I was aware of “The Red Wheelbarrow” of course, one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century, but I had not read any more of Williams.  As part of a reading for Brenda Hillman’s prosody and forms class in a Robert Hass section “Modernism and the Two Line Stanza” there was a suggested reading from the Spring and All of several poems.  I found the Collected Poems in the library, went to the section with Spring and All and was pleasantly surprised by what I found there.  I had been thinking about writing a hybrid work of prose and poetry for some time and here was a great example from 1923.  In addition, the work Williams was doing beyond just “The Red Wheelbarrow” was of interest in terms of structure and diction as well as other poetics.  And then the prose itself was rich and full of ideas around Williams’ theories on poetics.

            When I researched a bit I found out that the original book had not sold many copies, that the full prose had disappeared from any collection of Williams’ work until 1970. I decided I had to know more about this work, its impact on contemporary poetry and how it could influence my own work.

            The prose in Spring And All is a manifesto, an idiosyncratic explanation of Williams’ poetic theories and practice, interrupted by outbursts of poetry.  The poetry sometimes is a response to what has just been said in the prose or the prose responds sometimes to the poetry.  In order to understand what is going on I propose walking through what I see as a few of the key texts of Spring and All.

            The introduction begins “If anything of moment results— so much the better. And so much more likely will it be that no one will want to see it.” (Collected Poems 177)   This statement contains insight into Williams’ expectations for this book at the time.  In his autobiography the only mention of Spring and All is this “…printed abroad: Spring and All, a book of poems,”  (Autobiography 237).  The book was a print run of  “around 300 copies” (Imaginations 85), half of which were confiscated at the US border for possibly on the theory that they were potentially salacious because they were printed in France.  When his Collected Poems was published in 1934 the prose was not included and the poems had been given titles instead of numbers, so much of the experimental nature of Spring and All was erased until 1970, seven years after Williams’ death. 

            In addition Williams did not release a new book of poetry for 10 years after the publication of Spring and All.  I can only assume for this that he was disappointed with the response to this book, which was his response to Eliot’s The Wasteland, and since it didn’t have wide distribution this must be due to poor feedback from those around him. Spring and All was named in 2012, by the Library of Congress, as one of the 88 books that shaped America but from Williams point of view in 1923 it was unsuccessful. So the book by 2012 had lived up to his prediction as something of moment and also lived up to the prediction as something no one would want to see in 1923.  There is a valuable lesson in this as a writer, that pursuing your artistic vision may not result in immediate external validation and therefore satisfaction from the work should be, at a minimum, derived from the actual writing itself.

            In trying to understand what Williams is doing in this work it is worth looking at how he describes the Wasteland, the antithesis to Williams approach.  In talking about those working on the modernist movement in the early 1920’s Williams said “Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot’s genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him.”(Autobiography 148) The 1923 Spring and All was Williams attempt at an answer to 1922’s The Wasteland and an answer to the scholars who looked “askance” at Williams and his cohorts. 

           Williams said “To my mind, the things that gave us most semblance of a cause was not imagism, as some thought, but the line: the poetic line and our hopes for its recovery from stodginess.” (Autobiography 148) Williams in the introduction in Spring and All says ‘nearly all writing, up to the present, if not all art, has been especially designed to keep up the barrier between sense and the vaporous fringe which distracts the attention from its agonized approaches to the moment. It has always a search for the “beautiful illusion.”’ (Collected Poems 178) Williams says he is not interested in creating a beautiful illusion but instead to “…refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination.”  (Collected Poems 178) Williams idea then is not to create a scholarly work but to create a work of imagination, to create a poetry of the senses. 

            Williams then moves from his introduction into a series of short chapters that are mostly involved with him using his imagination in an apocalyptic destruction of the current world and then a new version of the world rising from its ashes over a very long time period in an exact copy.  He talks in the middle of this about the “traditionalists of plagiarism” (Collected Poems 182) which we can take to mean the more traditional writers or Modernists like Eliot that felt the need to include classical references in his work.  In this prose piece Williams ends with “THE WORLD IS NEW” (Collected Poems 182), an exact copy of the world before its apocalypse but renewed through the imagination, the exact of opposite of the The Wasteland was doing when decrying the current state of the world and using classical allusions to say the past had more value.  

