Reanimated numbers and sounding’s modulations in two poems by William Carlos Williams


Michael Boughn


 To speak of William Carlos Williams and prosody is to invite resistance from the most surprising corners. Frequently, even those who admire Williams’s prosodic practice, those who know the intelligence of his ear, still feel compelled to distance themselves from his many and varied explanations and theories of that practice. Part of the problem, I think, is an unspoken expectation that the language used to discuss poetry should be of another order than the language of poetry itself, a lingering, habitual assumption that prosodic discourse, in so far as it deals with “laws,” the laws of versification, must be free of the “contamination” of figurative language. If prosody is the science of versification, as the dictionary on my desk has it, then explanations of prosody had better be scientific, they had better add up, and if they don’t, if in the end loose threads of thought dangle and language openly drifts into the metaphoric, such explanations are dismissed as “confusing and contradictory,” an accusation repeatedly leveled by critics at Williams’s writings on prosody.[1] My own sense is that Williams’s statements make perfect sense—as poetic descriptions of poetic practice. Williams was not trying to produce a handbook of versification in the tradition of prescriptive 18th century handbooks. What his ear knew, he struggled to articulate as provocation and justification. At stake are this knowing and this sounding and the world they weave.

            Sound’s intelligence murmurs meaning as event rather than idea, although that event may later be imperfectly stated and restated as idea. Sound’s intelligence is another order of form—elusive, transitory, mortal—which calls into question our imagination of meaning, as if it meant more or less than we know, or think we know. At the back of my mind here is Charles Olson’s distinction between VID and GNA as the etymological roots of the two forms of knowing we have. VID is obviously linked to vision, to seeing, and to knowing, as it were, with the mind. But that, as Olson argues, comes later. GNA is our first knowing, a knowing with the senses, and especially a knowing of that through which we first come into sense, or to our senses—rhythm. I murmur poems to my unborn child, mingling the poem’s orders with those of the nested bodies of its dwelling—the vibrations of language’s rhythemes, the thumping of racing organs, the rhythmic, surging, choric spasms traversing its not-yet-body, so that she or he will know, will have a sense of the orders that await its coming.

            One path by which vision and its spectacle feed into poetry is through expectation. As a mode of relation, expectation has historically dominated our sense of poetry’s order. Partly this has to do with expectations role in memory's theater. That looking out for which guides the bardic voice through the forest of words, is the means by which the mother of the muses stakes out her children’s orders. Here numbers have always played the crucial role of holding language to patterns of expectation, so that memory can recall us to the stories, to their telling, which has always been a counting. Or always was a particular kind of counting, before those ancient orders passed away, or receded to a kind of nostalgia for a stability we can no longer even imagine, other than as the resurrection of platform shoes or Beatles songs or some illusory whiff of a 50’s TV family invented even then precisely to fill the chasm of its absence.

            Alexander Pope, the last master poet of expectation, founded his telling on the orders of predictability which characterized the visionary Newtonian cosmos he poised against Milton’s last gasp. His vindication intensifies the relation of seeing and knowing in poetry, moving seeing beyond the sensual, and turning it loose into the unbodied intellect. Predictability locates expectation in the precision of orbital law. Much of Pope’s brilliance is in his recognition that expectation defines cosmology in a mode of knowing, and his unsurpassed skill at articulating that in a particular sounding. But these orders are founded on a receding center, so that Pope, like Milton, winds up uttering a last gasp, which is also the last gasp of expectation as a determining principle of knowing. After that we find ourselves in a space and time where, as Gene Rodenberry put it, no one has gone before. We do not know what to expect, and so must find another way of knowing, or give up the game.

