Readings in temporal poetics: four poems by William Carlos Williams.
The Young Housewife At 10 a.m. the young housewife moves about in negligee behind the wooden walls of her husband's house. I pass solitary in my car. Then again she comes to the curb to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands shy, uncorseted, tucking in stray ends of hair, and I compare her to a fallen leaf. The noiseless wheels of my car rush with a crackling sound over dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
--William Carlos Williams (57) (2)
Narratively, "The Young Housewife" presents a familiar scene in Williams' poetry. Riding to work alone in his car, the speaker catches a glimpse of some slice of everyday life, which then provides the material for imaginative exploration and reflection (and poetic composition and expression). Like a camera, poems of this sort freeze and frame some bit of reality and make it into art. Because of this analogy to photography, I like to call these texts "snapshot" poems. In "snapshot" poems, linear and relative time dominate the poetic texture. Compared to what we might expect, linear forms, emblematic of reality (the prosaic and mundane), are both formalized (i.e., made into symbols) and relativized (i.e., particularized, negated, loosened, fragmented, questioned, made simultaneous and/or multidimensional, etc.), lifted up into the imagination.
In this "snapshot" poem, a half-dressed, disheveled housewife, is seen, first, moving around in her house, and then, running out to the curb to flag down the neighborhood vendors (i.e., "the ice-man," "the fish-man"). Passing in his car, the speaker notes various details of her character ("shy"), appearance ("in negligee," "uncorseted"), environment ("at 10 a.m.," "behind the wooden walls of her husband's house," "dried leaves"), and actions ("tucking in stray ends of hair"). Before "rushing" by, the speaker "bows," "smiles," and "compares" her to a "fallen leaf."
In its symbolic resonances, the details of this "scene" give us the mind and manner of the poem's "characters." The speaker, as poet, uses poetic detail to express his inner life. Then he projects this inner life imaginatively onto the woman, too, putting the two in the same subject position (if not in the same bed!).
On one hand, both the speaker and the woman are confined to reality and social convention. The speaker is constrained by his work schedule and its duties, symbolized by the (practical aspects of the speaker's) "passing" "car" and the "crackling" "sound" of its "wheels" over the "leaves," all emblems of linear time. The woman is similarly confined to reality and social convention, symbolized by her life as a "housewife" "in" "her husband's house," and her action of "tucking in" her disheveled hair. This social constraint is expressed by other linear forms in the text, too, for instance, the narrative/ temporal structure of the discourse as a whole ("At 10 a.m.," "Then again") and the text's dense consonance ([d]: "behind"-"wooden"-"husband's"-"stands""ends"-"sound"-"dried"; [s]: "pass"-"noiseless"-"housewife"-"ice-man"-"pass"; [z]: "leaves"-"noiseless"-"wheels"-"ends"-"comes"-"walls"-"husband's"-"moves"; [f]: "leaf"-"housewife"; [n]: "behind"-"husband's"-"Then"-"again"-"ice-man" -"fish-man"-"stands"-"ends"-"fallen"-"sound"; [s]: "fish-man"-"rush").
These social conventions are not enough to contain the inner lives of either character, though, as other details in the poetic scene make clear. The woman has an emotional life that is resistant to these social constraints. "Behind" the "wooden walls" of "her husband's house," she is not at all maturely social but "shy" and "young"--both emblems of lyric/centroidal time. This emotional life has a physical underbelly, too. She runs out of the house in the morning ("10 a.m.") to call the "fish-man," both emblems of cyclical time. And most telling of all, like the poetic speaker, she has an imaginative life, where constraints are loosened and she lets herself go/be. She moves about "in negligee," comes all the way to the "curb" to call the "ice-man," "uncorseted," with "stray ends of hair" in need of "tucking," and stands in the "dried" leaves, herself a "fallen" leaf--all emblems of relative time.
The speaker is similarly physical, emotional, and imaginative, especially imaginative. In addition to being associated with the imaginative qualities of cars and driving (i.e., speed, visuality, freedom, danger, artificiality, etc.), the speaker in his car is "solitary," "noiseless," "rushing," "passing," "smiling," and prone to "compare" things, all emblems of relative time. The speaker's imaginative life is also expressed by many other forms in the poem--its dissonant sound ("solitary"-"smiling"; "walls"-"wheels"; "hair"-"her"; "car"-"uncorseted"-"curb"; "sound"-"stand"), its densely adverbial syntax ("At ten a.m.," "in negligee," "behind the wooden walls," "in my car," "Then," "again," "shy," "uncorseted," "tucking in stray ends of hair," "to a fallen leaf," "with a crackling sound," "over dried leaves," "as I bow and pass," "smiling"), its occasionally compound-complex sentences ("Then again she comes to the curb / to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands / shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf"), and its visual versification, which often strands function words arbitrarily at line endings and in the process, conveys a fractured feel that is often responded to by readers with rising intonation. The grammetrics of the poem are also relative at times. One line is a complete sentence ("I pass solitary in my car."), and one line is just a prepositional phrase/adverbial ("to a fallen leaf").
