Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

This is just to say/I have eaten the plums/you were saving in the icebox/they were so cold and so sweet – is the way I remember William Carlos Williams’ famous poem. I have not tried to learn the poem, and my remembered version is quite far of the mark.  It is probably the only short poem I would be capable of reconstructing from memory in this way, with the possible exception of  Ireland by Paul Muldoon and one or two Haiku. Really I do not know the poem at all, but have constructed a version from my concept of the poem: plums, saving, icebox – not fridge, apology – a kind of apology, cold, sweet and short.

My first encounter with this poem was to hear it read on the television, probably accompanied by animation and probably as part of a BBC poetry season in the early nineties. I had not heard of WCW, and it was some years before I encountered the poem again. Though I did remember it, or retained an idea of it. I think it arrested me firstly because of its clarity, the action at least is very clear and takes place in a recognisable modern setting, then its coldness and sweetness, and finally  the poems ambiguity: what kind of relationship does it suggest?

The fact that I heard it first is strange, because I have always thought of the poem as a note written by a man to his wife.  As such it is an example of an found poem, a pseudo found poem possibly, where the poem could exist as a whole as part of some real world action. The actual poem is nothing of the kind as can be seen at The Academy of American Poets, it has a very conventional layout. And its phrasing suggests written rather spoken communication. If this were an apology in person, it would probably be more direct and less complete with some room for the apology’s recipient to make a contribution. Unless the speaker expected to be listened to at length without interruption.

I think my interpretation is the common one. It has become the fridge-magnet poem with versions of it appearing in photographs on social media, often written on post-its or other scraps of paper and pinned to fridges with another foodstuff substituted for plums and any hint of an apology removed. Although this is not the world the poem was delivered into in 1934. The icebox might have been literally that: a cabinet with one compartment for food, and another compartment for ice to cool the food. The ice being made industrially and delivered by the iceman. The poem is written around the time when modern refrigerators were starting to become common in US homes.

It seems like recognisable modern domesticity, where the plumb eater and plumb saver are in control of their own food supply and the kitchen or pantry are considered part of the body of the house. WCW was a doctor and so a member of the upper-middle class, at this time he might have employed domestic help, as might many of his beugoire readership. Of course this was also a time when wives kept house, and many men would not know what was in the larder. To its initial readership this poem might have suggested there was something special about the plumbs, perhaps they had been gathered from the garden; or that this exchange was emblematic of a simple country way of life.

To look at the poem itself it is clearly better than I remembered it. WCW has a great deal of control, he delivers the few details in carful stages.  There is no regular metrically or rhyme.  It looks like a poem, with four line stanzas, and there is some evidence that this is deliberate, the first and second stanzas seem wordy: that were and and which could go.  Though the poem would lose its calculating character.

For me the key word is probably, the eater knows the saver’s habits and character, I think the eater really knows the saver is keeping the plumbs, probably is a lie. The word Just is often seen as an example of submissive language, but is the supplication genuine? The poem’s last stanzas feels the most genuinely poetic, the word delicious is almost a poem in its self and is reinforced with cold and sweet.  It is almost as if the eater is taunting the saver, metaphorically eating the plumbs in front of the note’s reader.

So what is the eater up to?  My take on the action is that is based on an event in WCW’s life.  He has come in late or is going out early, possibly because of his work, and he could not resist the treat, but he does his wife the small courtesy of telling her, and the further courtesy of phrasing his message as an apology, all be it a not very believable one.  He does not take her for granted.  He does not think he is causing her terrible suffering, they live in an age of plenty.  I used to think there was something mildly sadistic in the final stanza, especially the use of the word cold, but the plumbs are just not that big a deal. Really it is a kind of love poem, that is a poem is an artefact created as a product of lives of a married couple who know and trust each other.

The poem has so few details a reader has to make assumptions.  The meaning would change drastically if this was written at a time of food shortages, or if the eater had already eaten a half-share of the plumbs and was now going to eat the second half. Would it change if it was to assume to written from a woman to a man? I do not think it would.  What it does have is an extra literary context, there is a poem called simply Reply from WCW’s papers, available at  University of Pennsylvania and other sites.  This is claimed to be a typed up version of a note that Florence Williams wrote in reply, but then crumpled up.  It shows a certain bemusement at WCW’s actions,  listing all the food that was a available, but not showing any great offence, and asking him to turn off the telephone, presumably part of the couple’s domestic routine.  Even if this was not originally written by Florence Williams the fact WCS included it sheds light on his view of the poem.

Though the details of the poem’s conception and of the Williams’ marriage  might reveal the poet’s original intention they do not necessarily explain the poem’s appeal.  I think one of the reasons for the poem’s popularity is that it fits modern life like a glove.  As has already been mentioned this a house where the kitchen is at the centre, also there is the control operated within families with regard to food.  Anything from hand washing, through clearing your plate, to keeping leftovers, and a million more particular situations relating to food ranging from dieting to food in shared flats and houses, or workplace kitchens.  The poem can be adapted to comment on any of these situations.

