blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Great Figure"

Henry M. Sayre

What focuses the poem, and later Demuth's painting, is "the figure 5." It organizes the chaotic world around itself. . . .

The urban landscape of the poem is blurred in the refracted light of a night rain, deafened by the cacophony of clangs and howls, and made to seem altogether unstable and tumultuous by its central image of tension, speed, and change, which Williams emphasizes both by placing the lines "moving/ tense" at the poem's heart and by moving us in short, tension-ridden, one word lines through that center. Juxtaposed to this world is the figure 5. The clarity of its vision opposes itself to an almost completely confusing (and, in the context of a fire, destructive) moment, even as the brightness of its gold color opposes itself to the "dark city." The numerical figure, as Demuth's painting makes clear an Jasper Johns's later reworking of it in The Black Figure 5 (1960) makes even clearer, is simply an abstraction, a design. If the figure is "unheeded," that is because it has so little to do with the world from which it has been lifted.

Henry M. Sayre. From The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Peter Halter

For Williams's friends, "The Great Figure," with its sensitivity to things completely outside the confines of Art, Beauty, and Culture, was a paradigmatic achievement. It was this poem in particular that Kenneth Burke singled out for praise in one of the earliest appraisals of Williams's art in 1922: "What, for instance, could be more lost, more uncorrelated, a closer Contact, a greater triumph of antiCulture, than this poem" ("William Carlos Williams," p. 50). . . .

The image of the firetruck racing through the city in the midst of the frenzy of "gong clangs" and "siren howls" evokes the enthusiasm of the Futurists for the dynamic chaos of the modern urban civilization. The poem is, together with a few others (e.g., "Overture to a Dance of Locomotives"), clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for the Futurists, the epitome of a teeming life force with myriad nodes of energy. . . . 

The golden 5 in Williams's poem is the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world. . . .

In Williams's poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the "I," the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is "unheeded" by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.

"The Great Figure" is also one of the poems that recall Duchamp's influence, in particular that of his ready-mades: The golden figure 5 is a veritable objet trouvé, discovered by the poet among the innumerable things that belong to the neglected "soulless" present-day technological environment so systematically bypassed by the more traditional artists. It is evident that Williams's poem belongs within the wider context of Duchamp's praise of American technology and the new self-confidence that this praise instigated in the American avantgardists. In addition to that, as pointed out earlier, the Frenchman's provocative ready-mades undoubtedly helped Williams to come to the conviction that a poem, like any other work of art, "can be made of anything." The very title of "The Great Figure" contains this conviction in a nutshell: In 1920, when the poem was published for the first time, a reader probably expected it to be about a figure of public importance rather than about a number, or immediately realized the clash between what one could generally expect to find in poetry and what one found here - a poem that violated the basic poetic conventions by almost any standard.

Apart from influences from the visual arts, there are of course also literary ones. Al Que Quiere! and Sour Grapes, shows how Williams adopted Imagist techniques for his poems of discovery, as one could call them. It reflects some of the basic tenets of Imagism, such as the utmost concentration on one or a few images, and the total absence of "verbiage" or outworn poetic diction. But here, too, there are differences; it is characteristic of Williams that he refuses to invariably "poeticize" the details on which the poem focuses by means of overt metaphors and similes. Hence Williams hardly ever takes up the Imagists' haiku-inspired practice of linking up an "outward" image to an "inward" metaphorical one but tries to remain as faithful as possible to the immediate sensory experience. This might, but as often did not, necessitate the introduction of overt metaphors and similes. . . .

Thus in "The Great Figure" only one word--"tense"--is used metaphorically: The poet,in an empathetic identification with the tenseness of the firemen and the whole situation, projects it onto the firetruck and the golden 5 itself.

The short lines are another device that can be related to Imagist tenets, since they direct the attention to each single detail; only when these details stand out in utmost clarity can they fully display their "virtues of form and color." The effect, however, is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem, as the various lengths of the lines indicate. Even in this short poem there is a clear progression from beginning to middle and end. The opening lines focus on two details of the city and night - "rain" and "lights" - and in very few words create the atmosphere of a specific setting. Then the poem moves on quickly to the center of interest. Once its focus is fully on the number 5, the even shorter lines slow it down and arrest our attention by throwing each detail of the seemingly trivial object into relief. The most striking element is, of course, the gold, which "jolts the poem into life," as James Breslin remarked in his excellent analysis of the poem, "seeming to leap out at us and demand our attention." Part of this effect is rhythmic: If we take the first two lines as a unit - "Among the rain and lights" - we get, together with the third line, two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:

Among the rain / and lights
I saw the figure 5

Coming after this, the exclamatory "in gold" receives the greatest possible emphasis, with the sole beat of the line on "gold" and a pause after it (or a fermata, musically speaking) that adds to its impact. In addition to this, the lines following ("on a red / firetruck") mark a complete rhythmic change; "in gold" thus becomes the climactic endpoint of the first iambic part of the poem, which is followed in the second part by a more complex and tenser rhythm.

