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 San Juan, Puerto Rico. He attended a public school in Rutherford until 1896, 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 became friends with Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (best known as H.D.) and the painter Charles Demuth. These friendships influenced his growth and 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.
He returned to Rutherford in 1910 and began his medical practice, which lasted until 1951. Most of his patients knew little if anything of his writings; instead they viewed him as a doctor who helped deliver their children into the world. It was estimated that Williams delivered 2,000 babies in the Rutherford area between 1910 and 1952.
Although his primary occupation was as a doctor, Williams had a full literary career. His work consists of short stories, poems, 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. Later in his life, Williams toured the United States giving poetry readings and lectures.
During the First World War, when a number of European artists established themselves in New York City, Williams became friends with members of the avant-garde such as Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. In 1915 Williams began to be associated with a group of New Yorkartists and writers known as “The Others.” Founded by the poet Alfred Kreymborg and by Man Ray, this group included Walter Conrad Arensberg, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore and Duchamp. Through these involvements Williams got to know the Dadaist movement, which may explain the influence on his earlier poems of Dadaist and Surrealist principles. His involvement with The Others made Williams a key member of the early modernist movement in America.
Williams disliked Ezra Pound’s and especially T. S. Eliot’s frequent use of allusions to foreign languages and Classical sources, as in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Williams preferred to draw his themes from what he called “the local.” In his modernist epic collage of place, Paterson (published between1946 and 1958), an account of the history, people, and essence of Paterson, New Jersey, he examined the role of the poet in American society. Williams most famously summarized his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things” (found in his 1927 poem “Patterson,” the forerunner to the book-length work). He advocated that poets leave aside traditional poetic forms and unnecessary literary allusions, and try to see the world as it is. Marianne Moore, another skeptic of traditional poetic forms, wrote Williams had used “plain American which cats and dogs can read,” with distinctly American idioms.
One of his most notable contributions to American literature was his willingness to be a mentor for younger poets. Though Pound and Eliot may have been more lauded in their time, a number of important poets in the generations that followed were either personally tutored by Williams or pointed to Williams as a major influence. He had an especially significant influence on many of the American literary movements of the 1950s.
Williams’ most anthologized poem is The Red Wheelbarrow, considered an example of the Imagist movement’s style and principles. However, Williams, like his associate Ezra Pound, had long ago rejected the imagist movement by the time this poem was published as part of Spring and All in1923. Williams is more strongly associated with the American Modernist movement in literature, and saw his poetic project as a distinctly American one; he sought to renew language through the fresh, raw idiom that grew out of America’s cultural and social heterogeneity, at the same time freeing it from wha the saw as the worn-out language of British and European culture.
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.
Williams married Florence Herman (1891-1976) in 1912. They moved into a house in Rutherford which was their home for many years. Shortly afterwards, his first book of serious poems, The Tempers, was published. On a trip to Europe in 1924, Williams spent time with writers Ezra Pound and James Joyce.
After Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948, his health began to decline, and after 1949 a series of strokes followed. He also underwent treatment for clinical depression in a psychiatric hospital during 1953. Williams died on March 4, 1963 at the age of seventy-nine at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.
During his lifetime, he had not received as much recognition from Britain as he had from the United States. He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. In May 1963 he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
His major works are Kora in Hell (1920), Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), Paterson (1963, repr. 1992), and Imaginations (1970).