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William Jay Smith's "The World below the Window".

William Jay Smith's "The World below the Window"

 The geraniums I left last night on the windowsill,
 To the best of my knowledge now, are out there still,
 And will be there as long as I think they will.

 And will be there as long as I think that I
 Can throw the window open on the sky,
 A touch of geranium pink in the tail of my eye;

 As long as I think I see, past leaves green-growing,
 Barges moving down a river, water flowing,
 Fulfillment in the thought of thought outgoing,

 Fulfillment in the sight of sight replying,
 Of sound in the sound of small birds southward flying,
 In life life-giving, and in death undying.

(The World below the Window: Poems, 1937-1997, Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. 3.)

"The World below the Window" (1957)--as perfectly intricate as verse by Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens--characteristically displays William Jay Smith's technical skill and ambitious themes, his lyrical response to the natural world and belief in the power of the imagination. Composed of four triplets, the poem employs four rhymes, the last two formed by participial verbs. With subtle repetitions and variations on these key words the poem progresses from the commonplace and specific to the lofty and abstract.

The poem begins with ordinary pink geraniums and the alliterative "left last night on the windowsill." Then, with "now," it moves to the immediate present. The deliberately pedantic diction of "To the best of my knowledge" contrasts with the colloquial "out there still" (the last word again emphasizing the present moment). This phrase also hints at the epistemological theme--the investigation of human knowledge, the way external reality is perceived by the human mind. The speaker says the flowers "will be there [only] as long as I think they will." Their existence in his mind is more significant than in their pot. When he stops thinking about them, they will also cease to exist.

The second triplet, echoing and varying most of line three, shifts from thought to vision. Following the epigraph from Emily Dickinson on the opposite page: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit lies," the poet, assuming his own angle of vision, looks aslant out of the window. He just manages to catch the bright color of the flower as he gazes at the world outside and below the window and contemplates the riverine view. In the first two stanzas the poet describes the world of day to day reality; in the last two stanzas the he glances at and then looks beyond this reality.

Unobtrusively repeating "As long as I think" for the third time, but now altering the context and changing "think ... think ... think" to "thought of thought," he finds pleasure and satisfaction in the process of his own mind. He sees green leaves (a contrast to pink flowers) growing in trees, low flat barges moving, and water flowing down-river and emptying into the sea. Though Smith wrote the poem in Florence in 1957, the river he had in mind is not the Arno but the Mississippi of his native St. Louis (talk with Smith, Cummington, Mass., June 10, 2007). In the opening of "The Dry Salvages," the first of the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, who also grew up in St. Louis, wrote: "I think that the river / Is a strong brown god" (Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952, p. 130). Echoing these lines in "The Tall Poets," Smith observed: "I shall complete that poem begun / a lifetime ago on the edge of the great brown river" (World below, p. 122).

"Fulfillment" governs the sight and sound of the last four lines: in the thought of his thoughts responding to the world below, in the sight of his sight reacting to the lively scene above, "Of sound in the sound of small birds southward flying." Their twittering squeaks are just audible above the muted sound of the slow moving barges and the quiet river. "Greengrowing" recalls spring; "southward flying" suggests autumn and the end of the geranium's flowering. The season is summer, still warm enough to leave a plant outside and throw open the window.

The leaves in the trees, the water in the river, the birds in the sky, all represent "life-giving life," yet the cycle of life suggests that everything must die. There is a poignant suggestion of loss, of mutability and mortality, and the end of conscious thought in death that will shut out this living world forever. But the poet, thrilled by the sensations of thought, sight and sound, intensifies and transcends the reality outside his window. As in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the imagination defies death, preserves life and makes it eternal. "The World below the Window"--crucial not only as the title poem of this volume, but also as the major work in Smith's entire oeuvre--lyrically celebrates writing poetry, the creative process and the imagination at work.

Jeffrey Meyers, Berkeley, California
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Author:Myers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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