Besides his imaginative projections of himself onto the woman, no other details of the poetic scene give us the other sensibilities of the speaker, his physicality and feeling, but many other non-semantic forms do.
The physicality of the speaker is expressed formally in a variety of cyclical forms--sonic, syntactic, and rhetorical. Rhetorically, this physicality comes through in the careful repetition of "pass" and "my car." Grammatically, a feel for the simplicity of the body is expressed by a profusion of intransitive verbs ("moves," "pass," "comes," "stands," "rush," "bow"), compounds ("fish-man," "ice-man"), generic nouns and noun phrases ("the young housewife," "negligee," "the ice-man," "the fish-man," "stray ends of hair," "a fallen leaf," "dried leaves"), play with number ("leaf"-"leaves"), simple sentences (e.g., "I pass solitary in my car"), third-person references ("the young housewife," "her husband's house," "she," etc.), and a grammetrics that repeatedly breaks clauses cleanly and therefore simply between subject and predicate ("the young housewife / moves"; "the noiseless wheels of my car / rush"). Sonically, this physicality is expressed with both dense alliteration ("wooden"-"walls"-"wheels"; "her"-"husband's"-"house"-"hair"-"housewife""behind"; "call"-"comes"-"uncorseted"-"car"-"crackling"-"curb") and sonic iconicity (e.g., "The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound"). Given the thick patterning of diphthongs in the text ([ay]: "wife"-"behind"-"I"-"ice"-"shy"-"dried"-"smiling"; [aw]: "housewife"-"about"-"house"-"sound""bow"), the poem is also just obtrusively loud, giving it a more palpable physicality.
The emotivity of the speaker is expressed with similar diversity and density, especially in the syntax. Phrases often form lines (e.g., "The noiseless wheels of my car," "the wooden walls of her husband's house"). Adjectives are frequent and important ("young," "wooden," "solitary," "shy," "uncorseted," "stray," "fallen," "noiseless," "cracking," "dried"), as are genitives/ possessives ("her husband's," "my," "her"). And like most lyrics, the poem is present tense (e.g., "the young housewife moves," "I pass"), and at least in parts, first person ("I compare," "I bow," "my car," "I pass"). Sound is also significantly emotive. The dense patterning of loud diphthongs in the text (detailed above) is assonantal, and more unusual, there are many internal rhymes, some of them being multiple ("hair"-"compare"; "then"-"again"; "man"-"stands"; "stray"-"negligee"-"a.m."
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 (372) (3)
In its occasion or subject matter, "This Is Just to Say" is a "found" poem--not a chance encounter with some everyday object or event, as the literal surface of most of Williams' minimalist and objectivist poems tend to be, but a chance encounter with a small bit of everyday language--a brief note of apology left perhaps on a kitchen table or pinned to a refrigerator door. The author of the note (and speaker of the poem) has been tempted to eat some plums that were in the refrigerator, even though the speaker thinks that they were probably being saved for the next morning by some significant other--a coworker, friend, lover, or spouse. The speaker has been indulgent at the expense of another, and as in most cases of such pleasure seeking in the context of limited resources, asks to be forgiven.
Is the speaker ashamed and repentant? Not at all. The plums are "so sweet / and so cold" that anyone could have been similarly tempted. But the speaker knows that such collisions between responsibility to others and individual desire, while inevitable and perhaps even desirable, are best acknowledged quickly and honestly if we want to maintain our social and emotional concerns. The speaker is happy to bend social and personal propriety in order to satisfy individual desire. But the speaker is also quick to acknowledge the adverse consequences of such self-indulgence and therefore the need for social and personal repair. Thus the apology: "Forgive me."
Poetically/expressively, the psychodynamics of this situation pits the interpersonal and personal (sympathy, empathy, respect, responsibility, care, etc.) against the sensuous and imaginative (pleasure, need, desire, autonomy, self-actualization, etc.), in formal terms, the linear and centroidal against the cyclical and relative.
The core of the poem is strongly social/interpersonal/linear. The linguistic genre in which the poem is couched, a note, is practical, an act of communication ("just to say"). The central purpose of this note is expressed in an unqualified imperative ("Forgive me"). The speaker uses the second person ("you"), addressing the slighted party directly. And the reason the speaker's actions need to be excused involves intention ("were ... saving"), purpose ("for breakfast"), fruit ("the plums"), definite reference (i.e., "the plums"), and a consideration of cause-and-effect relations ("probably"). Metrical beating in the poem is also linear in many respects. It is enjambed (between metrical lines l and 2), varied (between the pentameter of metrical line 1 and the tetrameters in metrical lines 2 and 3), and antimelismatic (e.g., "that were in the icebox" and "they were delicious"). In this poem, there is more speech than beating (i.e., some syllables are not aligned with pulses: "that were in the icebox," "they were delicious,"), and the natural flow of the voice and the syntax overruns metrical line endings at times in order to create a more continuous, natural flow ("and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast").