            One name for that new way of knowing is attention. William Carlos Williams is the poet of the modulation from the prosody of expectation to the prosody of attention, and the variable foot is the means of that modulation. The concept of the variable foot is, as just about everybody knows, a site of much bitter contention among those Williams called the Schoolmen, so I want to clarify briefly how I understand his use of this term. In Williams’s 1959 essay on measure that Hugh Kenner edited for Spectrum, Williams specifically proposes the variable foot in opposition to what he calls the fixed foot. By the fixed foot he means any line based on a regular metric.[2] Williams then goes on to analyze three instances in the history of English prosody where the temporary breakdown of the regular metric produces verse of an astonishing quality: some of Campion’s songs, Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and passages in Antony and Cleopatra where the drunkenness of the characters, Williams argues, permits Shakespeare to step beyond the strictures of the iamb to write a new verse that approaches the measured sound of his contemporaries’ voices. In each of these cases, Williams applies the concept of variability to the succession of feet. In a line composed of variable feet, it is impossible to predict what syllabic pattern will measure any given moment. What's called an iamb may be succeeded by another iamb, or by a trochee, or by an anapest (though these terms themselves then become problematic, which provokes Williams's turn to what he calls the idiom as measure). The basis of the prosody of attention is unpredictability.

            If expectation is a looking forward to, attention is a turning of the mind to, a troping that is also a stretching, as in the putting up of tents. Attention resists the movement that expectation brings to measure. In Roman Jacobson's famous proposal, the poetic function is determined by the projection of equivalence from the axis of combination to the axis of selection. When one unit of equivalence is a variable foot, selection is disrupted by the unpredictability of the projected equivalence, resulting in a retardation of selection and, Williams argued, a greater emphasis on each word. The words are brought to attention, or perhaps we are forced to pay more attention. In many poems, Williams combines this technique with syntactic distortions, unpredictable and partial rhymes, and unpredictable line breaks to further turn the mind to the words themselves, as if somehow they might be brought to a new pitch if only we looked closely enough, paid them enough attention. The stake here is what’s sometimes called the ordinary, say our every day lives, as if lives and words bore an unspeakably intimate connection. Williams’ insistence on the idiom as the basis of poetry then figures two ways here. The idiom is the ordinary, exactly that which needs to be brought to attention, or to our attention. And what might be called its rhythemes, the rhythmic units which found comprehensibility, which are identical with our sense of the world, give rise to the variable feet which measure this verse.[3]

            Following Jakobson, let’s suppose that when equivalence is projected onto the axis of selection a range of possibilities results. Contiguity may dominate similarity, for instance, or similarity may dominate contiguity, either of these to differing degrees. This may be one way to measure an important difference between regular and irregular metrics. When similarity dominates contiguity, the metric would tend toward regularity (and the demand for expectation). When contiguity dominates similarity, the metric would tend toward irregularity (and the demand for attention), and what Williams calls the variable foot. The variable foot, as Joseph Riddel suggested, is not, as they say these days, a controlling presence, a determining transcendent structure. Williams points this out in the essay on measure when he laughs at that “something which they believed was above their heads.” The variable foot is a dissonance, a deferral, a measure that refuses to settle, as Emerson might have said. It connects the poem to a traditional ground, but it does so by negation, or perhaps more accurately, by radical distortion, where torsion and tension unsettle the words’ tendency toward a structure of expectations.

            Williams’s manuscript revisions reveal his struggle to keep his rugged numbers animated, or reanimated, his struggle to manipulate syllables into structures of unsettled torsions and tensions. I want to look briefly at two of these poems and the changes Williams’ made to them. The first is an early poem, “Between Walls,” the second a later poem, “To Daphne and Virginia” written in his triadic stanzas.



First draft                                 Final draft


            Between Walls                         Between Walls



            the back                                   the back wings

            wings                                        of the


            of the                                        hospital where

            hospital                                     nothing



            nothing                                      will grow lie


            will grow—

            cinders                                     in which shine

            in which                                    the broken


            shine                                         pieces of a green

            pieces of                                   bottle

            a green


            bottle                                        (CEP 343)


