Posted on April 18th, 2013
Art and entertainment establishments often puzzle the generations that are far enough removed from the time when their works seemed in any way revolutionary. If we weren’t afraid to take swipes at established geniuses, we could say that Andy Warhol was no better than a graphic designer proficient in Photoshop, The Rolling Stones sounded like an average bar rock band with a croaky singer, Godard made films encompassing all the signposts of a precocious art film student, and e. e. cummings simply couldn’t figure out how to set the spacing on his typewriter.
This is all very arguable, of course, and probably at least somewhat inaccurate – for full disclosure, I enjoy all of the above except Warhol, whose innovations I nevertheless recognize. Still, many imitators have arisen since these individuals first changed the rules of the game, many falling short, others perhaps surpassing the originals in quality. It is quite probable that new generations of artists and fans don’t see the same thing their forebears did when evaluating the innovators.
Then, there are individual works of art that did not change the game, and may not have even been the best that their creators had to offer – and yet, they managed to become the face and representation of their form, like a hapless CEO or Senior VP leading (and often sinking) a company full of quality staff. The Wild One , a cinema classic, is corny and borderline unwatchable today, with its mediocre acting and self-seriousness. And as poetry goes, few representations of the form puzzle me as much as This Is Just To Say , by William Carlos Williams.
I first encountered the poem about ten years ago, on the wall of a New York subway car. (No, it’s wasn’t spray-painted or scratched into a window with a screwdriver.) The city’s Poetry In Motion initiative, which occasionally displays brief poems and excerpts of longer pieces along the walls of subway cars – giving commuters something to stare at besides poorly designed ads for English classes and all manner of plastic surgery – at one point chose this gem. I read and re-read it, each time wondering what it was about the piece that made it worthy of consideration.
Poetry is generally not the easiest art form to swallow, and I believe a huge part of the reason is that much of it today does not conform to any meter or rhyme scheme. Poetry was a major part of literary education in pre-1990 Russia: children were required to memorize poems by famous writers like Pushkin and Mayakovsky, and recite them from memory in class, but all of these poems could not have been written as anything but poetry. Ditto for Shakespeare’s greatest works. Poetry has since become a very liberal term, resulting in what looks like paragraphs of prose broken down into random lines and stanzas. No wonder the poems most people memorize today are song lyrics.
This Is Just To Say is widely believed to have originated as a note Williams left for his wife one morning; for whatever reason, he later turned it into a poem. Much discussion has circulated around this ode to plums and unrestrained gluttony. As there is no real rhythm, scholars have dug deep, seeking patterns in sound like a literary student digging around for meaning in a short story that might not have one. Asks one such analysis: What is the tone – is he apologetic, jovial? Not to state the obvious, but who cares? He couldn’t control himself and ate a bunch of plums that weren’t his to begin with. Sure, we could argue about the details, but what is it about the poem that even deserves all the debate?
Perhaps I am just a philistine; after all, that’s also my view of the Mona Lisa. What’s she smiling about? Was da Vinci making faces at her from behind the canvas? Was she even a woman at all? This debate is as tired as the one about Shakespeare’s identity. It belongs to the heap of moot points. If we did know the truth, would it change the resulting body of work, or the quality of the individual piece? Were the mystery resolved (unlikely), what sort of change would it bring to our lives? In the face of real-time issues like feeble economy, immigration reform, and a healthcare system no army of economists can figure out, have we really run out of things to argue about?
The most interesting thing about the poem is the icebox. It tells us that Williams lived in a world without refrigerators, where even the wealthy used iceboxes to store their perishables. This realization makes you think about the times: What else did Williams have access to that we have since replaced, or now take for granted? Otherwise, the poem is a smirk. The bastard ate his wife’s plums, didn’t leave her any, really enjoyed them for the qualities that good plums generally possess, and despite his written apology doesn’t seem all that sorry. And the world kept spinning.
Then again, perhaps the poem is a success – if Williams wrote it in jest, one aimed at the consumer of the arts. Hey chin scratcher, he would say. I can turn anything into a poem, and you will like it, and you will argue about it all night, and I will have forgotten those plums the next morning.
This is just to say that some classics really are overrated.