By CL Bledsoe
When I was seventeen, I discovered William Carlos Williams, and I hated him. It was in a senior English class. We’d been reading Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, both of whom I found transformative. Dickinson’s formality felt like poetry should to my nearly virgin ears; the lines were a sturdy, comfortable room within which her fears and disappointments could live. It was familiar and yet surprising. I identified with the romanticized image I had of her, this thoughtful soul sequestered as she commented on life.
Plath, on the other hand, was a goddess, Kali of the swords, her passion a giant wave promising to drown and destroy those who’d wronged her. Her novel, The Bell Jar, was funny, sad, powerful to me in ways I hadn’t realized literature could be. My senior English teacher tried to get me to do a presentation on it, but I didn’t want to share; I felt like these poets were writing for me. Even though their lives had obviously been different from mine in almost every way, the underlying truths in their work spoke to me on a visceral level: I was not alone.
And then, we read this poem about some plums in a fridge. Our teacher warned us this would be unusual. That was fine. I thought I liked unusual. Hell, I was unusual. Normally, I was very vocal in English class. This didn’t make me a lot of friends. (Luckily, I made friends other ways.) Many times, classes would devolve into a basic dialogue between me and the teacher, with the occasional interjection by other students. This wasn’t because I didn’t allow others to speak; it was because they didn’t care about literature or school, in general. But I was passionate about literature, even though I was by far not the strongest student in the class, on paper. I made Bs, usually, with the odd A thrown in. But when it came to discussing symbolism, working out meaning, authorial intent, talking about structure, I never shut up. Until we read the poem about the plums:
This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
I couldn’t speak. I thought it might be a joke, but Allen Funt never appeared. I felt heat rise in my cheeks. My hands squeezed into fists. Mrs. R — — asked for reactions. No one had anything to say. She called on me. I couldn’t put into words how I was feeling, except,
“I don’t think this is a poem.”
She nodded, expecting that reaction, I’m sure.
“Why not?” She asked. “What makes something a poem?”
I struggled to answer.
“It’s just some words,” I said.
“Aren’t all poems ‘just some words’?” she asked.
I made half-hearted attempts to explain. I offered form as an argument, but plenty of poems aren’t formal. Someone pointed out that Williams’ poem is broken into stanzas, though they’re not metered.
“A poem should have an underlying story,” I suggested.
“Isn’t there a story in this poem?” Mrs. R — — asked.
By the end of class, Mrs. R — — hadn’t convinced me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There was a story in the poem. Here was this guy who seemed to be a houseguest. He’d done something selfish, “I have eaten/the plums…you were probably/saving/for breakfast,” which I really wanted to dislike him for, but he left a note, which was polite and thoughtful. “Forgive me,” he pleads, which is a strong imperative. Then, he explains himself, “they were delicious.” Not BUT “they were delicious,” which would be an attempt to justify himself; he gives a simple statement of fact which is also playful. He’s at the whims of his nature, of animal passion. Similarly, he doesn’t hem and haw, at the beginning:
I have eaten
that were in
So maybe he’s not a completely terrible guy. He owns his mistake and how it has inconvenienced his host. It is simply the joie de vivre of the experience that is responsible; the plums were delicious and refreshing. Perhaps he saw them and scarfed them down, then realized that this might have been a faux pas and left the note out of a sense of, not exactly regret over having eaten the plums, but regret that he caused a possible disappointment to his host.
Even though I grudgingly admitted there was something to it, I still didn’t want to admit it was a poem. I vacillated between justifying my discomfort by accusing Williams of being a poor house guest. I would never eat another person’s plums, I told myself, indignantly. I didn’t even like plums. Except sometimes.
Later, we read more unusual poems, like Leonard Cohen’s “All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann.” This time, I was more prepared for the strangeness thanks to the bombshell of Williams’ poem. That discomfort stayed with me for years. Williams pried open my comfortable room of poetry, challenging what I thought a poem could and should be. Later, I would encounter poems that seemed to be random groupings of words, visual poems, poems with codes, but I was now, at least, aware that poetry could be just about anything.