How the Fear of Death Brought William Carlos Williams Into His Poetry

William Carlos Williams is recognized as one of the leading poets of the first half of the twentieth century, and was applauded for carving a unique identity in poetry. For a good portion of Williams career, he wrote using the concept of Objectivism, devoting his poems to describing objects. In this manner, the poems were often very neutral in their tone as Williams described everyday happenings in a manner that kept him separated from his poetry. However, as Williams Carlos Williams neared his death, his poetry changed significantly, as best seen in his poem “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”

One of the most distinct features of William Carlos Williams poetry is his choice to ignore measures by count and instead, to base his poetry on its sound or the “simple rightness of his eye and ear.” Williams wanted the poems to read naturally to a person, flowing smoothly like music. A similar breaking from measure had arisen with free verse, but Williams disagreed with this as being a contradiction. Verse implies some kind of measure and so, free verse seemed a contradictory form. Williams instead utilized a technique called variable foot which involved a visual structuring of the lines. The poem was broken down with every three lines structured so each line was indented further than the last. Every line in these sets represented a beat. However, criticism of Williams’ strategy arose over the fact that it only worked in his head and may not fit every reader. Each person reads things differently, and so, it can register with an incorrect measure in many readers’ minds.

The other feature of William Carlos Williams writing was his separation from his writing, and its emphasis on the object. Williams stayed away from philosophy and metaphysics, believing that poetry should contain “no ideas but in things.” This is clear by his famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in which Williams describes the wheelbarrow using no other descriptive terms than those physically visible. As part of this, Williams had purged “I” from his writing since there was no need to include his own presence when describing an image.

Taking these ideas, the first thing seen when reading the poem “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” is its fitting into Williams “variable foot” structure. The thirty page poem is broken up into three books. The lines of each book are structured in the sets of three lines so that a sequence of lines in the poem would appear as follows:

“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
like a buttercup
upon its branching stem-“

However, while Williams’ “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” fits into his standard structure for his poetry, the poem is a significant departure in content from his previous works. The poem is confessional, as Williams speaks to his wife about his infidelity and how their relationship has developed over time. The most immediate sign that something is amiss is that the poem makes extensive use of the term “I,” abandoning Williams’ Objectivism of his youth and becoming a more personal, biographical account. The poem is comprised largely of references to Williams’ memories of his experiences with his wife. For instance, at one point, Williams refers to the time, thirty years earlier, when he and his wife had gone to Switzerland and witnessed the unveiling of Jungfrau.

Because of its confessional format and use of personal experiences, the poem alludes to feelings and thoughts instead of just the depiction of images for the reader to interpret on his or her own. An example of this is the lines:

“It has been
For you and me
as one who watches a storm
come in over the water.”

This set of lines includes a simile, comparing the experiences of Williams and his wife to watching a storm. While this might seem perfectly normal for any other poet, Williams had been of the belief that the images and objects should stand for themselves and did not require any further description to convey their meaning. However, as Williams starts to describe feelings and emotions, he is entering a realm of poetry he has often shied away from and so, must use similes and metaphors in order to properly describe them.
Another example of this is the lines:

“it is as if
a sweet-scented flower
were poised
and for me did open.”

In these lines, Williams is likening the way he and his wife fell in love to a flower blooming before him. Here again, Williams is attempting to describe an emotional experience and feels that he must go beyond simply describing it as an object and bring in additional images.

Why did William Carlos Williams change his style? The answer to this question seems to lie in Williams’ experiences at the time of the writing of “Asphodel.” Williams wrote the poem from 1952 to 1954. At the start of his writing in 1952, Williams had suffered a heart attack and three strokes within the last three years. His degrading health showed him that death was approaching. At the same time, Williams had a stressful relationship with his wife as he had cheated on her numerous times with other women. Recognizing his love for her as his time was running out, “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” served as a way to tell his wife everything that he needed to say and to ask for her forgiveness.

These feelings of Williams can be seen throughout the poem. His approaching death can be seen when he says:

“Approaching death
as we think, the death of love,
no distinction
any more suffices to differentiate
the particulars
of place and condition
with which we have been long
familiar.”

Likewise, the feeling of writing a confession and of death’s nearness can be seen in the first book when Williams writes:

“And so
with fear in my heart
I drag it out
and keep on talking
for I dare not stop.
Listen while I talk on
against time.”

Williams pleads with his wife to listen to him and offer forgiveness as he says at the end of book 1:

“Hear me out
for I too am concerned
and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed
besides.”

In looking at William Carlos Williams writing of the Asphodel, it is revealing to see how age and the nearness of death caused his poetry to change. In his early years, Williams was a follower of Objectivism, writing poems in which the objects spoke for themselves and in which his energy was invested in describing the scene at hand. However, after suffering from strokes and a heart attack, Williams feared that he would go to the grave with all of his feelings kept secret and so, his poetry changed to reflect the confessional style of poetry. This is clear in “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” where Williams writes a love letter and apology to his wife.

 
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