Historical View of W.C.Williams’: “No Ideas But in Things” by Ed Wickliffe

Historical View of W.C.Williams’: “No Ideas But in Things”
Essay, Ed Wickliffe


William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) is famously known for coining the term: “No ideas but in things.” This one line from the 1927 version of his poem, Paterson, became a mantra for poetry in the early 20th century. Its expression is still strongly influential today. It changed the look and feel of poetry, possibly more than any other single idea in the past hundred years. It was not original, however, as this essay hopes to show. His statement was a summary of the poetry trends at that time. 

Williams Meaning.
Williams seems to have left no real explanation for “no ideas but in things.” (It was just a line from a poem, after all.) Others have written numerous essays about it, but they do not agree. Some argue for deep psychological states, while others claim the statement itself is irrelevant. This is why we need to look at the historical context, both before and after his time, to decipher its probable meaning. Both of these are discussed in following sections.

The historical context will show that Williams meant for poetry to focus on objects rather than mere concepts, on actual things rather than abstract characteristics of things. The mention of any object creates a visualized idea in our minds—we form an image of the thing. This does not happen at the mention of abstractions, like “truth”, or “memory”. Abstract words do not create images in the mind. Only “things” create visual images. Things can be tangible, such as a wheel barrow. Or things can be a behavior, such as a sidelong glance. The image of a thing creates an idea of what the thing means in the context it is used. Hence there are “no ideas but in things” according to Williams.

This was something quite different from 19th century poetry. Poetry of that period described things extensively, often in vague terms and abstractions. Letting us form our own idea of things is vastly different than telling us everything about it—how big it is, what color it is, how it relates the universe, or whatever. An object does not need to be described in much detail to know what it is. We have an idea of it already, just at the mention of the word. This was the key difference between Williams and the poetry of an earlier time. To Williams, poetry should focus on the “thing”, leaving the reader to “see” the bigger picture in his own way.

So in one line of a Williams’ poem, suddenly all the grand and sweeping panoramas of elocution from the 19th century were trivialized. Suddenly we do not need to be told what everything “is” in detail. We already know, each in one’s own perspective.

Just one example for clarity: In Williams’ poetry of “things”, we might talk about a specific tree, not about the glory of its creation. Williams deals with the thing itself, and not some indefinite aspect of the thing, like creation. It is the difference between speaking in exact terms or vague generalities. If the exact object creates an image in our mind, then we can say it creates also an idea of what it signifies. Thus we have “no ideas but in things.”

How It Affects Us Today.
Williams was an Imagist when Imagism was shaking the world of poetry (1912 – 1917). “No ideas but in things” is a summary statement of its principles, made some years later.

The first tenet of Imagism that continues today is: Treat the thing directly. Make a concrete image with everyday language, rather than a vague, lengthy notion of it. A common restatement of that rule is: Show, don’t tell. What poet has not heard of that famous Henry James exhortation? It is about the image.

Naturally it takes more words to describe a thing than not to describe it. An extension of Williams’ statement therefore corresponds to a second tenet of Imagism: Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation, use an economy of words. If you focus closely on your words, you will not need to describe a thing in great detail.

From these two rules for using direct statement and fewest words, we can arrive at other contemporary rules for “line compression”, “condensed thoughts”, and “subject focus”. We are to use only “precise words”. We are advised to carry notepads, to observe “things” carefully, and record only “significant details”.

A third tenet of Imagism is not directly related to Williams’ dictum, but it completes the picture of Williams’ esthetic. The third tenet is: Compose in a musical timing. In other words, do not use meter. The lyricism of words does not depend on meter. This was a dramatic departure from the norms of that day. Williams insisted on the rhythm of everyday speech, so he was completely in agreement with this rule of Imagism which continues up to the present.

And perhaps—if we do all that—a poem will come. The poem will be directly focused, condensed, and speak in a rhythm. It will “use few modifiers” because modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) are mostly unnecessary details. As the famous Buddhist riddle goes: when is a horse not a horse? The answer is: when it is a white horse. By describing the horse with an adjective, we limit its potential.

Therefore the poet should “never tell too much”. And with that, we will get a 20 line poem, more or less. We will get a Williams-style poem about some “thing” that means much more than it says, depending on the reader’s idea of the thing. Almost every “rule” of the contemporary poem can be traced directly back to Williams’ statement of “no ideas but in things”, and from that back to Imagism. It was that important.

If anyone still doubts the impact of Williams’ statement, and the resulting effect of the Imagist rules and their offshoots today, just ask any poetry editor what s/he wants to see. It is almost always 20 or 30 lines—by necessity then, one page of compressed text—which rules out long narratives or anything with metaphysical or abstract flourishes. This enduring bias for an economy of words is practical, as well: attention spans are short, and the printed page is expensive. There has been enormous pressure from several directions to produce small, focused poems with big impact. The only way to do that is with “things” that make strong “images” that speak volumes in a limited space.

So here we are, today—producing mostly little poems about actual objects or behaviors—in any case, about directly observable things and their significant details. These allow us to draw large conclusions about life. It has been this way for decades. The question now is how much longer should this status quo endure? How should the rules of contemporary poetry change, if at all? But that is a subject for another day.

What Came Before It?
Turning points never happen in isolation. This applies to changes in poetry as well as anything. Williams’ idea evolved from earlier ideas. In fact the historical context is so broad and deep that the first thing we realize is that Williams was not the originator of his own famous notion. Indeed, he was far from it.

The idea of precision, compression, and use of objects in poetry to get at the “core” of the meaning goes back at least a thousand years, if not more than two thousand years by different routes. Williams was one of the last in a long line to popularize the idea as somehow entirely new and different. It was not.

