Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a community near the city of Paterson. His father was an English immigrant, and his mother was born in Puerto Rico. He attended public school in Rutherford until 1897, then was sent to study at Château de Lancy near Geneva, Switzerland, the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, France, for two years and Horace Mann School in New York City. Then, in 1902, he entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. During his time at Penn, Williams befriended Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (best known as H.D.) and the painter Charles Demuth. These friendships supported his growing passion for poetry. He received his M.D. in 1906 and spent the next four years in internships in New York City and in travel and postgraduate studies abroad (e.g., at the University of Leipzig where he studied pediatrics). He returned to Rutherford in 1910 and began his medical practice, which lasted until 1951. Ironically, most of his patients knew little if anything of his writings and instead they viewed him as an old-fashioned doctor who helped deliver over 2,000 of their children into the world.
In 1912, he married his fiancée Florence (Flossie, "the floss of his life") Herman, who had been his co-valedictorian at Horace Mann. The newlyweds moved into a house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford. Shortly afterwards, his first book of serious poems, The Tempers, was published. The Williamses spent most of the rest of their lives in Rutherford, although the couple did travel occasionally. One such trip was to Europe in 1924. There Williams spent time with fellow writers such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Williams returned home alone that year, while his wife and sons stayed in Europe so that the boys could have a year abroad as Williams and his brother had had in their youth. Much later in his career, Williams traveled the United States to give poetry readings and lectures. Although his primary occupation was as a doctor, Williams had a full literary career. His work consists of short stories, plays, novels, critical essays, an autobiography, translations and correspondence. He wrote at night and spent weekends in New York City with friends - writers and artists like the avant-garde painters Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia and the poets Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. He became involved in the Imagist movement but soon he began to develop opinions that differed from those of his poetic peers, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Williams aligned himself with liberal Democratic and left wing issues, although, as his publications in more politically radical journals like Blast and New Masses suggest, his political commitments may have been further to the left than the term "liberal" indicates. In 1949, he published a booklet/poem "The Pink Church" that was about the human body but was misunderstood as being pro-communist. This supposed pro-communism led to his losing a consultantship with the Library of Congress in 1952/3, a fact that led to his being treated for clinical depression. As is demonstrated in an unpublished article for Blast, Williams believed artists should resist producing propaganda and be "devoted to writing (first and last)." However, in the same article Williams claims that art can also be "in the service of the proletariat" (see A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists).
After Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948, his health began to decline, and after 1951 a series of strokes followed. William Carlos Williams died on March 4, 1963 at the age of seventy-nine. Two days later, a British publisher finally announced that he was going to print his poems – one of fate’s ironies, since Williams had always protested the English influence on American poetry. During his lifetime, he had not received as much recognition from Britain as he had from the USA.
Williams is perhaps best known for his poem The Red Wheelbarrow, which is considered the model example of the Imagist movement's style and principles (see also This Is Just To Say). However, Williams did not personally subscribe to Imagist ideas, which were more a product of Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Williams is more strongly associated with the American Modernist movement in literature, which rejected European influences in poetry in favor of regional dialogues and influences.
Williams tried to invent an entirely fresh form, an American form of poetry whose subject matter was centered on everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. He then came up with the concept of the variable foot evolved from years of visual and auditory sampling of his world from the first person perspective as a part of the day in the life as a physician. The variable foot is rooted within the multi-faceted American Idiom. This discovery was a part of his keen observation of how radio and newspaper influenced how people communicated and represents the "machine of words" (as he described a poem on one occasion) just as the mechanistic motions of a city can become a consciousness. Williams didn’t use traditional meter in most of his poems. His correspondence with Hilda Doolittle also exposed him to the relationship of sapphic rhythms to the inner voice of poetic truth:
- "Asteres men amphi kalan selannan
- aps' apukpuptoisi faenon eithos
- &oppota plithoisa malista lampsi
- gan epi paisan"
"The stars about the beautiful moon again hide their radiant shapes, when she is full and shines at her brightest on all the earth" Sappho.
This is to be contrasted with a poem from "Pictures from Brueghel" titled Shadows:
- "Shadows cast by the street light
- under the stars,
- the head is tilted back,
- the long shadow of the legs
- presumes a world taken for granted
- on which the cricket trills"
The breaks in the poem search out a natural pause spoken in the American idiom, that is also reflective of rhythms found within jazz sounds that also touch upon Sapphic harmony. Williams never stopped searching for the perfect line. He experimented with different types of lines and eventually found the “triadic” or “stepped line’’, a long line which is divided into three segments. This line is used in Paterson and in poems like "To Elsie". Here again one of Williams aims is to show the truly American (i.e. opposed to European traditions) rhythm which is unnoticed but present in everyday American language.