In the first version, no line has more than one stress nor, with two exceptions, is longer than two syllables. The syllable-to-stress pattern looks like this: 2(i):I(I):2(0), 3(l):1(0):2(l), 2(l):2(l):2(0), 1(0):3(l):2(l), 2(l). The important thing to note here is the relative regularity of the stress pattern, I or 0. Of thirteen lines, 85% have one or two syllables and 69% have one strong stress, while 3 1 % are unstressed. In the second version, the lines are reorganized to carry from two to five syllables and zero to two strong stresses in an irregular pattern (stresses measured by probability?) that goes 3(2):2(0), 4(l):2(l), 3(l):2(l), 3(i):3(l), 5(2):2(l). This revision introduces a rhythmic variety absent in the first version. 60% of the lines now have greater than 2 syllables, while 20% of the lines now have 2 strong stresses. An irregular pattern emerges, but it is unpredicatable. It’s a metric based on probability rather than predictability. Think of Schrodinger’s cat here, and the proposal that it is neither alive nor dead until we open the box. This is the condition of the line built from the variable foot. This new line, with its enlarged rhythmic possibility, then works with or against the syntax of the poem’s single sentence, to retard resolution and keep a tension (attention) in the lines.

            In the second version, Williams adds the verb which is missing in the first version, thus adding a syllable and completing the syntactic structure, which then could be reconstructed to read: “The broken pieces of a green bottle shine in the cinders [which] lie [between] the back wings of the hospital where nothing will grow.” Williams reworks this sentence into a periodic structure which delays semantic resolution, creating a suspension of comprehension that defeats expectation. Not knowing where we are in the sentence or where it’s going, we don’t know what to expect, a state Williams reinforces in the way his new stanza structure works the syntax within the lines. The couplets of the final version all move from resolution to irresolution. The double stress of “back wings” is undercut by the stressless and imageless “of the,” setting a pattern that becomes a dominating equivalence in the poem. The first line of the second stanza, qualifying and locating “wings,” seems to be moving toward more specificity, but then drops into uncertainty again with the line “nothing” and the concluding unstressed syllable. In all but one couplet, the first line ends with a stressed syllable, the second with an unstressed syllable, so that the syntactic irresolution and the continually deferred completion of the image are imbedded in a pattern of rhythmic irresolution and suspense that thrusts forward then pulls back. Finally, syntax, rhythm, and sense all resolve in the last line, “bottle.”

            If the poem is openly post-Romantic in its substitution of broken green glass for the absent green world of nature, it still maintains a certain Romantic concern for the conservation of beauty. In this world where nothing will grow, though, beauty comes as a surprise, not as part of a structure of expectation. Expectation exists only in the condition of desolation. Beauty is unpredictable, a reward for attention in a world where none of the old forms signify any longer. There’s a metonymic quality to the progression of attention in this world. With no “above their heads” to provide a transcending vision of this topos (or this verse), no text to explain what to look for, the language is forced to move from piece to piece, and if we are to attain any satisfaction from it, it will only be in our attention to those pieces and that movement.

            This tracking of the pieces of things which characterizes so many of Williams’s early poems gives way to some new principle in the later poems, especially in Williams’s full scale shift to the staggered triadic line in Book V of Paterson. Charles Olson identified this shift as moving from edges and things to the track of the mind after collision with them, a shift which necessitated a new measure to sustain its dynamic. The question is still one of attention, but the object of attention is now the mind’s movement itself. Again, Williams’s manuscript revisions reveal his intense concerns with syllabic manipulation in the new line, as can be seen in the following example from “To Daphne and Virginia.”


First draft


The smell of the heat

is boxwood when rousing us

a movement of the air

stirs our thoughts

that had no life in them

to a life in which

two women agonize

to live and to breathe is no less—

two young women.

The box odor

is the odor of that which

they partake separately

each to herself

and of which I partake


Be patient that I address you in a poem

there is no other

fit medium.

Ariel, the mind

lives there. It is uncertain

it can trick us

but for resources

what can equal it.

There is nothing can equal it

we should be lost without

its wings.


Final Draft


The smell of the heat is boxwood

when rousing us

a movement of the air

stirs our thoughts

that had no life in them

to a life, a life in which

two women agonize:

to live and to breathe is no less.