This change in rhythm coincides with the change in focus - the view is gradually enlarged from the gold to the "red / firetruck" and from the truck to the hectic movement and the nerve-racking sounds; in a series of powerful syncopated double-beat lines:

to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

In the end, when the dramatic moment is over, the poem is also over, with the firetruck disappearing into the night. Thus the last line takes us back to the beginning; the poem opens and closes with a wide-angle shot, so to speak, of the dark city with its rain and lights, a background which very effectively frames the sudden appearance of the golden figure in an exciting flash of color, sound, and movement.

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 By Cambridge University Press.

Christopher J. MacGowan

In his autobiography Williams links the incident that produced the poem to a visit to Hartley's studio on Fifteenth Street, repeating the poem's association with Hartley in a 1956 interview with Emily Farnham. (Hartley's correspondence narrows down the probable date of his visit--he lived at 337 W. 15th street in the second half of 1919, where McAlmon also rented a room.)

Williams writes in the Autobiography:

Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.

Before continuing his account of the visit, Williams breaks his narrative to insert a later reminiscence. He recalls standing on a station platform with Hartley

when an express train roared by right before our faces--crashing through making up time in a cloud of dust and sand so that we had to put up our hands to protect our faces.
    As it passed Marsden turned and said to me, "That's what we all want to be, isn't it, Bill?" (Auto, 172)

The juxtaposition of the express train anecdote clearly associates the train, the speeding fire engine with its figure 5, and the painter Williams was about to visit. The connection is reinforced by the apparently casual reference that transforms Hartley and his studio into "his number." In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed to this larger meaning, explaining, "In the case of The Great Figure I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' [sic] in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist."

By alluding to his painter friend in terms of a numerical figure set against a dynamic, colorful background, Williams matched the strategy of Hartley's 1913-15 Berlin canvases. These abstract works, painted under the impact of his meeting with Kandinsky and Marc, fuse military, sexual, and numerical symbols into what Hartley called "consultations of the eye ... my notion of the purely pictural." As with Williams's figure 5, the numbers scattered across these canvases reflect not only the modernist aesthetic behind their composition, but also an esoteric quality peculiar to the scene or person abstractly portrayed. Many of the paintings gain further numerical associations through such abstractionist titles as Painting No. 1, Painting No. 2, etc. Most of the works, including Painting No. 5 which Williams may have had specifically in mind, are dominated by the military colors of white, black, red, and gold, mirrored in "The Great Figure" by "lights," "dark," "red," and "gold."

Both Hartley and Williams emphasized their strategy of capturing the 'immediate.' Hartley insisted upon the spontaneity of his Berlin compositions, declaring, "The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day." Williams similarly asserts that "The Great Figure" is the record of an "impression ... sudden and forceful," despite the variant printed versions of his poem, and the manuscript evidence of their careful revision.

Writing about Hartley five years after his friend's death in 1943, Williams singled out the Berlin pictures as the painter's most significant accomplishment. He could have seen the works at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in Spring, 1916 or January 1917, or at Hartley's studio, since many were unsold and remained in the painter's possession. Williams's sense of the dynamism, violence, and color of the paintings corresponds to the setting of "The Great Figure".

Hartley knew Paris, and, more important, the Berlin of just before the First World War and painted there ... abstract furies, close to the eye, pressing as it were on the eye, of great significance and beauty. . . . I have seen many attempts to equal them with their bold strokes of primary colors, exploding bombs, the arching trajectories of rockets.... It was a phenomenon unequalled in the history of art. If for nothing else these paintings of this period mark Marsden Hartley as one of the most powerful figures in American painting.

In the context of the Hartley association, "The Great Figure" achieves a level of meaning not noted by Williams's commentators. Rod Townley finds the poem's "tense / unheeded" to be "weak," while James Breslin claims of these lines that "Williams, uncertain that the object can speak for itself ... speaks for it." But the lines are in fact crucial, for like the figure, painter and poet are also "tense / unheeded." "The Great Figure" becomes a type of the artist isolated by an America inimical to its vital, creative talents. The painter still suffered poverty and neglect despite the "phenomenon" of his Berlin pictures, and Williams's work was still buried in little magazines and slim, self-financed volumes.

Yet the poet is about to visit the painter, and the poem finally affirms the hope that America's "unheeded" artists can support each other. As the final poem of Sour Grapes, "The Great Figure" qualifies the volume's "disappointment, sorrow." Sour Grapes fits into that pattern frequently structuring Williams's work: a despairing "descent," from which the poet emerges envisioning a rebirth of creative activity through the power of a rejuvenated imagination. But the hope that this poem's synthesis of poetry and painting represents--like the hope of "unity" that Contact represented--proved vain. In the summer of 1921 Hartley joined McAlmon and the other expatriates in Europe.

From William Carlos Williams: The Visual Arts Background. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Christopher J. MacGowan.

Return to William Carlos Williams