Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

To Waken an Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind--
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

In his work William Carlos Williams was always anxious to speak like an American within an American context of small cities, immigrants, and workers; people from the everyday walk of life. He wanted his poetic line to reflect the rhythm of speech and would draw his subject matter from ordinary surroundings with common language. He is remarkable with his ability to communicate poetically in a fragmented society.

His desire was to tell the truth of what he saw with images; to tell the truth and show the way each thing in the world depends on other things by reflecting its own nature. Here in To Waken an Old Lady he does just that likening old age to a small flock of birds, striving, anxious, determined to survive. To "make a start" in Williams’s poetry is of a necessity to name and he said with respect for the magic of language, "The only means the artist has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it an 'intrinsic freshness'."

But what? Williams says abruptly, halfway through his poem about birds finding food in winter. He does it by startling, cleansing, clarifying, and always aware, as Williams always remained aware, that what counts for the reader arises from the saying, the naming and hearing it in the reading aloud, through the rhythm of the opening lines, the ear’s pleasure in, Gaining and failing /they are buffeted by a dark wind-- , the exactness of bare trees/ above a snow glaze and On harsh weedstalks/the flock has rested. The metaphoric find of a dark wind-- in anticipation of his question; to combine it all with the display nature in their very specific ways.

He creates the depiction of the tough life of old age with his birds giving the reader much to think about, the harshness of nature, the severe life these small twittering maidens (for bird was in his day a synonym for a girl) endure flying on a gloomy nothingness about on an obscure business looking down upon valueless stipe pausing to reflect upon the fractured chaff. Contrasted against a harsh cry of abundance they suddenly become in the end out of place. So I am left with William Carlos William's unasked question in the midst of their hesitation and at his stopping place- since birds migrate; But where?


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

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