Two young women.

The box odor

is the odor of that of which

partaking separately

each to herself

I partake also

.         .         separately.


Be patient that I address you in a poem

there is no other

fit medium.

The mind

lives there. It is uncertain

can trick us and leave us

agonized. But for resources

what can equal it?

There is nothing. We

should be lost

without its wings to

fly off upon. (CP II, 246-7)



            Williams made eight significant revisions in this opening section of the poem, the rest of which shows equally close attention. Each of the revisions shifts the rhythmic structure while sometimes altering the syntax as well. In the first stanza, the shift of “is boxwood” from the second to the first line changes both the rhythmic development and the syntactic relations of the sentence parts in the lines. The two beat line of the first draft, ending on the stressed “heat," tends to bury “boxwood” in the second line with the adverbial clause. The equal distribution of two stresses to each line in the stanza and the coincidence of line boundaries and grammatical boundaries creates a sense of a regular structure in which expectation is realized. By redistributing the stresses into a three-one-two pattern with unstressed final syllables in the first two lines, Williams introduces unpredictability and asymmetry into the rhythmic development. This results in a new tension in the lines that the now broken syntax underscores: does “when rousing us” relate to what precedes or follows it? Does the smell of heat rouse us, or the movement of the air? The suspense and suspension tautly controls our attention, focusing it on each word and its movement to the next word.

            The other changes Williams makes in this section demonstrate a similar concern. The addition of two syllables and a stress in the third line of the second stanza breaks up the two-two-two stress pattern with its slack symmetry, adding a third stress and a kind of syncopation that once again undermines a possible structure of expectation by introducing the unexpected. The change in the fourth stanza maintains the syllable count, but reduces the stress count from four to three while changing the syntax from a straight forward subject-predicate construction to a participial construction. This results in a rhythmic speeding up of the line at the same time that the right branching syntax works to create a tension against the sentence’s forward movement.

            Williams’s syllabic tinkering increases the pressure on each word in the line. Rather than getting somewhere, somewhere in sight, somewhere we look forward to, this pressure directs us to linger in each word’s sounding. This precession of the principle of selection, this reigning in of the metonymic chain, is a way of forcing us to an attention otherwise given over to a habit and a comfort that Williams saw as a deadly negation of the astonishment of the ordinary, a loss of the world. Relating a similar sense of loss to his understanding of metaphysics, Stanley Cavell calls this “the human restlessness in the ordinary, and its attraction to the beyond, not to mention the before’ (61). The interest in alchemy that Williams shared with James Sibley Watson in their discussions of Jung may figure in here. The notion of the alchemical work as the work of world redemption as Jung presents it in Psychology and Alchemy resonates with Williams’ notion of the work of the poem as the agency of the world’s recovery.

            The feeling that the world needs to be recovered is an old one, but it seems to have gained a new urgency in the wake the increasing devastation of the known world, both physical and cultural, in the early 20th century. Emerson's troping of the new world toward a new word, a new writing (or in Emerson’s case, a new Logos), feeds Williams’s sense of poetry’s possibility in the midst of this place where nothing will grow. Woven through this is a response to the skepticism that Stanley Cavell sees as measure of the world’s withdrawal from us, a withdrawal that according to Cavell’s reading of European philosophical traditions, seems to coincide with profound changes in the world of work and material production that began to pick up steam in the 16th century:

The feeling that we have to penetrate phenomena is evidently produced by a feeling of some barrier to or resistance of phenomena (as if the conditions of a thing’s appearance were limitations in approaching it; as if skepticism accurately registers the world’s withdrawal from us, say its shrinking); as if language has difficulty in reaching phenomena, let alone grasping them. Then all our words are of grief, and therefore of grievance and violence. (88)


Wheelbarrows, shards of broken glass, words themselves all equally have become alienated from us and their displacement justified or compensated for by elaborate structures that continually direct our vision beyond the meagre horizons we think to live within.

