William Carlos Williams translates some words into sound

The portentous first line of poem XXV in Spring and All, “Somebody dies every four minutes,” undergoes a shift in tone after the second line, “in New York State—” After the line reveals it to be a sentence whose frame of reference is not elegiac but civic or commercial, it can never be the same again. The rest of the poem is a collage of similar morphing sentences. It forms a picture of the poet riding New York’s Interborough Rapid Transit elevated line on a specific day in the summer of 1922, surrounded by words as he cruises the changing skyscape at the level of a city’s roofs.

Here, for instance, the poem takes on poetry’s traditional task of instruction. “Axioms,” reads a subhead at the top of the right column, and the axioms duly follow.

Click to enlarge.

Or rather, a single axiom: “Don’t get killed.” The rest of the page consists of practical applications: data found in the el car and turned to account in language. “I was studying a presentation of the language as it actually is used,” Williams explained to John C. Thirlwall some 35 years after he reached his station (Collected Poems I.505). This note comes to demonstrate that for Williams, studying language on that trip meant translating visual artifacts into sound.

I don’t know what visual artifact resulted in Williams’s calligram of the prancing horses, black and white. However, the alliterative poem about crossing crossings cautiously came to Williams out of a history with a splendid Williams conception at its heart: “one idea only.”

(Condon 64)

And the artifact that provided the obstetrician-poet with his specimen of Georgian Home Counties heartiness (“Ho!”) was a stillborn poem on an advertising card pretending to be a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why the poet gazed studiously right through font and picture and context and pretext to the words alone. The left column of this illustrated Williams shows us words in rapid transit, passing through the visual field as fast as the images in a movie. The right column is a translation of the words into permanent form: the form of a poem.


Condon, J. G. “Railroads in a ‘Careful Crossing Campaign.'” Printers’ Ink 119.9 (1 June 1922): 64, 68. Online at http://books.google.com

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. 2 vols. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986, 1988.

The “Cross Crossings Cautiously” poster is ubiquitous on the Web. The “Ho! for the open country” advertising card is in the Ivy Ledbetter Lee papers at the Princeton University Library, http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/5662330a-4238-492a-abc0-f950f14124e2