Less is More: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams

When I discovered the poetry of William Carlos Williams, I did a waltz in secret. His poems are an expression of a concept I strongly believe in – talk less, say more. Only, I still struggle to execute it while he had, in his lifetime, no doubt mastered the art.

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, an architect whose work I admire, coined the phrase ‘Less is More’, way back in 1947. In my opinion, William Carlos Williams’ work could well be the poetic manifestation of the phrase. This is not to say he did not write long form poetry; just that the short ones were what taught me some valuable lessons as a writer.

What I love about William Carlos Williams’ poetry is that it talks to both the designer and writer/poet in me. Minimalism is about the only ‘ism’ in design that has resonated with me through my years as a student, practitioner and teacher of design. For me, design has been about breaking down a problem to the bare essentials and seeking out that core that would simultaneously be both ‘enough’ and ‘monumental’. I have had varying levels of success with the ideal, given that you need a client with a similar, if not same, mind-set; but the process of discovery has almost always been gratifying.

Similarly, when writing picture books for children, I need to limit myself to a word count of 500-600 words. I also need to remember that, difficult as it is, I have to leave certain things unsaid so they can be conveyed through the illustrations… or perhaps the imagination of my young reader. I struggled with this when I was working on Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers, my picture book biography of the mathematical genius. My challenge was certainly about distilling the content of all the books and papers I’d read on Ramanujan and produce a 1000-word story that was as compelling a read as say, an 80,000 word book. But more importantly, it was about finding the heart/essence of my story. This meant, I had to re-read everything I had read and written thus far to re-evaluate what to keep and what to let go of. During this rather frustrating journey, poetry was something that I kept going back to, specially William Carlos Williams’.

Why? Well, you can read some of the poems below and see for yourself!IMG_0903I clicked this pic a long time ago in a tiny hamlet near Alibaug… it so reminded me of The Red Wheelbarrow!

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

Complete Destruction

It was an icy day.

We buried the cat,

then took her box

and set fire to it

in the back yard.

Those fleas that escaped

earth and fire

died by the cold.

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand 

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand 

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her.

Winter Trees

All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.

To Waken an Old Lady

Old age is

a flight of small

cheeping birds


bare trees

above a snow glaze.

Gaining and failing

they are buffetted

by a dark wind—

But what?

On harsh weedstalks

the flock has rested,

the snow is

covered with broken


and the wind tempered

by a shrill

piping of plenty.

The Great Figure 

Among the rain

and lights  

I saw the figure 5  

in gold  

on a red  





to gong clangs  

siren howls  

and wheels rumbling  

through the dark city. 

The Gentleman

I feel the caress of my own fingers

on my own neck as I place my collar

and think pityingly

of the kind women I have known.


Well, that’s it for today. Whom will I be discussing next? Come back tomorrow to find out!


*all poems have been sourced from the public domain via http://www.gutenberg.org


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