            Williams’s impatience with those obsessed with “something which they believed was above their heads” is not news. That that impatience so thoroughly informs his prosodic thinking is perhaps less obvious. But the variable foot with its multiple connections to Williams concept of the ordinary, its insistence on attention, and its opposition to structures which transcend and predetermine the act of articulation, does seem to work in opposition to a “beyond and before” which founds the death of our attention to this world. Our attention to words in this circumstance becomes all the more important as a remedy to our endless grief at that death. Writing of Emerson, Stanley Cavell relates this to what he calls the Kantian function: “if the world is to be new, then what creates what we call the world—our experience and our categories (‘notions’ Emerson says sometimes; let us say our every word)—must be new, that is to say, repronounced, renounced. In the ‘American Scholar’ this is sometimes called thinking . . .” (94). Or we could call it, following Williams, poetry.



Cavell, Stanley. Philosophical Passages. Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Harding, D. W. Words into Rhythm. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

Jakobson, Roman. “Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style and Language. Ed. Thomas Sebeok. NY: Technology Press of MIT, 1960.

Olson, Charles. “Paterson Book 5." Evergreen Review 3 (Summer 1959).

__________. Under the Mushroom.” In Muthologos. Vol. 1. 1963. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978.

Perloff, Marjorie. "'To Give a Design’: Williams and the Visualization of Poetry.” In William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet. Ed. Carroll F. Terrell. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1983.

Riddel, Joseph. The Inverted Bell . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974.

Williams, William Carlos. “Measure”. Spectrum 3.3 (Fall 1959): 133-58.

__________. Collected Poems, 1909-1939. Vol. I. Ed. by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 198 .

__________. Collected Poems, 1939-1962. Vol. II. New York: New Directions, 1988.

            The manuscript versions of “Between Walls” (item A-39) and “To Daphne and Virginia” (item A363) are from the manuscript collection at the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo.



[1] See, for example, Perloff, who goes on to repeat A. K. Weatherhead's accusation that the concept of the variable foot is a "contradiction in terms, rather like an elastic inch” (179-80). Both critics seem unaware of the fact that in terms of measure Einstein initiated precisely the era of the elastic inch. Nevertheless, both of these critics are friends to Williams's verse. The vitriol of its enemies is correspondingly more intense.

[2] The conventional assumption of traditional prosodists, as well as the so-called New Formalists, is that verse is either metrical or what they call non-metrical. I’d argue that this taxonomy begs the question, and follows from an antique cosmology that sees order and chaos as mutually exclusive categories, a cosmology that developments in chaos theory and non-linear dynamics have laid finally to rest. It also seems based on an understanding of meter as ornament rather than instrument.

                Metrical means measured and all verse by definition is measured. The issue is the nature of the measure. A more accurate distinction is based on the difference between regular and irregular metrics, as well as whether the metric precedes the poem’s articulation or proceeds from it, that is, whether it is a transcendent, controlling presence or an ongoing discovery and revelation of elusive, complex orders.

[3] I’m using this term to indicate the basic rhythmic units which make up the rhythmic vocabulary that characterizes any given language. D. W. Harding has proposed that this rhythmic vocabulary is rooted in the functioning of the intercostal muscles which produce and regulate air flow for speech. The muscular contractions are irregular, producing surges of air which result in perceived speech stress patterns. Different language communities and sub-communities organize the muscular phenomenon into different possibilities which results in characteristic rhythmic patterning, a basic lexicon of rhythmic units which founds intelligibility. As Harding argues, "Poorly enunciated words conforming to the right rhythm will often be more intelligible than correctly pronounced words wrongly rhythmized” (9). He goes on:

The rhythmical units of speech, for instance, are comparable to the shapes that pattern our visual environment: they are like the rectangles and triangles and odd-shaped polygons, the circles and cylinders and ellipses that go to make up the appearance of our walls and floors and tables and chairs, telephone and typewriter; we can for special purposes attend to these constituent shapes, but in the ordinary way they flow into one another and remain subordinate to the functional that we call for instance a table or a chair (15).