            And then Poem I (aka “Spring and All”) which reflects this same theme, a landscape full of dead brown that comes alive in Spring.  But also something that opens with a contagious hospital and a “they” that enters the world naked, also a renewal.   Poem I therefore picks up the themes of the prose preceding it.  A completely different diction and feeling evoked from the poetry but is linked to the prose with the use of the imagination and the observance of the everyday using American speech.  Poem II (aka “Pot of Flowers”) continues the observance of the everyday but infused with imagination.  The prose section following ends with a paragraph that includes “The imagination, freed from the handcuffs of “art” takes the lead!” (Collected Poems 185) The prose section immediately following this, Chapter I Samuel Butler, deals with the idea of the classicists and traditionalists attacking the new order. He says ‘They have great weapons to hand: “science,” “philosophy” and most dangerous of all “art.”’ (Collected Poems 185) Meanwhile Williams says SPRING is here.  And we have more poems immediately following. 

            Then we have a discussion about words, in particular the sky, “its value can be nothing but mathematical certain limits of gravity and density of air” (Collected Poems 188).  He goes further to discuss his ideas of how “Crude symbolism is to associate emotions with natural phenomena such as anger with lightning, flowers with love…Such work is empty” (Collected Poems 188)  and goes on to say “the insignificant “image” maybe “evoked” never so ably and mean nothing.” (Collected Poems 188)  He says his older work had that quality about them.  In this work he says “will have this value: an escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from “reality”—such as rhyme, meter as meter and not as the essential of the work.”(Collected Poems 188)  In the poem the immediately follows he works against what he has just said in a number of places.  For example: 

The grief of the Bowmen of Shu

moves nearer—There is

an approach with difficulty from

the dead—the winter casing of grief


then follows this with:


How easy to slip

into the old mode, how hard to

cling firmly to the advance—


            The end of this poem is enhanced by the text immediately before it, provides context of the old mode in Williams’ mind from a Pound poem “Song Of The Bowmen of Shu”. From this I take three things for my writing.  The first is Williams thoughts around the use of “crude symbols” and secondly how the poem is allowed to subvert his theory but then acknowledges the subversion.  The third is that a poem can be enhanced in a hybrid work but allowing the preceding prose to set up what the poem is doing.  Williams is not setting up the content of the poem but instead is discussing poem’s form or the poetics involved in the poem itself.

            This analysis could continue throughout the book with each prose section used to provide new insights into the poems that follow the prose and sometimes the poems preceding.  However, it would take more space than I have so to conclude this exercise I feel it is worth looking at the prose just after the famous poem XXII (aka “The Red Wheelbarrow”). 

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white



“The same things exist, but in a different condition when energized by the imagination” (Collected Poems 224). Again we see how the prose is working closely with the poetry to assist in what the poem is doing. 

            As part of the research for this essay I obtained a facsimile copy of Spring and All.  I have worked from Collected Poems and I believe have greatly increased my appreciation for Williams work and his poetics from studying that text.  However, considering the importance of spacing and appearance of Williams poetic work we should not be surprised to find that the prose portion of the work is experienced quite differently in the facsimile edition than the Collected. This is because the page breaks and number of lines per paragraph shift dramatically with the facsimile edition, the format that the book was designed for. For example, in the facsimile edition Poem IV ends about one third of the way down the page (Spring 18) and the prose begins part way down the next page. 

             In the Collected the same poem ends about half way down the page (Collected Poems 187) and there is white space that looks similar to the facsimile edition’s white space on page 19 only without that considerable white space, almost two thirds of a page,  following Poem IV on page 18 in the facsimile edition. I also took a look at the 1970 book Imaginations where the full prose was restored for the first time since 1923, again a similar pattern to the Collected where substantial white space has been lost (Imagination 100).  The text is experienced quite differently in all three of these versions.   And that brings me to the final lesson of Spring and All, at least within this essay.  The form of the final publication can be a consideration, lineation of prose and page breaks for the prose can be as important as for the poetry in s hybrid work.


To conclude, the lessons from Spring and All that I plan on applying to my own writing:

  • pursuing your artistic vision may not result in immediate external validation and therefore personal satisfaction from the work must primarily be derived in the writing itself.
  • Williams promoted the idea that the goal should not be to create a scholarly work but to create a work of imagination, to create a poetry of the senses.
  • the use of “crude symbols” can be thought of as empty
  • a method to consider is to allow a poem to subvert your design principles but then have the poem acknowledge the subversion. 
  • a poem can be enhanced in a hybrid work but allowing the preceding or subsequent prose to set up what the poem is doing internally.
  • The form of the final publication can be a consideration, lineation of prose and page breaks for the prose can be as important as for the poetry in a hybrid work.
  • There are many other lessons that can be gleaned from further close examination of Spring and All and I will continue this exploration outside this essay




                                                Works Cited

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1951. Print.


Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. A. Walton. Litz and Christopher J. MacGowan. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1986. Print.


Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions Pub.,1970. Print.


William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”: An Annotated Bibliography        

Churchill, Suzanne W. “William Carlos Williams and the Poetics of Ending Others.” William Carlos Williams and the Language of Poetry. Ed. Burton Hatlen and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2002. 3-42. Print.


The author begins this essay with this quote from Williams “Rhyme was a language, once, but now it is a lie,” and then talks about Williams explorations  of the ending of poems without rhyme in the days of publishing the literary magazine Others in the 1900’s and 1910’s and into the publishing of Spring and All in 1923.  She looks at several devices Williams uses in this period and how they are attempts to replace both the tension around rhymed endings as well as sexual connotation that rhyme brings with it. According to the author Spring and All was a radically innovative combination of prose and free verse with the prose sections describing a process which the free verse sections demonstrated. She provides an analysis of Poem XI to illustrate the innovative techniques Williams was using in Spring and All.  She closes with further discussion on Williams interest in sexual polarity in his work.  For my work I’m interested in understanding endings better, combing prose and poetry as well as utilizing form for the combination.


Lowney, John. “Introduction: Canon Formation, Avant-Garidsm, and William Carlos Williams’s Literary Reputation.” The American Avant-garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1997. 13-24. Print.


This is the introductory essay in a series of essays.  Here the author puts forward that Williams was committed to the local and quotidian, particularly working class speech as a concept of an American form of avant-gardism. And that local is not just geographic but also on seen by the thrusts and jousts on the actual page itself. HIs appeal to experimental American poets can be attributed to his opposition to elitist assumptions high modernism, including his desire to link political thinking and poetics. For my own writing this idea of using regular language and allowing form to elevate it is very attractive. And this idea of eschewing the elitism to write about the every day in a way that people actually speak and that can be used to take political stances. 


Orange, Tom. “William Carlos Williams Between Image and Object.” William Carlos Williams and the Language of Poetry. Ed. Burton Hatlen and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2002. 127-156. Print.


The author takes us through a span of Williams’ career, 1913 when he publishes his first collection and shortly after Pound and Flint published the Imagist manifesto to Zukofsky’s Objectivists Anthology which features Williams work. So moving us through Williams imagist work to objectivist work.  The author says that Williams over half a century tried to “create an uniquely American poetics, takes place less within movements and more around, before and between them.” And that between those two movements Williams poetry worked on the ground between them.  There is a lot of discussion on Pound and Zukofsky at either end of these periods but the focus here is the mid point when Spring and All was published.  Williams in Spring and All where Williams imagination is at work but also he carefully distances himself from the image and concentrates on objects. The author says that Williams achieves a crucial insight, that the poetic imagination works a transformation upon the world of a priori objects to create a new object the poem and the poem itself is a material object and presents itself in the form it assumes.  For my own writing I’m interested in developing a sense of my own poetics and articulating that, in addition considering the form as organic, arising from the poem itself.


Parley, Piotr. “Imagine The Outside: Metaphor in William Carlos Williams. “William Carlos Williams and the Language of Poetry. Ed. Burton Hatlen and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2002. 157-68. Print.


The author points out that Willam Carlos Williams is not a big fan of the metaphor in the classical sense, that is a comparison that allows a concrete object to elevate a mind toward a greater truth.  But instead uses metaphor to break down the distinction between things such as ground and figure. He believes Williams throes of metaphor is founded on the object’s double ability to function as both object and something that brings forth imaginary perception. He uses the example of the line “One by one the objects are defined” to mean both the sequential revelation of the objects in the poem and that the objects are actually defined by each other.  This idea that the multiple interpretation of the line is actually help define the entire poem is of great interest to me and something I can begin applying in my own poetry, this idea of layering of meaning as well as providing a line which explains the intent of this alternate layer within the poem. 


Wellman, Donald. “A Complex Realism: Reading Spring and All as Seminal for Postmodern Poetry.” William Carlos Williams and the Language of Poetry. Ed.  Burton Hatlen and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2002. 297-317. Print.


