contact developed by Williams in his poems was related to a need to create a genuine American art. And this could be done only by going back to one’s immediate environment. All viable art had to identify the particulars of such an environment so as to make the particular become universal, as Williams never tired to point this out. Williams considered that the poet could be “both local (all art is local) and at the same time surmount that restriction by climbing to the universal in all art.”5 Poetry then, like all art, had the healing effect to “lift an environment to expression.”6 The artist who tried to be first a modernist and second a poet, he who tried to be “a mirror to this modernity,”7 adapted the principles of European Cubism to the immediate needs of America in all its aspects-including the numerous things banished from traditional art as banal and ugly.
Williams’s exploration of the basic tension between the artefact and the thing-world, concrete and abstract, the one and the many, arises from the achievements in the visual arts, ranging from Gris’s Synthetic Cubism to Duchamp’s ready-mades and the Precisionist adaptations of Futurism and Cubism developed by Williams’s artist friends Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.
Both Williams and Demuth were equally interested in painting and literature. If Williams had played with the idea of becoming a painter, Demuth couldn’t make up his mind whether to become a poet or a painter until as late as 1914. The two friends developed the same view of the goals of Modernism and the American scene due probably to their lifelong close friendship and their mutual artistic interests. This also explains their collaboration with the three avant-garde movements patronized by Arensberg, Kreymborg, and Stieglitz.
Williams, Demuth and Marsden Hartley were among the critics and artists of the New York avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s who were interested in and enthusiastic about the relationship established between painting, poetry, and other art forms after the Armory Show. Each of them, in their own way, tried to move towards a genuine American art. They were fascinated by what was going on around Stieglitz, Arensberg, and Kreymborg and could not but agree to such new periodicals as The Soil and The Seven Arts that promoted all that was regarded as typical of American civilisation. But they also opposed a too facile acceptance of the so-called American values and all the technological things, since this often happened at the expense of ignoring or belittling what had happened in Europe.
In their manifesto in the first number of Contact, Williams and Robert McAlmon wrote: “We will be American, because we are of America…Particularly we will adopt no aggressive or inferior attitude toward ‘imported thought’ or art.” And in a “Comment” for the second number, Williams stated that the Americans had to become aware of their own culture so that they should not “stupidly fail to learn from foreign work or stupidly swallow it without knowing how to judge its essential values.”8 This was also Demuth’s position. He was interested in all aspects of contemporary American civilisation, including those that were considered banal and ugly by the defenders of a traditional “high culture”: circus, vaudeville and the (night) life and entertainment in the big cities. With Williams he shared a keen sense of the comic, especially when it meant ridiculing the solemn high-mindedness and reverence for Art that they found omnipresent in the conservative public around them.
There existed obvious differences between Williams and Demuth as well. Williams felt part of the local environment and part of the avant-garde. He tried to bring these two worlds nearer in his art, which was deeply rooted in the mundane and the local. Demuth, on the other hand, was more detached and less passionately involved than his friend. He cultivated the image of the dandy and was much drawn to the inscrutable and ironic detachment of his friend Marcel Duchamp.
Demuth shared with Williams the sense of being surrounded by a large public that was either hostile to them or not interested at all in what they were doing. But while for Williams this feeling had the effect of an incentive, it made Demuth often doubt whether the effort was really worthwhile. Nevertheless, in 1921, after a prolonged stay in Europe, Demuth’s decision was final – he would stay in America and devote himself to an art that was to be the result of the joint effort of the avant-garde to respond to, and cope with, the contemporary civilisation to which they belonged. “Together,” he wrote to Stieglitz, “we will add to the American scene…”9

1. Halter, Peter. Introduction, The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991),
2. Schmidt, Peter, “Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists,” Contemporary Literature, 21:3 (1980): 382.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. Ed. John C. Thirlwall (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957), 268.
6. Ibid.
7. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Volume 1: 1909-1939. Ed. Christopher McGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 108.
8. Contact, 1 (Dec. 1920); Contact, 2 (Jan. 1921): 11-12.
9. Letters to Alfred Stieglitz, 31 August 1921 and 10 October 1921, The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, YALC.

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