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Williams, William Carlos (1883–1963)

The influence of Walt Whitman's poetic practice on William Carlos Williams was both seminal and immensely rich. After Whitman, Williams is the great revolutionary in American prosody. Although he ultimately rejected Whitman's long and, to him, chaotic line, Whitman's willingness to break away from conventional metric practice, and to base a poetic rhythm in the rhythms of American language, was the founding impetus for American poetry. Likewise with modernism: Williams wrote (1955) that Whitman's dual discoveries that "the common ground is of itself a poetic source" and that the American language demanded a new and "free" verse were the true origin of modernism (22).

Williams, who worked in relative isolation and obscurity for most of his life, found sustenance as well as substance in Whitman's rebelliousness toward received forms, his determination to celebrate the democratic American culture around him, and his energetic celebration of the physical world. Despite Williams's move beyond Whitman's prosody into what he called measure or the variable foot, other concrete aspects of Whitman's practice had a continuing influence on Williams. Williams's Paterson (1963), for instance, is structured by Whitman's discovery, evidenced in the catalogues of "Song of Myself" and in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," that poetry must explore the deep morphology between the modern American city and modern consciousness.

James Breslin argues that Whitman's empathy for objects is the motivating force behind Williams's poetics, which the poet summarized as "no ideas but in things." Stephen Tapscott emphasizes that Williams, especially in his epic Paterson, is the leading modern exponent of Whitman's expansionist and democratic poetic voice, and that Whitman's persona presides over and in that poem.

Williams, a New Jersey poet, felt an emotional bond with Whitman, who spent his later years in Camden. In turn, both Williams and Whitman were spiritual mentors to yet another New Jersey poet, Allen Ginsberg.


Breslin, James E. William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Tapscott, Stephen. American Beauty: William Carlos Williams and the Modernist Whitman. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Williams, William Carlos. "An Essay on Leaves of Grass." "Leaves of Grass" One Hundred Years After. Ed. Milton Hindus. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1955. 22–31.

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