William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

Derision is easy. I often tell myself that adults act out an extended version of high school. Somewhere between 14 and 18, our tastes form in some fundamental way, the sort of people with whom we associate establishes itself, our goals begin to feel natural. But derision is easy, too easy. Maybe we’re not reliving high school. Maybe we really act out 6th through 8th grade, which for me felt the worst. It was every stereotype we had about each other codified, the objects of the classroom never feeling quite real. I remember how moldy, secondhand, and abused the books, desks, and walls were. It always felt like “ugh,” like I was slogging through someone else’s bad ideas, someone else’s tired memories. We weren’t teenagers, not even in our imagination. We were our parents’ spawn.

I think that’s how Williams’ poem has to be introduced, for it receives a considerable amount of mockery and hate. Is the source of derision the part of us that won’t grow up? For some people, this poem looks like immature scribbling, just saying anything and calling it a poem. For others, there is an acute sense that the drama is overwrought, too much emotion in too few words:

This Is Just To Say (from Poetry)
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

It’s easy to see why someone would turn on this with a vengeance, especially if their taste refuses to grow. Nothing rhymes, and I don’t even know the imagery is symbolic. Who sits and thinks about what plums mean? Line lengths look arbitrary, and worst of all, the poem doesn’t seem to say anything. It’s easy for an adolescent to move from condemnation of the poem to condemnation of the poet and the notion of modern art.

I hope speaking about poetry for years has aided your instincts. I haven’t been perfect as a writer, not by a longshot. But maybe you asked why this poem was written at all, what person in what situation would write such a thing. I hope you looked at this and immediately saw the sort of letter you leave when you leave a lover, when you move out without warning. If you did that, you understood exactly the combination of absurdity and pain the poem displays. As one prepares to abandon someone once and for all, one focuses on the freaking plums, treating them as a rather direct expression of sensual pleasures (“delicious,” “sweet”) and the fact such pleasures are not a sufficient condition for commitment. “Cold” cannot be emphasized enough.

Again, it might be objected that this poem is overly dramatic. I don’t think it is, but I don’t really want to spend time trying to convince you of that. I’d rather focus on the fact that much of the mockery this poem gets comes from people who constantly consume media which does the exact same thing. They take that media far more seriously than this poem. I’m not speaking of rom coms or trashy soap operas here, but rather some of the more powerful, celebrated performances we’ve seen in film or on television. Regarding that thought, this poem does have a peculiarly cinematic quality to it, and I wonder if I’ve been complaining about the right thing this whole time. Maybe the truth is that we see exactly what this poem is and balk at what it says about us. Maybe we see that we could write such a thoughtless, cruel letter out of some crude sense of independence, as if love exists without a beloved, as if difficult moments in relationships can be avoided through regression into childlike behavior.

4 Comments

    1. Williams has excellent stuff. Honestly, I’m stupid for not reading him and writing on him more. He has a great facility for dealing with complicated themes. In “This Is Just To Say,” he gives us the brokenness and cruelty of a lover leaving, refusing to simplify the problem this presents. But this is not the only poem of his with such sensitivity.

  1. Hmmm — I haven’t thought about it this way, but I like your perspective. I’ve seen it more as somewhat humorous, the “forgive me” being the clue. There are those times in a relationship or marriage where you think, “I just know I shouldn’t, but . . .one little bite of that, ok, maybe all of it. I just ate all the tortilla chips.” And knowing in the back of your mind that you’ll be forgiven. There is a sense of taking the relationship for granted. There will be other plums, and other things to forgive. Or maybe, just maybe, there is the sense that, “This time I won’t be forgiven, and they will leave first. And I won’t have to face doing the leaving myself.”

    1. Williams does have poems which are definitely funny little comments on domestic life. Hopefully, I’ll get to those soon. (I have no idea what I’m going to post today).

      I love your posting about books on fb as you’re reading! It definitely makes my timeline 500,000 times more literate than it otherwise would be.

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