Nancy wrote: "William Carlos Williams objected to symbols and even images. He
insisted on the thing in itself. He also hated Eliot's poetry for being
full of them, among other reasons. He called Eliot a subtle conformist.
"No ideas but in things" was Williams's poetic concept."
The poetry of Willam Carlos Williams morphed stylistically over the span of his career. His experimental early cubist-inspired work foregrounded the material properties and contiguous relationships of words, while his later Imagism relied on a transparency of language. And, after anathematizing symbolism, he wrote a book-length symbolic poem.
In his Imagist phase Williams deplored metaphoric and symbolic usage in poetry: "Crude symbolism is to associate emotions with natural phenomena such as anger with lighting, flowers with love it goes further and associates certain textures with." In the Prologue to Kora in Hell, Williams wrote: "The coining of similes is a pastime of a very low order." Yet in his book-length poem Paterson the town itself is a symbol.
Early in his career Williams' cubist-inspired praxis resembled the experiments of Gertrude Stein, a writer he greatly admired. He wrote of Stein's book Tender Buttons that she "has completely unlinked words from their former relationships in the sentence; she has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean."
Williams' work of that period resembles Stein's language-foregrounding experiments. He praised her "for her formal insistence on words in their literal, structural quality of being words." In Williams' book The Descent of Winter his prose poems are discontinuous and paratactic in syntax, to wit:
by William Carlos Williams
"And Coolidge said let there be imitation brass filigree fire benders behind insured plateglass windows and yellow pine booths with the molasses-candygrain in the wood instead of the oldtime cake-like whitepine boards always cut thick their faces! the white porcelain trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape for the oven I don't know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces!"
In Spring and All, Williams wrote: "The word must be put down for itself, not a symbol..." However, his Imagism differs from the later work of Deep Imagists like Robert Bly in its rejection of naturalistic space and an emphasis on lateral relationships of images much as Picasso's Ma Jolie flattened pictorial space.
Pound wrote to Williams about his book Kora in Hell:
"The thing that saves your work is its opacity, and don't forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabell, and verbiage, these are echt americanish!" (see David Jauss, The Descent, the Dance, and the Wheel: The Aesthetic Theory of William Carlos Williams' Kora in Hell, Boston Un. Jnl, 1977, 37)
In Spring and All Williams asks how the poet can write with the "power TO ESCAPE ILLUSIONS," a power he finds in certain Cubist paintings in which visual elements relate to each other across the picture plane. Williams thought a similar laterality was possible for poetry. Writing about Marianne Moore, Williams says:
"Unlike the painters the poet has not resorted to distortions or the abstract in form. Miss Moore accomplishes a like result by rapidity of movement. A poem such a 'Marriage' is an anthology of transit. It is a pleasure that can be held firm only by moving rapidly from one thing to the next. It gives the impression of a passage through."
Bram Djikstra writes of Williams' poem "Spring Strains" that it "is an elaborate attempt at painting a Cubist picture in words...It represents a visual plane, a visual field of action, within which objects are analyzed in a strictly pictorial fashion."
Paterson then is a retrogression from the cubist-inspired aesthetic Williams had promoted in the earlier part of his writing career, his later foregrounding of the image and subordination of language qua language, to the symbolism he had rejected. Diana