Yesterday Micah shared a brilliant interpretation of “that plums poem,” a video of Mathew Macfadyen dramatizing William Carlos Williams’ little piece “This is Just to Say.” Do me a favor, click here and watch it (It’ll open in a new window) and then come back. I’ll wait.
Back? Worth it, right? That video was part of a larger DVD collection released in the UK in 2004 by Daisy Goodwin, called Essential Poems (to Fall in Love with). It seems to be impossible to find the whole production or a copy of it that will play in an American DVD drive at this point. But you can find some other scattered clips here and there if you are willing to do some digging.
What follows is a slightly revised article I wrote some time ago on the blog, in which I ramble on about everything from modern poetry to Aristotle’s critique of forms. I won’t be offended if you skip down to the video in which I portray Kenneth Koch’s play on the plums piece.
As for the plum poem, it and others have served as debate fodder in English classes worldwide. Perhaps even you have found yourself in a classroom where you read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and were then pressed to answer the question, “Is it really a poem?”
But rather than get into a lengthy discussion of why it is a poem, and why the person asking should stop being a pretentious twit, I leave you in the hands of Carol Rumens at the Guardian who explains a few things rather nicely. Though I once argued with her about the importance of “One Today,” Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, I find myself in agreement with her grasp of the wheelbarrow handles.
we shouldn’t forget that poems are made of line-breaks as well as words, and “so much depends”, in this poem, on the splitting of the two compound words, “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater”. These dissections slow us down, and help the mind’s eye to register more: the individual wheels as well as the body of the barrow, the water that is more than raindrops.
Important for their spatial emphases are the prepositions. “Upon” and “beside” are two little words that the poem magnifies hugely. Their implications float beyond the phrases that contain them.
If you’d like, you can read the rest of her article from March of 2010 by clicking here.
In his discussion of Williams’ methods and philosophy of writing, Craig Morgan Teicher offers some great insight into this little gem that Rumens called a modern poetry “manifesto” in this learning guide article from the Poetry Foundation.
Williams had an unusual life for a major literary figure. He was college buddies with Modernism’s high priest, Ezra Pound, at the University of Pennsylvania. But rather than spend his nights cavorting in Europe’s literary salons, he chose to become a doctor and live most of his life at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey, an address that became a pilgrimage destination for younger poets. . .
This is not to say he didn’t live a literary life—he and Flossie frequently traveled to New York and hung out with poets and painters. He was a friend of Marianne Moore’s and felt himself engaged in a lifelong rivalry with T.S. Eliot, whom he thought had turned poetry back toward high diction and the literary past, while Williams, like Frost, believed that “modernizing” American poetry meant incorporating contemporary, American speech into its fabric.
This linguistic departure from the past also involved a change of focus from the general toward the specific. Whitman before him had pioneered a movement away from the lofty tones of 19th-century poems about virtues and vices, into the specifics of the world around him and even his own body, down to the very particulars and smells: “The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer.” Such lines opened a path into the language of everyday life and made it possible for modern poets, like Williams to write, literally, about anything at all. Williams’ phrase, “no ideas but in things” is never explained by the poet outside of his poetry, but it is written in the lines of pieces like “Patterson:”
—Say it, no ideas but in things— . . . (What common language to unravel? . . .combed into straight lines from that rafter of a rock's lip.)
And also in “A Sort of Song:”
Let the snake wait under his weed and the writing be of words, slow and quick, sharp to strike, quiet to wait, sleepless. ---through metaphor to reconcile the people and the stones. Compose. (No ideas but in things) Invent! Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rocks.
This is not to say that he was concerned only with things, and not ideas, but rather that he felt that the best way to get at ideas was through the material stuff of the world. Of course, he wasn’t alone. Other modern artists were taking this route too, and it’s not like this was a new concept, perhaps just a revived one making its way into modern literary practice.
One might recognize traces of Aristotle in this theory. Unlike his teacher Plato, who imagined a realm of perfect forms in which the things of this world were mere imitations, Aristotle asserted that the only way to get to the ideal forms (and for our purposes here, I’ll stretch that to include ideas) is through the tangible, corporeal things of this world.
You won’t necessarily read Williams asking big lofty questions like Elliot’s “Dare I disturb the universe?” But you will see him dancing alone in his room fighting with the great themes of loneliness and happiness in “Danse Russe.” He doesn’t like to play the pedagogue, handing down to us from a lofty lectern our lesson for the day, though he is comfortable confessing that he can be astonished “beyond words.”
To be fair though, even T. S. Elliot brought the questions down to the realm of the material, albeit maybe with more drama. “Do I dare eat a peach?” he asks in “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the same peach poem quoted above. And one wonders if the poet is both making fun of the melodrama while participating in it simultaneously.
And that brings me to the conclusion of this ramble via the fun of Kenneth Koch’s parody, “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” a poem that honors the original whilst poking a bit of fun at it. Koch’s poem does several takes on that little plum piece we linked to above on Micah’s blog, “This Is Just to Say.”
I recorded this as part of a project five years back. That first crazy poetry month in which I decided it would be a fun idea to record and post one poem every day in April.