These linear forms, which are associated with will and action, are accompanied by a dense array of centroidal forms, which are associated with emotion. The text is not at all depersonalized, as many modern poems are, but is strongly and traditionally lyric. The speaker holds forth in the first person ("I," "me") and, in the outer frame of his message, at least, the present tense ("I have eaten," "Forgive me"). The major sense invoked by the situation is taste/smell, the lyric sense; the plums are "delicious," "so sweet." Adjectives ("sweet," "delicious," "cold") and subjuncts ("so") are frequent, even repeated ("so sweet / and so cold"). Lines are often phrasal (e.g., "the plums" and "so sweet"). Clauses are often copular (e.g., "They were delicious"). The center of the text is expressed in conjoined relative clauses ("the plums that were ...," "and which you were ..."). And meter/beating is strongly emotive, too, having a triple/caudated pulse, a prominent diminution (e.g., "Forgive me"), two prominent demotions ("so sweet / and so cold"), and codas at the level of the poem as a whole (i.e., the third stanza) and within one of the lines ("and which" in the first metrical line, which extends this first metrical line from a tetrameter to a pentameter). The density of these emotive forms in the poem formalizes the speaker's considerable emotional capacities, the speaker's strong concern for the significant other whom he has (willfully!) slighted.
Nonetheless, the slight does indeed occur, and not accidentally, and the speaker's imaginative and sensuous capacities explain why. The speaker's concerns are not just personal and social but physical and imaginative, too.
The strongest physical/sensuous presence in the poem is its metricality, which is not at all expected in this case (see the metrical scansion above). This meter is also not as loose as might be expected in these circumstances. It is tightly organized, with a regular triple pulse and conventional tetrameter and pentameter lines. Some of the sound, syntax, semantics, and rhetoric of the poem is also physical. The poem is densely alliterated: "so"-"so"-"sweet"-"saving"; "plums"-"probably"; "were"-"which." The text is about eating, one of most basic, visceral activities. The plums being saved were intended for "breakfast," the meal consumed at the beginning of each new day. And the final repetition of "so" is both sensuous in itself and embedded in an appositive ("delicious, so sweet ..."), which also foregrounds similarity.
The formal textures that most strongly motivate the scene and express the psychology of the speaker, however, are individualistic/imaginative/relative.
On the most global level, the whole scenario of transgression and then appeal for forgiveness in this poem, especially as it is played out in this mundane kitchen scene, is a relativistic one. In this fallen world, personal and social relations are no longer maintained by religious dogma and absolute prohibition ("thou shalt not") but by fallible choice and moment-to-moment negotiation. Ethical failure is common and social and personal repair, after the fact, a frequent and pressing need.
Many of the particulars of this scene also foreground the relative/imaginative. The scene is not wintry, but it does involve an "icebox," and the fruit that is eaten is purple, tinted with the emblematic "blue" of the mind. Note as well that pararhyme, the relativistic sound scheme, links "icebox," emblem of the mind and imagination, to "breakfast," emblem of the senses and the body.
The poem's syntax is also significantly relative/imaginative. The speaker's note begins in the perfect aspect ("I have eaten"), the aspect of the indefinite past and therefore of memory. Tense, which is prone to shifting and therefore is relative in itself, is shifty in this text, too, being sometimes present ("is," "have," "Forgive,"), sometimes past ("were"), sometimes relative ("to say"). Person, another grammatical shifter, is also shifty; it is sometimes first ("I"), sometimes second ("you"), sometimes third ("they"). And adverbs ("probably," "just," "so," "so"), which are structurally peripheral and functionally qualify and contextualize, are both frequent and prominent, with the biggest and therefore most prominent of these adverbs, "probably," being a disjunct, the most relativistic of the adverbials because of its association with speaker judgments and attitudes. Notice that Williams gathers up and concentrates relativistic syntactic forms with special care in the title of the poem ("This Is Just to Say"), which he merges syntactically with the rest of the poem. "Just" is an adverb; "to say" is relative in tense; and "is" and "this" are function words.
The texture of the poem is relativized most thoroughly and pervasively, however, by its visual versification, Williams' great gift to the craft of poetry. In non-lineated (and punctuated) form:
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.
Most of what we have observed so far about the poem still holds, but the effect of the poem overall is enormously weakened and, in many ways, transformed. By and large, this weakening and transformation results from a thinning out and backgrounding of relativistic qualities.
