Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'The Sun Bathers' & 'The Term' by William Carlos Williams

              The Sun Bathers

                   A tramp thawing out
                        on a doorstop
                        against an east wall
                        Nov. 1, 1933:

                        a young man begrimed
                        and in an old
                        army coat
                        wriggling and scratching

                        while a fat negress
                        in a yellow-house window
                        leans out and yawns
                        into the fine weather


              The Term

                   A rumpled sheet
                        of brown paper
                        about the length

                        and apparent bulk
                        of a man was
                        rolling with the

                        wind slowly over
                        and over in
                        the street as

                        a car drove down
                        upon it and
                        crushed it to
                        the ground. Unlike
                        a man it rose
                        again rolling

                        with the wind over
                        and over to be as
                        it was before.


Although all modernists were preoccupied with the idea of representing “reality”, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite different. For Williams, a practicing doctor in a poor neighbourhood, that reality also included the social conditions and lives of those he knew and treated. Although his approach often shares, with Eliot and Stevens, the idea of recording life objectively he had – and only discovered this recently – a strong antipathy towards the high modernist stance of these two poets, particularly that of Eliot.

In many ways I find Eliot a more exciting poet. There is a virtuosity both in form and texture (a kind of sonic pyrotechnics) which is absent – quite deliberately – from these poems. With Williams I find there is rarely a brilliant or memorable line but the poems as a whole are brilliant in their pared back way. I think, temperamentally if nothing else, I’m drawn to this work. It seems to me also, for all its almost documentary objectivity, to have a heart. He just presents what is there (the red wheel-barrow etc) but there is so much care in how he does this. The work has, in the end, an empathy with those it represents (the tramp lying in the doorway, the scruffy young man, the black woman who leans out her window) though like the best documentaries it almost never explicitly states this.

In many ways I think the lyric poem and the photograph have a lot in common. Although a poem is imagistic it also has temporal quality so the analogy is not complete but somehow they seem close. (In a way, a poem has to be an image or sequence of images and cannot be abstract, say, in the way a painting can.) But ‘The Sun Bathers’ and ‘The Term’ are closer to very short, and seemingly random, pieces of video – as though a camera were simply pointed at an average scene (like the bag tossing in the street) and allowed to run for 10 or 15 seconds. The poems have that almost found quality that so many of Williams' peers in the art world were also exploring.

Obviously though, these poems are not casual at all. There is a real art to the images he turns his eye to and the sequence in which they appear. Sometimes they are like a pan-shot that moves slowly from one image to another (from the tramp to the woman in the window in the first poem), or the camera that holds on an image that most people would simply ignore like the cat stepping into a pot, or a bag as portrayed in 'The Term' (“about the length and apparent bulk of a man”) blowing down the street. It is almost impossible to be this direct and simply.

I’ve often wondered if Alan Ball had 'The Term' in mind when he wrote the scene for the film American Beauty where Ricky shows Jane the video footage he has taken of a plastic bag circling round and round as it is caught up in an eddy of wind.

There was a wonderful American documentary series called Voices & Visions which looked at the great American poets of the 20th Century. One episode was dedicated to Williams. Unfortunately it's not possible to embed this material but here are the links that will bring you to two long clips from the episode available to view on Youtube:

Pt 1:
Pt 2:


  1. Yes, interesting comments about modernism and the nature of reality. These poems are great illustrations of what you say. I´ve been reading quite a lot of Roy Fisher just recently and find the way he combines the Williams and Eliot elements that you mention here in his representation of reality quite fascinating.

  2. This will be a recurring theme I think, particularly notions of accuracy as applied to art and then to science - which obviously have different criteria. A poem, after all, can never be a theorem and a proof, but yet it can be truthful and not in a way that can be measured. It can be analysed or just understood, but a caliper will be of no use in the judgement!

  3. Yes, I think you are spot on with the American Beauty comparison. I've always liked the idea that writers are very much sociological but keep the aesthetics alive.

  4. I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again! It fascinates me how I was taught about William Carlos Williams in the 1970s as 'in interesting poet even though he isn't a great one'. So much has changed in our view of him. The way his poems have lasted, have influenced others, and that 'something' that they have. It's not easy to write in that simple way he did. I think you're right about the empathy he has somehow conveyed. I saw Ishiguro at the London Book Fair recently and he said that, although he writes about the big themes, it's actually the way people relate to each other in a book, and the way the reader relates to them, that really matters.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis, it really helped my daughter and me as we did a high school lesson on "The Term". I especially appreciated your insight into the objective/empathetic aspects of Williams' work. We wish you success in your personal work!

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis, it really helped my daughter and me as we did a high school lesson on "The Term". I especially appreciated your insight into the objective/empathetic aspects of Williams' work. We wish you success in your personal work!

    1. Thanks for your very kind message, Karen. Always nice to hear that these posts are of some interest and use, especially for students and folk of all ages. Appreciate, also, your kind wishes about my own work. I love doing it!