An Essay Regarding “A New Measure” by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams discusses the break from meter or set verse in his essay “A New Measure”, found in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. As he states in the essay, the count has gotten “rid of the words, which held it down, and returned to the music.” Instead of meter, he wants a more natural flow that is musical and the poet’s own beat. Williams says that the syllables have “divorced” the beat. Reading essays by William Carlos Williams, I am constantly reminded of Ezra Pound and the rules he lays out in “A Retrospect”. Pound says that rhythm must be composed in musical phrase, not in the progression of a metronome. Physical speech (with an American dialect) is the new form of measure, the new foot.

Williams continues with an essay entitled “The Poem as a Field of Action”, discussing how the subject matters of poems should be fantasy. Poetry is a dream. A poem, like a dream as observed by Sigmund Freud, reveals our deepest desires. Poems should be interpreted like a dream. The reference to Freud did not surprise me since Williams was a doctor. He says that this dream-like perception was always the focus of poetry until the new zeitgeist (spirit or mood defining an era) came along and ruined it in “industrial destruction,” referring to the Industrial Revolution.

Williams says that he “wants to destroy the past,” or at least delete the industrial era that drifts from the illusory aspect of poetry. He continuously wants to attack it “in tradition.” He sees it as a duty to traditionalists to attack the industrial era, because in creating something contemporary, he is fulfilling what the original creators of meter were capable of creating. He says that “in any case we loose, disassociated (linguistically), yawping speakers of a new language, are privileged [he guesses] to sense and so to seek to discover that possible thing which disturbing the metrical table of values – as unknown elements would disturb Mendelyeev’s table of the periodicity of atomic weights and so lead to discoveries.” He wishes to approach poetics like a science, and yet wants a “soul” to be created around it.

When Williams talks about structure, he praises “Mr. Eliot” and “Mr. P” for their efforts, but argues they do not help this shift to the new contemporary style. But he praises Mr. Auden as the most agile of his era. He says that Proust was the first to link poetry with the natural science of speech. He came to America and broke away from English meter. In comparing Eliot and Auden though, Williams says that Eliot spoke more in an American sense than Auden with his “English ears” would ever be able to. Williams wants to attack the dialect in poems. Williams is very much focused on an outside object with a focus on carefully picked language, which reminds me of Pound’s rules to exclude words that don’t contribute to presentation, and his direct treatment of a “thing.” Williams says that while industrialism has evolved into the subject matter of poets of his era, these poets have not yet applied it to their use of measure.

In the poem Blizzard, Williams is observant of a snowfall and a man’s steps. Each line has its own unique musical value. “Snow falls: / years of anger following / hours that float idly down” states Williams in his assessment. Words are picked carefully, and each line does not have an overbearing excess of words, but rather tries to find a measure that is flowing yet free of metrical restrictions. “Or sixty years, eh? Then / the sun! a clutter of / yellow and blue flakes”. While there is enjambment, it feels musical.

Still, I feel like defining poetry as simply “musical” opens opinion to which direction it could go, and that is probably a positive result of these essays. As Williams states when he is showing a count example in A New Measure, “you may not agree with my ear, but that is the way I count the line.” Contemporary poetry, in my opinion, is a little more of a personal experience than set meter. Contemporary American poetry is a debate that Pound and Williams started.

“I say this once again to emphasize what I have often said – that we here must listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make,” Williams said.

In a poem appropriately titled Poem, Williams says, “As the cat / climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset / first the right / forefoot // carefully / then the hind / stepped down // into the pit of / the empty / flowerpot.” According to Robert Grenier in Organic Prosody in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, there is a clear use of what he describes as Williams’ natural sequences of action. As Grenier describes, Williams was trying to find a “unified prosodic structure.” Grenier also notes Williams in his use of “imitative form,” like in The Cod Head:

Miscellaneous weed

strands, stems, debris—



to fishes—

where the yellow feet

of gulls dabble


oars whip

ships churn to bubbles—

at night wildly


agitate phospores-

cent midges—but by day


Grenier explains that there is a “lulling” feel to the musicality of the poem. It feels like the rocking of the ocean, which directly reflects the subject of the poem. While imitative form was not originally a Williams concept, it shows that Williams was searching for an American identity.

I have found that Williams evolved on his theory of musicality. For example, in the poem Complaint there is also musical phrasing. “They call me and I go. / It is a frozen road / past midnight, a dust / of snow caught / in the rigid wheeltracks.” The phrasing reminds me of the musicality of Ezra Pound. As Pound stats in his poem [Greek], “Be in me as the eternal moods / of the bleak wind, and not / As transient things are – gaiety of flowers.”

Williams becomes even more broken with the musicality in the poem The Great Figure. Some lines are just a word. “Among the rain / and lights / I saw the figure 5 / in gold / on a red / firetruck / moving / tense” he says, giving the poem a little more speed, before slightly slowing at the end. This shows his arguable influence on poets like Charles Bukowski, who will have repetitive, one-word lines. As Bukowski said, “for even / at the most terrible / moments / humor / is my / companion.”

There is a consistence, but no meter, in some of Wisława Szymborska’s works. But in her book 2010 poetry book “Here”, there are poems that I believe could relate to Williams. A great example is the poem Example: “A gale / stripped all the leaves from the trees last night / except for one leaf / left / to sway solo on a naked branch. // With this example / Violence demonstrates / that yes of course – / it likes its little joke from time to time.” While technically the poem was originally written in Polish, and not written in an American tongue, the breaks in this poem reflect a very contemporary style, which could be related back to Williams. There is an observation of nature, mixed with Szymborska’s own personal wit, where each line has its own musical count. It has imagery, but Szymborska is listening to the language to choose her count for each line. The last line of the poem, however, is slightly longer, so it makes me wonder if it would sound more musical in the original Polish.

In The Mercury We So Carefully Raise, Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü says:

passing through

the ruins of the black see-saw

oozing our of the borderlands

prolonging the dance

pressing upon the chambers of the flesh

early morning 6 A.M.

tendering the pale moon

Also written in another language (Cantonese), in my opinion, the English translation reads nicely with an American tongue. There is a musicality in the breaks of the poem, embellishing the “passing through” and “the dance.” Mentioning a dance adds to the musicality, and the poem has an observance of a “thing” that Williams, as well as Pound, would appreciate. The “pressing upon the chambers of the flesh” also creates a deep image that creates a human aspect to her observations, without directly being subjective.

Did Williams, in his search for an American identity, create a global voice? Or were the translators of these poems simply attuned to translating to an American dialect, and is American poetry something that needs to be broken from in the new generation?