The most pervasive effect of Williams' visual lineation is to shatter the flow of the voice and syntax--repeatedly and arbitrarily--leaving shards of language for contemplation and interpretation. Prosodically, the major effect is a quizzical intonation that either (1) hesitates and bends upward unnaturally at line end as we search for completion and termination and then must be revised to falling terminal contours or fall-rise continuation contours as we proceed or (2) falls abruptly as we experience temporary completion and termination and then must be revised to quizzical rising or fall-rise continuation contours as we proceed. In any event, the result is a complex interpretational ambivalence and backtracking that undermines the linearity of the text and bends it toward the spatial--the multidimensional and simultaneous.
In addition to this intonational effect, Williams' short line free verse also multiples visual beginnings and endings and therefore opportunities (1) for shaping lines syntactically and prosodically and (2) for placing peripheral items on line peripheries, increasing their salience and in the process further decentering the text. As to (1), only one line in the poem does not have a peripheral grammatical item on a line periphery (the third line in the second stanza, which has just one word, the verb "saving"); three lines ("that were in," "and which," and "you were probably") have peripheral grammatical items at both edges; and one line ("and which") is entirely constituted by function words at its edges. "That were in" and "you were probably" are made up entirely of function words, both middle and peripheries, very odd lines of poetry indeed! Except for the word "say," the title (first line, and first five words of the poem) is also made up entirely of function words, the grammatical periphery: This Is Just to Say.
His short free verse line also lets Williams foreground a number of types of theme-and-variation patterning, which is also characteristic of memory and imagination, the psychology of relative time. After the five-word, five-syllable title/first line ("This Is Just to Say"), the remaining visual lines have one to three words and two to five syllables, a relatively constrained prosodic norm for a free verse poem. But repetition within these constraints is rare. These remaining twelve lines run 4-2-3-3/2-5-2-3/3-5-2-3 in syllables and 3-2-3-2/2-3-1-2/2-3-2-3 in words.
The Red Wheelbarrow so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens
--William Carlos Williams (224) (4)
"The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of the most well known of Williams' minimalist and objectivist poems. In these poems, the poet finds emblems/ qualities of his own sensibility in some minimal perception, fictional or real, and the rhythms, language, and rhetoric of this scene's poetic expression. The poetic texture, and therefore expressed sensibility, of these minimalist and objectivist poems can vary, being partial or complete, and if partial, partial in different ways; but in most cases, as here, the expressed sensibility is remarkably complete, an astonishingly dense complex of emblems for the full range of our sensibilities: sensation, emotion, volition, and imagination/ memory. In this case, the completeness of this expressed sensibility, it might be claimed, is emblematic of the poet's modernity and therefore historical positioning in reflection and memory, that most powerful and complete of our psychological faculties, and the faculty most closely related to what is unique about human sensibility and cultural production: art, religion, knowledge, and a self-reflexive criticism. Because of their psychological fullness, I like to call these texts "portrait" poems. In a "portrait poem," poetic materials act as a palette with which the poet paints his/her inner life, his/ her subjective "portrait."
In this "portrait" poem, the completeness and balance in the expressed sensibility is presented most globally in the four-part organization of the poem, the four visual couplets. These four visual couplets present three major images ("wheel / barrow," "rain / water," and "chickens" in stanzas 2-4) together with the speaker's reflection on their importance ("so much depends upon" in stanza 1). The number "four" is emblematic of psychological and metaphysical completeness, given the four components of rhythm and our four major psychological faculties that are reflexes and products of those rhythms. The poem also draws on quadratic form in other ways. For instance, the poem's four stanzas are parceled into four tone units; and the long initial lines in the first and fourth stanzas ("so much depends," "beside the white") have four syllables. This four-part organization of the poem is not just arbitrarily arrayed. Each stanza presents poetic material that is emblematic of one of the four temporalities and therefore one of our four sensibilities, and these four temporalities and sensibilities are presented in reverse order of their evolutionary expression/development: relative time and imagination in the first stanza, linear time and volition in the second stanza, centroidal time and emotion in the third stanza, and cyclical time and sensation in the fourth stanza. This is a common organizational pattern in poems, both in Williams' poetic corpus and elsewhere. In traditional terminology, this pattern is "comedic." It moves from alienation to integration, from despair to joy, from mind to body, from sight to touch, from blue to white, and so on.
Originally, the poem had no title, but for good reason, it has become known as "The Red Wheelbarrow," a title that privileges one of the images, the one presented in the second stanza, the emblem of linear time and volition, which are related to action, social reality, work, adulthood, and so on. A wheelbarrow is a tool, an instrument used in work; the wheel is the greatest of all of the inventions that have aided transportation; and red is the traditional color of social reality, desire, competition, war, and so forth. There might be many reasons for the privileging of this second stanza, but the most prominent, it seems to me, is syntactic. The image of the wheelbarrow begins and is the head of the large phrase that is the object of the prepositional verb "depends upon," which takes up most of the poem: "a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens." In this syntax, being postmodifiers of the head noun, both the qualities that result from the action of the rain water ("glazed") and the spatial positioning of the white chickens ("beside") are defined with respect to the wheelbarrow. This central concern for reality and social action, despite a plea for a more inclusive sensibility, one that is also richly imaginative, emotional, and perceptual, is typical of Williams and many of the poets of his time (e.g., Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Ezra Pound), who, like Williams, produced distinguished epic poems and a considerable quantity of prose, both fictional and non-, in addition to their lyric poetry.
