Imagining things: On the misreading of William Carlos Williams

Confronted with any writing on William Carlos Williams, I assume—perhaps unfairly—that I will be helpfully informed that there are “No ideas but in things!” Soon thereafter, I will be run over by a red wheelbarrow, pummeled with so-cold plums, and pecked to death by white chickens.

Let us pause a moment on the “No ideas but in things!” sound-bite, which—along with “Show, don’t tell!”—is inevitably dinned into the ears of workshop writers everywhere. The lesson to be learned, class, is that you must use all your senses! Do NOT editorialize! Do not preach or philosophize! Present the concrete particulars, and let your Reader derive what ideas he will therefrom.

The only hitch here is that, thankfully, the good doctor did not heed his own advice. So many of WCW’s poems begin, not with vivid description, but almost its opposite: a foregrounding of the speaking situation, reminding the reader that what you have before you are not Things but Words. The title of that damn plum poem also serves as a first line: “This is Just to Say,” emphasizing that this is a language event, not a direct engagement with things. Similarly, “The Yellow Sycamore”  begins “I must tell you… .” Even “The Red Wheelbarrow” (originally titled just “XXII”) wastes 4 of its 16 words on a vague, unfixable abstraction: “so much depends / upon… .”

Add to this the observation that WCW makes in one the prose sections of Spring and All (the book in which “The Red Wheelbarrow” first appeared):

To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination.

To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we live there is but one force—the imagination. This is its book.

William praises not things, but their Romantic antithesis, the imagination. He goes on to say that

The imagination… rises to drunken heights to destroy the world. Let it rage, let it kill. The imagination is supreme.

That’s 1923. In 1958, in book 5 of Patterson, we find this passage

the world

of the imagination most endures

[…] Nothing else

is real.

While I happily confess that I’m not sure what WCW means by the imagination, its importance to him is clear. It’s also clear that it is about as far as possible from the workshop ideal of “concrete description” for which Williams so often serves as poster child.

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