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William Carlos Williams was a double agent. This mild-mannered doctor by day was one of America's coolest avant garde poets by night. Though he was sometimes overshadowed by poets like T.S. Eliot (who he wasn't afraid to talk some junk about), WCW had a long and successful career as a poet, while at the same time maintaining his medical practice in his hometown of Rutherford, NJ (talk about an over achiever). This guy was crazy. He'd spend all day delivering babies, write a bunch of poems at night, and then he'd head to NYC on the weekends to rub shoulders with the who's who of artsy fartsy folk. Yes, this was actually his life.
WCW's career was jumpstarted by his friendship with Ezra Pound, who he met while in med school at the University of Pennsylvania, along with fellow poet H.D. (a.k.a. Hilda Doolittle). All three became members of the Imagist movement of poets, whose goal was to get rid of all the fancy rules and forms of old school poetry and instead create poems which used simple language to paint precise pictures of their subjects. Later in his career, WCW became totally obsessed with creating a uniquely American style of poetry, which drew from the natural rhythms of everyday American speech and took its subjects from everyday American life.
"The Dance," first published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), shows off a lot of Williams' poetic goals and influences. Sure, the poem doesn't exactly fall in line with the whole writing-about-America thing. After all, it's inspired by "The Kermess," a painting by sixteenth-century Flemish master, Brueghel the Elder, and it depicts Dutch peasants getting their dance on at a local festival. Though the subject matter is about as European as it gets, it still reveals Williams' obsession with capturing the lives of average, ordinary folks. Brueghel was actually famous for his depictions of everyday life, so it makes sense that Williams would jibe with the work of this earlier artist. More than anything with "The Dance," Williams once again shows off his gift for using simple language and striking images to conjure new worlds in the mind of the reader.
Hey, everybody likes a party, and in "The Dance" we get to hear about what seems to be a completely awesome one. Sure, it's a dance party being had by sixteenth-century Flemish peasants, as shown in sixteenth-century Flemish painting, but through the eyes of the speaker of this poem it's about as fun as it gets. Who says old school Flemish peasants didn't know how to have a good time?
Beyond being just about how fun a dance party can be, though, the poem is a celebration of life itself. By describing in such vivid detail the sheer joy being felt by all the partygoers, the speaker seems to pointing out the fact that sometimes… things are good. It's kind of refreshing, right? There's so much doom and gloom out there, sometimes it's cool to be reminded of the good times.
Get the deets on the doctor-poet's life here.
As if the Last Bio Wasn't Enough
Click here for more about Williams' life—this time from Poets.org.
You can check out "The Kermess" (a.k.a. "The Peasant Dance") as well as a bunch of other paintings by Brueghel on this site.
It's All About Image
Poets.org gives you the scoop on Williams, Pound, and the other poets of the Imagist movement.
Painting vs. Poem
This video lets you check out the painting and the poem at the same time.
Williams Reads Williams
Are you dying to hear the poet read the poem? Well, today's your lucky day.
UPenn and U
This is a great site providing MP3 audio files of various readings.
…and here it is: the painting that's causing all the fuss.
Sweet hat, Bill.
Think he used product in his hair back then?
WCW in the Paris Review
For those in the know, The Paris Review is code for The Big Time.
Fear the NY Times
This Times reviewer is not a fan of a book about Williams. Check out why and also get some steamy details about Williams' life.
Collected Poems Vol. 1
This big book of WCW contains both first and revised versions of the poem.
Collected Poems Vol. 2
If that first volume didn't do it for you, this one gives you more.
William Carlos Williams
The filmmakers who made this documentary about WCW probably could've been more poetic with the title.