Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Daniel Mozes
Category: Critical Essay
Instinct and Consequence: The Nature of Humanity in William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” and Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”
William Carlos Williams believed that almost anything can populate the literary world of a poem as its central subject. His poem “This is just to say,” for example, describes the speaker eating a plum that someone else had been saving for breakfast. The aesthetics and content of this poem further reflects the poetic philosophy that Williams championed- that poetry should be a tool to capture the perfect sincerity that can be found in the shortest moments and the smallest things. Decades later, the poet Kenneth Koch wrote a poem titled “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” a parody of Williams’s poem. In it, Koch also uses his poetry as a tool for an authentic introspection of life, but he does so by subverting Williams’s philosophy of the immediacy of human nature. By pointing out the consequences of spontaneous actions and parodying the innocently impulsive speaker of Williams’s poem, Koch presents what he sees as a more complete introspection on the human experience.
In “This is just to say,” William Carlos Williams aims to capture the authenticity in an immediate human experience. He sees poetry as a tool through which trivial things can convey the very essence of being. The simple 28-word poem celebrates the authenticity of living in the moment- the humanity of indulging in innocent transgressions without fear of consequences. The structure of the poem, at the surface, seems like it could just as easily be rewritten as prose: as two, perhaps three sentences. However, the way that Williams lays out the words on the page is central to interpreting the meaning of the poem. Most obviously, each stanza starts out narrow and continues to be so (two-three words per line), showing the bareness and simplicity of both the poetic form and content. For example, the first stanza is written as such: I have eaten
that were in
the icebox (1-4) This structure has the effect of breaking each clause with a new line, which disrupts the flow of language and introduces a stumble in reader’s attention. This enjambment forces the reader to digest reality in short snippets, thus necessitating a focus on the details rather than the larger narrative. Short of these line breaks, the poem has no regular rhythm or syllabic count, no rhyme, and lacks any punctuation. It reflects the simplistic philosophy that Williams embraced – away with convention, with iambic pentameter and rhyming schemes. The choice of plums as the main subject also plays a role in this rejection of convention because plums have no history, no implications, and no pre-imposed symbolic meaning. Compared to – say – a rose, a plum is something that is yet untainted by the restrictions of convention. With these aesthetic choices, Williams captures the sheer uninsistant presence of the superficial subject of his poem, and shows that the triviality is not antithetical but rather critical to the poem’s meaning.
The title of the poem is the first line in which the aesthetics of the poem are linked to its contents: the phrase “this is just to say” is a double entendre. The first interpretation is of the phrase as just an offhand, casual comment. The second interpretation, however, uses the word “just” as a moral term; in other words, it is only morally proper for the contents of the poem to be said. Thus, the title of the poem alludes to both the triviality that infuses the poetic form, and the moral dilemma central to the poetic content. An effective way to examine this subtle content is to consider what Williams hasn’t done. Traditionally, one would expect the subject of the poem to be most dramatic aspect of situation- in this case, the struggle between temptation and ethics. However, Williams gives very little, if any, focus to the moral conflict. While the speaker does apologize, the apology is unconventional. It is only introduced in the second stanza, and preceded by a caustic “probably.” Even more surprisingly, the apology doesn’t contain either remorse nor a justification. There is no conventional moral struggle with temptation- the speaker merely registers the facts: “I have eaten / the plums,” “you were probably / saving.” There is no contriteness, no abstract platitudes- the speaker doesn’t defend that he was particularly hungry nor does he promise to control his desires better in the future. And when he does ask for forgiveness, his appeal is simply an evocative recollection of the plum’s allure: they were delicious
and so cold (10-12) Williams chooses to ignore the typical good/evil binary in favor of celebrating the triumph of natural authenticity- the speaker thus justifies his appeal for forgiveness with qualities of honesty and self-knowledge, not out of any moral obligation. To Williams, spontaneity is what is natural and human, and thus “This is just to say” is a tribute to what Williams sees as the human experience.
Kenneth Koch subverts Williams’s poem in a desire to not touch upon not only the immediacy of the present, but also the continuous reality in which our selves always live. In “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” Koch recognizes that while the natural self is noteworthy, it is also necessary to confront the consequences of our immediate desires and reflect upon them based on our desires and hopes for the future. Koch’s main method of parodying Williams’s poem is by creating ludicrous and consequential alterations on the speaker’s innocent lack of consideration for the person to whom the poem is addressed. The first stanza of Koch’s poem reads: I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting. (1-3) The lines in Koch’s poem are significantly longer than Williams’s- this signifies that Koch’s poetry explores longer effects of the present beyond just the moment. Also, Koch utilizes punctuation in his poem whereas Williams had none. This results in the poem resembling prose- the first line in itself, for example, is a complete sentence. Koch thus creates a poetic landscape that is more grounded in reality and consequences than that of Williams, whose free verses seem to float in the liminal space of a single moment. Koch’s content also has significant distortions from Williams’s: the theme of the poem changes into a far more serious transgression – from stealing plums to destroying someone’s house. Koch also deviates from Williams’s in that he does provide a justification for the speaker’s actions, albeit absurd- he suggests that the wooden beams of a house can be “ so inviting,” alluding to the “so sweet / and so cold” description in Williams’s poem. By taking the theme and pushing it to an absurd extreme, Koch subverts Williams’s poem and asserts that while desires borne of the human experience is natural and authentic, its moral consequences can be even more so. The darker tone of Koch’s poem, and the heavier repercussions upon the victim, transforms the reader’s view of the human experience and forces them to confront the aftermath of our choices, however natural they might be.
While Williams and Koch differ in poetic form and content- Williams writes in short, simplistic language about the immediate present, while Koch writes about the consequences of impulsive actions in longer lines- both poets aim to express their own perspective of the nature of humanity. Wiliams, in his poetry, seeks to convey what he saw as the essence of humanity- in his poem, the moral question of the speaker’s transgression is overpowered by the more profound human sense of essence- a self-recognition of the speaker’s nature and an appeal for acceptance. Koch, although he subverts Williams’s style in many ways, still strives for his poetry to convey his sense of authentic humanity. Unlike Williams who sees an affirmation of life in the radical awareness of the now, Koch instead finds humanity in acts borne of awareness for its repercussions on others. Here lies the central dichotomy between the two poets that are reflected in their poetry: to Williams, humanity is expressed in the most natural instincts of people, but to Koch, humanity is shown most clearly when people reject those natural instincts in consideration of its consequences on others.