Old School Sundays: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams

I may be partial to Williams’ poetry, because he’s “one of our own”; that is, he’s from northern New Jersey. Williams wrote about familiar places—the city of Paterson, where my paternal grandparents grew up, where my father born. In fact, the edge of Paterson (once considered a beautiful city, more of a slum today, such a shame) borders my current city of Clifton, New Jersey. Williams also wrote a collection of short stories called Life along the Passaic River, another landmark close to home.

But more than that, Williams truly was one of the most prominent poets during the “years between the wars.” A physician, Williams was known for scribbling poetry on prescription pads. When I studied Williams as an undergrad I was taken by his short, fleeting nonconventional (it was popular era for nonconventional poetry) poems that seemed to be lacking in broader, more abstract notions. In fact, Williams once said his poems were “No ideas but in things.” The concrete aspect of his words, the odd formation of his words, and the brief, one second it’s there, one second it’s gone nature of his words helped give Williams a name of his own.

Two of my favorite poems by Williams are written below followed by a brief analysis. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is from 1923, and “This Is Just to Say” is from 1934.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

valerie hodgins → in Birds

I don’t believe there is too much to say here. Perhaps it signifies the things we take for granted. Most people don’t think twice about a wheelbarrow, but in fact, much labor could not be done without it. The seemingly innocuous inanimate objects are necessary than we think.

I wonder about the use color. Why red? Chickens are generally white. But what is there place in the poem?

And what about the odd format?

Some believe that the poem is meant to do nothing more than to put a quick, strong image in the mind of the reader.

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

Merelize → in Food & Drink

An interesting one. I always saw it as a note someone left on the refrigerator. Of course the mystery is who left for the note for whom?

The confession—which is essentially what this is—doesn’t express much sorrow or regret. In fact, in parts (“Forgive me”) it’s quite demanding.

Perhaps a greater notion here is the fact that these plums are only good for a while. These types of things do tend to spoil quickly. Maybe there is a lesson in here. Waiting too long to take advantage of life’s pleasures may result in regret—even if you are stealing someone’s plums.

Two poems that say little, but express much—or don’t express much. Do you have your own interpretation? I’d love to hear about it!


Filed under Old School Sundays, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Old School Sundays: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams

  1. Natalya

    These were two of the first poems I remember learning in my Intro to English Lit first year of university over a decade ago! 😀 The Red Wheelbarrow stayed with me because the professor read it out loud to us and asked us our thoughts. I also remember the one about the plums though, as he read that as well.

    • Hi Natalya. I know what you mean. There is just something about these two poems that stick with you. I studied them both in college as well. Survey of American Lit. I remember being enthralled by them, as well as my professor’s interpretation of them. So much so that I never forgot them!

  2. I am not very good at interpreting poetry. I think that’s thanks to my left-brain predominance. I don’t write it or read it save a few bloggers whose work I enjoy. Mostly I like how the words trickle through my brain, even if I don’t always get their meaning. 🙂

    • Hi Carrie..yes, a lot of people say that about poetry. I don’t always understand it either, but I still appreciate it. I know what you mean about the “words trickling through the brain.” That’s exactly it. I can’t write it for beans, but I love reading it.

  3. I love these poems for their simplicity and stark, strong images. My interpretation of the first, and perhaps of the second as well is that Williams is pointing out the extraordinary in the ordinary–such a simple, mundane image–chickens and the wheelbarrow, but the rain water darkens and brightens the red which contrasts with the white; the hard inanimate surface contrasting with the soft, feathery animals; the viewer (subject) contrast with the object viewed; and what rises out of all these contrasts is a sense of deep appreciation for the striking beauty, and a sense of peacefullness, and power. The “so much depends” to me means that so much of this world and our appreciation of it depends upon these simple, striking contrasts that too often we take for granted.

    I see the other poem in a similar way. What I get is that the person who ate the plums did so because he/she was so struck by the simple, sensual image of the cold, sweet, purple plums, that he couldn’t resist. But this keen appreciation of them gets to the essense of what the plums are all about. In a way, both poems are about the keen appreciation of simple things that surround us everyday and that too often we take for granted–not savoring what we see and taste. So I think he’s trying to wake us up to experience things in a deeper way.

    • Wow, Deborah great interpretation! You just kicked my interpretation’s ass! I absolutely see your point about the contrast between hard object and soft animal. It really is about fleeting moments of beauty that, unfortunately, so many people overlook. I love how I can catch a quick glimpse of the wheelbarrow with the rain water and the chickens in my mind and then is disintegrates as quickly as it appears.

      I LOVE your thoughts on the second poem. The image of the plums really is suggesting the power of temptation…how did I miss that? The speaker found the plums so irresistible that he/she risked stealing food from another. The image of the plums held that much force. It works too. Every time I read that poem I can taste the plums…I imagine eating them myself. Makes me desirous almost. Amazing all that in such few words.

      Thanks for your awesome feedback!

      • I used to teach comp-lit courses, so this was fun. Don’t get to do much anymore. Your interpretation was interesting too, something I hadn’t thought of. It had what we used to call back when I was in grad school a Marxist critique, which also applies. So much DOES depend upon the laborer, the farmer, our wheelbarrows and chicken farms. So much we take for granted as you mentioned. Then if you look at the other poem in that light, you see the plum-eater as the privileged elite, someone who feels that he (it’s gotta be a he!) has the right and power to take those plums he desires away from someone less powerful (his wife/his girlfriend) and even throw it in her face with his half-hearted apology and boast about them being so delicious (look what you missed out on, woman!). “So much depends” really, where the reader is coming from.

  4. I’ve always believed only the writer KNOWS what or who he/she was writing about and/or in some cases (actually many) there wasn’t a purpose other than the urge to compose and give way to a feeling bubbling inside. If asked during interviews many writers are hesitant to confess.. why is that? I agree with Deborah – depends on where we are as a reader, where we come from, and sometimes what we want it to be…

    • Yes I’ll agree with that. I think sometimes the author knows subconsciously what he or she “means.” Maybe they’re hesitant because too much certainty, too much planning, too much deliberate action kills a work of art. I think you’re right that sometimes a poem–or anything–simply needs to be what it needs to be…and that is to just exist. Live. Thrive.

  5. I’ve always loved the idea of short stream of consciousness thoughts grabbed on paper the size of a post-it, so these poems really made me think. Maybe because there are so few words, the idea that we have language to express ideas feels more powerful?
    The wheelbarrow- a tool invented by us– and a chicken-domesticated for our consumption–might represent how we’ve tamed the world around us? And yet, at the same time, we take them for granted.
    I really enjoy some of your commenters, and how your blog encourages discussion!

    • Oh! I like that idea of the chickens and how we’ve tamed the world around us. Nice concept! I always kind of thought that the poems were expressing things we take for granted–especially the wheelbarrow one.

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