‘This Is Just to Say’, a 1934 poem written by the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), offers itself to the reader as a note left by the poet to his wife. Is this all ‘This Is Just to Say’ is: a note of apology Williams penned to his spouse for eating the plums out of the icebox? Or is there more to this poem, which helps to explain its status as one of the most famous, most quoted, and most parodied poems of the twentieth century? You can read ‘This Is Just to Say’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
‘This Is Just to Say’ comprises just 28 words, arranged into three quatrains or four-line stanzas. However, note that the title, ‘This Is Just to Say’, also forms the first line of the poem: we get a run-on line even before we have got to the ‘first line’ proper. It is a classic example of free verse, although Williams himself preferred the term ‘variable foot’. The term ‘free verse’ implies a lack of control, a complete disregard for the technical aspects of good poetry, such as spacing, line endings, syntax, and stanza breaks. Just because a poem doesn’t rhyme and lacks a regular metre does not mean it is, or should be, completely free, for that implies chaos and a lack of artistic control.
And indeed, how ‘free’ is the verse of ‘This Is Just to Say’? Note how in the first stanza, there is a small degree of consonance between the words in the odd lines (‘eaten’ ‘in’) and those in the even lines (‘plums’, ‘icebox’). Enough for this to be put down to coincidence, sure, but a sign that there are some delicate and subtle poetic effects in this most prose-like of poems. The sentiment the poem expresses may be unremarkable and prosaic; the arrangement cuts against any conclusions that, just because the subject is ordinary, the poem has to be.
William Carlos Williams believed that everyday domestic details could be incorporated into poetry. ‘This Is Just to Say’ is a classic example of how he went about doing this; another famous poem of his which puts this ethos into practice is ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. Both poems focus deliberately, indeed wilfully, on the small, the ordinary, the everyday: plums in an icebox and a red wheelbarrow beside some white chickens. But in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Williams had made important claims for the importance of the titular wheelbarrow and its positioning: ‘so much depends upon’ it, we are told. Similarly, in ‘This Is Just to Say’, there is more that is implied by the poem than is explicitly stated: once we know (or, indeed, deduce) that the male poet is apologising to his wife, a whole series of questions, assumptions, and speculations arise.
The words of his ‘note’ are themselves speculative: he assumes that his wife was saving the plums ‘for breakfast’, so he has presumably left this note either late at night (when his wife had gone to bed) or early in the morning (before he left for work: Williams himself had a day-job as a paediatrician). Did he scoff the plums during a late-night writing session? Or did he eat them for his breakfast, before leaving for work? Is this his first attempt, or is he in the habit of wolfing down the food he knows his wife is probably planning to eat herself? Is such arid interrogation helpful, and is it what Williams wants us to do – go round and round in circles, chasing our tails, trying to work out why such a trivial note has been made into a poem?
It was Williams’s fellow American modernist poet, Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), who famously said: ‘A poem should not mean but be.’ Modernist poetry likes to challenge and frustrate our expectations of poetry, what we expect poetry to do; and one of the things we expect it to do is have some clear meaning. Usually this means it will be about something of some obvious importance, or that its language will be appropriately ‘poetic’. So, a poet might write about something ordinary – a toothbrush, a kitchen, a chair – but will use figurative language, and perhaps suggestively emotive imagery, to make us see the ‘point’ of the poem. Or a poet might write about something more explicitly and traditionally ‘poetic’ – being in love, fear of death, being at war – but do so using down-to-earth, matter of fact language.
What puzzles and frustrates many readers and critics of ‘This Is Just to Say’ is that Williams denies us both a ‘poetic’ topic and a ‘poetic’ language: the words he uses are ordinary and direct rather than figurative or grand, and the subject is entirely forgettable and everyday. It’s as if Williams is deliberately trying to push the boundaries of what a poem can be – and to move away from the idea that a poem should mean (something).
In this connection, it’s perhaps understandable, though only partially accurate, to analyse the poem as an example of imagism: that earlier twentieth-century movement (roughly contemporaneous with the First World War) which put the ‘Image’ at the centre of the poem. Ezra Pound famously defined the Image as ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’; the emphasis, of course, is on the clear, vividly realised image that is at the centre of the poem. But Williams’s poem doesn’t even really match Pound’s definition for imagism here: the plums just are in the icebox, rather than being suggestively juxtaposed with an icebox for poetic effect. In imagism, the poetic Image is usually actually two images, two separate things, which are brought together: so, famously, in Pound’s own ‘In a Station of the Metro’ the faces of the people in the Metro station remind Pound of the petals on the ‘wet, black bough’ of a tree. We have no such juxtaposition in ‘This Is Just to Say’. At least the red wheelbarrow was placed next to some white chickens!
It’s also often said by critics that ‘This Is Just to Say’ is a note of apology. But this isn’t all it is: there is a friction between the first two stanzas and that final stanza, which purports to offer a reason for the poet’s plummy transgression (he couldn’t help himself: the plums were just too inviting, so sweet and so cold) but actually runs the risk of rubbing his poor wife’s nose in it (‘you should have tasted them – they were delicious!’). So if there is a friction or spark between different elements in ‘This Is Just to Say’, it is perhaps between the poet’s earnest desire to offer an apology and the mischievous delight he has taken in eating those delicious, sweet, cold plums.