LYRIC COMPANIONS William Carlos Williams “To A Poor Old Woman”

Context: “The pleasure of beauty is deep and escapes the antiaesthetic asceticisms of many religious and philosophical moralities. Being pleased, “hedone,” the sweetness of the “to be”: there is an ontological pleasure—the love of life lives deep down in pleasure.” William Desmond “The Intimate Universal,” 308.

Milosz wrote his headnotes to introduce the poems in his Polish anthology to his readers in Poland, his homeland. It was his effort to create a body of poetry set against Socialist Realism. Living in exile, Milosz continued to write in Polish. His ecstatic pessimism, grounded in the facts of life in the early 20th-century, was leavened by Buddhist compassion and his Catholic faith. That’s it in a wretched little nutshell.

William’s “poor old woman” is more than a concept. She has no roots in the Socialist ideology. Contemporary readers must defend against their mindset. She is an indivual, her universality is intimate to herself, her situation MORE than rational categories.

Her roots are in the flesh of her incarnate being. The language of the poem is plainer than plain. It is not an expression of her unique self. It is William’s voice, which Milosz suggests is a reconfiguration of Whitman’s.

That is, the voice of this poem gradually emerges from the lines of the poem. They follow the lyric narrative, which avoids the reductivism of ideology. It starts with the image of a poor old woman munching a plum (the repetition of the “uh” sound begins the construction of this energetic frieze of grammatical repetitions, insisting on the original image).

Does the repetition of the phrase “taste good” clog the porosity between the poo old woman and the good? Yes, a loaded question! NO! The repetition of “good” roots the poem in the archaeology of being in Western thought. Williams’ language is polyvocal.

“You can see IT”: the pronoun of the INTIMATE IT not univocal conceptual universal. “She gives herself”: she does so freely, with gusto. She’s not a victim of her poverty now. She’s the top of the hierarchy of being, a Luminous Thing!

The lyric narrative works its dialectical way through the image (“the one half/sucked out in her hand” captures the specificity of THIS thing).

The narrative brings us to a fresh new syntax recalling the “absolute grammar” of “a paper bag/of them” in the first stanza. “Comforted” is one bit; then another bit: “a solace of ripe plums/seeming to fill the air….”

The solace hangs in the air like an epiphany, the ultimate “subject” of the poem. The repetition of the theme sounds out the key fact. This fact connects the poor old woman to the intimate universal of being, which is the flesh.


Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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