William Carlos Williams's Influence on Kenneth Burke

David Blakesley

Presented at the Modern Language Association Conference
Toronto, December 1997

BURKE AND WILLIAMS CORRESPONDED PRIVATELY FOR 42 YEARS, beginning in 1921 when Burke was just 23; they occasionally reviewed each other's work in print; and importantly, they spent many days roaming Burke's farm in Andover, New Jersey, his retreat from what both men called the "tidal cesspools" of New York City (Williams wrote of Andover in his 1946 poem, "At Kenneth Burke's Place"). The relationship was one of mutual influence and empathy: Burke served as one of Williams's shrewdest, most infuriating, yet always receptive critics; Williams acted in less obvious ways as Burke's poetic conscience, Williams himself having managed to perform an aesthetic that Burke wished he had had the sensibility to enact in his own writing. In overly simplistic terms, Williams was the poet, Burke the critic, and while relationships grounded as such are common in literary history, they rarely have the vitality that this one did.

Williams scholars have, of course, paid the Burke-Williams connection considerable attention. Paul Mariani's biography, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981), is perhaps the first work to stress Burke's presence in Williams's life and thought. While interested less in the mutual influence of these two writers than in developing an alternative reading of Williams's poetry, Bernard Duffey's A Poetry of Presence (1986) reads Williams through the lens of Burke's pentad, his terminology in A Grammar of Motives for answering the question, "What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?" (xv).  Brian Bremen's William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture (1993) argues that "Burke's 'damned theorizing' [Williams's way of putting it] is an essential means of understanding Williams's writing, just as Williams's writing provides an important critique of Burke's work" (62). Bremen offers by far the most thorough account of how Burke may have influenced Williams's aesthetics. Like Duffey, Bremen reads Williams via Burke, with the exception that the terminology is not limited to the pentad (which Burke and Williams hardly discussed) but encompasses specifically the ideas that Williams and Burke haggled over and that affected Williams most noticeably. Bremen doesn't really consider Williams's influence on Burke, but rather his understanding of Burke, with an emphasis on Williams’s "critique."

I propose in this paper to exercise on a much smaller scale Bremen's strategy of reading the one through the other, though here the focus will be Williams's influence on Burke, not his understanding of Burke. That influence has not been discussed in any detail in the scholarship on either man. Although most of what I say today will focus on how Williams influenced Burke’s understanding of rhetoric, I hope that it will nevertheless be of some interest to Williams scholars for what it reveals about his aesthetic(s) when translated and transformed in the work of a writer whose primary interest is theory. I propose to set aside for a time the philosophical permutations and paradoxes of ascribing literary influence and instead will point to one instance in their correspondence when Williams’s prodding compelled Burke to reformulate his approach to and conceptualization of rhetoric, the element of Burke’s work that I’m most interested in.

It was serendipitous for me to discover, after poring over the hundreds of letters exchanged between the two, that the most spirited moments in the long correspondence came during the time when both men were at pivotal and very productive moments in their lives. Burke’s A Grammar of Motives had just been published and Williams’s first volume of Paterson would appear shortly, when Burke in October 1945 writes to Williams about bellyaching and philosophy, beginning with a gag and setting in motion a healthy exchange on the nature of the differences between poetic and philosophical orientations that would last several years:

A philosopher and a merchant [are] in a dreadful storm at sea. The merchant took it quite calmly; the philosopher was very agitated. Then, after the storm had been successfully weathered, the merchant began twitting the philosopher. "You, who are supposed to be an exemplar of philosophic calm—look how much more frightened you were than I was." And the philosopher answered: "True, but look how much more I had to lose." (Oct. 17, 1945; East)1

As he often did, Burke then complained to Williams about his struggles to begin his newest book, A Rhetoric of Motives, his sequel to A Grammar of Motives and the second volume in the planned Symbolic of Motives: "[A]ll is tolerable when I’m moving ahead in my work. But at the moment I’m lying sluggish sans breeze, not yet having got the new direction going for the next book. And at this stage, I’m just a plain simple taker of my own pulse" (Oct. 17, 1945; East).

