On "Proletarian Portrait"
Donald W. Markos
Short stanzas in Williams' poems often frame discrete visual impressions so that they have more time to sink into the reader's mind. Furthermore, in the above poem, the first two stanzas establish a rhythmic norm: they are both complete units of description and the shorter line in each stanza is a simple prepositional phrase. Reading the whole poem silently, one mentally hears the wavelike regularity of a long phrase followed by a short one. To continue in this fashion, however, would be monotonous. Instead, Williams begins to vary slightly from the grammatical pattern in the third stanza where the shorter line is just an article and a noun, though almost identical in length to the two preceding short lines. The fourth and fifth stanzas vary considerably more, but still preserve the basic long-line/short-line pattern. (Incidentally, another rhythmic pattern is formed by the trochaic two-syllable words that end each long line except the last.) The last line, because it varies from the pattern by being a single line, stands out with special significance. The variation from the pattern helps not only to bring the poem to a close but to prompt the reader to see special significance in "hurting," universalizing it to the larger sense of hurt felt by the working class during the Depression--a symbolic interpretation in keeping with the poem's original and mock-portentous title, "Study for a Figure representing Modern Culture."
In addition to controlling rhythmic movement, the neatly designed stanza form, almost geometrically precise in its measurement of alternating line lengths, suggests a firmness and stability appropriate to its subject. The firmness of the visual form is reinforced by the pattern of endstops created by complete grammatical units that end each couplet and by the capital letter that begins each couplet to give it the form of a statement if not the structure of a sentence. This is a no-nonsense verse form. The directness and economy of the poem, supported by such strong alliteration as standing / stockinged / street, give it a focused intensity, like that of the strong young woman herself.
From Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by Associated University Presses.
Whether he is writing of trees, flowers, the poor, the sick, the seasons, months, cities or streetscenes, or city individuals, the subject matter and method of Williams reveal ‘a certain rustic uncouthness whose end is a celebration and which wears the stamp of locality’. In all of his work place is the focus:
Not only is ‘locality’ (a sticking to New Jersey when Pound and Eliot had chosen European exile) the geographic source of William’s poetry, but ‘locality’, seen as the jerks and outblurts of speech rendered on to the here and now of the page, is the source of his lineation.
It is this sense of locality which permeates the work of Carlos Williams and gives a startling clarity to poems like ‘Proletarian Portrait’, ‘The Lonely Street’, ‘To a Poor Old Woman’, ‘A Women in Front of a Bank’ or either of the poems titled ‘Pastoral’, which we have explored. It is in these precise and vivid street scenes particularly that we can see just how Williams retrieves local everyday experience and makes it viable for verse. Deceptively simple, these poems are totally committed to the distinctiveness of the people, the moment, the object, the feeling, the whatever is the focus of their attention.
From Wisker, Alastair, "William Carlos Williams." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.
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