I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox
5 and which you were probably saving for breakfast
Forgive me 10 they were delicious so sweet and so cold
Williams' little poem, "This Is Just to Say," seems about as far as we could get from a conventional poem. It doesn't rhyme, it has no familiar meter, and it certainly doesn't seem to fit into any of the traditional poetic genres: "Arms and the man I sing," announces Virgil, as he prepares to write an epic. No, that's definitely not Williams.
But if you take a second look at the title of the poem, which is also its opening line, you might discover that it sounds familiar. In fact, it's one of those conventional phrases that people use everyday, a kind of social shorthand: "we can't come to the phone now, but if you leave a message..." The poem was written before there were answering machines, but its title is how we signal, in a written note, that a brief message is coming: "this is just to say that I can't make the meeting today, but I loved the donuts last week." If he wrote the poem today, he would probably write it on a yellow sticky. So in one sense, Williams is working within a written genre, even if the genre is a minor one -- the brief note.
But imitating a written communication between husband and wife is actually quite a traditional thing for poets to do. One of the earliest English poems is called "The Husband's Message," while in the eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote an "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband." Williams' old friend Ezra Pound made a beautiful translation of a Chinese poem called "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," and I suppose even Edmund Spenser, writing his future wife's name in the sand, in the poem of his on this website, was writing a kind of a love note. The letter brings a lot of associations with it: it's private, even intimate, and often speaks to the heart of a relationship. And yet at the same time it has a kind of formality that spoken dialogue might not. What could be more poignant than the ending of Pound's poem, when the young wife who has been alone for five months, speaks with great reserve: "If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang, / Please let me know beforehand, / And I will come out to meet you / As far as Cho-fu-Sa."
When you read Williams' poem, think about how we expect to read a private note like this. What can be read between the lines about the relationship of these two people? About the fact that he knows what the plums were for, that he eats them anyway, that his excuse might actually work?
William Carlos Williams, like many writers of his time, was interested in the other arts, and in New York City he was able to meet European artists and the American artists Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler. He found Sheeler's work particularly attractive for its continuing use of subject matter from the everyday world - barns and factories, for example. This was appealing to Williams, who rejected the opaque and elitist modernism which he thought was represented by a poem such as T. S. Eliot's Waste Land. Williams believed that art should be grounded in the everyday, and that it should strip away all the unnecessary rhetoric of older poetic traditions. "No ideas but in things" was his rallying cry. In this he saw a desire to simplify the image, which is very much like what he set out to do in poems like "This Is Just to Say."
Click here to see a painting by Charles Sheeler: "Bucks County Barns," 1923.
Click here to see a photograph of Williams, taken by Charles Sheeler.