‘nearly all writing, up to the present, if not all art, has been especially designed to keep up the barrier between sense and the vaporous fringe which distracts the attention from its agonized approaches to the moment. It has been always a search for the ‘beautiful illusion’. Very well. I am not in search of the ‘beautiful illusion’.’
-William Carlos Williams, Spring and All(1923)
With a Whitmanesque longing to consume America into his poetry William Carlos Williams is unsurpassed as an imperceptible Emersonian eyeball. It is at the heart of society that everyone's grandmother was once a peasant. But surviving peasantry also meant giving up the peasant’s way of life or transmuting it until traditions bear a resemblance to everyone else's; what began under modernism now takes the name of postmodernism. Williams’ simple verse is a rant that documents the landscape of the urban underclass of American culture ignored by his modernist comrades
By picturing the "pure products" of America, the "peasant" class of workers and "mountain folk" who live "desolate" lives because their imaginations have been severed from "peasant traditions to give them / character” the reader’s attention is called to a triad of awkwardness expressed by the poet: “a despoiled America, the alienated and self-alienating human condition, and the ravished Eden of the imagination.” John Palattella writes in his critical essay Americanism, and Postwar Apocalypse
To Elsie presents in broad strokes a terrorizing image of a rural world of pure degradation. After the first stanza's opening declaration, "The pure products of America/go crazy," the poem lists examples of bleakness: isolate lakes and valleys, devil-may-care-men, young slatterns bathed in filth when they work during the week and "tricked out" with "gauds" on Saturday night. Yet the moment Williams compiles this laundry list of impoverished artifacts, which seems a concession to apocalyptic despair, he admits that list's insufficiency.
Williams feels the coarse fabric of a world longing for the pastoral. Life as an obstetrician in the heavily populated east coast city of Patterson, New Jersey exposed him to the working class poor. After hours he composed poems rich with imagery from these people. In 1912 Williams married Florence (Flossie) Herman and by 1916 they had two sons Eric and Paul. Williams was convinced his friends and neighbors were out of touch with the "American place." He envisions them all in that icon of modern American mobility, the automobile. Only it's driverless and careening out of control. Elsie was a young mentally handicapped nursemaid who came over from time to time to help Flossie clean house. The poet addresses his poem to the half-mad housemaid who had been raised in a state orphanage. He attempts to put her in perspective with the realistic aspects of the American Dream by portraying her as the "broken / brain the truth about us." Presenting herself with "cheap / jewelry / and rich young men with fine eyes," she embodies the public’s passion for prosperity. Elsie is an unreservedly unique human being, within the collective background that "produce”(d) and reduced her to a wordless signal of cultural dirt, "expressing" the brokenness by what has been done to her.
The poet outlines Elsie as both an omission of, as well as, a case in point of his edict that "the pure products of America go crazy." His grammatical uncertainty reports her tragic nature as a translation of the dehumanizing social forces that have her "hemmed round" with stipulations of gender and class, not to mention the sanctuaries of public authority of not only the institution that reared and defined her but also a self effacing suburban doctor who employs her. Indeed Williams reins in his confident synopsis of austerity by locating himself within the doctor-poet's bourgeois domestic space. While cultural anthropologist James Clifford notes that Williams "finds himself off center among scattered traditions," American modernist poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) singles out To Elsie emphasizing that it is a powerful protest of the "social determinism of American suburbs in the first thirty years of the twentieth century."
Carefully chosen words lend a sense of time and color to the poem. Fields of goldenrod in full bloom are prominent features of the landscape in September and signal the end of summer. He contrasts the North American wild chokecherry which bears astringent fruit with the viburnum, a member of the honeysuckle family that has the Latin meaning of "wayfaring tree." It is this visual landscape juxtaposed with colloquial verse that shapes Williams hallmark of the American idiom; “the brash, no-nonsense voice of the social man contrasted with a lyrical, romantic strain; precise, almost photographic recording of scene contrasted with evocation of intimate emotion.”
The short, simple verses presented as unrhyming tercets is regarded as a classic work of American modernism. It was originally published in Dijon, France by a small press and the collection entitled Spring and All (1923) was virtually unknown in its entirety until after the middle of the twentieth century. Three of the most recognized poems today are Spring and All, The Red Wheelbarrow and To Elsie. All affirm the value of close awareness to the unnoticed people and things of American culture.
The early 1920s were for Williams a time of aggressive experimentation. His break with traditional forms was a rejoinder to the existing movements in painting and photography. Spring and All was a presentation of untried prose and untitled poems. It was also a retort to T S Eliot’s lamentations with one critic saying Williams' testimonial about destruction and creation going hand in hand spits "against The Waste Land's implacable winds." It's easy to picture Eliot standing on the outside as observer of the aridity of life amongst his Lost Generation and hear Williams reply that his bellyaching is no less of an illusion than Woodrow Wilson's crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
But If It Ends The Start is Begun: Spring and All, Americanism, and Postwar Apocalypse, John Palattella Rochester, New York:
Heath Anthology of American Literature:
RPO -- William Carlos Williams : To Elsie:
On "To Elsie":