William Carlos Williams’ “Willow Poem”: Defying Temporality

“Willow Poem”

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

ANALYSIS

Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.

Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.

Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.

Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”

Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.

In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.

Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “

Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.

Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.

The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.

Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.

Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.

Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.

— rjoly

On Class Warfare in America: The Yacht Mentality Revisited

yachts3

I wanted to revisit my last post of several days ago, “The Yacht Mentality that Threatens our Economy,” with this apropos poem by William Carlos Williams, one of America’s foremost modernist poets.  As you may have surmised, it’s called “Yachts,” which I employed as my central metaphor in depicting the economic inequity rampant in our nation.

Williams, by the way, was a physician from Hoboken, NJ, who compassionately dedicated his practice to treating the poor, who were never far from his thoughts.  We see this vividly in his symbolically dense poem that comes close to being allegory in its one-to-one application, or depiction, of the tensions governing the relationship between the oligarchy of the economically privileged (shall we call them them the 1%?) and the majority, marginalized working class folk like you and me.  But first the poem, then my commentary:

Poem:

The Yachts

contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.
mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls

ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace of all
that in the mind is fleckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again.  The yachts

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off.  Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in the canvas.

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind,
the whole sea becomes an entanglement of watery bodies
lost by the world bearing what they cannot hold.  Broken,

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! Their cries rising
in waves still as the skilled yachts pass over.

Commentary:

When you first get into this poem it seems to feature Man vs Nature, but by l. 13 with the specifics about the crew, which “crawls solicitously,” it dawns on you that it also takes in humans pitted against one another.

If the earlier portion of the poem (up to l. 13) gives an imaginative, blissful view of Nature in relation to Man and, in turn, of Man’s inter-relationships, the latter portion gives you the awful reality masked by the seeming tranquility, or the potential for revolt from the status quo of both Nature and Man.

Mention of a “race” sets the stage for transition into a contest for mastery, initially of yacht vs. yacht, but note how the diction changes here with sinister implications:

“Now the sea which holds them is moody”

 “As if feeling for some slightest flaw”

“Now the waves strike at them”

Note as well how the ominous turns into a personification of unleashed violence in what becomes a power struggle waged between haves and have nots, with the yachts metaphorized into repressive knife slashing entities indifferent to whom they maim:

“Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.

“It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair.”

Williams’ subterranean intent now surfaces:  we have a revolt put down by the yachts, the poem’s symbol for connoting the wealthy, of the normally “solicitous,” or working classes, whose labor has made their wealth possible, though they’ve gleaned little for themselves, “bearing what they cannot hold.”

“…the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind,
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies

The yachts, or impervious upper class, obviously win out on this particular day, but not without leaving in their wake their decimated victims:

“Broken,
beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, falling! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.

In sum, Williams has delivered a Marxist polemic of poignant genius in its thematic rendering of class struggle against inequity.  The very style of the poem adroitly reinforces this theme of worker repression by the economically removed in its run-on lines and skillful alliteration at poem end, the yachts unheeding of the crying wounded in “waves still as the skillful yachts pass over,” suggesting speed and, hence, indifference.  For Williams, this hierarchy “live(s) with the grace of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and naturally to be desired.”

In short, their narcissism of self-indulgence (materialism) mirrors behind its proffered beauty their willful escape from responsibility to the working classes on whom their wealth is built (“the crew crawls/ant-like, solicitously grooming them”).

In an America where 37% possesses half its wealth and the top 1% often pays minimal taxes, Williams’ poem reminds us that we have much work to do to render the American dream palpable for not just a few, but for the many.

–rj

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