The author sets out to “disentangle a Williams that is seminal for postmodern poetry” from other interpretations that have sometimes been written.  In parts of the essay he discusses Ron Silliman’s What against Spring And All.  The author feels there have been misreadings of Spring and All, a key one detaches the image from the fabric of the poem citing that as examples of Williams’ realism and also reads the intervals in text as gaps or rents that mirror quotidian discontinuities. This misses the freedom of imagination that Williams identifies with the act of writing, that Spring and All is composed of hybrid structures resembling collage or photomontage not records of heightened perception. In Spring and All only words and their disposition on the page are “real”, this is the source of William’s seminal importance to post modernism. There is a discussion of this collaging as different from Pound’s. Pound being verbal collage in terms of composite image and ideogram while Williams is less totalizing and what the author calls painterly, creating poems like Gertrude Stein’s statement how cubism lives outside its frame. Mainly what I take from this is the idea of the power of the hybrid structure and also the focus on the imagination modifying the quotidian.


Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1951. Print.


Williams’s autobiography recounts his life from his first memory (“being put outdoors after the blizzard of ’88”) to the composition of “Patterson” and a trip to the American West in 1950. The book presents a series of scenes and meditations, rather than a sequential account of his life story.  It discusses in some detail his familial relationships, his medical work and the relationship to his literary work and his wide familiarity with a number of famous literary figures (Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, H.D., Marianne Moore, James Joyce and so on).  It also discusses his writing philosophy of creating a distinct American voice as opposed to those who went to Europe to develop their work. Interestingly despite the importance of Spring And All it merits one sentence mentioning it was published, which is telling I think on how Williams felt about book in 1951 when the autobiography was published.  He never really discusses how he became successful in writing, more it seemed to me he wanted to talk about the context of his writing for the most part. This context is very useful in understanding the writing in Spring and All since much of the book takes place in the years preceding that book and provides a basis for consideration in applying my poetics to what I consider similar themes. 




Williams, William Carlos. “Spring And All 1923.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams.Ed. A. Walton. Litz and Christopher J. MacGowan. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1986. 175-236. Print.


This edition includes the full text from the 1923 edition. This means it includes both the poems and also the prose that were not re-published together until 1970 after the 1923 publication.  It  also means the poems are numbered instead of titled and the unusual idiosyncratic section numbering of the prose is retained.  It is a hybrid text of prose and poetry with the prose providing a running commentary on Williams thoughts on both the poem he is presenting as well as his overall poetics.  The book when first published did not sell well, many of the run of 300 were confiscated the border when they were imported in from France. While containing well known poems later titled “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Spring and All” this edition with the prose was useful to me as an experiment in poetry collage forms and his thinking on poetics.



Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott. New York: New Directions Pub., 1970. Print.


This is the book published seven years after Williams’ death which contained the full prose of the 1923 edition.  Since very few people had seen the 1923 edition it is an important moment.  The editor adds an introduction to the section on Spring and All explaining the importance of the prose and on page 85 quotesWilliams own feelings about the prose itself; “The prose is a mixture of philosophy and nonsense. It made sense to me, at least to my disturbed mind—because it was disturbed at the time—but I doubt it made sense to anyone else.”  In terms of what this means for my writing it is interesting how dismissive Williams is of the prose and I expect that is because of the reception he got at the time from his peers.  The book is a seminal work in terms of American poetry and I believe should be experienced in its original form if possible. Even this version, while having the full text, does not represent a replication of the original form of the book, we had to wait until 2011 for a facsimile edition to do that.


Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. New York, NY: New Directions Pub., 2011.VPrint.


This is a facsimile edition of the original 1923 edition of Spring and All which included an introduction by C.D. Wright.  It is quite a bit smaller in size the Collected Poems and therefore has quite different pagination and lineation of the prose paragraphs as well as page breaks for the poems.  Because of these differences it is experienced somewhat differently for a reader.  Given Williams’ tight control of white space in the appearance of his poems I feel that there was likely similar care taken with the prose and where poems appear in terms of pagination for the original text.  Some unusual things are done with punctuation and typeface that do not appear in the Collected as well. Therefore this book provides an experience closer to what the author intended. 

2 thoughts on “Lessons From William Carlos Williams Spring and All

  1. Sara Burant says:

    Thanks Ross. This is a great introduction to Williams’ work, which I am embarrassed to say I don’t know that well. I’m struck by Williams’ protest against the ‘academic-i-zation’ of poetry and his experiment with hybrid work. Now I will go order my own copy of Spring and All!

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