W. C. Williams Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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From Spring and All (Norton Vol. D 346-47); Poems: "Queen-Anne's Lace" (Vol. D 305); "Spring and All" (Vol. D 306-07); "To Elsie" (Vol. D 307-09); "The Red Wheelbarrow" (Vol. D 309); "The Dead Baby" (Vol. D 309-10); "This Is Just to Say" (Vol. D 310); "A Sort of a Song" (Vol. D 310); "Burning the Christmas Greens" (Vol. D 311-13); "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (Vol. D 313).

"Queen-Anne's Lace" (Norton Vol. D 305)

1. In W. C. Williams' "Queen-Anne's Lace," the speaker gives whiteness a connotation that differs somewhat from the one we often give it, the simple notion of purity and innocence. What do whiteness and other colors or color references mean in this poem? If someone -- me, for example, right now -- asked you bluntly what the poem is "about," how would you respond?

"Spring and All" (Norton Vol. D 306-07)

2. W. C. Williams' "Spring and All" is of course partly a landscape description -- it helps us to visualize a patch of land alongside the road to a hospital as winter begins to turn into spring. But that isn't the most interesting thing about this poem. What does it tell us about natural process, and about the relationship between natural process and the speaker's own consciousness as a perceiver of the natural world?

"To Elsie" (Norton Vol. D 307-09)

3. In W. C. Williams' "To Elsie," the name apparently refers to Elsie Borden, Williams' mentally challenged maid, but the poem is sometimes read as representing America's failure to imagine itself in a sustainable or coherent way. What can you find in the poem's references to Elsie and others as well as its landscape description that might support such an interpretation? Or if you have some other way of understanding it, what's the basis of your own reading?

"The Red Wheelbarrow" (Norton Vol. D 309)

4. W. C. Williams himself, in a recorded March 19, 1952 interview at Princeton University, jokingly called "The Red Wheelbarrow" a "perfect poem," and suggested (seriously enough, I think) that "It means just the same as the opening lines of {Keats'} Endymion: 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever'." What do you suppose he meant by talking about the poem in that way? Furthermore, what is it that "depends" on the red wheelbarrow, and why so?

"The Dead Baby" (Norton Vol. D 309-10)

5. In W. C. Williams' "The Dead Baby," what perspective is offered on the departed child as well as the suffering of the parents? How do you understand the poem's conclusion from lines 19-24, with their reference to displaying the child for visitors somewhat like a curio-item in the parents' home -- what kind of strategy does the poem seem to imply for coping with the child's premature passing?

"This Is Just to Say" (Norton Vol. D 310)

6. In what way does W. C. Williams' "This Is Just to Say" challenge the ordinary way of thinking about poetic form and subject-matter? If someone were to say, "but this isn't poetry at all!" how might you defend it? Or would you?

7. With regard to his "This Is Just to Say" poem, in a June 1950 interview with John W. Gerber, Williams himself says, "everything in our lives, if it's sufficiently authentic to our lives and touches us deeply enough . . . is capable of being organized into a form which can be a poem." He also says it would be a bonus to set it down in "conventional metrical form." Do you favor something like this rationale for writing poetry with such unassuming, humble subject matter? Why or why not?

8. In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," William Wordsworth references the following deliberately foolish "poem" from Samuel Johnson: "I put my hat upon my head / And walked into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand." Wordsworth explains why it doesn't measure up thus: "the matter expressed in Dr. Johnson's stanza is contemptible. The proper method of treating trivial and simple verses … is not to say, this is a bad kind of poetry, or this is not poetry; but this wants sense; it is neither interesting in itself, nor can lead to anything interesting …." Do you suppose that Wordsworth would say the same thing, more or less, about W. C. Williams' "This Is Just to Say"? Why or why not?

"A Sort of a Song" (Norton Vol. D 310)

9. What relationship between words and things does W. C. Williams' "A Sort of a Song" advocate? How is the metaphor of the saxifrage plant useful to the poet in that regard? What about the comparison between "snakes" and the words of a poem—how does that help deepen our sense of the relationship the poet may be asserting between words and the world?

10. In W. C. Williams' "A Sort of a Song," the speaker says in a parenthetical musing, "No ideas / but in things" (9-10). In saying that, what basic perspective on the nature and source of "ideas" does the speaker apparently reject?

"Burning the Christmas Greens" (Norton Vol. D 311-13)

11. W. C. Williams' "Burning the Christmas Greens" explores the meaning of the practice whereby one goes out and cuts little branches from trees to serve as wreaths and other Christmas decorations; some time after the holiday is done, one burns this greenery, as here it is cast into a fireplace. How does the speaker draw out the value of these ornaments, beyond their obvious decorative uses? How are they made to relate to the great power of the seasonal cycles (nature's pageantry of perpetual death and rebirth), and to the renewal of the human spirit itself?

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (Norton Vol. D 313)

12. W. C. Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" is partly a description of the famous Brueghel painting in which Icarus, his wax wings having melted because he flew too close to the sun, is shown just as he has fallen into the sea where he drowns. What forces referenced in the poem seem to strive to prevent the title event from taking center stage? Even so, how does Williams keep the death of Icarus before us or in our thoughts?

13. The Daedalus and Icarus story from Greek mythology is often interpreted as relevant to the fate of flights of poetic imagination. How might we enlist that insight in reading W. C. Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"? How, that is, might the poem be understood as a meditation on the limitations of artistic and literary representation?

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