This central image of linear time and social action in the second stanza is supported in many ways by other poetic materials emblematic of volition and intention, both in the same stanza and elsewhere. For instance, consonance, which repeats the ends of syllables and therefore picks up the prospective quality of intentional action, is very prominent in the text. The [d] in "red" is linked consonantally to a [d] in each of the other three stanzas: "depends" in stanza 1, "glazed" in stanza 3, and "beside" in stanza 4; and outside of stanza 2, consonantal [n] links "upon" in stanza 1, to "rain" in stanza 3, to "chickens" in stanza 4, and consonantal [z] links "depends" in stanza 1, to "glazed" in stanza 3, to "chickens" in stanza 4. While the poem is divided into four stanzas, which present a more relativistic and reflective texture, it also plays with triplets in various ways, and when it does, it develops a more linear texture. The number "three" is emblematic of linearity. Much of the grammetrics of the poem, the intersection between syntax and line, is based on triplets. Three of the visual lines--"so much depends" (line 1), "a red wheel" (line 3), and "glazed with rain" (line 5)--have three words and two of these--"a red wheel" (line 3) and "glazed with rain" (line 5)--have just three syllables. The text's organization into four tone units is also significantly linear. Within the prosodic hierarchy, the tone unit is an emblem of linearity. Clitic phrases are cyclical; phonological phrases, centroidal; and utterance units, relative. As it is in this poem, tone units are often climactic and end-focused and have a melodic organization similar to melody in music, which is also linear. Finally, some of the syntax of the poem is also densely linear. The syntax of the poem is largely a series of prepositional phrases which look forward to their prepositional complements: "upon / a red wheel / barrow," "with rain / water," "beside / the white chickens." The isolated preposition "upon" in stanza 1 is especially prospective, pulling us on to its complement "a red wheelbarrow" in stanza 2. While complementation is not involved, this prospective enjambment is pervasive in the text, occurring in various ways in the transitions between lines 1 and 2 ("depends / upon"), 3 and 4 ("wheel / barrow"), 5 and 6 ("rain / water"), and 7 and 8 ("white / chickens") as well. Only the breaks between lines 4 and 5, and 7 and 8, are not enjambed. Willliams is also careful to include a plural noun ("chickens") with definite reference ("the"). Plurality and definiteness are also reflexes of linearity. Definite reference assumes that the listener is already aware of the referent and therefore is heavily audience-oriented/rhetorical. Plurality foregrounds differentiation and difference, but not to the point of uniqueness, like the referents of proper nouns.
While reality and intentional action is foregrounded in various ways, the implicit claim of the poem is not for social action alone, but for a reality "glazed" with and "depending" on our other sensibilities, too: perception and more communal similarity, emotion and more intimate relationships, and imagination and personal self-realization.
The third stanza gives us the major lyric/emotional image, the "rain / water," together with the more centered and local relations that characterize lyric/centroidal time. The sound in this stanza is assonantal, the major centering sound pattern, and the words linked by assonance are in close proximity ("glazed" and "rain") rather than spread evenly throughout the stanzas, as they were with the consonantal linkages. These close assonantal linkages are also echoed in the other stanzas: [E] links "depends" and "red" in stanzas 1 and 2, [I] links "with" and "chickens" in stanzas 3 and 4, and [ay] links "beside" and "white" within stanza 4. Interestingly, these assonantal linkages also form positionally parallel patterns. Both "Glazed" and "rain" and "beside" and "white" link words on the peripheries of the same line, while both "depends" and "red" and "with" and "chickens" link words in adjacent stanzas, with one word on the periphery of a line and one word in the middle of a line. Lyric textures are also thickened by the somewhat centered tonal nuclei, which resist final position and therefore create mildly lilting intonational contours. Syntactic structures of various sorts also express an emotive/centroidal texturing. The only tensed verb in the poem, "depends," is present/non--past tense, so time in the poem flows out indefinitely in both directions, past and future, from the centered speaker. The most organized imagery in the poem, the color contrast between "red wheelbarrow" and "white chickens," is expressed with adjectives, "red" and "white," albeit pretty marginal ones. Most of the poem, stanzas 2-4, is a post-modifying phrase. And the central image in the poem, "a red wheel / barrow," is indefinite, a lyric structure that is balanced against the definite noun phrase "the white / chickens" in stanza 4 and the generic noun phrase "rain / water," in stanza 2.
