Andrew Lansdown

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William Carlos Williams

Eleven poems by William Carlos Williams:

1.   The Red Wheelbarrow

2.   Poem

3.   The Widow’s Lament in Springtime

4.   To Waken An Old Lady

5.   Pastoral

6.   Prelude to Winter

7.   Proletarian Portrait

8.   Yound Sycamore

9.   Fine Work with Pitch and Copper

10. The Sparrow

11. This is Just to Say – with a critique by Geoff Page

 

 

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

 

so much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

Poem

 

As the cat

climbed over

the top of

 

the jamcloset

first the right

forefoot

 

carefully

then the hind

stepped down

 

into the pit of

the empty

flowerpot

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

The Widow’s Lament In Springtime

 

Sorrow is my own yard

where the new grass

flames as it has flamed

often before but not

with the cold fire

that closes round me this year.

Thirtyfive years

I lived with my husband.

The plumtree is white today

with masses of flowers.

Masses of flowers

load the cherry branches

and color some bushes

yellow and some red

but the grief in my heart

is stronger than they

for though they were my joy

formerly, today I notice them

and turn away forgetting.

Today my son told me

that in the meadows,

at the edge of the heavy woods

in the distance, he saw

trees of white flowers.

I feel that I would like

to go there

and fall into those flowers

and sink into the marsh near them.

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

To Waken An Old Lady

 

Old age is

a flight of small

cheeping birds

skimming

bare trees

above a snow glaze.

Gaining and failing

they are buffeted

by a dark wind—

But what?

On harsh weedstalks

the flock has rested—

the snow

is covered with broken

seed husks

and the wind tempered

with a shrill

piping of plenty.

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

Pastoral

 

The little sparrows

hop ingenuously

about the pavement

quarreling

with sharp voices

over those things

that interest them.

But we who are wiser

shut ourselves in

on either hand

and no one knows

whether we think good

or evil.

 

Meanwhile,

the old man who goes about

gathering dog-lime

walks in the gutter

without looking up

and his tread

is more majestic than

that of the Episcopal minister

approaching the pulpit

of a Sunday.

These things

astonish me beyond words.

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

Prelude to Winter

 

The moth under the eaves

with wings like

the bark of a tree, lies

symmetrically still—

 

And love is a curious

soft-winged thing

unmoving under the eaves

when the leaves fall.

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

Proletarian Portrait

 

A big young bareheaded woman

in an apron

 

Her hair slicked back standing

on the street

 

One stockinged foot toeing

the sidewalk

 

Her shoe in her hand. Looking

intently into it

 

She pulls out the paper insole

to find the nail

 

That has been hurting her

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

 

 

Young Sycamore

 

I must tell you

this young tree

whose round and firm trunk

between the wet

 

pavement and the gutter

(where water

is trickling) rises

bodily

 

into the air with

one undulant

thrust half its height—

and then

 

dividing and waning

sending out

young branches on

all sides—

 

hung with cocoons

it thins

till nothing is left of it

but two

 

eccentric knotted

twigs

bending forward

hornlike at the top

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

Fine Work with Pitch and Copper

 

Now they are resting

in the fleckless light

separately in unison

 

like the sacks

of sifted stone stacked

regularly by twos

 

about the flat roof

ready after lunch

to be opened and strewn

 

The copper in eight

foot strips has been

beaten lengthwise

 

down the center at right

angles and lies ready

to edge the coping

 

One still chewing

picks up a copper strip

and runs his eye along it

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

 

The Sparrow

(To My Father)

 

This sparrow

     who comes to sit at my window

is a poetic truth

more than a natural one.

     His voice,

his movements,

his habits—

     how he loves to

flutter his wings

in the dust—

     all attest it;

granted, he does it

to rid himself of lice

     but the relief he feels

makes him

cry out lustily—

     which is a trait

more related to music

than otherwise.

     Wherever he finds himself

in early spring,

on back streets

     or beside palaces,

he carries on

unaffectedly

     his amours.

It begins in the egg,

his sex genders it:

     What is more pretentiously

useless

or about which

     we more pride ourselves?

It leads as often as not

to our undoing.

     The cockerel, the crow

with their challenging voices

cannot surpass

     the insistence

of his cheep!

Once

     at El Paso

toward evening,

I saw—and heard!—

     ten thousand sparrows

who had come in from

the desert

     to roost. They filled the trees

of a small park. Men fled

(with ears ringing!)

     from their droppings,

leaving the premises

to the alligators

     who inhabit

the fountain. His image

is familiar

     as that of the aristocratic

unicorn, a pity

there are not more oats eaten

     nowadays

to make living easier

for him.

     At that,

his small size,

keen eyes,

     serviceable beak

and general truculence

assure his survival—

     to say nothing

of his innumerable

brood.

     Even the Japanese

know him

and have painted him

     sympathetically,

with profound insight

into his minor

     characteristics.

Nothing even remotely

subtle

     about his lovemaking.

He crouches

before the female,

     drags his wings,

waltzing,

throws back his head

     and simply—

yells! The din

is terrific.

     The way he swipes his bill

across a plank

to clean it,

     is decisive.

So with everything

he does. His coppery

     eyebrows

give him the air

of being always

     a winner—and yet

I saw once,

the female of his species

     clinging determinedly

to the edge of

a water pipe,

     catch him

by his crown-feathers

to hold him

     silent,

subdued,

hanging above the city streets

     until

she was through with him.

What was the use

     of that?

She hung there

herself,

     puzzled at her success.

I laughed heartily.

