So, how exactly is William Carlos Williams revolutionary?   What sort of practice, with free verse, did he establish?  So, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, metrical poetry is all about syllabic regularity.  Each line has roughly the same amount of syllables (keeping in mind the contemporary practice of substitutions — where a poet can’t make an iamb fit in a particular line, and substitutes a trochee, spondee, dactyl, etc).  So, it’s the foot, the syllabic unit, that’s the organizational principle in metrical poetry.  In throwing that out, Williams decided to make lines, and how to break them, the building blocks of free verse.  Consider the following, lifted from the Poetry Foundation’s archive:

Complete Destruction

by William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

I used to use William’s The Red Wheelbarrow to explain this, but — you know — sometimes one wants a little change of scenery.  One of the problems, when using Williams as a compositional model, is that people mistake his simplicity for “artlessness.”  As such, then would take a sentence like My late grandmother cooked spaghetti every Sunday and chop line breaks into it:

my late
grandmother
cooked
spaghetti
every
Sunday.

Nope.  Doesn’t work that way.  Williams is still using the basic building blocks of descriptive writing: solid, active nouns and verbs.  The problem with the above sentence is that the line breaks are arbitrary, but beyond that it’s vague.  It’s just a bland statement with nothing specific about it.  If one looks back at Williams snappy little poem, each line has a reason for being a line.  Lets look at the poem again:

Complete Destruction

by William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
[specific time reference]
We buried the cat,
[specific action]
then took her box
[specfic action]
and set fire to it
[specific action]
in the back yard.
[specific location]
Those fleas that escaped
[specific idea]
earth and fire
[specific elements]
died by the cold.
[specific idea]

Each line contains one specific thought or image.  Each succeeding line builds on what came before, so by the time the reader reaches the end of the poem, a whole complete thought is arrived at.  If you look back at my late grandmother, that dynamic is not at work.   The lines need not always be end stopped — but each line actively grounds the reader in one complete reference.  You can find this at work in a lot of contemporary free verse.  Of course, Williams didn’t do this for his entire writing career.  Patterson — his “epic” — is mostly post-modernish collage poetics.  But, Williams influence on the shape of American free verse is subtle enough where people who may have never read him are under his influence

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