An Introduction to Poetry
Richard Ellmann & Robert O'Clair
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
unless one should scour the world---
you have the ground sense necessary.
See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ's sake not black---
nor white either---and not polished!
Let it be weathered---like a farm wagon---
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the
Knock the glass out!
My God---glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out if for us to see
how well he is housed or to
the flowers or the lack of them---
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what
Let there be no glass---
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom---
my townspeople what are you thinking
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.
Especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes---a few books perhaps---
God knows what! You
how we are about these things
something will be found---anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the
For heaven's sake though see to the
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that's no place at all for him---
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own
Bring him down---bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I'd not have him ride
on the wagon at all---damn him---
the undertaker's understrapper!
Let him hold the
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!
Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind---as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly---
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What---from us? We who have
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us---it will be money
in your pockets.
I think you are
The Widow's Lament
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of
Masses of flowers
loaded the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turned away forgetting.
Today my son told
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
poem is a tribute to William's mother.
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
and wheels 'rumbling
through the dark city.
Spring and All
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast---a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding,
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
They enter the new world naked.
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind---
Now the grass,
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined---
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance---Still, the profound
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
so much depends
a red wheel
beside the white
At the Ball
The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them---
all the exciting
of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius---
all to no end save beauty
So in detail they, the crowd,
to be warned against
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut---
The flashy female with her
The Jew gets it straight---it
is deadly, terrifying---
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty
day by day in them
the power of their
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
Portrait of a
Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
are a southern breeze---or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
---as if that answered
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the
the sand clings to my lips---
Agh, petals maybe, How
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), a French painter, was famous for his
pictures of outdoor gatherings of people. However, Williams evidently
has in mind "The Swing," a famous painting by another
French artist, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806, line 8), in which
the girl on the swing has kicked off her slipper, which hangs
perpetually in mid-air.
contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too-heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses
tortures the biggest hulls, the best man
to pit against its beatings, and sinks them
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute
brilliance of cloudless days, with broad
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls
ant-like, solicitously grooming them,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.
In a well guarded arena of open water
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful,
as the light of a happy eye, live with the
of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them
is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if
for some slightest flaw but fails
Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts
move, jockeying for a start, the signal is
set and they
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas.3
Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is sea of faces about them in agony, in despair
until the horror of the race dawns
staggering the mind,
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold.
beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to
be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.
is, reduce the area of their sails, thus go slower.
are the desolate, dark weeks
when nature in its barrenness
equals the stupidity of man.
The year plunges into night
and the heart
lower than night
to an empty, windswept place
without sun, stars or moon
but a peculiar light as of thought
that spins a dark
whirling upon itself until,
in the cold, it kindles
to make a man aware of nothing
that he knows, not loneliness
itself---Not a ghost
would be embraced---emptiness,
whine and whistle) among
the flashes and booms of war;
house of whose
the cold is greater than can be thought,
the people gone that we loved,
the beds lying empty, the couches
damp, the chairs unused---
Hide it away
out of the mind, let it get roots
and grow, unrelated to jealous
ears and eyes---for itself.
In this mine they come to dig---all.
Is this the counterfoil4 to
music? The source of poetry that
seeing the clock stopped, says,
The clock has stopped
that ticked yesterday so well?
and hears the sound of lakewater
splashing---that is now stone.
example, a check stub.
In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,5
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shank must be sound to bear up under
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.
Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), the Flemish painter, was most
famous for his pictures of peasant life, set in ordinary Dutch farms
and villages. A kermess is an outdoor festival or fair held to benefit
a church on the town's patron saint's day.
Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
---go up in a roar
All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash---
and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed
a landscape of flame
At the winter's midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their
At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold's
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees
to fill our needs, and
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons
we stuck the green prongs
in the windows
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the
mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of
white deer as if they
were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare.
stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log's smoldering eye, opening
red and closing under them
and we stood there looking
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we
did not say so) a challenge
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where
small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for
and knocks down
the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of
Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant!6 roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.
In the jagged flames
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind
and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world!
mountains, black and red---as
yet uncolored---and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.
who has renounced formerly held principles or faith.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O'Clair. Modern
Introduction to Poetry. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1973,
W.C. Williams Page]