A few weeks later, Williams visits Burke at Andover, and their meeting not only prompts Williams’s poem "At Kenneth Burke’s Place," but also seems to help Burke plot the course for the Rhetoric:

I saw the beginnings of many valuable conversations between us sticking their heads up as we passed them by yesterday—I particularly liked your manner of explanation when you lowered your voice and spoke quietly of the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication. I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips[:] "the limitations of form." It seemed to mean something of importance and to have been connected with what we had been saying. (Nov. 10, 1945; Pattee)

Indeed. Burke had already written about rhetoric some 15 years earlier, in the section of Counter-Statement entitled "Lexicon Rhetoricae," which takes as its key term form and its permutations in poetics. But Burke wanted to broaden the range of rhetoric in this next book, which would ultimately take identification as its key term, something akin to what Williams had described in his letter as "the elementals that interest us both, the humane particulars of realization and communication."

Burke often spoke specifically about his difficulties writing the Rhetoric, admitting in a letter to Hugh Duncan that he hadn’t appreciated Aristotle’s achievement in his book on rhetoric until Burke himself had tried to give the subject its full due in the twentieth century. "There goes Aristotle, stealing my thunder again," he would say. "That guy makes me tired." So Williams’s prodding came at a critical juncture. He recognized early on that Burke was embarking on a project that mattered deeply to him.

So in early 1947, Williams reintroduces the topic that had always been a contentious one for them: the differences and resemblances—the "investments"—of poetry and philosophy. Williams mentions having read Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of Orgasm: The Discovery of the Orgone and having been taken not only by Reich’s clinical research, but also by his critique of Freud’s idea that art was a sublimation of sex: "Art is NOT a neurosis," Williams writes (Jan. 9, 1947; Pattee). He writes another long letter the next day in response to a letter from Burke that describes a negative review of Reich’s work. (Reich, by the way, was sent to a federal penitentiary in 1955 for having violated inter-state commerce laws and fraudulently marketed his Orgone Box as an orgasmic panacea.) Williams defends Reich’s basic stand that "uninhibited (not profligate) sex freedom is the only way in which neurosis can be eliminated" (Jan. 10, 1947; Pattee). Burke responds a few weeks later: "Our trouble is, I suppose, what it always was. All your life you’ve been railing against philosophy. And all my life, I’ve been saying, ‘Listen to that guy philosophizing. Like Roethke, he thinks he’s against philosophy; but all he’s really against is good philosophy. He hands out bad philosophy by the barrel full’" (Jan. 30, 1947; East).

Williams’s interest in Reich clarifies for Burke what he sees as Williams’s identification with poetry: "I used to think that your poetry was the rounding-out of your mediinating [sic] (sorta the grace atop nature). But now I think I see it all more accurately: poetry is for you the antithesis of your pills. That’s why you have to shout, every more urgently as ill creeps up, ‘Poetry equals health’" (Jan. 30, 1947; East). Burke here echoes his claim in The Philosophy of Literary Form that literature is equipment for living. But he also begins to formulate the stance he’ll take in the Rhetoric, specifically that a poetics should be subsumed in a theory of rhetoric, to the extent that literature is for use. Williams’s poetry functions practically to alter his gauging of his situation and helps him formulate a response to it that functions as an adjustment to conditions brought about by symbolic transformation. (Burke will make such a claim in the opening pages of the Rhetoric with regard to imagery in Milton’s and Arnold’s poetry.)

Williams, of course, takes some exception to Burke’s attempt to place him in this way:

I have nothing to say about philosophy—except that it had better keep its hands off that which does not concern it. . . . Never in my life have I thought to equate poetry with health. All I said was that the tentacles of poetry are signs of a living tissue, perhaps comparable to the same thing in the best philosophy (i.e. the least interfering). (Jan. 31, 1947; Pattee).

In a second note written the same day, Williams writes the line over which he and Burke will haggle in many letters to follow: "It is impossible for me to contradict myself—except logically[,] which means nothing" (Jan. 31, 1945; Pattee). Williams concludes his letters that day by inviting further response from Burke, saying that he would "enjoy . . . analogizing my wit as poet with your wit as philosopher" (Jan. 31, 1947; Pattee).

Burke responds with a very long letter in which he tells the story of how the "G.D." (Grand Diagnostician) stirs up this controversy with "L.C." ("Logic-Chopper"), then leaves L.C. hanging with "an oath in the dark" (Feb. 1, 1947; East). Never at a loss for words, Burke goes on to explain how his Rhetoric would, if it turned out as planned, explore the many ramifications of property, beginning with the notion the "[t]he individual, to be moral, social, communicative, etc., identifies himself with ‘property’" (Feb. 1, 1947; East). We now know, however, that the Rhetoric’s key term is identification and that property becomes abstracted further--into essence and then substance—so that the aim of rhetoric, acting through identification and, of course, symbolically, becomes consubstantiality, a desire to share substance, however ambiguously that may be imagined or verbalized by interlocutors.

