This historic, privately recorded tape of William Carlos Williams reading and talking about his own poetry provided a fascinating insight into his work, as well as giving the opportunity to hear him reading his own poems.
Williams was above all an Imagist poet – especially in his early career – who tried to provide readers with direct experience of the thing described, unmediated by symbolism or any supposedly meaningful ideas. This was shown to great effect in the first poem he read – “The Red Wheelbarrow:”
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The interesting aspect of this poem not only centers on Williams’ use of multiple stresses, but also in his determination to make the reader confront the text. The only word that really demands some kind of aesthetic contemplation is the word ‘glazed’ which provides an imaginative representation of the wheelbarrow. Otherwise Williams tries to describe the scene in an objective manner.
“The Defective Record” is a comic poem, in which Williams uses rhetorical dialogue and repetitive phrases to sound like a record with a scratch in it; he cannot move beyond the limits set by the record. “Botticellian Trees” describes the trees in an almost geometric manner, focusing in particular on their shapes and their situation, surrounded by flowers. Again the poet’s intention is to record immediate experiences in clear, accessible language. “The Sun” shows Williams’ feel for natural elements.
In a short pause in his reading, Williams explained his technique to Earle; he did not believe that poetry should be a confessional, but rather a flexible form, using flexible feet and developing new forms of meter. He believed that he should move away from the conventional iambic pentameter and try and establish new, locally produced forms that would show the American language off to best effect. “To Daphne and Virginia” his daughters-in-law, showed this in action. In this poem the speaker tries to define his relationship to the two women and his own state of mind, relating personal experience to the generally accepted beliefs concerning ‘womanhood.’ He ends up the poem by speculating both on the nature of love and how it applies to his own life in
New Jersey and his vocation as a poet. In “The Orchestra” Williams draws an elaborate parallel between the natural elements and instruments in a symphony orchestra. Both of them place importance on sounds – repeated sounds as well as simply sounds – which are synthesized in such a way as to express meaning. To underline this point, Williams creates a poem whose effect depends as much on sound as on sense, with liberal use of assonance and onomatopoeia. He was a doctor by profession: the experience of listening to him read his poetry resembles that of watching someone investigating and analyzing specific phenomena with a mental scalpel, paying attention to precision of detail. In “The Mental Hospital Garden” Williams unifies both professions – the medical and the poetical – in his description of a place which not only provides some form of respite for those doomed to remain on the margins of society, but which also changes with the seasons. By enjoying the natural pleasures of the garden, the patients can achieve some kind of redemption.
In many ways Williams is someone who believes that life will go on, regardless of human beings and their attempts to change it. Like Thoreau, he understands the processes of nature, and the importance of cultivating the imagination so that we can understand such processes. His poems represent attempts to cultivate the imagination, and describe natural phenomena for the reader’s or the listener’s benefit. The tape recording was sometimes amateurish, as Williams either fluffed his lines or at times seemed embarrassed by the presence of the microphone in front of him. Nonetheless it provides a valuable and spontaneous record of a great poet at work.