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Main | Standby Poems: Experiment by WisÅ‚awa Szymborska »

Standby Poems: Between Walls by William Carlos Williams

Often it takes longer to try and describe a William Carlos Williams' poem them than it does to actually go and read them. I recently had that experience in America with the poet Chris Salerno as we were being driven to the venue for our reading (in a very small car, huddled on the back seat). We were discussing favourite poets, as you do, and came to William Carlos Williams and after going through the classics I again tried to remember ‘The one about the broken glass around the back of the hospital’ and failed and thought, that has to be my next Standby Poem. So I can just reach for it easily next time I struggle to explain it again.

Because there are so many loveable and terrific William Carlos Williams poems and the classics, as discussed with Chris on our way to Georgia Tech – have to be ‘This Is Just To Say’ (the apology about eating the plums in the fridge) or the ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (so much depends on it) or the cat one (that I find is simply titled ‘As The Cat’, deliberating where to put its feet as it climbs down - look out for the flowerpot!). Or how about the other plum poem ('To a Poor Old Woman')? About the way she enjoys eating plums from a bag in the street (giving herself to the plums that 'taste good to her'). I need to read that one again now too!

And doesn't William Carlos Williams have the perfect name by the way? It's curious, slightly mad and makes you smile. Just like his poems. He was a doctor and so the story goes, he wrote them on a typewriter between seeing his patients. His short poems certainly have that typewritten punch to them - you can imagine him hammering down each letter of each well-chosen word before Mrs Madison arrives with an ear infection. He pushes the typewriter to one side...

Just by trying to describe my favourite as ‘The one about the broken glass around the back of the hospital’ - I've already used half as many words as WCW uses in the entire poem. ‘Between Walls’ is just 24 words long and they are the exactly right 24 words too. The line endings slow you down and make you savour each word, you have to take your time so you can be careful where you tread around the back of that hospital. It's like you’re following his directions to get to the treasure.

You're not sure what they are at first, those pieces of green. And the poem enacts that discovery. It's a celebration of the unlikely that I love, how our eyes are drawn to what sparkles, the small unexpected joy of finding little tricks of light in the most dingy of places.


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