William Carlos Williams, a prominent American modernist poet, revolutionized the realm of poetry with his succinct yet profound verses. One of his most famous maxims, “No ideas but in things,” encapsulates the essence of the Imagists’ poetic philosophy. This statement emphasizes the significance of tangible, concrete images over abstract ideas. Williams’ imagistic poetry, characterized by its vivid imagery and everyday subjects, has left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern poetry.
At its core, imagistic poetry seeks to evoke deep emotions and convey profound meanings through the use of vivid, sensory imagery. Rather than relying on abstract concepts and elaborate metaphors, imagistic poets like Williams focus on the immediate, tangible world around them. In adhering to the principle of “No ideas but in things,” Williams urged poets to ground their verses in the physical reality of the world. This approach discards the ornate language of traditional poetry, opting instead for clarity, simplicity, and raw honesty.
Williams’ imagist poems often depict ordinary scenes and objects from everyday life, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary through his keen observation and precise language. In his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for instance, he paints a vivid picture of a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside white chickens. The simplicity of this image belies its depth; through this unembellished scene, Williams captures the essence of existence, highlighting the beauty in simplicity and the profound impact of the ordinary.
Beauty in the Ordinary
What is beautiful in these short scenes of reality is that they do not moralize. They pose questions, paint pictures, that allow the reader to continue learning and questioning long after they have read the poem. It is a beautiful thing to be able to paint the world in simple yet profound images. The technique is rich and boundless. Readers and invited into the world of the speaker, invited to participate in a shared worldview.
This focus on the tangible world reflects Williams’ belief in the power of direct observation. By closely examining the physical world and rendering it in poetic language, he believed that poets could access universal truths. Williams bridged the gap between the mundane and the metaphysical. He showed that the ordinary contains within it extraordinary layers of meaning and significance.
Continuing the Tradition
Poets since his time have embodied the concept of “No ideas but in things.” Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate, continues in that tradition. One of my favorite poems of all time is a Ted Kooser poem titled “Snow Fence” from his collection of poems Sure Signs. There are striking parallels to Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Here is “Snow Fence” in its entirety:
The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.
Both “Snow Fence” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” are short snapshots of objects and by association, our relation to them. Williams’ poem starts with the lines “so much depends / upon / the red wheel / barrow.” He does not tell us what depends upon it, if it is good or bad, he lets the reader stew in the possibility. Defining what a poem means is near impossible. It can mean so many different things to so many different people. When I read “Snow Fence” I almost unconsciously include the Williams line, changing the poem to read, “so much depends / upon / the red fence.”
Sure, both poems start with a red object, but the similarities don’t end there. They both employ a traditional element of early imagism: economy of language. Both poets, separated by decades, still use the fewest, most precise words possible to express their image. Both images are cut and shaped like diamonds, leaving behind only the most pristine version of the image. Part of what enables them to communicate so clearly is word choice. Notice how Ted Kooser writes “no meat / on its ribs,” rather than the traditional saying, no meat on its bones. That syntax, the word choice, is so specific. By choosing a particular bone, specific body part, the image of the fence is defined even further. I imagine a near emaciated thing, a ribcage of a fence. You might imagine something totally different. Regardless, the word choice is intentional and beautiful.
Williams’ influence on the literary world is immeasurable. His commitment to depicting the world as it is, without embellishment or artifice, challenged conventional notions of poetry. By championing the principle of “No ideas but in things,” he paved the way for future generations, like Ted Kooser, to explore the beauty of the everyday and find inspiration in the tangible, physical world. There is a lot to admire in this style. Read it and you will learn a lot about writing poetry, but also the world. No ideas but in things.