“The world too much with us? Rot!”: William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Literary Perception
Keywords: Modernism, poetry, politics, Second World War, New Deal
AbstractThis paper examines the poetics of perception and the accompanying moral commitments of William Carlos Williams’s poetry, paying attention in particular to the visual ethos of his work. If in his early years Williams conceptualized the poet’s function as “lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses.” One of the chief arguments here is that this emphasis be understood as an expansive and ethically implicating one, rather than in creatively circumscribing terms. “Such war, as the arts live and breathe by,” Williams asserts in 1944, “is continuous.” After establishing the ethical basis for Williams’s poetics, this paper assesses the perceptual politics of his work of the 1940s specifically, and in a number of literary and historical contexts, including: his revisionary engagement with William Wordsworth and the Romantic tradition; his infamous poetic “exultation” at the bombing of London in 1941 and his elegy for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and his politically complex and often incendiary poems of social observation in these years. As such, this article both reveals and interrogates the sometimes contradictory ethical engagements and creative procedures that define Williams’s work in a period of profound political crisis.