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The Ethics of William Carlos Williams's Poetry

The Ethics of William Carlos Williams's Poetry

Ian D. Copestake
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 180
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  • Book Info
    The Ethics of William Carlos Williams's Poetry
    Book Description:

    William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is the most influential figure in the development of American poetry in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. His simple language and focus on the familiar objects and voices of everyday life pulled poetry out of the past and restored its ability to express contemporary experience. Williams believed passionately in poetry's usefulness, abhorring its perception as an esoteric pursuit and insisting on the impact it could have on the life of a reader if only made relevant to his or her experience. Examining the sources of this belief, Ian Copestake breaks new ground by tracing the enduring impact of Williams's youthful experience of Unitarianism on his poetry and arguing that Williams is a poet in an Emersonian tradition. Two chapters focus on Williams's long poem Paterson, arguing that its long gestation -- from 1927 to 1951 -- reflects its role as an ethical autobiography in progress. Copestake investigates sources that point to the ethical heart of Williams's poetry and to his lifelong belief that "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there."BR> Ian D. Copestake is a Lecturer at the University of Bamberg, Germany and editor of the William Carlos Williams Review.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-723-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Poetry remains a peripheral art form whose relevance to everyday life is not well understood. William Carlos Williams bridged that gap by insisting that the language of poetry should be the same as the language people used everyday, and in so doing he played a pivotal role in the development of twentieth-century American poetry. He believed poetry could show simple language to be capable of fresh expression and open to the conveyance of new thoughts and ways of thinking. Such was poetry’s importance to Williams that from the date of his first publication in 1909 to his last in 1962,...

  6. 1: The Basis of Williams’s Faith in Art
    (pp. 15-31)

    In 1906 Williams expressed his hatred for “this medieval conception of a divine power with frowning brows who swats us one when we get in a dark corner,”¹ an observation later echoed in his condemnations of the “Bible damnation theorem” with its postponement of “perfectibility to ‘heaven’ and all that heaven implies.”² For Williams his stance against religion was part of his resistance to anything that acted as a barrier to valuing temporal and contemporary reality. Such statements have reinforced a critical consensus on Williams’s secular worldview, while the few commentaries that mention his religious background follow Mike Weaver’s argument...

  7. 2: Williams among the Pre-Raphaelites
    (pp. 32-61)

    In this chapter I want to emphasize the consistency of Williams’s faith in the values he derived from his early struggles with Unitarianism, and to demonstrate how those values characterized and influenced the development of his poetry throughout his career. Of particular interest here are how notions of unity that Williams found attractive in the Unitarian religion are figured in his poetry through his obsessive interest in motifs of root, branch, and flower. By underlining the development of Williams’s use of these motifs in his poetry I will also stress the closeness of his relationship to the English Pre-Raphaelite painters...

  8. 3: A Pragmatic Approach: Williams and Emerson
    (pp. 62-91)

    If Unitarianism provided Williams with an ethical framework around which he built his career as a poet, it is hard to imagine that Williams had no special interest in Emerson, the figure deemed central in influencing the democratization of the beliefs of the American Unitarian church as it moved into the twentieth century. I suggested in chapter 1 that Emerson is a figure of particular relevance due to his influence upon the modern form of the Unitarian church that Williams had such close associations with in his youth and that a consequence of the influence on Williams of Unitarian idealism...

  9. 4: Making a Start Out of Particulars: Paterson’s “Redeeming Language”
    (pp. 92-119)

    Paul Mariani states in his essay “Paterson5: The Whore/Virgin and the Wounded One Horned Beast,” that in the last completed book ofPaterson,

    Williams was out to de-mythologize, secularize, and return to their earth-bound origins much that had been taken over by organized religion. In this he was the true son of his Unitarian father, though one could also read that gesture of returning to the thing itself as a profound mark of respect for the holiness of the world, for a kind of incarnational poetics.¹

    The emphasis Mariani places on Williams’s intent to “de-mythologize, secularize” is useful but...

  10. 5: The Struggle to Believe: Williams’s Poetry of Service, Work, and Self
    (pp. 120-142)

    In the last chapter I stressed that the initial stages ofPaterson, book 1, was dominated by Williams’s expression of his belief in the redemptive power of the poet’s focus on the materiality of language over ideas. However, the overriding commitment of Williams to the honesty of his report, the very heart of his link to Unitarian ideals, necessitated thatPaterson“resemble my own life as I more and more thought of it.”¹ For the poem to achieve this and so stand as an authentic record of his life and the values that underpinned his commitment to work, it needed...

  11. Conclusion: Williams’s “Lifetime of Careful Listening”
    (pp. 143-152)

    Studying the nature and origins of the “moral question” that Williams felt was at the heart of his modernist concern with language brings to the fore the question of what comparable legacy this offers in terms of the role special attention to language can play in reviving the health of contemporary habits of thought. Ironically, given Williams’s at times-entrenched opposition to academic specializations of knowledge, Robert Scholes argues that the impact of language awareness, and the absence of it, on our capacity for independent thought and judgment places a practical value on literary or textual studies. In offering Scholes’s argument...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 153-166)
  13. Index
    (pp. 167-170)
  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 173-173)