Practical to the end,

     it is the poem

of his existence

that triumphed

     finally;

a wisp of feathers

flattened to the pavement,

     wings spread symmetrically

as if in flight,

the head gone,

     the black escutcheon of the breast

undecipherable,

an effigy of a sparrow,

     a dried wafer only,

left to say

and it says it

     without offense,

beautifully;

This was I,

     a sparrow.

I did my best;

farewell.

 

William Carlos Williams

 

 

 

 

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

 

                William Carlos Williams

 

 

A Critique of “This is Just to Say” by Geoff Page

This famous, some would say infamous, poem was first published in the mid-1930s. At that time, already in his fifties, William Carlos Williams, fulltime doctor and energetic poet of Rutherford, New Jersey, was just beginning to emerge from the obscurity to which his ‘anti-poetic’ style had condemned him. By the end of his life, in 1963, he would be the recipient of many honours and remain an important influence on American poetry (and on poetry in English generally) for decades afterwards.

At a distance now of seventy years it is interesting to consider just exactly what makes these 28 words a ‘poem’. For those brought up on Keats or Wordsworth (or even Pope and Swift) ‘This Is Just To Say’ seems to be a catalogue of absences: no rhyme, no meter, no ‘beautiful vocabulary’, no sense of transcendence, no ‘poetic’ landscape — not even the attack on society’s shortcomings we might have had from Pope or Swift. It’s no wonder that many readers thought at first that Williams was ‘putting them on’, that he was satirising poetry as it had been previously understood.

In fact, however, Williams had a different agenda. He wanted to make poetry out of the particular, everyday circumstances in which he lived as a husband, father and doctor in Rutherford. He didn’t think it was necessary to revisit Greek mythology for his themes or to rhapsodise about exotic landscapes with nightingales to give ‘atmosphere’. He lived right in the middle of an industrial landscape and, like his friends the painters Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, he saw a strange beauty and great potential in such material for his art.

The poem starts by wasting no time. The title is, in effect, the first line — a device that was to be much imitated later. It is also a rather open, incomplete statement which implies that the poem is going to be, at one level at least, something of a ‘statement’, even an ars poetica. The poet is going to say that a short, written apology to one’s wife can be as much material for a poem as the most beautiful vista in England’s Lake Country or a glittering view of the Mediterranean.

As is suitable to his theme, Williams uses only the most simple vocabulary — words with which even a kindergarten child would be familiar. He also employs a rhythm which is close to, but not identical with, the patterns of everyday speech. Walt Whitman, with his long, quasi-biblical lines, had beaten Williams to free verse by some sixty years but Williams was to give this staple of American poetry his own twist. The idea was to release the poem bit by bit, in short lines, so that each component could be considered and savoured — almost like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Though he was also fond of enjambement, Williams also wanted us to consider each line as a unit. Thus we start with ‘I have eaten’, then, line by line, what has been eaten and where it was found. In this kind of poetry such specifics are important. The plums were in the icebox, being saved for something.

Then we go on to a new stanza for the realisation that the poet has broken a mild taboo and committed a considerable selfishness. His wife will, quite reasonably, be a little put out (especially, if he doesn’t apologise). In the third stanza he asks for forgiveness which he hopes will come, at least partly, through her understanding of how enjoyable the experience was: ‘they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold’.

The lineation is important throughout but never more so than in the last stanza. We need a whole line each to reflect on how ‘sweet’ and how ‘cold’ those plums were (and, perhaps, to realise they would not have been as enjoyable if they were sweet and warm). Clearly too, we need a whole line for the important request (demand?)  ‘Forgive me’.

Some readers, at this stage, might say ‘Well, that’s all very well, but there’s no rhyme — and where’s the rhythm? Isn’t rhythm essential to poetry?’ One of the great advantages of free verse is its capacity to emphasise key syllables by skipping over quite large numbers of unstressed syllables in between. Thus we have in the first stanza: ‘I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox’. Notice how all the most meaningful syllables are stressed and what a long run of unstressed syllables there is until we land, almost triumphantly, on ‘ice’. The same thing happens in the last stanza: ‘Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold’. Williams is asking his wife, Floss, to ‘give’ him something. He is onomatopoetically suggesting the lusciousness of the plums with the sound ‘lish’ and then landing forcefully on the key adjectives ‘sweet’ and ‘cold’.

Even though ‘This Is Just To Say’, with its subtle use of both lineation and rhythm, is something of a free verse classic it is also one of those poems which seem to say much more than the sum of their words. From the fact that the poem is a note we may surmise that the marriage involves frequent periods of absence. Reading it as a poem, we can further imagine that the poet is staying up late working on his poetry rather than being tucked up in bed with his wife. To this extent he’s apologising for rather more than just eating the plums. There is also the implication that if he needs to work late at night he’s probably got a demanding day job (with which, in those days, he is probably supporting her). The poet is also saying that small sensuous delights, such as eating cold plums, are important to both husband and wife (otherwise he wouldn’t need to apologise) — and that this shared sensuousness extends to other aspects of their life as well.

For those readers still unconvinced, it is useful to consider the beginning of a comparable note that Williams’ wife, Floss, wrote to her him, with no intention of its being a poem. ‘Dear Bill: I’ve made a / couple of sandwiches for you. / In the ice-box you’ll find / blue-berries — a cup of grapefruit / and a glass of cold coffee.’

If you have to be told which one’s the poem it may be that you’re already a writer of bad free verse or someone who has yet to read past the nineteenth century. A sad fate, in either case.

 

This essay by Geoff Page is from his book 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now (University of New South Wales Press, 2006) and is reproduced on andrewlansdown.com by kind permission of the author.

 

 

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