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Riposte (1917)

William Carlos Williams

Poetry, difficult? No way! William Carlos Williams uses the language of his fellow townspeople in his poetry. He even addresses them personally in this poem.

illustratie: lees in nederlands
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Riposte

Liefde is gelijk water of de lucht
mijn stadsmensen;
zij reinigt, en verdrijft de kwalijke gassen.
Zij is gelijk poëzie ook,
en om dezelfde redenen.

Liefde is zo kostbaar
mijn stadsmensen
dat 'k ze als ik jullie was
achter slot en grendel zou bewaren
gelijk de lucht, de Atlantische Oceaan of
gelijk poëzie!

Vertaling: Ludo Abicht

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Listen to this poem in English.
Voiced by: Rick van Vliet

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This poem in 60 seconds

What is considered valuable, and how do you take care of it? Williams’s patients probably had a mostly practical view on this. In this poem he makes light of the importance of love and culture while using the language of his townspeople. Riposte was the first poem in which Williams no longer wished to write elegantly or academically but instead more like the common people.

Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.

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William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

Rutherford, New Jersey 1883 - 1963

Williams grew up in a family that greatly valued literature, poetry and art. He studied medicine, and was a pediatrician at what is now St. Mary's General Hospital in New Jersey for almost his entire life. He started writing during his medical studies. During the day, he worked as a doctor and at night he wrote poems, short stories, plays and essays.

Poet

During his studies and his first years of his medical practice Williams visited New York frequently and got acquainted with several innovative artists. The one who impacted his work the most was Ezra Pound on which Williams later wrote: “before meeting Pound is like B.C and A.D”. Pound played an important role in the publication of Williams’s second book The Tempers in 1913, with which he gathered fame among a wider audience.

American poetry

From 1920 onward, Williams was determined to go his own way. He was in search of real American poetry. According to him, this should focus on American colloquial speech and could be found in everyday life in the United States. Williams was often inspired by stories from his patients and the conversations he had with them. During his final years, many young poets perceived him as an example and occasionally he acted as a mentor. The validation he received for his work increased and in 1963 he was awarded the Pulitzer prize for his last poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel, and Other Poems posthumously.
 

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What's this poem about?

During his student days, Williams was part of the fencing team of the University of Pennsylvania. The title of the poem, Riposte, is a fencing term, a counter maneuver and in a bigger sense of the word also a sharp reply in a conversation or debate. What is the speaker’s (Williams perhaps) conversation with his fellow townspeople about?

Value

The conversation is about value. How do you do take care of something that is of great value? If it relates to material possessions, it is common sense to store them away in a safe or in the bank. However, this is not possible for things of emotional value. For instance, the fact that love and poetry are not stored away but are shared is what makes them so valuable.

Value and purpose

What good do love or poetry do us? This is what the townspeople seem to wonder. Their value cannot be counted after all. A little mockingly, the poet points out that love and poetry are as cleansing and effective against “evil gasses” as water and air. They should be regarded as of such high value that it would be wise to keep them safe, which is commonly done with ‘real’ possessions of value.

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Origin story

For years, Williams tried to write like his literary heroes, first like John Keats and later Ezra Pound. After his second poetry collection he decided to break away from the conventional idea of using poetic language, the commonly accepted forms of a ‘real’ poem and the academic elite norms of quality ‘good’ literature should have. In 1913 he started his quest for this new poetry.

American poetry

Through his work as a doctor, in which he came in contact with people from all kinds of backgrounds on a daily basis, William concluded that poetry should not only be for the elite but also accessible to a wider audience. He now saw American colloquial speech as a source for authentic, real-world poetry. The collection of poems Al Que Quiere! from 1917 which included the poem Riposte is part of the first collection of poems which Williams wrote from this perspective.

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Share your story

Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know at muurgedichten@taalmuseum.nl! We would love to add your story to our website.

illustratie: gedicht in leiden
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William Carlos Williams in Leiden

This poem could be found in Leiden at Breestraat 81 from 1996. Unfortunately it has disappeared.

Note: unfortunately, this poem is no longer on the wall, though may be restored in the future.

illustratie: citaten
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Citaten

Williams was the most important literary doctor since Chekhov

Literary critics Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair

No Ideas but in Things

This sentences, taken from Williams’s poems A Sort of a Song and Patterson, became his mantra and inspiration for his followers.
 

I have no interest in the speech of the English country people, which has something artificial about it. Instead I seek a language modified by our environment, the American environment.

William Carlos Williams
 

I was determined to use the material I knew

William Carlos Williams

illustratie: wist je dat
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Fun facts

  • Williams collected sayings from patients which he wrote down on prescription slips. Occasionally he would even write poems on them.
  • There is also a wall poem by William Carlos Williams to be found in The Hague:

    This is just to say

    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    saving
    for breakfast

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold
Video
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This poem was put to music by the Leiden band Street fable.

illustratie: lees dit gedicht in het engels
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Riposte

Love is like water or the air
my townspeople:
it cleanses, and dissipates evil gases,
it is like poetry too
and for the same reasons.

Love is so precious
my townspeople
that if I were you I would
have it under lock and key -
like the air or the Atlantic or
like poetry!

illustratie: meer weten
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Learn more

This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Rick van Vliet. The translation into English is by Natasja Oorthuis. The following publications were consulted:

  • Studie van onderzoeker Rick van Vliet: Engelse en Amerikaanse Taal- en Letterkunde aan RU Leiden
  • Website: Poetry Foundation
  • Wikipedia