Spring and All

William Carlos Williams was born in 1883 in a small New Jersey town. After attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Rutherford, New Jersey, where he sustained a thriving medical practice throughout his life, while also publishing poems, novels, essays, and plays. He was acquainted with the nearby literary scene in New York City, befriending Ezra Pound and H. D., and became a key player in American Modernist poetry.

Initially enthralled by Pound's "Imagism" manifesto, which proposed direct treatment of the subject matter and the use of the "exact" word, Williams soon became suspicious of its limitations, and forged a new path within Modernism that was entirely his own. The title poem of his book Spring and All, begins:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

Written just a short time after the Dial published T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," a poem that also begins with the late coming of spring, Williams's version is more idiomatic, more grounded in American colloquialisms and style. Spring and All also includes the famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow." Much anthologized as the archetypal poem of Imagism, the weight of this brief poem rests entirely on the careful description of the thing itself, the actual wheelbarrow, which is not a symbol for anything, but simply exists as it is. The volume also includes "To Elsie," a famous lyric, which begins "The pure products of America / go crazy."

Spring and All created a new kind of American lyric, with attention toward natural, idiomatic language, sharply observed images, unusual syntax and enjambment, and abbreviated, carefully wrought lines. In his great long poem Paterson, Williams later wrote, "No ideas but in things," which was taken as a kind of manifesto by his admirers.