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.