William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey doctor and Anglo-American poet, is probably best known for his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. But that poem was a result of his brief Imagist period when he and other poets tried to capture a scene in as few words as possible.
After Imagism he spent most of his life searching for a new American poetry, a new cadence and rhyme, with an American diction.
American free verse he felt had been taken as far as it could by its originator, Walt Whitman. And while he was impressed by the poetry of his contemporary, T.S. Eliot, he had no desire to follow in his footsteps as when he complained:
“There was heat in us,” he wrote, “a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. 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.”
In his biography of William Carlos Williams Paul Mariani in commenting on what Williams was after in his poetry said:
“First let Americans understand the local culture, the local field of action, and then they might begin to understand what in fact a Picasso or a de Gourmont were holding out to America. Otherwise, there was the danger of borrowing the wrong things … “
Williams himself had this to say:
“That is precisely the artist’s problem: to unlock from what he sees before him, wherever he happens to be, the universal. It is only with the local that he can begin and not by slighting that to run off into theories and the great thoughts of antiquity. . . . He begins with what is before him. . . . Does not anyone see that all schools of the past are local in origin?”
Williams, always inventive, eventually developed a new poetry device, the “variable foot” as it was called, which he used to give his poetry a new cadence following an American-like diction.
See for example:
Mariani in his book puts it this way:
“A poem, he (Williams) said, was not a series of metric lines repeated over and over with unfailing regularity, but rather like the sea, “an assembly of tides, waves, ripples,” a matter of regular rhythmic particles that were repeated as part of a greater pattern. A rhythmic unit did not consist of longs and shorts but was, finally and simply, “any repeated sequence of lengths and heights,” like a wave, which carried water but was not itself that water. Words conveyed a rhythm, but the rhythm itself was antecedent and independent of those words.”
“ … like a wave, which carried water but was not itself that water ...”
That I think is a good definition of poetry.