Academic journal article Style

Readings in Temporal Poetics: Four Poems by William Carlos Williams

Academic journal article Style

Readings in Temporal Poetics: Four Poems by William Carlos Williams

Article excerpt

In the spirit and tradition of Roman Jakobson's great poetic analyses, the four analyses in this essay are just presented as readings of individual poems, using another theoretical framework, one that I have been developing for the last twenty years, in part, in response to Jakobson. In my temporal poetics, I derive a theory of poetic form, including linguistic, rhetorical, and symbolic form, from rhythm. My theory of rhythm is componential. Form is paradigmatic. The qualities of the four rhythmic components (meter, grouping, prolongation, and theme) are the source of formal paradigms. The qualities of the four rhythmic components present a kind of developmental, and then constitutive, neo-Hegelian dialectic, based on rhythm. (1)

   The Young Housewife

   At 10 a.m. the young housewife
   moves about in negligee behind
   the wooden walls of her husband's house.
   I pass solitary in my car.

   Then again she comes to the curb
   to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
   shy, uncorseted, tucking in
   stray ends of hair, and I compare her
   to a fallen leaf.

   The noiseless wheels of my car
   rush with a crackling sound over
   dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

--William Carlos Williams (57) (2)

Narratively, "The Young Housewife" presents a familiar scene in Williams' poetry. Riding to work alone in his car, the speaker catches a glimpse of some slice of everyday life, which then provides the material for imaginative exploration and reflection (and poetic composition and expression). Like a camera, poems of this sort freeze and frame some bit of reality and make it into art. Because of this analogy to photography, I like to call these texts "snapshot" poems. In "snapshot" poems, linear and relative time dominate the poetic texture. Compared to what we might expect, linear forms, emblematic of reality (the prosaic and mundane), are both formalized (i.e., made into symbols) and relativized (i.e., particularized, negated, loosened, fragmented, questioned, made simultaneous and/or multidimensional, etc.), lifted up into the imagination.

In this "snapshot" poem, a half-dressed, disheveled housewife, is seen, first, moving around in her house, and then, running out to the curb to flag down the neighborhood vendors (i.e., "the ice-man," "the fish-man"). Passing in his car, the speaker notes various details of her character ("shy"), appearance ("in negligee," "uncorseted"), environment ("at 10 a.m.," "behind the wooden walls of her husband's house," "dried leaves"), and actions ("tucking in stray ends of hair"). Before "rushing" by, the speaker "bows," "smiles," and "compares" her to a "fallen leaf."

In its symbolic resonances, the details of this "scene" give us the mind and manner of the poem's "characters." The speaker, as poet, uses poetic detail to express his inner life. Then he projects this inner life imaginatively onto the woman, too, putting the two in the same subject position (if not in the same bed!).

On one hand, both the speaker and the woman are confined to reality and social convention. The speaker is constrained by his work schedule and its duties, symbolized by the (practical aspects of the speaker's) "passing" "car" and the "crackling" "sound" of its "wheels" over the "leaves," all emblems of linear time. The woman is similarly confined to reality and social convention, symbolized by her life as a "housewife" "in" "her husband's house," and her action of "tucking in" her disheveled hair. This social constraint is expressed by other linear forms in the text, too, for instance, the narrative/ temporal structure of the discourse as a whole ("At 10 a.m.," "Then again") and the text's dense consonance ([d]: "behind"-"wooden"-"husband's"-"stands""ends"-"sound"-"dried"; [s]: "pass"-"noiseless"-"housewife"-"ice-man"-"pass"; [z]: "leaves"-"noiseless"-"wheels"-"ends"-"comes"-"walls"-"husband's"-"moves"; [f]: "leaf"-"housewife"; [n]: "behind"-"husband's"-"Then"-"again"-"ice-man" -"fish-man"-"stands"-"ends"-"fallen"-"sound"; [s]: "fish-man"-"rush"). …

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