No Ideas But in Things

I came across this great article by Ed Wickliffe, where he explores William Carlos Williams now famous quote, “No ideas but in things.” I’ve had numerous instructors interpret this idea to mean that a poem should only be about an object/image–everything must stem from that object. Wickliffe states that this anthem does indeed call for a focus on an object, as it guarantees an image, guarantees concreteness that allows (forces?) the reader to connect on some level. Wickliffe then explains how two imagism rules support Williams’ idea (which isn’t really original, as the author points out), and the impact such a stance has had on poetry.

What do you think? Is there room for the experiential in poetry, or must every poem be based on a thing?


3 thoughts on “No Ideas But in Things

  1. As Ed Baker puts it, “No ideas but in things / doesn’t mean / no ideas”. The problem, I think, is the word “things,” which puts all the weight on perceived reality—i.e., sensual reality. What do you do, then, with excellent poets like WIlliam Bronk or Frank Samperi, who are concerned (respectively) with essentiality and the transcendent? You leave them out, as both have been left out of the anthological record of their period (1950s-1990s). This leaving-out is a sign of intellectual dysfunction. Anyway, Williams was no Theorist; he didn’t follow his own program (compare Spring and All to The Desert Music, for example). His “no ideas” statement was early and represented a reaction against the blowhard Victorians. It was (I believe) an extension of Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” (, itself more of a writing-handbook essay than a theoretical one. Now, I’ve peddled all these as a writing instructor, and I think the image is crucial—but only if we understand that the image is not merely perceptual, but imaginal; in fact, it is primarily imaginal! I’ve been revisiting Bob Dylan lately, and all you have to do is listen to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” to experience what I mean by image: compelling, emotional, realistic on a psychic level, but not bound by the image-as-photograph that Williams embraced early on. (“Queen Anne’s Lace” was the beginning of his goodbye to all that, I think.) Anyway, I’m rambling. And I haven’t even touched the what-seems-to-me-false dichotomy between “experiential” and “thing”! There is a good argument for the notion that we do not experience “things” anyway. I have a post going up tomorrow at The Perpetual Bird that wrestles with this. In any case, thanks for linking to Ed Wickliffe’s excellent essay!

  2. I agree that excluding the experiential is foolish. Is the image the only thing though that can make something (an experience or a thing) concrete and common between a multitude of readers? You and I have both suffered rejection at some level, but the emotions–however raw–may be very very different. I’m wondering if the image helps build a common ground for readers.

    Another thought: Do you think many “experiential” poets are excluded because of the whole confessional movement? The confessionals tire me after awhile because the poems become redundant and gripey. Maybe confessionals don’t even belong in the conversation and I’m drawing unnecessary connections.

  3. Joel

    in answer to your first question: what I (or anybody else) ‘think(s)” merely
    d e p e n d s upon

    this ‘thing’ and that re:positioned “upon my table” so that into a-nuth-her context ‘we’ see/know ?

    “drawing unnecessary connections” IS what is all about “it”

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