The “Awkwardness” of William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

A colleague passed along Adam Kirsch’s recent review of books pertaining to William Carlos Williams, his work, and his struggle to be confident as a poet. It’s a fascinating read, and pretty informative. I like how Kirsch writes and I find his criticism (in general) engaging and challenging. In this critique, Kirsch writes, “In his lonely opposition to Pound, Eliot, and company, Williams had need of the courage he described in “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!

Constructions like “realizable actual” and “toward which you lend” are examples of the awkwardness to which Williams is prone, especially when he is dealing in abstractions or trying to sound elevated or fancy.”

Kirsch accuses Williams of trying to sound sophisticated,  resulting in sounding “awkward.”  While Kirsch’s overall assertion may hold true, is this the best poem to use as an example?

Walt Whitman

Titled “El Hombre”, the poem (quoted in it’s entirety above) pays homage to Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman’s long poem ends with the lines “You furnish your parts toward eternity, / Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul” (ln. 131-32). Throughout the poem, Whitman emphasizes perseverance, continuation, and moving forward. Williams’ short little poem actually does a phenomenal job encompassing Whitman’s work while adding his own voice. This instance of apostrophe/allusion/reflection is by no means awkward.

Do any of Williams’ poems fulfill Kirsch’s charge that he’s awkwardly over-trying? Which ones? I’d enjoy reading your thoughts and comments!


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