Given that this is a brief lyric, the most notable thing about the emotive/ centroidal forms in the text, however, is their sparseness. Strongly lyrical/ emotional form is avoided. Person is third rather than first. Grouping structures are flat and weak. The poem has neither end rhyme nor an accentual-syllabic meter. Visual lines are short, about phrase length, but resist alignment with either prosodic or syntactic phrases. Adjectives are few and are all incorporated into noun phrases. There is no exclamation, rise-fall intonation, conjunction, or genitives. Even in terms of meaning, the "rain / water" is not self-standing but appears only as a modifying "glaze" on the central object of concern, the "red wheel / barrow." Emotion in this poem is indeed present but muted by all of the other temporalities. It is part of the show but not at all the whole show or even the central concern.
The forms that mute the poem's lyricism are cyclical and relative, emblems of perception and imagination, respectively, the dominant sensibilities of Williams' historical era.
The major cyclical image is presented in the fourth stanza, "the white chickens." Chickens are associated with eggs and therefore giving birth and initiation/generation more generally; and white, the emblem of purity, unity, and so on, is the major cyclical color. The general concerns for both spatial proximity ("with," "beside," "upon") and quantity ("so much") in the poem are also cyclical. Cyclical structures are strongly represented in sound, prosody, and syntax, too. Prosodically, the poem has consistently neutral, falling intonation; and many words have initial stress and falling stress contours. Syntactically, words, and among word classes, nouns, and among types of word formation, compounds, are strongly represented. The major images of the "wheel / barrow," the "rain / water," and the "chickens" are rendered in nouns; two of these ("wheel / barrow" and "rain / water") are compounds; and three nouns among these, or parts of these, are isolated on the even visual lines in stanzas 2-4 ("barrow," "water," and "chickens"), with a fourth word, albeit a preposition, "upon," completing the pattern in stanza 1. One of these nouns ("rain / water") is both mass and generic, further cyclical articulation. The visual and sonic texture of the poem is also strongly cyclical. The poem is structured in couplets, with alternating long and short lines, and alliteration links both the peripheries of poem, stanzas 1 and 4 ("so" and "beside") and its core, stanzas 2 and 3 ("red" and "rain," "wheel" and "water" and "with").
The most pervasive muting of lyricism in the poem, however, is relative. In addition to the four-part organization of the text that we have already pointed out, relative textures are represented by the text's minimalism and visual form. This minimalism and visual form give the poem a feel of spontaneity and superficial organization rather than deep organic order. In syntax, the sentence is foregrounded; the poem has only one sentence. But the flow of the sentence across the visual form is arbitrary and therefore fragmenting. The cyclical compounds in the center of the poem ("wheel / barrow" and "rain / water") are oddly broken at line endings, and the lines that are left show little syntactic, prosodic, or rhythmic unity. At the same time, the brute visuality of the text maintains a strict order of alternating long and short lines within visual couplets, in addition to the other lineal patterns we have already mentioned involving the counting of syllables and words. The concern with space and the eye, of course, is also in the represented scene: the color imagery (red, white), the watery glaze on the wheelbarrow, the odd juxtapositioning of seemingly unrelated objects ("chickens" and "wheel / barrow") "beside" one other and carrying such weighty meaning that "so much depends upon." The many prepositions in the poem and the role of these prepositions in the clauses in the poem, both main and subordinate (subject-verb-adverbial [SVA], "depends upon") is also relative, dispersing syntactic energies to optional, adverbial peripheries ("upon / a red wheel / barrow," "with rain / water," "beside the white / chickens"). One of these prepositions ("upon") is even isolated on a line. At textual peripheries, sound also undermines the rhyme of emotional centering and throws emphasis on dissonance, peripheries, and therefore, imagination and memory. "Depends" and "upon" in stanza 1 and "white" and "water" and in stanzas 3 and 4 are linked by pararhyme.
Flowers by the Sea When over the flowery, sharp pasture's edge, unseen, the salt ocean lifts its form--chickory and daisies tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone but color and the movement--or the shape perhaps--of restlessness, whereas the sea is circled and sways peacefully upon its plantlike stem
--William Carlos Williams (378)(5)
In "Flowers by the Sea," Williams gives us a landscape poem that fronts symbols of emotion and imagination as they come together and merge in a moment of perception. Looking across a field of flowers to the ocean in the background, a speaker feels the qualities of the two merge--and then cross. In the merger, both sea and flowers lose their distinctive qualities. Under the influence of the formal flowers, the great formless mass of the sea "lifts its form"; while under the influence of the sea, the flowers "seem hardly flowers alone." In the cross of qualities after the imaginative merger, the flowers take on the "restless" "color," "movement," and "shape" of the sea while the sea is stilled, and like a flower, "is circled and sways peacefully on its plantlike stem."
