Art on Art on Art. Parallels in poems by William Carlos Williams and visual arts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 Artistic influences on the early life of William Carlos Williams

3 Impressions from photography in poems
3.1 Alfred Stieglitz
3.2 “Spring Showers” and “Young Sycamore”
3.3 “Apples and Gable” and “The Red Wheelbarrow”

4 The poem as an inspiration for the picture
4.1 Charles Demuth
4.2 “The Great Figure” and “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold”
4.3 Robert Indiana’s “Fifth Dream”

5 Concluding Remarks

6 Literature Cited

Table of Figures

1 Introduction

Modernist poetry, which emerged in the first two decades of the 20th century had the main aim to eliminate rigid structures of romantic poetry. The images and objects put into words as well as the visual appearance of the poem itself were to express their true nature and to be freed from metaphors they were connected with before.

William Carlos Williams is one of the most important poets of the American modernism. He understands perfectly well to combine visual experience with words and the link from some of his poems to works of visual arts and vice versa is more than apparent. This paper focuses on the correlation between those diverse pieces of art. After a short introduction to the life of and influence on Williams in Chapter 2 Chapter 3 draws parallels between the work of Alfred Stieglitz and that of William Carlos Williams. This does not only hold for similarities in the objects and image depicted as in “Spring Showers” and “Young Sycamore”, which have been discussed in literature before. It also applies to the mere force of expression that is analogical in the photograph “Apples and Gable” and the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”.

The constellation of a poem by Williams serving as an inspiring source for a piece of visual arts is focused on in Chapter 4. Williams’ poem “The Great Figure” is analysed and paralleled with the painting “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” by Charles Demuth. As an example for the indirect inspirational character of Williams’ poem one work by Robert Indiana is introduced directly pointing to Demuth’s painting. Although Indiana is an important representative of American pop art, which evolved out of criticism concerning some aspects of modernist art, similarities in both concepts as well as in all three pieces of art can be identified.

2 Artistic influences on the early life of William Carlos Williams

“Under different circumstances I would rather have been a painter than to bother with these god-damn words.“[1]

Being born in 1883 in rural Rutherford, New Jersey and growing up there does not at a first glance seem to be an inspiring background which fuels new ideas within William Carlos Williams. However, the multiethnic origin and the education of the poet seem to be influencing enough. His mother is a Puerto Rican artist with Spanish and Dutch, as well as Catholic and Jewish roots and his father emigrated from England as a child and always emphasizes his British origin.[2] Possibly it is due to this entirely non-American background, his lack of roots and the inability to link his identity to one place alone that Williams feels at home in the US.

As seemingly contradictory and diverse as his background is the attitude towards life of Williams’ parents. Thus, the rational standing of his father that is determined by economic thinking and the romantic, creative and imaginative being of his mother whom Williams once describes being a “mythical figure”[3] make it hard for him to find his own orientation. But as well as he is partially torn between these dichotomies, drawn to either side at various points in his life, he benefits from them.[4] Very early he gets the chance to learn how to view things from different perspectives. Also, his mother being a painter, he gets into contact with and is fascinated by visual arts and becomes very attentive concerning shapes and objects.[5] He watches his mother paint mostly still lives or “an outdoor study of a twig of yellow and red crab-apples hanging from a nail”[6], a motive that was probably chosen not because it points to something like decay but because she “[saw] the thing itself without forethought or afterthought but with great intensity of perception”[7].

His sensitiveness and fascination not only for painting but also for poetry and prose is further developed and influenced by Williams’ experience abroad. As a schoolboy he spends two years in Switzerland and Paris and during his medical studies he visits Germany, Great Britain, and other European countries.[8] His visits of Europe, especially of London and Paris, being the cradle of any kind of artistic movement and of new thoughts, gave him access to experiments in modern art; a current that has not reached the American public before 1913. While being in college he gets to know Ezra Pound, who is to become one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, and Charles Demuth, a later American modern artist.[9] Through these friendships Williams comes into contact with both, developing modern poetry and painting, which are things he is fond of producing himself, although only in poetry he feels that old forms of structuring a poem and of looking at objects as symbols for something else are outdated. In the long run, it is writing poetry that catches his full attention as an artist, because due to his medical occupation he would have to be in movement a lot and it is “easier to transport a manuscript than a wet canvas”[10]. However, his first attempts to write and publish poetry in 1909 were judged as being badly written and critics found more of Keats and Whitman in them than of Williams’ originality.[11]

