William Carlos Williams’ This is Just to Say: a Visual Interpretation

“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”

David Perkins has noted that Williams bring newness to poetry with his “fresh, clean-edged presentation, swift, with humor and a marvelous lightness: so long as we are under Williams’ spell, other poets seem cluttered and artificial” (Perkins 255). Immediately following this observation follows a question: what makes his poetry so attractively accessible?

Williams changed the linguistic quality of poetry, which he said “should be based on ordinary and local speech.” (Perkins 259) Williams’ contemporaries and predecessors had always followed poetry’s rule that every line must begin with a capital letter. Williams, however, decided to go against the current and forge a new path absent of both capitals and rhyme. He writes, “There was a comparable whipping up of interest in the structure of the poem. It seemed daring to omit capitals at the head of each poetic line. Rhyme went by the board. We were, in short, ‘rebels’” (Edwards 435). This decision affected the entire nature of poems, eliminating the artificial and out of reach quality.

The lack of capitals in “This is Just to Say” contributes to a conversational and colloquial tone. Williams “heard daily and wanted to preserve in his poetry the American idiom and rhythm of speech. Moreover, his personal theory of poetry demanded such a goal” (Funkhouser 25). “This is Just to Say” accomplishes this in that it almost blurs the line between poetry and speech. It begins with sheepish confession of a common experience in common language:

“I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving” (1-7).

The only capital letter other that the “I” which starts the poem is “Forgive me” (Williams 9), which highlights the reason behind this poem’s composition. Williams recognized Capital letters’ effects and used them to drive meaning in his poetry. Williams details his own rationalization process when he writes, “The greatest problem was that I didn’t know how to divide a poem into what perhaps my lyrical sense wanted. Free verse was not the answer. From the beginning I knew that the American language must shape the pattern; later I rejected the word language and spoke of the American idiom—this was a better word than language, less academic, more identified with speech” (Holsapple 128).

Williams captures everyday speech in “This is Just to Say” in a way that capital letters and rhyme schemes would have destroyed. Stepping out “In contrast to Eliot and Pound, Williams dives back into the spoken tongue” (Funkhouser 37), expanding imagism into an accessible, relatable category.

In order to echo the everyday quality of “This is Just to Say,” I have drawn my rendition with an everyday number two pencil. The fingernail is short and ragged to signify that the person holding the note is a “commoner” from the regular, working, American public. The poem seems to signify a note left to the plums’ owner, which is why I have represented it as a person discovering a hastily scratched note. I quoted the poem verbatim to represent the versatility Williams’ language gives to poetry and to demonstrate that he has captured the “American idiom”.

 

Works Cited:

Edwards, Gavin. 2010. “Capital Letters.” Textual Practice 24, no. 3: 435-452.Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 16, 2016).

Funkhouser, Linda, and Daniel C. O’Connell. 1985. “‘Measure’ in William Carlos Williams’ Poetry: Evidence from His Readings.” Journal Of Modern Literature 12, no. 1: 34. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost(accessed April 16, 2016).

Holsapple, Bruce. 2007. “The Verse Line in Williams.” English Studies In Canada 33, no. 4: 127-148. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 16, 2016).

Perkins, David. “The Impact of William Carlos Williams.” A History of Modern Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1976. 246-75. Print.

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