January Morning









    Exquisite brown waves -- long
    circlets of silver moving over you!
    enough with crumbling ice crusts among you!
    The sky has come down to you,
    lighter than tiny bubbles, face to
    face with you!
        His spirit is
    a white gull with delicate pink feet
    and a snowy breast for you to
    hold to your lips delicately!


    The young doctor is dancing with happiness
    in the sparkling wind, alone
    at the prow of the ferry! He notices
    the curdy barnacles and broken ice crusts
    left at the slip's base by the low tide
    and thinks of summer and green
    shell-crusted ledges among
            the emerald eel-grass!


    Who knows the Palisades as I do
    knows the river breaks east from them
    above the city -- but they continue south
    -- under the sky -- to bear a crest of
    little peering houses that brighten
    with dawn behind the moody
    water-loving giants of Manhattan.


    Long yellow rushes bending
    above the white snow patches;
    purple and gold ribbon
    of the distant wood:
       what an angle
    you make with each other as
    you lie there in contemplation.


    Work hard all your young days
    and they'll find you too, some morning
    staring up under
    your chiffonier at its warped
    bass-wood bottom and your soul --
    -- among the little sparrows
    behind the shutter.



    All this --
    was for you, old woman.
    I wanted to write a poem
    that you would understand.
    For what good is it to me
    if you can't understand it?
       But you got to try hard --
    But --
          Well, you know how
    the young girls run giggling
    on Park Avenue after dark
    when they ought to be home in bed?
    that's the way it is with me somehow.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Here is William Carlos Williams on a January Morning (Al Que Quiere! A Book of Poems). Written in 1917 at his birthplace in Rutherford, New Jersey at the time he is 34 years old making his living as a doctor, and is an extraordinary poet in his ideas of applying plain and simple imagery to words and the placement of them typographically on a page. I know that Williams had a great sway on younger poets, Allen Ginsberg whom he influenced throughout his poetic career relates:

    "In Williams' autobiography, in his forward, he tips us off as to his own nature and the role of eros in his writing, the role of frankness and candor in his writing: ‘I am extremely sexual in my desires. I carry them everywhere and at all times. I think from that arises the drive that empowers us all.’"

By blending a wide variety references in this poem Williams uses obscurity as a wonderful tool to heighten the readers curiosity. One must make use of their proverbial critical thinking cap to discern exactly where we are; to investigate; to provide in our own mind an explanation or a context.

He writes in a very distinct, untraditional style of imagery putting picture in the readers mind with visual clues composed of color; sun and shadows, brown men and sky blue rails. I could paint a picture of the yellow rushes bowing above his scene splashed with purple and gold ribbons laying distracted across white snow His concise and sharp language leaves a lot unsaid and much up to the imagination. The lines are more than mere reporting he makes them with a rhythmic quality of language employing line breaks to isolate and highlight particular words. He believed that the poet should stick to the material at hand and celebrate the mundane events surrounding him-crowds at a baseball game, a note pinned to the refrigerator, an old woman eating plums-for they have their own hidden beauty or truth about the sensual desires of men and women.

I wondered what that roofline of Weehawken looks like as he sets the mood....

  • "the operation was postponed" in the second stanza? Does it refer to the pensioners, to Williams's occupation as a doctor, or to something that was 'supposed to be done’?
  • Arden might relate to the Spanish verb arder meaning "to burn." Knowing William Carlos Williams I smile to think hmmm just exactly what is burning? What hi jinks lie in the meaning of the Touchstone; this savvy sailor voyaging on the Half Moon with his brother Henry Hudson in his futile quest on that fabled passage?
  • A bubbling pink footed gull being gently kissed becomes a happy dancing doctor remembering a summer's day at the beach on a winter's morning. What is he on about?
  • On the New Jersey shore there opposite of Manhattan. (I've been there), he tries to enlighten me again with an early stroke of dawn until I am finally the little sparrow unable to utter the slightest sound peeking through his moving louvers at flapping flags of bittersweet revelation.
<[P>Applying repetition to clarify his feeling more and more intensely, each section is distinct from the other, almost as if they are observations made by different people on that January morning; each one playing a different melody. The old woman in Williams' poem, as it happens, is his mother. He wrote other poems than this one for her, and about her. Eve, The Horse Show, and Elena. But it is in this one, January Morning that Williams' mother was more than real, more than a mother to him; she was "a mythical figure... a poetic ideal," he called her in I Wanted to Write a Poem. Scholars note that she served as muse to him, and he served as poet to her. Not only did he want her to understand his poem, the body of his work, but also he wanted her to approve of it. Of him. He embodies, in his mind and in this poem, his reader as a woman and puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person instead of two pages. Wallace Stevens also wrote his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird in 1917 so I wondered about Williams and his fourteen or so ways of looking at his mother when he lets slip, : "All this-- / was for you...."

I am reminded of Preludes written by T.S. Eliot's and published in 1917 as well, in the way he has organized the poem into short, choppy sections each is headed by a roman numeral. Immediately following the title is the word Suite:. Because of this, the poem seems to be arranged like a musical composition. By putting musical phrases to capture the music of speech he draws attention to the musicality of everyday language. At first his focus seems diffused and disorganized but near the end he ties it all up by dropping the reader a clue as to what he's up to then he leaves the reader wanting more with his allusion to some forbidden thing. With the young girls giggling he disappears down the Park Avenue of Rutherford with a shrug and playful wink!

Sources: January Morning:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Williams, William Carlos. I Wanted to Write a Poem, Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.

CST Approved.

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