Monday, May 4, 2009

This Is Just to Say

William Carlos Williams is one of the most respected poets of the 20th century. His poem, “This is Just to Say,” is a beautiful tribute to how powerful simple images can be. Yet its simplicity hides its depth. It has so much to offer anyone who cares to examine it beyond the simple guise of a note to a wife. This poem begs the question of sin, the speaker committing an act for which he must ask forgiveness. Along with that comes the question of the forbidden fruit; Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit that wasn’t theirs just as the speaker in this poem does. Yet the poem also asks us to examine the poetry in everyday life; such a beautiful poem about a situation that could happen to any one of us on any normal day. But the most important question this poem asks us is how can we relate to such a poem? This poem is simple, understandable, and about normal life, relating to it is an easy task; but each reader of this poem relates differently; some believe it is about a loveless marriage, others believe it is about a perfect marriage, and there are others that believe this poem simply means nothing. How do we begin to understand and experience a poem that is so simple it creates so many varied reactions?

            To start we must understand that in simplicity there is complexity. This poem proves how simple images are able to draw out of us, the readers, emotions that are unique to ourselves. The main image of the poem is the plums in the icebox. Because each of us has had different experiences and is at different places in our lives, this image, being in the kitchen looking for something to eat, becomes a portal into our lives. We associate the events of the poem with what is happening with us. Such a simple image invites each of us into the poem. Once we read this poem it becomes part of us, each understanding it in a different way. So those who believe it is about marriage and those who believe it is about nothing are both right because the poem itself wants everyone to take something different away from it. The simple lines causes all who read it (whether or not they admit it) to take something away from it.

            Meaning, then, becomes personal. The first stanza pulls us into the poem, we are the “I”, setting us in our kitchen, allowing us to recreate the image in our minds with our fridge standing where the icebox is, our hand reaching in for the plums. All of it is happening in our world, so, naturally, the rest of the poem takes place in that world but from different points of view.  It is no accident the stanza breaks where it does. The poem takes us from seeing ourselves as the hand reaching into the fridge to the person the note is written for. We become the receiver of this note; we are the ones left without breakfast. This causes us to react based on the situation we previously envisioned in the first stanza. The switch to the second person pronoun in the second stanza allows us to interact even more with the poem. In the first stanza we are the agents, the “I”, we have eaten the plums, yet quickly, and subtly, we become the “you” and our reaction changes. That reaction comes not out of the poem, but rather from us reacting to the events of the poem that have happened in our own envisioned kitchen. It’s simply brilliant how we are set up in a paradox (being the “I” and the “you”) and then in the third stanza we are asked to decide our own fate.

            After taking us through the emotions of the person eating the plums and the person who is receiving the note, in a deft and awe-inspiring way, we are allowed to ask forgiveness of ourselves as well as decide whether forgiveness is granted. We are reminded of how delicious the plums were, not in detail but rather in two adverbs, “sweet” and “cold”. These simple words ensure we understand how the plums tasted. Everyone knows what something sweet tastes like and everyone knows what something cold feels like. It’s as if we are biting into the plums ourselves; our mouths can feel those simple words interacting with our taste buds. The repeated image of reaching in and eating those plums forces us to relive the emotions of the first stanza while at the same time we are asking forgiveness for the very thing we are visualizing. We become the “me” while retaining the mindset of the “you”. This is the paradox: we are the sinner and the sinned against. That is why people have such varied reactions to this poem. The decision of whether or not forgiveness is granted, the verdict of the poem itself, is ours to determine.

            The wide range of emotions this poem conveys is a direct result of its simple language. Had this poem been written in a more poetic language not everyone would be able to understand what was happening. We can all relate to the poem because we are able to see the scene and, this is where the poem really shines, act out in our minds those events. Not only are we participating with the poem but we are the embodiment of the poem. It is happening in our kitchen, we are eating the plums, we are left without breakfast, we are asking forgiveness and we are granting that forgiveness. We relate to this poem on a personal level because the poem is personal to us.