William Carlos William: Consciousness, Knowledge, and Word


But at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative. Nothing could be more ridiculous.  To data there is no end.  There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge—

                                                                        William Carlos Williams


Experience comes to the consciousness as the present moment; it comes to us as the single whole of experience: there is pure unknowable yet directly experienced experience, and then there is the breaking down of experience into an intelligible contexture of wholes woven into a linguistically expressible reality of defined parcels of data, and that is the work of “reason”(Shelley) and the “imagination”(Shelley) to produce “knowledge”(Williams).


Words are limited. To have meaning a word can not mean everything, and to this extent words must be limited. In the act of description: the act of translating direct experience into words, there is a compression happening; a compression of infinite living experience into the limited individual data of words.


In language there is a corruption of truth so deep and profound that to talk at all is to lie unforgivably about the nature of conscious experience. For example the lie in the word tree, is that the limited data the word expresses confines the experience of experience, universe, earth, life, forest, to a part, while at the same time blurring into one the individual components of every individual atom, molecule, cell, tissue, bark, leaf, branch.


Language,  or rather data as the principle of language, arbitrarily creates these limited and defined wholes from, and after the fact of, unknownable direct experience:  arbitrarily creating limited and defined identities, which in turn may be arbitrarily and infinitely broken down, and arbitrarily and infinitely aggregated: “to data there is no end”(williams). This is the process Shelley refers to when he writes “language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination” (Shelley). The “two classes of mental action which are called Reason and Imagination”(Shelley) process direct experience into intelligible datas: imagination “synthesizes” arbitrary defined datas, while reason is responsible for their relational “grammar”. For example in the sentence the “tree next to the tree”, tree is a whole arbitrarily divided from the unity of experience by imagination, and then relationally defined by reason to make direct experience knowable.


To write at all one must use words. The limits of language and knowable reality are unavoidable for the intelligible communication of what is happening in the moment to the perceiver of the moment, and therefore also when an individual communicates some intelligible data to another individual. So writing will always be the expression of knowledge, and to a large degree that is its purpose: to communicate how to know experiences: to teach, and for the reader to learn how to identify a situation and know what to do in it through knowing what others have done in the same situation.


However for Williams the compression of experience into knowledge in writing: the parceling up of infinite experience into limited and defined datas, is responsible for Crude Symbolism: “Crude symbolism is to associate emotions with natural phenomena such as anger with lightning , flowers with love, it goes further and associates such textures with – Such work is empty. It is very typical of almost all that is done by the writers who fill the pages every month of such a paper as. Everything I have done in the past – except those parts which my be called excellent – by chance, have that quality about them.” (Williams)


The “constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world” is knowledge: that continually wraps experiential actuality into the limits of parcels of data, defined definitions, words, interpretations and images. This act of compression moves us from the direct experience of the PRESENT THAT IS RIGHT HERE AND NOW:












into the realm of knowledge: into the realm of abstract metaphysical data that exist on a different plain than direct experience. For most, this plain of defined and knowable wholes is a comfort zone from which to watch the unknowable directly experienced present unfold through the lens of knowledge. Echoing Breckt’s Dramaturge when she says: “Its as if you wouldn’t admit anything that hadn’t first been filtered through the brain. I don’t agree with the view that artists have less reasoning power than other people (though its arguable), but they have more faculties to work with than just their reason. If you’re only prepared to pass what they have registered and docketed in their brains not much is going to reach the stage.” (Dialogues p.40) this comfort zone of knowledge is also what Williams refers to when he says: “The reader has also in his mind a vision of what he would be, some day. Oh, Some Day! But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that is. And this moment is the only thing in which I am interested”. [Williams Spring]


William Carlos Williams is the poet  “beholding intensely the present as it is.” (Shelley): a  man gone beyond limited knowledge: not altogether beyond the use of language, words, and conceptualization, but sufficiently beyond their constraints to no longer be limited to knowledge in his writing. Williams writes from a place that is before and beyond knowledge: a place that he also calls the “Imagination”.[Williams Spring] In the context of Shelley, Williams is in effect writing on the cutting edge of breaking down present experience into new knowledge, rather than using inherited knowledge. Each time Williams writes he is breaking down experience anew: actively “synthesizing” and “imagining” new words and word combinations with which to know direct experience anew. Rather than relying on traditional reference points for experience held in already used words and word combination, presently experienced experience spontaneously dictates for itself how it can be known in the present.


For Williams description of direct experience done from the point of prior knowledge and predefined datas “is designed to keep up the barrier between sense and the vapour fringe which distracts attention from its agonized approach to the moment. It has been the search for a “beautiful illusion”… I am not in search of a “Beautiful Illusion”. (williams)




So what is the writing of direct experience done on the cutting edge of imagination? What is the present moment described into spontaneous and new datas in the present rather than description through past associations and traditional formulas?


Williams says such “work will be in the realm of imagination as plain as the sky is to a fisherman.” (williams) Imagination for Williams is beyond time and so beyond the past and its associations, it can imagine from scratch without past reference and association, it can begin with the present and make fresh images and poetry. Work from Imagination is “an escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from “reality”.”(williams)


In that I hold poetry to ultimately be the interface of the infinite soul that directly experiences existence with the limited language and inherited knowledge of humanity, as mediums through which the soul can express itself in the moment, I completely agree with Willams’ method of writing from the cutting edge of imagination.


Otherwise poetry is “ searching about in daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts”(williams): merely elegant description that taps into inherited knowledge and emotional associations, and this can not be, for it is the presently new and unique description of direct experience of existence itself that expresses the living and present soul of the writer, rather than his historical and socially relative identities.


That is to say, the subject matter and the language used is irrelevant (so long as the description of direct experience is intelligible) because all descriptions can only be fragmentary descriptions of that one monumental subject that is existence itself; and all the content and specific detail of reality are ultimately merely representations indicating an unrepresentable general “is-ness”: the goal of poetry is capturing life as it is in the moment: not limited knowledge of it.


Poetry is consciousness evident in speech: the presence of a soul expressed through information that would otherwise be but random and arbitrary binary. Poetry is the evidence or trace of a living soul; a well-said and spontaneous phrase that indicates the very real present consciousness of existence by another living soul: Poetry is the gift of not being alone.



Brecht, Bertolt. ‘The Messingkauf Dialogues’ Trans. John, Willett. Methuen Drama. 1965.

Peacock, Thomas Love. The four ages of Poetry; Shelley, Percey. A defence of Poetry. 1820.

William, Carlos, Williams. ‘Spring and all’ Copies Supplied.

Comments are closed.