Tuesday, April 15, 2008

William Carlos Williams - 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

---William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams’s This Is Just To Say

For every person that loves vanilla ice cream there’s another who absolutely abhors vanilla. It’s simple, it’s bland, it’s what many would call flavorless. What’s exciting about that? Is it not predictable? Flip that coin and you’ll find the folks who adore vanilla cream and find it hard to imagine the world without it. These people point to vanilla’s simple flavor as the base of many other flavors. Would we have cookies and cream, cookie dough, and countless other flavors without vanilla? Vanilla provides a flavor to combine with and contrast against. My extended ice cream metaphor is causing my sweet tooth to ache; it has dragged on for long enough. Like vanilla ice cream, the poetry of William Carlos Williams is polarizing.

The venerable Dr. Williams is probably most well known for the image driven, sixteen- word poem The Red Wheelbarrow. A staple of many high school English classes, The Red Wheelbarrow has been known to drive sixteen year olds in hives and cold sweats. What is the red wheelbarrow a symbol of? What does it mean? Why does so much depend upon it? These are the types of questions that teenagers hate. They read something that seems simple on the surface and when they’re asked to find a deeper meaning (even if there isn’t one…oh this is cruel, indeed) they freak out, questioning their intelligence. William Carlos Williams’s reputation for crafting tiny, difficult poems is a travesty. In examining his poetry as a whole, you would find the majority of his poems don’t resemble This Is Just To Say or The Red Wheelbarrow. It is a mistake to pigeonhole Williams, and yet many readers do after being exposed solely to one of the aforementioned poems.

Whereas The Red Wheelbarrow made me shrug my shoulders the first time I read it, This Is Just To Say made me chuckle. It didn’t make me laugh, it made me chuckle. Chuckling is far more pleasant, far less boisterous, and requires a realization of the wit and intelligence that went into a humorous construct. William Carlos Williams earns a hundred thousand chuckles for This Is Just To Say. It’s undoubtedly simple (like vanilla ice cream) but the poem manipulates so many things to brilliant levels. Just by reading the poem, we’re made into characters, complicit in a situation that’s both amusing and frustrating. The title functions effortlessly as the first line of the poem, acting as a disclaimer for the admission of guilt that serves as the poem’s reason for existence. There’s a “good old days” quality about this poem that is oh so easy to fall head over heals in love with. Our speaker has eaten the plums that were in the icebox. No, they weren’t in a fridge or a freezer, but they were in an icebox. If that doesn’t take you back some years, well, I don’t know what will.

In the second of the poem’s three mini stanzas, the speaker indicates a knowing sense that transforms his act. Eating the plums could have been careless, but when he confides: “and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast,” his act of petty thievery reaches a plateau of egregiousness. There is a sarcasm in the apology that follows: “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” The apology’s sincerity evaporates into the taunt that describes the goodness of the consumed plums. But there’s also a wicked cuteness to his mock contrition, almost a flirty, catch-me-if-you-can quality. I’ve often wondered how William Carlos Williams accomplishes so much in so few words. It is a poem worth studying for that question alone. I could go every day with a helping of this little poem, even if some folks would write it off as vanilla.


Kellie said...

I am also amazed by what this poem does with so few words. It's one that I constantly refer to.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks Kellie! I've found myself recently using the phrase "economy of words" when discussing diction and sentence/line construction. WCW was a masterful word economist.