I have jumped ahead a bit to the content of the Rhetoric because I want to set in relief how Williams may have influenced Burke as early as 1947 to reconsider his plan for the book. Williams had already noted Burke’s "quiet seriousness" when they had discussed "the humane particulars of realization and communication" and the "elementals that concern us both." (Williams envisioned their identification in "At Kenneth Burke’s Place" as a common bond with "the earth under our feet.") The introduction of Reich into the mix and the ongoing dispute over poetic versus philosophic with combine to prompt Burke’s reformulation of rhetoric so that it can account for not just struggles over property (the logomachy, the war of words) but for any strategic use of language, including poetry, since in Burke’s view poetry is always "addressed."

Burke’s urge to account for poetic principles in his system of rhetoric turns out to be most evident in the early and somewhat puzzling pages of the Rhetoric. It was Williams himself who gave Burke the idea to begin the book as he did. Those first 18 pages of the Rhetoric have always been puzzling to me, and I’m sure to other Burkeians. Burke himself says in his introduction to the book that "readers who would prefer to begin with [the key term of identification], rather than worry a text until it is gradually extricated, might go lightly through the opening pages, with the intention of not taking hold in earnest until they come to the general topic of Identification on page 19" (xiii).

In addition to reintroducing Reich’s notion of pleasure into their dispute over logic, Williams proposes in his long letter of Feb. 4, 1947 that he, Burke, Auden, and two other unnamed poet-philosopher get together some weekend to "discuss ‘technical advances that had been made in the writing of poetry in modern times.’" Williams has high hopes for such a summit: "Reams of incompetencies could be wiped out in a day" (Feb. 4, 1947; Pattee). They would bring with them five texts for study, the first of which would be Milton’s Samson Agonistes because of the amazing technical skill it demonstrates. Unfortunately, this meeting never takes place, but Burke does show us where he would go with Milton in those opening pages of the Rhetoric. Burke writes an essay called "The Imagery of Killing" for the Hudson review in 1948, then uses this essay to begin his book (the only essay in the book published previously). The essay begins with a discussion of Samson Agonistes and Milton’s identification with Samson, who was in turn identified with God. "[S]electing texts that are generally treated as pure poetry," Burke explains, "we try to show how rhetorical and dialectical considerations are called for" (xiii). In Burke’s view, "[T]he imagery of slaying is a special case of transformation, and transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification" (RM 20). In those opening pages of the Rhetoric, Burke explains the "use" of Milton’s Samson (for the poet), the suicidal motive, self-immolation in Matthew Arnold, the quality of Arnold’s imagery, the imaging of transformation, dramatic and philosophic terms for essence, "Tragic" terms for personality types, and "imagery at face-value."

I believe that although Burke invites us to skip ahead in the Rhetoric, these opening pages make a fundamental link between poetry and rhetoric. Burke did not suddenly or simply abandon his earlier interest in articulating the principles of aesthetics (so evident in Counter-Statement). Like Dramatism in its early formulations, Burke’s rhetorical theory is erected atop poetic principles, so that full appreciation of Burke as a rhetorician demands that we account for his interest in the alchemic moment that is the poetic process. Williams’s steady and rigorous questioning of Burke’s project forced him (if he was already not so inclined) to situate his understanding of the symbolic motive writ large in the context of what he called the "poetic metaphor" (see the closing pages of Permanence and Change). At critical moments in the development of his "system," poetry functions as Burke’s terministic screen. It is perhaps one of his more remarkable achievements that he could mine the terminological resources of a poetics in such a way that his rather bold forays into areas of communication not normally thought poetic (in principle) led to conclusions that (only now, when the boundaries between poetry and theory have blurred) now seem inevitable. The unconscious element of persuasion which identification describes has its source in the poetic motive, something which Williams pressed upon Burke’s sensibility for many years and which Burke had always to return.


1. Quotations from the Williams-Burke correspondence have been drawn either from James H. East’s unpublished 1994 dissertation, One Along Side the Other: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke (abbreviated henceforth as East) or from the letters themselves, many of which are housed in the Rare Books Room of the Pattee Library at Penn State University under the curatorship of Charles Mann (abbreviated henceforth as Pattee).

Works Cited

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. NY: Oxford UP, 1993.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Duffey, Bernard I. A Poetry of Presence: The Writing of William Carlos Williams. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.

East, James H. One Along Side the Other: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke. Ph.D. Diss. U North Carolina, Greensboro, 1994.

Mariani, Paul L. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.