There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.
So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth, and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure---the sense of a self- consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.
But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even "chicken" is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol---plus chicken as truth justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes "and", a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion. All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed "verbal rigor" is meant to appeal to an initiated, and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded).
Williams was not against this nearly air-tight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words---double contact, rather than double abstraction.
Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing's thingness, but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words---as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interested in type---in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spatial orientation of type---the "just so" latent within the act of typing words upon a page.
If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:
1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a "just so" upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right---which is a second contact: double contact as opposed to double abstraction.