The best poems by William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a prolific American poet, so picking just ten of his best poems by way of introduction to his work is always going to be a difficult task. However, below we introduce ten of Williams’s best-known and, we believe, best poems, which shine a light on his range, his themes, and his distinctive style. These poems range from the short imagist lyrics which are among his best-known works to longer, more ambitious projects.
‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. This sixteen-word unrhymed poem from 1923 is among William Carlos Williams’ most famous poems, and it continues to inspire debate as to its precise ‘meaning’. Why so much does depend upon such a minor thing as the red wheelbarrow is difficult to answer, but one answer is that the red wheelbarrow is a metonym for something greater: its being ‘glazed’ by the rainwater captures the wheelbarrow in a brief, transient moment after the rainfall, when the rainwater has made the red wheelbarrow shine in the sunlight. We offer more commentary on this enigmatic poem here. Fun fact: we should technically refer to this poem as ‘XXII’, since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’s 1923 collection Spring and All and this is how it was listed in that collection.
‘This Is Just to Say’. One of the most famous examples of free verse in Anglophone literature, ‘This Is Just to Say’ sometimes infuriates and baffles readers: it is, after all, a note left by a man for his wife apologising (but also, not apologising) for greedily munching on all of the plums that she’d been saving in the fridge. Part of the poem’s challenge to our idea of poetry is in its effective use of free verse, and it’s been much copied and parodied since its publication in 1934.
‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’. Like his fellow American modernist poet Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams sometimes adopted the voice of a female character in his poems, and this poem is a quietly moving example of Williams’s direct, imagistic style applied to the dramatic monologue. The clue’s in the title – this is a poem spoken by a woman who has lost her husband, reflecting on how the flowers in springtime now have a different significance.
‘Portrait of a Lady’. Here’s an early example of Williams’s mature work, from 1920: a short lyric in which the male speaker’s attempts to compliment the ‘lady’ are repeatedly interrupted by the lady’s responses (and questions). The poem might be viewed as Williams’s updating of the traditional love lyric, in which the male poet pays tribute to the woman’s beauty … only now, the woman answers back and subjects his similes and metaphors to rigorous critique.
‘Birds and Flowers’. This fine lyric is a good example of how so-called ‘free’ verse is always controlled, just not in the traditional way (regular metre and rhyme schemes). Indeed, Williams displays consummate control of line endings, enjambment, spacing, and pauses in this poem that tenderly responds to a lover who has rebuffed the speaker.
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. There are two celebrated twentieth-century poems about ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, a painting long thought to be by Brueghel the Elder (though in fact it may not have been by him at all). The more famous of the two poems is W. H. Auden’s poem about the picture, but this poem by Williams also emphasises the fact that Icarus’ fall into the sea goes unnoticed by those who are nearby to witness the event.
‘Arrival’. This brief erotic lyric is about a man undressing a woman, but look at the way Williams describes this simple act. The fact that the man ‘finds himself’ doing such a thing, as if he is acting not entirely of his own free will or against the odds, adds to this short poem’s power to arouse our curiosity (and our arousal?).
‘Dance Russe’. This is a poem about Williams’s own experience of fatherhood, and about how, in a household in which he is the only male, Williams snatches small moments to himself when his wife and child are sleeping, and dances in front of the mirror. A glorious celebration of freedom, expressed in suitably ‘free’ verse (although Williams himself disliked the term ‘free verse’ and preferred ‘variable foot’).
Paterson. This is an epic modernist poem which was published, in five volumes, between 1946 and 1958. It had its origins in a much shorter poem written in 1926, after Williams had read James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses. Paterson had its culmination in the 1950s and reflects, in many ways, the culmination of American modernism (and certainly of Williams’s own achievement), focusing on the town of Paterson in New Jersey and describing its life and people using unconventional modernist techniques, and fusing documentary, the lyric, letters, and various other approaches.
Asphodel, That Greeny Flower. You can’t get the news from poems, ‘yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is to be found there.’ This sentiment appears in this, one of Williams’s longer poems. As Ann Fisher-Wirth has remarked, this long 1955 poem is a fine affirmation of ‘the power of love in – and against – the nuclear age’. A meditative poem, J. Hillis Miller has called it the ‘extraordinary love poem of Williams’ old age’. It’s the perfect poem to conclude this introduction to the world of William Carlos Williams’s finest poems.