No ideas but in things

William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) is famously known for coining the term: “No ideas but in things.” This one line from the 1927 version of his poem, Paterson, became a mantra for poetry in the early 20th century. … It changed the look and feel of poetry, possibly more than any other single idea in the past hundred years. It was not original, however … (Ed Wickliffe, in Historical View of W C Williams’ “No Ideas But in Things”

Wickliffe’s essay argues that “Williams meant for poetry to focus on objects rather than mere concepts, on actual things rather than abstract characteristics of things.”  

Wikipedia succinctly explains: “Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. The Imagists rejected the sentiment and discursiveness typical of much Romantic and Victorian poetry.”

Roland Barthes (1915-1980), too, was interested in “things” — and wrote about them (although he didn’t write poetry). For example, ‘The Kitchen of Meaning’ (Barthes, 1988: p157) begins:

“A garment, an automobile, a dish of cooked food, a gesture, a film, a piece of music, an advertising image, a piece of furniture, a newspaper headline … I apply to all of them … a certain reading: modern man, urban man, spends his time reading.  He reads, first of all and above all, images, gestures, behaviors … Even with regards to a written text, we are constantly given a second message to read between the lines of the first.”

Nothing conceptual, abstract, sentimental or discursive here; Barthes looked at life, watched what people were doing, then told us what he thought they were up to.   

Barthes, R. 1988. The Semiotic Challenge. New York: Hill and Wang. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1988 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as L’aventure sémiologique; copyright © 1985 by Éditions du Seuil. [Communications, 1970]


4 thoughts on “No ideas but in things

  1. This, for me, also brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which is considered language poetry, but which was also highly focused on objects. Heck, the three sections of Tender Buttons were Food, Objects, and Rooms. Obviously, her style was quite a bit different than W.C. Wiliams, but I think the association still holds. I can’t find my copy of Tender Buttons currently, or I’d offer up a passage as an example.

  2. The associations are clear enough, but the distinctions are profound. Tender Buttons names objects but wants us to hear and enjoy the sounds of the words for their own sake; WCW wants us to see and experience the objects to which the words are pointing.

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