It also has a recognisable structure, almost a form in its own right.  Like the many internet incarnations of the poem mentioned above it is easy to achieve a recognisable version of the poem by substituting a few words: leave the title whole, substitute something for plumbs, make an qualified assumption about the saver in the second stanza, make a general statement about the thing consumed and two more specific statements at the end.  Stick with the sparse four line stanzas and you have a recognisable parody.  This form invented for a single poem also makes it a modernist poem.



Books for the Dead

Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife.  Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.

Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar.  A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.

Reputations come and go.  The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced.  The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry.  In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.

In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature.  There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into.  In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted.  What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.

So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died.  If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.

The Name Lived By

When writing my recent blog post about Stephen Payne’s recent collection I found myself unsure how I should refer to Stephen Payne.  When I started writing the most natural name to use was Stephen.  I do know him, and I am not setting myself up to write formal criticism.  Though this did not seem to do the poet justice.  After all there are a lot of Stephens in the world.  And it seems too pally, a potential reader might not trust my opinion.   

The convention is to use the writer under review by their surname, so I should refer to the author of Pattern Beyond Chance as Payne.  This would be more natural if I did not know the writer, and it is possible to mitigate my discomfort by mixing terms of reference: the author, the poet, the writer, etc..  But I am not sure the time for this form address has passed.  It dates for a time when a man gave his name as Ross, no one would think his name was Ross Jones, he would be Mr Ross, Dr Ross, Professor Ross or possibly the Earl of Ross.

This form off address also dates back to a time when the vast majority of people out in the world were men.  When women gave their names they would be giving their father or husbands name accompanied by the appropriate title.  As women entered the world more fully they were given the courtesy of being addressed and referred to in the same way.  I remember hearing a woman writer saying how strange she found it when she read her female friends’ obituaries, where they would be referred to by their surnames.  She had known them well, but not by that name, this was not the name by which they had lived their lives.

I find myself in a similar position.  I chose to use the writer’s whole name abbreviated as initials after the first use, for the sake of brevity.  Though I am not happy with this.  It has become something of a modern convention,  I receive a lot of correspondence addressed to David Foster-Morgan.  It gets the writer out of any difficulties in choosing a title, in particular the Miss, Mrs, Ms question, but seems awkward and unsatisfactory.

There are other traditions, the welsh tradition of linking a father’s name with the son as in Dafydd ap Gwilym, Dafydd the son of Gwilym.  Where father and son are recognised by the names they lived by.  On reflection I feel it is the given name that should be used, in our modern less formal, less dynastic age, this is the name lived by.

Anxiety’s Arrow

The title of this blog post is derived from Martin Amis’s 1991 novel Time’s Arrow.  From what I remember the title and central metaphor of the novel is taken from Physics, the idea that there is no particular reason why cause and effect cannot be swapped around.  So a sequence of events could just have easily happened in reverse.

The reason this is on my mind is that I gave my first reading as a featured reader last Thursday.  Something I managed to get myself into something of a state about, the anxiety in question.  And although it went well, helped by a supportive and attentive audience.  I feel similar feelings of anxiety extending backwards in time now the event is over.  The source of these feels is probably an over developed desire not to let people down.  So my publisher will not regret publishing me, the audience is not bored or confused, and to do myself justice.

It was a learning experience.  The most important lesson being not to over prepare, and to take the chance of engaging with the audience.  I would like to enjoy reading, and have done in the past, at open-mic and group events.  Probably the worse thing I did in preparing was to read through my poem again, and again to the point I was starting to get tired of one or two of them.  Perhaps this is the lesson, that is a poem, or any piece of writing is good enough it can stand endless repetition.  Heaven and hell are the same for writers: reading your own work for all eternity.  But I do not think so.

In his novel Slaughter House Five Kurt Vonnegut has a similar but somewhat more consoling vision of time.  In which all of time exists together, we only appear to move through time because we take a particular path through an otherwise fixed reality.  The alien Tralfamadorians see the whole of time at once, and as result have less to be anxious about.


A Single Step

Well, I am sure that nobody is reading. I wonder how many blogs have started like that. I think in this case I can be reasonably sure. I started this setup an hour ago, which is not too bad as these things go.   Although I did have the idea that it would only take ten minutes, agonising over if I should hide my identity or register a domain via WordPress extended the process.

So why blog?  There are many cynical and true answers to that. I think the best answer is to extend the conversation. Poetry, most art really, is one half of a conversation. Poems must stand on their own, but do need help. Which can be witnessed by the lengthy introductions, spoilers perhaps, many poets give their work at readings.

The place to begin is at the beginning. Not an original thought I know.  I have already learned not to start four sentences in a row with I. The main function of this first text, is to be text for the purpose of testing the layout. Hopefully more interesting content will follow.