Tuesday Poem: “To a Poor Old Woman”, by William Carlos Williams

21 Jun

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

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

— William Carlos Williams

Very quick commentary today that’s not really about the poem, because, I mean, it’s William Carlos Williams, what can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said?

I was actually going to post this last week. Someone I work with said, “Oh, I like the word wheelbarrow,” and naturally I immediately came out with “So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow“. After a few blank looks I said, “Oh, it’s a famous poem by William Carlos Williams. He wrote the one about plums, you know, ‘This is just to say / I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast …'” and at that point I realised I was getting a lot of blank faces, and trailed off. What followed was me exhorting the extremely clever and well-educated people with whom I work to read poetry! And WCW! And how did they get through life without William Carlos Williams! (Or, indeed, Ezra Pound, because part of this conversation was trying to think of poets they might have heard of who were WCW’s contemporaries. Yes to Ginsberg, no to … pretty much everyone else.)

SO. Just in case anyone reading this is in the same boat or, rather, was in the same boat – now you know a little bit of William Carlos Williams, his most famous stuff really. I picked “To a Poor Old Woman” because of the second stanza which I find so tremendous. It was extremely influential to me when I studied poetry because surely no poem can better emphasise the importance of line breaks, how they affect a sentence’s meaning, how you read it, how it breaks in your mind and in your voice when you speak. Words are emphasised so differently in each of the four ways he writes this very simple sentence – they taste good to her, they taste good – to her, they taste good to her. And it’s like you’re eating it yourself.

And at the same time this simple subtle beautiful poem is talking about the tremendous significance of these insignificant plums, because who’s eating them? a poor old woman. And why would you spend all this time on plums? Because they’re important. They taste good to her.  Why is that important? Maybe not many things do; or maybe her life is still rich even though she’s poor and old; or maybe both things are true.

And now I’m really late for work so I haven’t got time to give this poem what it deserves, really, but you should! Do it, go read something, come on.


One Response to “Tuesday Poem: “To a Poor Old Woman”, by William Carlos Williams”

  1. Emma 21/06/2011 at 11:48 am #

    I ❤ WCW and his poems about plums.

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