The University of Wisconsin Press

Literature & Criticism

A Poetry of Presence
The Writing of William Carlos Williams

Bernard Duffey

William Carlos Williams was an inventive writer never confined by any static genre or aesthetic postulate. In this authoritative study, Bernard Duffey recognizes that literary dynamism as he approaches the full breadth of William’s work—including his poetry, prose, fiction, and drama—as an interrelated and interdependent web of writing. The result, the first truly comprehensive examination of a major American author and his kinetic art, will interest students and scholars of Williams, American literature, and modern poetry and criticism.

Central to Duffey’s study is a critical framework based on Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives and the perception of the poet as working in relation to a “scene” and its content—in this case, the geographical and cultural locale that Williams clung to. Williams’s work, Duffey argues, was informed by the dramatic sense of himself as a literary actor seeking embodiment of a dynamic, altering whole and his present condition of being. Ultimately, he stresses, the writer was more engaged in expressing literary action than in forging literary objects.

Duffey amplifies this critical view through a close reading of specific works. Examining Williams’s principal writings in the lights that seem most immediate to them, he tackles a variety of themes: the pervasiveness of scene in In the American Grain and the fiction; the role of agent or poetic person in Kora in Hell, A Voyage to Pagany, Paterson, and Pictures from Brueghel; the function of poetic agency in the short poems, and of poetic action in Williams’s drama.

Bernard Duffey (1917–1994) was professor of English at Duke University. He edited two anthologies and authored two previous critical studies, including Poetry in America: Expression and Its Values in the Times of Bryant, Whitman, and Pound.

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

March 1986

LC: 85-040760 PS
352 pp.   5 1/2 x 8 1/2
Cloth ISBN 978-0-299-10470-2

For rights and permissions inquiries, contact


Home | Books | Journals | Events | Textbooks | Authors | Related | Search | Order | Contact

If you have trouble accessing any page in this web site, contact our Web manager.

Updated 9/24/2014

© 2013 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System