"Sea"/"ocean" and "flowers" are archetypal images for imagination and emotion, respectively, so this little landscape poem might well be an allegory for the poetic process, especially the poetic process as Williams experienced it. In poetry, our normally constrained, inarticulate, and submerged emotional life is freed up by the imagination and given an articulate, objective embodiment in the artistic medium while the chaotic energies of the imagination are reigned in by the poem's materials and medium and given a more constrained, articulate form.
This dialectical interaction between emotion and imagination is a central theme in Williams' life and work. As a father, husband, doctor, and respectable citizen of a small New Jersey town in the first half of the twentieth century, Williams struggled with containing the influence of his enormously active and productive imagination on his conventionally restrained emotional life, while as an avant-garde poet he struggled with expressing the authentic contours of his emotional life as it had been nurtured and shaped by local conditions with the free artistic forms made available by the art and culture of his cultural era. By and large, the result in his life and art worked out like the mergers and crossings of energies in the symbolic landscape of "Flowers by the Sea." Relative to both his conventional bourgeois neighbors and his avant-garde artistic friends, his emotional life took on the "salty" "edge" of an "unseen," "restless" sea; his poetry, the "peaceful" swaying, of a "stemmed" and "encircled" flower.
Rhythmically, the landscape genre that Williams chooses for the poem is linear, and this linearity is expressed naturally through the poem's syntax, the linear level of linguistic form. Grammatically, the poem's one sentence is anticipatory, ternary, correlative, and definite, with occasional touches of transitivity and fall-rise intonation, all reflexes of linear time. The basic sentence frame is composed of an anticipatory "when"-[then] correlative, giving the text a narrative flow. Within this correlative frame, the opening adverbial clause is transitive ("lifts its form") while the reference is definite ("the flowery, sharp pasture's edge"). After the main clause, the extensional "whereas" clause then makes the sentence ternary: a centered main clause is surrounded by opening and closing subordinate clauses. This ternary form is also linear.
The linear pragmatics of speaker over against landscape, observer over against scene observed, is also supported by the theme of movement in the poem. It is the dynamic movement of ocean "over" the "flowers" as the ocean "lifts its form" that leads to the perceptual merger and the crossing of qualities later on in the narrative. Without the initial separation of flowers and sea and then the movement to overcome this separation, the merger could not be accomplished.
This linear pragmatics is also supported by sound, although subtly so. The poem is laced with consonance ([r]: "over"-"pasture's"-"form"-"chickory"-"hardly" -"flowers"-"color"-"perhaps"-"whereas"-"circled"; [n]: "When"-"unseen"-"ocean" -"alone"-"movement"-"upon"-"plantlike"; [m]: "seem"-"stem"-"form"; [d] "tied"-"released"-"circled"; [p]: "shape"-"perhaps"-"sharp"; [t]: "salt"-"lifts"-"movement""restlessness"-"plantlike").
Cyclical time favors unity, proximity, and similarity; therefore, the rhythms of the imagined merger itself are cyclical and are much more strongly represented than the linear pragmatics. Thematically, this merger is represented by the "swaying" "peacefulness" of the "ocean" after its imagined merger with the flowers and the connections of the resulting "flower"-"ocean" to the ground by its "plantlike" "stem."
Many non-semantic forms are also cyclical. For instance, cyclical textures are binary, proximate, physical, and iconic, and the text obliges by giving us an iconic, flower-like swaying in the many paired words and phrases in the poem, some of which are juxtaposed by asyndeton (e.g., "tied, released") to thicken the physical and iconic structuring even further.
This physicality is strongly supported by a cyclical sound and syntax, too. To my ear, the dominant sound pattern in the text is alliteration ([s]: "unseen"-"salt"-"sea"-"circled"-"sways"; [p]: "peacefully"-"upon"-"plantlike"; : "lifts"-"released"-"alone"-"plantlike"). This alliteration is especially salient because it crescendos as the poem proceeds, and in the end, is brought in line with the visual lineation. The two adverbial clauses that surround the central main clause are also linked prominently at their onsets by alliteration: "When"-"whereas."
A number of syntactic structures also add physical qualities to the poem's overall texture. The poem's syntax is predominantiy third person ("the salt ocean," "chickory and daisies," "the sea," etc.), passive ("is circled," "unseen," "tied," "released"), nominal ("pasture's," "edge," "ocean," "form," "chickory," "daisies," "color," "movement"), intransitive ("sways," "is circled"), and generic ("movement," "restlessness," "chickory," "daisies"). Notice that the ocean is not "salty" but "salt": even modifiers turn nominal. Intonation in the poem is more rising than falling, but major parts of the poem (the main clause and the one poem/sentence as a whole) still conclude in standard ways with falling intonation. The speech acts in the poem are descriptive statements. The text has no commands, questions, or exclamations.
