ENGL 341-American Lit to WWII
The Poet of the Mundane
William Carlos Williams
was a man who had the rare gift of seeing beauty
in even the most seemingly mundane objects, the most everyday scenes, and the common man
, especially lower-class Americans
. In his dense, compact
poems, he used such commonplace subjects to create unstated, subconscious metaphors
—and uncover beauties that most people would simply pass by, oblivious.
One poem that clearly states his feelings about the importance of common folk is titled “Dedication For a Plot of Ground
,” from his collection Al Que Quiere!
First published in 1917
. The poem opens with the lines “This plot of ground/ facing the waters of this inlet/ is dedicated to the living presence of/ Emily Dickinson Wellcome
…” and continues, at length and without a full stop, to tell the story of the woman’s difficult—but not unusual—life of battling relatives, drought, weasel
s, thieves, and her own mind, after which she “attained a final loneliness
and-“. Williams concludes the poem with the lines “If you can bring nothing to this place/ but your carcass
, keep out.”
This poem could be read as a kind of argument for his own poetry. The woman bears the name of the famous poet Emily Dickinson, as well as that of a family that achieved notoriety
for developing pharmaceuticals
in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Her name, then, suggests that she represents the benefits of poetry
, the calming or healing effect that poetry can have on people. Although she is, like so many of Williams’s subjects, commonplace, and her hardships are those of a common woman, she can represent something wonderful if one approaches the plot dedicated to her with an open mind, and is willing to participate, bringing more than one’s mere carcass.
In the introduction to his collection The Descent of Winter 1928
, Williams explains the purpose of poetry
in his own eyes:
in almost all verse you read… the figures used and the general impression of the things spoken of is vague “you could say it better in prose” especially good prose, say the prose of Hemingway… there’s too often no observation in it, in poetry… the good poetry is where the vividness comes up “true” like in prose but better. That’s poetry… That thing, the vividness which is poetry by itself, makes the poem. There is no need to explain or compare. Make it and it is a poem.
This passage seems to be a poetic reflection of Marcel Duchamp
’s declaration: “it is art because I say it is art
.” This ability to take the average (which, being average is necessarily true) and make it seem extraordinary (which, being true, it already is) is the purpose of the True Poet
. It is natural, then, that Williams was primarily concerned with the average
in all things, especially in regards to people. He saw the average man, or woman, as the truth of the world, the purpose and goal of the American dream
. He therefore attempted to show the world with his easy, reflective poetry the truth of American life and the beauty he saw there. In the same way that satire
is the mirror that shows everyone who looks in it everyone but himself, Williams’s poetry is a mirror which makes everything it reflects appear beautiful. A wheelbarrow
, a cat stepping into a flowerpot, birds on the sidewalk—all of these become beautiful and magical through the mirror of Williams’s pen.
One poem that exemplifies Williams’s preoccupation with common people, The Sun Bathers
, consists of three vignette-like stanzas followed by a conclusionary line, which ties them all together. The “tramp thawing out/ on a doorstep/ against an east wall” suggests a hard life, a cold night—just finished—spent outside, and an awakening to a bright morning. None of this is stated, but none of it needs to be—the tramp has her own beauty, and needs no metaphor
s or pretty words
to force an outside beauty on her.
The “young man begrimed/ and in an old/ army coat/ wriggling and scratching” similarly has his own story, his own magic, his own coming-into-the-light. Williams hints that this man must have a fascinating story behind him, but the story is not one for Williams to tell. Anyone who has ever been to a city has seen this man—he is everywhere, in every city—and if the reader really cares to hear this man’s story, all he or she needs to do is ask.
The “fat negress/ in a yellow-house window/ nearby/ leaning
out and yawning
” seems to truly welcome the day, stretching into the morning light. The yellow house brings a warm tone to the scene, and the yawn reasserts the time of day. The final line, “into the fine weather,” closes the poem with an assertion that all is well
, because there is beauty everywhere
. This is not just fine weather of some abstract day, it is “Nov. 1, 1993,” and the morning sun is warm! This is a lucky day, and this is fine weather of the soul. These average people, sun bathers, true and real and invisible to most people, are an assertion of Williams’s faith in the average
, in hope for the common man, in the American Dream. They are his people, and he makes their beauty his own.