Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fourth of July Poetry Madness: William Carlos Williams

Poetry in motion
Compatriots and non-patriots, rejoice! Several hundred years ago today, one half of my ancestors emancipated themselves from the other half - which worked out well for them, as you can see by the fact that I exist and live in London.

I shall be celebrating the duality of my heritage by spending this evening with a hotdog in one hand and a bottle of cider in the other, but while I do that, you can entertain yourselves with the work of a poet only America in all its glory could produce: William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams is amazing. Not only is his name a work of startling rhythmical genius, but as a writer he had the sheer naked balls to create a poem that goes, in its entirety:
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
Look at that. That is hilarious. BUT WHAT CAN IT MEAN?

To be honest, I don't think it means anything. I studied Modernism at university and when we got to Williams the professor just sat back and said, "Damned if I know what any of this stuff is about."

Williams was a poet of the Jazz age (think Gatsby, economic trauma and RELENTLESS GLITTERING CONSUMERISM), and as a consequence most of his poems are meant to evoke advertising and confusion. They're so odd and open-ended, though, that you can decide they mean whatever you like. Which is kind of brilliant and cool.

Williams' poetry also contains one-liners which are, simply put, some of the best I've ever read. There's
In my life the furniture eats me
Which I think is actually a ghost story; and
The pure products of America go crazy -- 
Which is clearly a prophecy about Sarah Palin.

It's the sheer simple weirdness of the way Williams puts words together that delights me so much. He's really good at being really strange, and that's made his poems stick in my head for much longer than all those indigestible verses that MEAN THINGS. He's also extremely good at being funny, a vastly underappreciated talent. It is hard to manufacture humour. Some writers even find it difficult to work out what humour actually is (just ask James Joyce.) But I think Williams manages it.

My favourite poem by him is also one of his silliest. It's been parodied endlessly (a sure sign that something's pretty great), and it's just so apt in so many circumstances. It's an ode to everyday life, a perfect description of thousands of tiny household arguments and a how-to guide to not really being sorry.

It goes like this.
This is just to say

This is just to say: I love corn on the cob.
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which

you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious
so sweet

and so cold 

Happy fourth of July, world.

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