William Carlos Williams, “The Chrysanthemum”

I too want to savor joy as if every moment were the last. Porochista Khakpour, in “Just (Don’t) Do It,” outlines her approach after Lyme disease made it all but impossible to go back to a busier lifestyle:

Gone were the days where I could barrel through a full day of teaching followed by back-to-back meetings, then drinks with a colleague, plus a party or two, minimum sleep with an early morning alarm to get to the gym. That life was no longer an option. I even became that person who would really chew my food, while recalling the months prior when I couldn’t manage to swallow. This gratitude, coupled with an aversion to my old life, led me to dismantle anything that induced stress, from people to places to habits. Now, I observe more than I act. I prioritize sleep over production. I make sure friends and family are part of my daily life, and reserve time to check in with myself. Not much happens, and that’s the point.

I certainly don’t see teaching, meetings, drinks, a party, and then the gym the next morning as particularly bad. Maybe a little bit more sleep? One less drink? But that seems a matter of preference more than a change of orientation. It does feel as if one has to view things an entirely different way in order to experience joy. Time must be spent in really chewing food, remembering what it was like not to eat, allowing oneself to be overwhelmed with gratitude. One has to dismantle stress and, for myself, the pride sometimes taken in being stressed, i.e. imagining oneself a person of no small importance.

“I observe more than I act,” she says. William’s musing on a flower below focuses on a peculiar kind of observing. Sometimes, things are too beautiful, and we wonder what we have seen even as we feel its full force:

The Chrysanthemum
William Carlos Williams

how shall we tell
the bright petals
from the sun in the
sky concentrically

crowding the branch
save that it yields
in its modesty
to that splendor?

Williams’ poem is a question. Overwhelmed by beauty, he wonders how to distinguish the petals of a chrysanthemum from the sun’s brightness. The flower radiates ever more concentric circles of light while the sun crowds it. The only response to such beauty is to analyze it, to make an aesthetic judgment in which the words may not add up to anything grammatical. That’s fine—that seems the best case scenario.

How shall we tell the bright petals from the sun in the sky concentrically crowding the branch[?] establishes the image we must visualize. The golden flower cannot be separated from the golden sun; like the branch, this part of the poem is itself crowded. All we know is that the sun must be “in the sky,” the flower on “the branch,” but our sense of depth finds itself limited by staring into the sun.

So analysis switches to considering another depth. I guess the sun in the sky can be separated, as it yields in its modesty to that splendor. This brings us back, strangely enough, to the flower itself. Now one could say that the “bright petals” could literally be “from the sun in the sky”—the speaker might not be able to tell what anything is in overpowering sunlight. One might go further, adding to the ambiguity of perception and challenging to an extreme degree the intelligibility of the first stanza. Is the sun even visible, if the chrysanthemum has blocked it and stolen its light? What yields to what in modesty, what yields to whose splendor?

I hold the sun has to be thought illuminating the flower because the brightness cannot be stared at for long. The reconstruction of the image must happen in the mind; the chrysanthemum, present with us, does not really yield to the sun but is a visible, tactile reminder that joys bloom. When they bloom for us, they take on added significance. Williams, a classicist, probably has in mind one of the few things I learned in Greek class. Kosmos does not just refer to the order of the universe but one’s own ornaments. To wear something that beautifies one is to reflect the true order of things.

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