June 2, 2014 To a Poor Old Woman

Dear readers,

Two things today: Let’s throw it open for discussion on the topic of moving away from an e-mail based platform for MV. My position has been that people will not go to a blog, and I only hold that position because that’s what readers have told me over the years. If it comes into your inbox you can ignore or delete a message, and I am sure some of us do that some of the time. On the other hand, I believe there’s a core of people for whom NOT having to take an affirmative step means they’ll actually read the poem (eventually). The proposal of a blog-based platform presents a choice between 2 imperfect situations: Readers feeling less inclined to share a response, or readers being less likely to see any response, because they wouldn’t visit a blog on a regular basis.

Of course I’ve never had a blog, so this is where I can take some instruction from others on this list. But I will also ask: Is your engagement with the poem not enriched by some reader’s response, no matter what the response? Would others’ experience not mirror your own if you were the person sharing? I’ve yet to read the commentary that was without merit, and that’s over 17 years, and a lot of short, funny, and even “pointless” comments. Everyone has an out on this list–all you gotta do is tell me “I quit.” And I’ve regularly asked people if I have their preferred e-mail address for this forum. So, and this is just me talkin’, I don’t see clogging up people’s inboxes as a factor.

Number 2: God I love the Poetry Foundation’s website. Great mini-bios, or long bios, great introductions to major poets’ entire output, thematic articles, and clean version of tons of major works. And you can word search for things like… enjambment. So let me run another WC Williams poem, and this time I’ll let the editorial staff of the PF do the appraising. Poem first, selected explication below. Is Stephen Burt’s attentive reading too grand? Williams really liked plums, I guess–that’s what I’m taking from the poem. -ed.

TO A POOR OLD WOMAN

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

…Not only did Williams work to see a more egalitarian America, but he also worked to hear it, to make a new American sound from spoken language. Whitman modeled his democratic free verse on the long lines he found in the King James Bible (for example, in the Psalms): he described nineteenth-century America in end-stopped lines and sentences whose cadence—however unlike Longfellow’s or Tennyson’s—grew from centuries-old English roots. Williams invented free verse of a whole new sort. Unlike Whitman’s works, a Williams poem is usually short-lined, irregular in cadence, and dependent on frequent enjambments, where line breaks at phrase ends are the exception rather than the rule. Williams did not do it all himself—as early as the late 1910s, fellow poets were publishing similar verse in the same magazines—but among all those allies, he had the best ear and most often found the best uses for the defiantly un-English, un-Biblical, demotic patterns he heard. His constant exposure to immigrants’ speech, his own trilingual background (his mother spoke French and Spanish at home), and the procession of working-class patients he encountered as a New Jersey doctor likely helped.

In this new American free verse, the line break became Williams’s great, virtuosic instrument and “To a Poor Old Woman” is a bravura performance. Its repeated independent clause, “They taste good to her,” becomes something like a scientific experiment: line breaks vary, while the rest of the language (the same words in the same order) remains constant. We thus see the power that enjambment can exert over sentence sound and meaning. The first iteration works as a sort of control group showing the sentence whole, as a line without enjambment (“They taste good to her”). They taste good, rather than bad; Williams can see, and we see with him, how much she enjoys them. The second iteration (“They taste good / to her”) suggests that they might not taste good to us (unless we are poor); her hunger leads her to rate the plums more highly than we would. And the next restatement (“They taste / good to her”) could imply that, while they may taste good, they look ugly (spotted, bruised, discolored, or half-rotten). The break after “taste” also emphasizes “good,” so that we ask what good means, what might be “good to her.” The last line repeats the sentence without enjambment. In between comes more description, as in a cinematic close-up: to know more about what “good” means to her, we have to look longer at her.

…In recordings of Williams reading this poem and others, he does not pause at line breaks, but uses them as marks of emphasis. To hear him read these lines is to see how enjambments allow him to choose among the potential meanings and tones for his key words. Such lessons in listening also become lessons in democratic sympathy. Listening to these lines about this woman means paying sustained attention to her by listening to language she might use (all common monosyllables, repeated) and thinking about what she enjoys and how she might feel. For Williams, the neglected syllables, the “common” and too often overlooked words in our language, correspond to the “common” people and to common pleasures: as we attend to one, we defend them all.

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