We can trace the origins of his idea to medieval China and Japan by way of Williams’ one-time friend, Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972), whose exploration of Eastern poetry triggered Imagism. It is also possible to argue that the origins go back even farther, by a different route—through the Imagist Hilda Doolittle (1886 – 1961) to the pre-Christian Sapphic tradition in Greece, in which a “natural speech” and “natural things” were favored. This can be compared with Williams’ “American idiom” of rhythmic, condensed speech about objects. Williams, as an Imagist himself, was associated with both Pound and HD, and so both clearly influenced his thinking.

The farther back in history we go, the more debatable the connections become. For this reason it is appropriate to concentrate a historical discussion of Williams famous dictum at the period immediately before his lifetime—the so called Victorian Era of English literature.

The Victorian Era (1830s to 1900) corresponds roughly with the Romantic Period in the arts. It is characterized by the effusive novels of Charles Dickens and others, and by the expansive poetry of Tennyson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others. Wordsworth was actually progressive in using common speech like Williams. Wordsworth’s speech, though, was a reaction to the rigidity of Neoclassical idealism (late 1700s), and not a reaction to Romanticism of which he was a practicing member. Still, even the common speech of Williams had certain precedents in other poets. 

Poetry of the 19th c. was very formal (tetrameter, pentameter) and—many will argue—also uninspired. If poetry had not grown uninspired during the 1800s, then poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins would not be considered such great innovators today. Their innovations were not appreciated much in their own day (Dickinson was a recluse, but the others were well known), so there must be some truth to the idea that the late 1800s was a “stale” period for English language poetry. Generally, innovations of this period were rejected as unskilled.

This was not lost on Ezra Pound, who in the period before 1912 was very familiar with the French Symbolist movement (1860s – 1890s) as well as the image-laden poetry of centuries-earlier China and Japan. These poetries of different languages were all vibrant and alive by comparison to English Romantic poetry.

Symbolism did not reach English poetry until around 1900. Like its French origin, it was characterized by vers libre, or free verse including prose. Symbolism in either language freed the line from its meter, emphasized the musical qualities of speech, and posed the “thing” as a symbol for something else. A swan, for example, symbolically represents pure beauty and the poet’s alienation from his environment. Symbols such as this became cliché, but by freeing the line and emphasizing its musical speaking patterns, Symbolism became an important precursor to Modernism. It also presaged Williams by featuring the “object as symbol” before Williams’ created “the thing as idea”.

T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) voiced something similar also to Williams in the Modernist “objective correlative” in 1919. Seven years before Williams’ dictum, the objective correlative says that a scene or event in poetry should cause an emotion in the reader—that is, the object symbolizes an emotional idea. This in turn owes much to Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) and his Symbolist “correspondences”. It is also closely related to Imagism through Eliot’s own preference for precision in expression, plus the idea that the scene itself in a poem can be an object in the same sense as Imagism .

The point here is that Williams’ statement comes toward the end of a number of interrelated changes in the poetic esthetic. In that sense Williams did not originate the changes—but he simply summarized them by saying “no ideas but in things.” It was his contribution to the eventual legacy of Imagism.

Although these changes were underway in English by the early 1900s, Romantic poets such as Edgar Guest were still wildly popular with their volumes of poems about hearth and home and family, and meadows. It is called pastoral poetry within the Romantic tradition. It is a poetry that “tells” the reader what is happening. It does not “show” the reader anything by leaving things to the imagination. Some will argue it is not poetry at all, but merely verse—verse in the same way as Hallmark cards are verse, but not poetry.

In any case popular poetry before World War I was tranquil and contemplative, a continuation of the Romantic ideal that drove poetry away from the unpleasant excesses of industrialization and into more peaceful and comforting themes. In other words, popular poetry had cornered itself in a rapidly changing world. Its relevance was in doubt.

At the onset of World War I (1914 – 1918), with its appalling slaughter and unimaginable conditions, suddenly the Romantic poet’s toolkit of traditional forms and embellishments such as allusion, old metaphysics, and pastoral ideals was insufficient to express contemporary horrors. What was the artist or poet to do? The trend away from Romanticism gathered momentum in both art and literature—pointing to Impressionism in painting and Imagism in poetry, and later, Modernism.

The kindling for this post-War change, for this quantum shift away from Romanticism in the face of the “real world” was a small group of poets in England in 1912, just before the War. Ezra Pound (again) was studying Eastern poetry and how it could reveal large ideas in very few words. The use of natural objects and the formal compression of haiku poetry, for instance, had the ability to say much in a tiny space. This intrigued Pound and his small group.

With the rediscovery of eastern poetry and the freeing of the line began a huge rift with the Romantic, pastoral tradition of the 19th century. Within a decade, an entire century of pastoral tradition was beginning to fade in reaction to the ills of industrialization and the horrors of war. Within the same decade, Imagism itself morphed into other styles of Modernism, including T.S. Eliot’s work, which rekindled the narrative voice in poetry after the stark forms of Imagism.

In the end it is not possible to prove that Williams was the prime source for “no ideas but in things.” Ezra Pound is equally to be credited, as is the entire short-lived school of Imagism, and all the court poets of medieval Japan, and wandering poets of China. Credit also goes to the vers libre poets of French Symbolism for “freeing the line” from meter so that “precision” could be foregrounded along with the music of “everyday speech” that became Modernism. These ideas carry through to the present day.

The notion that objects and precise language can convey vast ideas definitely preceded Williams. But let’s give Williams credit for at least following what others started, and for expanding the subject-list of poetry to include ordinary objects. That single, summary line from his Paterson poem in 1927 has had tremendous impact on poetry for almost a hundred years now.

Red Tulips
© Denise Porthun Jankauskas

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