Tuesday, March 24, 2009

After William Carlos Williams

This Is Just to Say

                after William Carlos Williams

I am actually
grateful
for this first
opportunity

to publicly
speak
about
my crimes

for which
I am so
deeply sorry
and ashamed

Bernard Madoff (2009)
Part of what makes William Carlos Williams' 1934 poem "This Is Just to Say" a great poem is its refusal to offer anything as self-serving as a confession of guilt and sorrow for eating forbidden — or "probably" forbidden — fruit. The poem's mock-melodrama — "Forgive me" — is followed by a reminder of how wonderful the plums tasted: "they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold." Not "they looked delicious": there's no justification of transgression in these lines. Williams' poem suggests a playful, knowing relationship between two people, each with a capacity for humor, tolerance, and, yes, forgiveness. To say nothing after eating these plums would be to engage in passive-aggressive theft. To say more, proclaiming guilt and resolving to never, ever do it again, would be to put up a false rhetorical front. Hence, what the poem says is just to say, right, fitting, appropriate to the occasion.

How false, in contrast, Bernard Madoff's words look: actually, opportunity, publicly, deeply. Feeling grateful for an "opportunity" — had anyone denied it? — to speak of what makes one deeply ashamed: that must be a difficult trick to master.

comments: 4

Peter said...

Hi, I'm researching Ted Kooser for a poetry project in school and I've grown to like his poetry. This comment is also part of the project, in case you were wondering. But that is irrelevant.

Through everything I've read, Kooser seems quite similar to William Carlos Williams. I have enjoyed Williams' poetry since reading "The Red Wheelbarrow" my freshman year, and so I was happy to discover how much Kooser and he had in common. For instance, they both discuss the simplicity of life (either it be a neck-tie or a note left to a friend). In addition, the way they comment on these subjects is similar. Their similar use of common diction and subtle humor all contribute to the overall image. If you like Williams, consider giving Kooser a try. Just thought you'd like to know these interesting facts.

Michael Leddy said...

Peter, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm not sure how you came to my post via Ted Kooser, but I salute your interest in poetry.

I've read Ted Kooser, but I don't really see strong similarities to Williams. It depends though what one means by "Williams." If you look, for instance, at Kora in Hell or Spring and All (the work that contains the poem later titled "The Red Wheelbarrow") or The Descent of Winter, you'll see Williams as a poet of tremendous daring and innovation.

peter said...

Yeah, you're right. I agree Kooser is much a more traditional poet than Williams. But I still feel as though their simplicity is a very similar aspect between the two. I mean, the majority of Kooser's work focuses on a single person or image. And from what I've read, the subjects Williams discusses are not complex either; take Danse Russe with the dancing naked man, or Poem (As the Cat) describing a cat's brief jump. Yes, they probably have a deeper meaning that I have not discovered, but the idea is the same: the beauty behind an everyday occurence.

And truth is, Kooser and Williams may not be as similar as I thought. For this assignment, we had to compare our poet to one of the "greats" (i.e. Frost, Pound, Dickinson, Whitman, Stevens, Eliot, etc.) and I though Kooser seemed most like Williams. I may be assuming too much.

Michael Leddy said...

If you're interested, there's an essay by Charles Bernstein that might be relevant to your thinking about Williams, "The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA," in a collection of essays called Content's Dream.