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William Carlos Williams on Language, Writing, Reading, Poetry, and More


Happy birthday, William Carlos Williams! Here are some quotes from the writer.


“beauty is
a defiance of authority”


“And if when I pompously announce that I am addressed — To the imagination — you believe that I thus divorce myself from life and so defeat my own end, I reply : To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force — the imagination.”


“Read good poetry!”


“It is in tune with the tempo of life — scattered yet welded into the whole, — broken, yet woven together.”


“to write, nine-tenths of the problem
is to live.”


“My first poem was a bolt from the blue…it broke a spell of disillusion and suicidal despondence.…it filled me with soul satisfying joy.”


“There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity, its illumination in the environment to which it is native.”


“The better work men do is always done under stress and at great personal cost.”


“Do we not see that we are inarticulate? That is what defeats us.”


“The pure products of America go crazy…”


“It’s a strange world made up of disappointments for the most part. I keep writing largely because I get a satisfaction from it which can’t be duplicated elsewhere. It fills the moments which otherwise are either terrifying or depressed. Not that I live that way, work too quiets me.”


“To tell the truth, I myself never quite feel that I know what I am talking about—if I did, and when I do, the thing written seems nothing to me. However, what I do write and allow to survive I always feel is worthwhile and that nobody else has ever come as near as I have to the thing I have intimated if not expressed. To me it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words. I might add more but to no purpose. In a sense, I must express myself, you’re right, but always completely incomplete if that means anything.”


“One thing I am convinced more and more is true and that is this: the only way to be truly happy is to make others happy. When you realize that and take advantage of the fact, everything is made perfect.”


“The job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic.”


“Poetry demands a different material than prose. It uses another facet of the same fact…the spontaneous conformation of language as it is heard.”


“It’s a strange world made up of disappointments for the most part.”


“Why do we live? Most of us need the very thing we never ask for. We talk about revolution as if it was peanuts. What we need is some frank thinking and a few revolutions in our own guts; to hell with what most of the sons of bitches that I know and myself along with them if I don’t take hold of myself and turn about when I need to—or go ahead further if that’s the game.”


“What is the use of reading the common news of the day, the tragic deaths and abuses of daily living, when for over half a lifetime we have known that they must have occurred just as they have occurred given the conditions that cause them? There is no light in it. It is trivial fill-gap. We know the plane will crash, the train be derailed. And we know why. No one cares, no one can care. We get the news and discount it, we are quite right in doing so. It is trivial. But the hunted news I get from some obscure patients’ eyes is not trivial. It is profound: whole academies of learning, whole ecclesiastical hierarchies are founded upon it and have developed what they call their dialectic upon nothing else, their lying dialectics. A dialectic is any arbitrary system, which, since all systems are mere inventions, is necessarily in each case a false premise, upon which a closed system is built shutting out those who confine themselves to it from the rest of the world. All men one way or another use a dialectic of some sort into which they are shut, whether it be an Argentina or a Japan. So each group is maimed. Each is enclosed in a dialectic cloud, incommunicado, and for that reason we rush into wars and prides of the most superficial natures.”


“The art of the poem nowadays is something unstable; but at least the construction of the poem should make sense; you should know where you stand. Many questions haven’t been answered as yet. Our poets may be wrong; but what can any of us do with his talent but try to develop his vision, so that through frequent failures we may learn better what we have missed in the past.”


“The arts have a complex relation to society. The poet isn’t a fixed phenomenon, no more is his work.”


“There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.”


“Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matters like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.”


“Each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety.”


“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”


“Poets are being pursued by the philosophers today, out of the poverty of philosophy. God damn it, you might think a man had no business to be writing, to be a poet unless some philosophic stinker gave him permission.”


“I thought my friends were damn fools, because they didn’t know any better way of conducting their lives. Still they conformed better than I to a code. I wanted to conform but I couldn’t so I wrote my poetry.”


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1 thought on “William Carlos Williams on Language, Writing, Reading, Poetry, and More

  1. Necessary, hope giving and appreciated. Love this especially: “It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”

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