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On September 17, 1883, William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. He began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, at which time he made the decision to become both a writer and a doctor. He received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended Ezra Pound.

Pound became a great influence on his writing, and in 1913 arranged for the London publication of Williams's second collection, The Tempers. Returning to Rutherford, where he sustained his medical practice throughout his life, Williams began publishing in small magazines and embarked on a prolific career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright.

Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people.

His influence as a poet spread slowly during the 1920s and 1930s, overshadowed, he felt, by the immense popularity of Eliot's "The Waste Land"; however, his work received increasing attention in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor. His major works include Kora in Hell (1920); Spring and All (1923); Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the five-volume epic Paterson (1963, 1992); and Imaginations (1970).

Williams's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1948 and a series of strokes, but he continued writing up until his death in New Jersey on March 4, 1963.

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower [excerpt]

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
				upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
				to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
				if you will,
with flowers.  So that 
		I was cheered
				when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
				when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
				asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
				as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
				Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
				but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.
And so
		with fear in my heart
				I drag it out
and keep on talking
		for I dare not stop.
				Listen while I talk on
against time.
		It will not be
				for long.
I have forgot
		and yet I see clearly enough
central to the sky
		which ranges round it.
				An odor
springs from it!
		A sweetest odor!
				Honeysuckle!  And now
there comes the buzzing of a bee!
		and a whole flood
				of sister memories!
Only give me time,
		time to recall them
				before I shall speak out.
Give me time,
When I was a boy
		I kept a book
				to which, from time
to time,
		I added pressed flowers
				until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
		The asphodel,
among them.
		I bring you,
a memory of those flowers.
		They were sweet
				when I pressed them
and retained
		something of their sweetness
				a long time.
It is a curious odor,
		a moral odor,
				that brings me
near to you.
		The color
				was the first to go.
There had come to me
		a challenge,
				your dear self,
mortal as I was,
		the lily's throat
				to the hummingbird!
Endless wealth,
		I thought,
				held out its arms to me.
A thousand tropics
		in an apple blossom.
				The generous earth itself
gave us lief.
		The whole world
				became my garden!
But the sea
		which no one tends
				is also a garden
when the sun strikes it
		and the waves
				are wakened.
I have seen it
		and so have you
				when it puts all flowers
to shame.
		Too, there are the starfish
				stiffened by the sun
and other sea wrack
		and weeds.  We knew that
				along with the rest of it
for we were born by the sea,
		knew its rose hedges
				to the very water's brink.
There the pink mallow grows
		and in their season
and there, later,
		we went to gather
				the wild plum.
I cannot say
		that I have gone to hell
				for your love
but often
		found myself there
				in your pursuit.
I do not like it
		and wanted to be
				in heaven.  Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
		from books
				and out of them
about love.
				is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
		which can be attained,
				I think,
in its service.
		Its guerdon
				is a fairy flower;
a cat of twenty lives.
		If no one came to try it
				the world
would be the loser.
		It has been
				for you and me
as one who watches a storm
		come in over the water.
				We have stood
from year to year
		before the spectacle of our lives
				with joined hands.
The storm unfolds.
				plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north
		is placid,
				blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up.
		It is a flower
				that will soon reach
the apex of its bloom.
		We danced,
				in our minds,
and read a book together.
		You remember?
				It was a serious book.
And so books
		entered our lives.
The sea!  The sea!
				when I think of the sea
there comes to mind
		the Iliad
				and Helen's public fault
that bred it.
		Were it not for that
				there would have been
 no poem but the world
		if we had remembered,
				those crimson petals
spilled among the stones,
		would have called it simply
The sexual orchid that bloomed then
		sending so many 
men to their graves
		has left its memory
				to a race of fools
or heroes
		if silence is a virtue.
				The sea alone
with its multiplicity
		holds any hope.
				The storm
has proven abortive
		but we remain
				after the thoughts it roused
		re-cement our lives.
				It is the mind
the mind
		that must be cured
				short of death's
		and the will becomes again
				a garden.  The poem
is complex and the place made
		in our lives
				for the poem.
Silence can be complex too,
		but you do not get far
				with silence.
Begin again.
		It is like Homer's
				catalogue of ships:
it fills up the time.
		I speak in figures,
				well enough, the dresses
you wear are figures also,
		we could not meet
				otherwise.  When I speak
of flowers
		it is to recall
				that at one time
we were young.
		All women are not Helen,
				I know that,
but have Helen in their hearts.
		My sweet,
				you have it also, therefore
I love you
		and could not love you otherwise.
				Imagine you saw
a field made up of women
		all silver-white.
				What should you do
but love them?
		The storm bursts
				or fades!  it is not
the end of the world.
		Love is something else,
				or so I thought it,
a garden which expands,
		though I knew you as a woman
				and never thought otherwise,
until the whole sea
		has been taken up
				and all its gardens.
It was the love of love,
		the love that swallows up all else,
				a grateful love,
a love of nature, of people,
		of animals,
				a love engendering
gentleness and goodness
		that moved me
				and that I saw in you.
I should have known,
		though I did not,
				that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
		who whiff it.
				We had our children,
rivals in the general onslaught.
		I put them aside
				though I cared for them.
as well as any man
		could care for his children
				according to my lights.
You understand
		I had to meet you
				after the event
and have still to meet you.
				to which you too shall bow
along with me-
		a flower
				a weakest flower
shall be our trust
		and not because
				we are too feeble
to do otherwise
		but because
				at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
		therefore to prove
				that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
		that I could not cry to you
				in the act.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		I come, my sweet,
				to sing to you!
My heart rouses
		thinking to bring you news
				of something
that concerns you
		and concerns many men.  Look at
				what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
		despised poems.
				It is difficult
to get the news from poems
		yet men die miserably every day
				for lack
of what is found there.
		Hear me out
				for I too am concerned
and every man
		who wants to die at peace in his bed

Copyright © 1962 by William Carlos Williams. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the publisher.

Copyright © 1962 by William Carlos Williams. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the publisher.

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

Poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright William Carlos Williams is often said to have been one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement.

by this poet

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.
The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

My wife’s new pink slippers
have gay pom-poms.
There is not a spot or a stain
on their satin toes or their sides.
All night they lie together
under her bed’s edge.
Shivering I catch sight of them
and smile, in the morning.
Later I watch them
descending the stair,