William Carlos Williams is Everywhere!

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe is her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That had been hurting her

The poem above is that of William Carlos Williams, and I was exposed to it in my Poetry Writing class on a little sliver of paper, meant to be both admired and learned from. I didn’t realize however that this was the same man who wrote several of the poems that we were required to read for this class (don’t you love it when education overlaps). While my mind didn’t initially jump to our good friend Whitman, after some thought it became very obvious just how Whitmanian it is!

One key and crucial keystone to Whitman’s work was his ability and drive to connect to the whole population (which we discussed in class, Whitman’s connection vs modernist isolation). He achieves this with the inclusiveness of his catalogues, depicting a wide variety of individuals and their lifestyles. This poem seemed like it could have been a zoomed extract of one these catalogues, singling in on one of particular action of one particular person. The poem begins as an unattached speaker describes the woman with solid, simple concrete images, some that even have a slight of negative connotation, “big”, “hair slicked back”–not very feminine vocabulary.

The turn of the poem (thank you Carol Ann Davis) however comes with the third stanza. The tenderness of “one stockinged foot toeing/the sidewalk” gives the reader an underlying feeling of sympathy and almost adoration of just how delicate the woman in the poem actually is and the simplistic beauty of a person stopping on the street to find the cause of her pain. This kind of humanity reeks to me of Walt Whitman, who shared this same sense of sympathy towards all people.”And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.” -Walt Whitman

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2 Responses to William Carlos Williams is Everywhere!

  1. AVZ says:

    Great post, Kit — and way to tag it! Williams’s poems are deceptively simple. I remember one time driving on the highway and reciting williams to myself–I discovered that his wheel barrow poem includes almost every conceivable vowel sound, but it hardly duplicates any. It passed the time, anyway!

  2. James Hess says:

    You know, I couldn’t shake this poem from my mind either, Kit, but I couldn’t figure out why. I really like your approach in this post. It reminds me of Whitman in so many ways (after the turn) in the way it humanizes the woman, makes her someone we can empathize with, and the way in which all of that occurs in a single, brief image. It also reminds me of Whitman in the way that he would take those marginalized portions of society and lift them up.

    “The snag-toothed hostler with red hair redeeming sins past and to come, / Selling all he possesses and traveling on foot to fee lawyers for his brother and sit by while he is tried for forgery.” (“Leaves of Grass”). Brilliant.

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