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On "This is Just to Say"


Stephen Matterson

The poem, cast in the form of a note left on the refrigerator, sounds found. As with the found poem, the lack of a mediating voice leaves the reader with a wide range of potential meanings. Oddly, although this much-anthologized poem is firmly in the canon of twentieth-century poetry, there is no general agreement as to its theme. Any thematic interpretation is made self-consciously and somewhat uncertainly. As with the found poem, Williams's poem allows the reader a wide range of possibilities. He or she is free to decide whether it is "about" temptation, a re-enactment of the fall, or the triumph of the physical over the spiritual. Each reader is left free to construct a poem, and the reader becomes the owner of the resulting poem.

For example, I might suggest three possible readings. The poem could be concerned with the uselessness or self-entrapment of sexual desire, comparable to "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame." There's the potential Oedipal reading, with the boy thwarted in an attempt to comprehend his origin; to learn of it from his mother. Or there's the reading that would suggest self-referentiality; it is the poem itself that "means nothing."

From World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets." Ed. Leonard M. Trawick. Copyright 1990 by The Kent State University Press.


Marjorie Perloff

Stanzas to see - it is interesting that Williams himself never quite understood the workings of his own prosody. Thus when, in an interview of 1950, John W. Gerber asked the poet what it is that makes "This Is Just To Say" a poem, Williams replied, "In the first place, it metrically absolutely regular. . . .So, dogmatically speaking, it has to be a poem because it goes that way, don't you see!" But the. . .stanzas exhibit no regularity of stress or of syllable count; indeed, except for lines 2 and 5 (each an iamb) and lines 8 and 9 (each an amphibrach), no two lines have the same metrical form. What then can Williams mean when he says, "It's metrically absolutely regular"? Again, he mistakes sight for sound: on the page, the three little quatrains look alike; they have roughly the same physical shape. It is typography rather than any kind of phonemic recurrence that provides directions for the speaking voice (or for the eye that reads the lines silently) and that teases out the poem's meanings.

From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the pound tradition. Copyright 1985 by Cambridge University Press.


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