William Carlos Williams wrote a quick note to his wife one morning, a ‘passing gesture’, and stuck it on the refridgerator before heading off to work. The note turned out to be a very short poem,This Is Just To Say and became one of his most popular creations when it was published in 1934.
The poem takes about 20 seconds to recite, has no regular rhythm or syllabic count, no rhyme, and lacks any punctuation, other than line-breaks. It is true to the poetic philosophy that Williams championed – away with convention, free the line, write poems about anything, be local, be American, no ideas but in things.
The things in this poem happen to be plums and yes, there’s no doubting, all the ideas seem to spring from this delicious, juicy, cool fruit. Perhaps the plums were picked or bought by the person the note is aimed at; perhaps they were going to be shared?
Either way, the speaker is casual, forthright and a little guilty.
Williams wanted his poetry to be rooted in reality, with strong images (he was a keen Imagist) and a local feel. This Is Just To Say is a work of intimate detail; just a few words laid out neatly that hold so much more.
He helped establish a new American street-and-backyard voice in poetry, minimalist, sketchy, in contrast to poets like T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound who preferred the European and Asian traditions.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
This Is Just To Say is a snapshot of a poem, a moment in time, a tiny field of 28 words, 37 syllables, 3 stanzas.
The title reads like a first line and there’s a temptation to follow straight on into the poem proper. Almost before you know it, you’ve finished reading, perfectly reflecting the quick burst of energy that created the poem in the first place.
But then there’s a need to step back. Although the poem, the note, is very short and seems like a personal confession of sorts, ( actually husband to wife), there is much more going on beyond the immediate field.
Who could the speaker be confessing to? It’s not necessarily a wife, it could be a friend, a partner, a lover. The plums could be a metaphor – sweet, delicious, fresh – for sexual activity, for love? Or temptation?
Williams wanted freedom from restraint in his poems, he wasn’t interested in line after line of iambs, trochees, pentameter or tetrameter or other such confining devices. This troubled some of the other poets at the time but others welcomed the break away from the boring rhymed lines of formal convention.
This Is Just To Say is a snippet of domestic news that eventually went viral thanks to the brevity, plain language and novel approach to form and line. It was intended for just one person but is universal in its appeal.
The form and the lineation are crucial to the success of this little poem. Short lines need to be read with care, as lack of rhyme and rhythm tend to make the reader wary. If you’re reading these lines for the first time be ready to change tack at the end of lines 8 and 10.
So this is a free verse poem with no regular rhythm but it does have iambic beat in lines 2,5 and 11 – the plums…. and which – and an unusual amphibrach beat in lines 4,8 and 9 – the icebox ….for breakfast…. Forgive me & (amphibrach is when a word has unstressed.stressed.unstressed or uXu syllables).
If this poem is written down as a piece of prose, with additional punctuation, it becomes two or three sentences:
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me! They were delicious, so sweet and so cold.
Or squeezed into another form:
I have eaten the plums
that were in the icebox
and which you were probably
saving for breakfast
Forgive me they were delicious
so sweet and so cold
I think this all in one form doesn’t quite achieve the balance of the original. The prose, with commas and exclamation mark, turns 28 words into a line of dialogue! Read through these two examples and then compare the read throughs with the original.
It could be argued that three tiny stanzas enable the speaker to separate out the I, you, me perspective and the enjambed lines allow a free-flow for the reader. William Carlos Williams crafted this poem in such a way as to make it contemporary on the page and memorable for the mind.
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005