Poetry and American Modernism: Reading William Carlos Williams

Instructor: Jude Webre
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

“The most important literary doctor since Chekov,” William Carlos Williams applied the physician’s art to the art of poetry—namely, in the words of Ezra Pound, a “direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” For Williams, this meant not only clarity of observation and economy of the poetic phrase; it also meant locating the “impetus” to poetry in local conditions, in specific vernaculars, in what he called the “bloody loam” of American history. Williams’s poetic career kept pace with and confronted the movements and events of 20th century history with a depth, a realism, and a dark ambivalence that rendered his hope in a culture forged from below both fragile and continually embattled—from his youthful friendships with Pound and H.D., through the heyday of Greenwich Village modernism and the proletarian poetics of the Radical Thirties, to his eminence within and influence upon the poets of the postwar avant-garde. Williams’s writing reveals a melancholy awareness of the violence and dispossession that shaped America from the ground up, alongside a persistent preoccupation with how aesthetic experience fit into the everyday life of American society at all levels, whether the frenetic vectors of the modern metropolis in New York City or the intimate corners of his own domestic life and the lives of his working-class patients across the river in New Jersey. What did Williams intend, poetically and politically, with his avowedly democratic project of drawing out the formal possibilities of the avant-garde within the quotidian, industrial life of small-town America? And how do his poetic innovations and commitments continue to reverberate today?

In this course, we will trace the full trajectory of Williams’s career, reading selections from his seminal modernist works of the 1910s through his thorny 5-volume epic Paterson to his delicate late career poetry of aging and mortality in the 1950s. Alongside a survey of his poetry, we will also read from his underappreciated short stories and critical essays, which reveal the unique nexus that Williams occupied between a local medical practice steeped in the industrial life of Rutherford, New Jersey, and the heights of high modernism—between the “contagious hospital” and the Paris of Pound, Proust, and Joyce. We will ask: How did Williams’s poetics of presence propose a spatial reorientation of consciousness towards direct experience, scrupulously observed and ethically represented? What role did his critical explorations of American history play in informing both his hopes and pessimism about the possibilities of radical democracy in the U.S.? And how did he give voice to a new poetic orientation after Hiroshima—one that galvanized a younger generation trying to find its place in the newly birthed empire of Cold War America? Besides Williams’s own writings, we will read and look at works by writers and artists in dialogue with and influenced by Williams, including John Dewey, Pound, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Charles Sheeler, Langston Hughes, Nathanael West, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Walker Evans, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Steve Reich, and others.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 04 — March 25, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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