For a poet to question the constructs of his own genre might astonish his peers. William Carlos Williams is this poet, who writes plainly and proudly with a light heart, straying from the conventions of traditional poetry. His poem, “This Is Just to Say,” may come across as trivial, but the tone is quite earnest. The poem can be read as two sentences, but on the page are broken up into three stanzas, each comprised of very short verses — the line breaks act as the only source of structure. The absence of punctuation allows for a smooth reading of the poem, despite the fragmentation of the sentences.
It can be off-putting to read a poem that does not appear to be hiding anything because it goes against the established notion that poetry should be subtle, ironic, and even confusing. At the same time, Williams’ poetry can be very confusing, and intentionally so, because it is so simple. As a modernist writer, he sought to reestablish the definition of poetry—“make it new,” as per Ezra Pound’s proclamation.
The title of the poem can double as the first line of the poem. When read aloud, the poem does not appear to have a title at all and reads as a sort of announcement. The title diminishes the objective of the poem as insignificant and dramatizes it. The abrupt beginning of the poem gives the sense that the speaker appears to be blurting out a thought in the midst of a striking moment.. There is no context given for the situation in which the speaker says, “This is just to say,”going against the conventional idea that poetry is thoughtful and premeditated.
The first stanza is a simple sentence that has been fragmented into separate lines: “I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox” (1-4).The placement of line breaks is important in Williams’ poem because they appear to be the only things that make this poem a poem, forcing the reader to question what constitutes as poetry. Traditional poetry is often filled with imagery and figurative language and follows a particular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. There are no overt poetic devices used in this first stanza like similes or metaphors. It is just a sentence. Williams does not describe the plums or the manner in which he eats them, as many traditional poets have done. This minimalistic approach can perhaps be just as powerful as traditional poetic styles. Because Williams’ simplistic style appears to be straightforward, it creates a greater drive to excavate a deeper meaning and opens the poem to a wider range of interpretation.
With the ending of each line in Williams’ poem, there is a sense that something of greater significance might follow. This technique highlights the mundane nature of the subject as being of importance. The line breaks in the first stanza dramatize the simple sentence at hand, creating a juxtaposition between what the speaker is saying and the way they say it. Every time it appears that a line will be followed by something profound, the reader is met with something average. For instance, in the second stanza, it seems that the lines “you were probably / saving” will be followed by something more significant and earnest than just “breakfast.” In this case, the speaker suggests that his action of having eaten the plums has significant implications. Williams’ method of breaking up the stanza affects the tone of the poem, and therefore the reader is free to interpret the nature of the speaker’s declaration. If Williams’ intention is to force the reader to question the purpose of poetry, then he must also introduce the possibility that there is no purpose.
The question of purpose is somewhat complicated when taking into consideration the poem’s symbolism. Williams’ speaker is tempted by a literal fruit, alluding to the story of Adam and Eve. The poem tells a story of a man who ate something he shouldn’t have, but enjoyed it nonetheless. Williams’ casual writing style satirizes the story of original sin by comparing the biblical fall of man to eating someone else’s breakfast.
Within the second stanza, the poem’s intended audience is directly addressed: “and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast” (5-8). Beginning with the word “and” suggests a continuity throughout the poem, particularly since it is not capitalized. “Forgive me,” in the final stanza, is capitalized, as the first word in a line of poetry traditionally is. Just as the title blends into the first stanza of the poem, the second stanza blends into the first, making the poem feel more like an ongoing sentence than a poem.
Williams does not put more than three words in a single line in his poem. In this stanza, the line “you were probably” precedes “saving,” which is the only line in the poem to contain just a single word. The transition between these two lines is somewhat sharp, demonstrating the effect that such subtle changes can have. If the line were written: “and which/you were/probably saving/for breakfast,” then the poem would more resemble the first stanza. The disparity between the lengths of these two lines shows Williams’ use of unconventional techniques.. Having one word constitute a full line of the poem puts emphasis on it. The word “saving” is more isolated than any other word on the page, and the reader is therefore urged to interpret it as very significant. However, the following line says “for breakfast,” adding a comical quality.
Williams’ poem, a quintessential modernist piece, defies the traditional conventions of poetry. The poet’s use of enjambment creates an edgy experience for the reader, who is constantly expecting something more poetic than what is written. The poem is written in simple language, but is full of hidden meanings and subtleties that are not immediately evident. Williams plays with the reader, relying on this notion in order to challenge the conventions of traditional poetry. He wants to confuse the reader by having them search for a more complicated meaning, even though there might not be one.Williams challenges the notion that poetry must have many convoluted layers in order to be considered what it is — poetry.
by Polina Smelyanskaya