William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

With thanks to Michael Tinawi. For Emory Rowland.

This Is Just To Say (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Comment:

At least twice people I’ve known have sat around making fun of this poem at length. This poem was their excuse for avoiding poetry entirely. Quite honestly, given some of the attitudes displayed, I think poetry won by not having their readership. I wasn’t a sharp enough reader myself to defend this poem, but knowing how capable Williams is – “Complete Destruction” stands out for me – I knew I’d be returning to this someday.

A good way of approaching any given poem is through reconstruction of the drama. “This Is Just To Say,” the title, implies that something more important hasn’t been said. The poem itself seems trivial, as the speaker apologizes for eating some plums in an icebox. A few details stand out, though. “I” in the first stanza is strictly separated from “you” in the second. The plums were eaten before breakfast, as if the speaker left before joining a breakfast he and the addressee should have had. The speaker pathetically begs forgiveness; “saving” and “Forgive me” give what is probably a goodbye note solemn, nearly religious overtones.

One can say all of this is a stretch. But like Jim Gordon says in TDKR, “You’re a detective – you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.” Good poems make every syllable count. Knowing that, we should not be afraid to explore themes and symbols. The plums are described sensually, and “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” might describe the progress and demise of an intense but superficial relationship. I wonder if Williams meant for us to see this poem as laughable. Tragedy doesn’t occur in obvious, easy to digest ways. Watching your life fall apart isn’t something anyone else sees but you.