The central action in the poem, the merger and exchange between the formal reflexes of emotion and imagination, is carried by the centroidal and relative textures in the poem. The emotional energies in the poem are expressed mainly by meaning, syntax, and prosody, working from the top down. The imaginative energies in the poem are expressed largely by visual form, sound, and prosody, working from the bottom up (but with a strong realization in meaning as well).
Unlike the linear and cyclical forms, centroidal textures in "Flowers by the Sea" have a strong embodiment in meaning. Symbolically, the central image of the flowers themselves, the "chickory and daisies," are lyric/emotive, as are their "color," the "pasture" where they grow, and their "circled" "shape"/"form." This emotive feel is also carried by the syntax. The balanced and centered sentence that constitutes the text is lyrically arranged, and the text is rich in conjunction ("chickory and daisies," "color and the movement," "circled and sways"), adjectives ("flowery," "sharp," "unseen," "plantlike") and derivational morphology ("flowery," "movement," "restlessness," "peacefully," "plantlike," "unseen"), all reflexes of centroidal/lyric time. As might be expected in a lyric, the poem is also present tense ("lifts," "seem," "is," "sways") and, at the center, copular ("chicory and daisies / tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone / but the color and the movement--or the shape / perhaps--of restlessness").
Most significant of all, perhaps, this emotivity is carried down strongly into the poem's prosody/voicing. In my reading, the poem is often rise-fall/ exclamatory in its intonation, a product, perhaps, of the poem's periodic syntax and therefore build-up of anticipatory energies from the start of the text to the central main clause, and then the poem's many logical reversals ("hardly" ... "but," "or," "whereas") as it works its way through the central main clause to the end.
The texture that merges and mixes with the lyric is the relative, emblem of the imagination. This relative texture is realized in meaning by the "restlessness" of the "salt" "ocean"/"sea" and by the "released" flowers at the pasture's "edge." Its strongest reflexes, though, appear in rhythm, sound, and prosody. The focus of Williams' sensibility in imagination is carried by his free verse prosody, which cross-cuts both voicing and syntax, therefore turning up intonational contours into quizzical rising contours, both internal to the line and at line peripheries, while breaking the continuity of the voice and syntax at line breaks, fragmenting the syntax internal to the line, often fashioning lines that are just a heap of unrelated syntactic constituents, and often stranding function words, specifiers, and adverbials, constituents that are peripheral in the syntax, at line peripheries. The fact that the poem is just one sentence also adds to its imaginative texture. Poem and sentence become coextensive. The poem is also laced with adverbials ("When over the ... form," "whereas the sea ...," "unseen," "tied," "released," "alone," "perhaps," "peacefully," "upon its plantlike stem") and pararhyme ("sharp"-"shape," "stem"-"seem," "pasture's"-"peacefully"; "lifts"-"released"), which directs even more attention to peripheral forms.
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
RICHARD D. CURETON has a BA in philosophy (1973) and an MA (1976) and PhD (1980) in linguistics from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Over his career, he taught courses in rhythmics, linguistics, rhetoric, stylistics, poetics, and modern American poetry, first, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1981-85) and then at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1985-2013). He is the author of one book, Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse (1992), and a hundred or so essays, notes, comments, summaries, and reviews. Recently, he has developed a rhythmically based theory of poetry, what he calls "temporal poetics," which he is in the process of developing, illustrating, and publishing. He is now retired. In addition to continuing this scholarly work in retirement, he is also writing and publishing his own poetry, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(1.) For my response to Jakobson, see Cureton, "Jakobson Revisited." For an overview of the rhythmics that I use to ground my temporal poetics, see Cureton, Rhythmic Phrasing and "Meter and Metrical Reading." For an overview of the basic principles of my temporal poetics, see Cureton, "Rhythm, Temporality." For how I use rhythm to motivate linguistic form, see Cureton, "Toward a Temporal Theory."
(2.) "The Young Housewife" By William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright [c] 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp and Carcanet Press Limited.
(3.) "This Is Just to Say" By William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright [c] 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp and Carcanet Press Limited.
(4.) "The Red Wheelbarrow" By William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright [c] 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp and Carcanet Press Limited.
(5.) "Flowers by the Sea [first version]" By William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939, copyright [c] 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp and Carcanet Press Limited.
Cureton, Richard D. "Jakobson Revisited: Poetics, Subjectivity, and Temporality." Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 28, 2000, pp. 354-92.
--. "Meter and Metrical Reading in Temporal Poetics." Thinking Verse, vol. 2, 2012, pp. 112-237.
--. "Rhythm, Temporality, and 'Inner Form.'" Style, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 78-109.
--. Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse. Longman, 1992.
--. "Toward a Temporal Theory of Language." Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 25, 1997, pp. 283-303.
Williams, W. C. The Collected Poems. Vol. I: 1909-1939, edited by A. W. Litz and C. MacGowan, New Directions, 1986.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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