Words to Split the Rock —

A Sort of a Song

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

William Carlos Williams

“No ideas but in things.”

This famous dictum by pediatrician-poet William Carlos Williams aims to exalt the physical, the bodily, the dimensional. The actual over the abstract, you might say. And yet what his small poem achieves, to my mind,  is to elevate the power of words, the power of invention, the power of the mind —

Ultimately, no ideas but in words. Or if Dr. Williams were  to insist, no ideas but expressed in words. Words to split the rock —

This entry was posted in Etcetera, Poetry, Quotes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Words to Split the Rock —

  1. Pauline says:

    And if we listen carefully, we hear plants and rocks express themselves wordlessly but still in a way we can understand, which we can then put into words. Our affinity with natural things is merely buried, not extinct…


  2. David Elpern says:

    How about, “no ideas, but in images.” The beautiful picture is a poem in itself, without the need for commentary. One need not master English, Tibetan or Akkadian to appreciate the flowers that split rocks.


  3. xties says:

    Lovely, vivid poem. I was surprised it has, until now, slithered by me unnoticed. I’m satisfied to leave his line intact; after all, the ideas are in the ‘things’ themselves, and in their relationships to one another — words are merely signs and pointers. William Carlos Williams — “famously known for coining the term: ‘No ideas but in things’,” as essayist Ed Wickliffe puts it — “seems to have left no real explanation. … (It was just a line from a poem, after all.) Others have written numerous essays about it, but they do not agree.” The full essay is on Triggerfish Critical Review, should you wish to read it. Those readers for whom Akkadian is a primary language might need a babelfish.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      The Wickliffe essay is fascinating.
      So accurate, so wide-ranging —
      Instinctively I think there is more to Romanticism and 19th century poetry than he will admit. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner captured and still holds my imagination, and Tennyson’s Ulysses has some great lines, these for starters.
      But he does a terrific job of bringing together ancient and modern, Eastern and Western influences contributing to this. For simply reminding me of Ezra Pound’s

      In a Station of the Metro

      The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
      Petals on a wet, black bough.

      I award him the palm.

      Williams said it tersest, therefore best, and it’s understandable that the idea entered the “language” by way of him.
      Thanks so much for the reference!


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