Instead of being demotivated by this criticism accompanied with several personal blows of fate and his general loss of orientation during his last scholastic years[12], he decides to once more travel to Europe where he meets Pound in London, who is, along with other poets, at that time deeply involved in the imagist movement. The main attempt of this movement is to liberate objects in poems from the boundaries of romanticism, to free them from their symbolic character and rather make them seen as what they really are – themselves. Romantic poetry points to something that is beyond and more important than the described and thus misguides away from the presented picture itself and the reality that can be experienced everyday.[13] Since Williams feels the same way as Pound about the neglect of the thing he partially adopts the rules for writing imagist poetry. Key-aspects are that a thing should be treated directly, without symbolism, and that a poet should follow the language and the structure the thing demands, without adhering rigid poetic structures of the past.[14]

The British imagist movement gives names and meanings in poetry to what Williams instinctively feels to be the right treatment of things in painted art. Liberating movements in painting, which see similar problems in former art have been in process before and parallel with the ones in poetry. Williams is especially fascinated by cubism, futurism and similar forms of modern visual arts.[15] As much as imagist ideas trigger a change in Williams’ work, it is further influenced by American writers like Alfred Kreymborg, with whom he shares a close friendship. Additionally, his work is fueled by the New York Avantgarde, which he is part of, and his interest in visual arts. At the 69th Regiment Armory Show in 1913 in New York Williams finds a visual answer to the question of how to express what he was striving for in writing:

[I]n selecting, isolating and reproducing an aspect of reality, the artist distills its essence and intensifies it by stripping from it all the details which might obstruct the purity of the experience, concentrating entirely on the elements which enhance its meaning.[16]

In modern painting one moment of perception of a situation or of objects and their arrangement and proportion towards each other is depicted. This is done in a way that tries to make the recipient of the painting experience the force of expression of this instant of time the artist senses. In cubist art, which is signified by an arrangement of forms and colors, the motive is torn apart and put together in a different order to emphasize certain aspects of it. The way it is received depends on the perspective and the angles one looks at it from. Some of these aspects also are focal points in photography of that time. The work of Alfred Stieglitz concentrates on the presentation of expressive moments of reality as he puts a selection of objects in relation to one another. The perspective and the arrangement of these objects are meaningful, “there is nothing in [his] pictures that isn’t there – that doesn’t come straight from the object photographed”[17]. Here the real arrangement of objects on the photograph has the same function as the destroyed and made anew arrangements in cubism: both emphasize the reality of the objective world.

These modern currents in art, visual and written, have had a great impact on Williams’ work and have been imperative for him to find his own style of writing. He takes and enhances aspects of these movements so they fit his ideas, as happened with the imagist ideas that were too European and too loose for him. He prefers depicting moments and using language that come straight out of the heart of America, which he feels closely belonging to. Thus he can rather be seen as an American modernist than an imagist.


[1] William Carlos Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem : The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet (London: Cape, 1967) 41.

[2] See Franz Meier, Die frühe Ding-Lyrik William Carlos Williams‘ (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990): 32ff.

[3] Williams Write a Poem 28.

[4] See Meier Ding-Lyrik 37.

[5] See Bram Dijkstra, Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969) 6.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1951) 10.

[7] William Carlos Williams, Kora in Hell : Improvisations (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1969) 8.

[8] Linda Wagner-Martin, William Carlos Williams : a reference guide (Boston: Hall, 1978) 23.

[9] See Meier Ding-Lyrik 52ff.

[10] William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York : New Directions, 1969) Preface, unpaged.

[11] See Meier Ding-Lyrik 52ff.

[12] See Meier Ding-Lyrik 45ff.

[13] See Wolfgang Iser, “Das Bild als entautomatisierte Wahrnehmung : Images bei T. E. Hulme und Ezra Pound,” Die Amerikanische Lyrik von Edgar Allan Poe bis Wallace Stevens, ed. Martin Christadler (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1972) 253.

[14] See William Pratt, Singing the Chaos : Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996) 169.

[15] Wagner-Martin W C W: a reference guide 25.

[16] Dijkstra Cubism, Stieglitz, and WCW 53.

[17] Clarence I. Freed, „Alfred Stieglitz : Genius of the Camera,“The American Hebrew (January 18, 1924), 305. Quoted in Dijkstra Cubism, Stieglitz, and WCW 97.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Art on Art on Art. Parallels in poems by William Carlos Williams and visual arts
University of Mannheim
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Parallels, William, Carlos, Williams
Quote paper
Stephanie Peiker (Author), 2007, Art on Art on Art. Parallels in poems by William Carlos Williams and visual arts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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