The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

Gentleness, even all gentleness, may sound restrictive, but the poem “To All Gentleness” asserts that apparent opposites are akin. The first simile, likening “pink roses bending ragged in the rain” to a plumber’s silvered cylindrical tank, posits a relationship between apparent incomparables. The speaker encounters both on a trip through the rain, the cylinder advertising a plumber’s shop. Both, the speaker finds, invoke “enduring” gentleness. Surrounded by rain, the roses support a cylinder of raindrops above them, linking them surprisingly but with the clarity of geometry to the plumber’s tank. The soft, organic, and vulnerable and the hard, mechanical, and indestructible are thus seen to be related. Indeed, the rose plant itself, to protect its tender flower, produces thorns and is thus a combination of gentle beauty and the threat of violence.

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His contemporaries, the speaker reflects, ignore the lessons of nature about survival depending upon complementary contraries, the soft and hard, the gentle and fierce. People foolishly distinguish between high art—opera and the classics—and the everyday, the “anti-poetic.” That distinction is, the speaker asserts, “Garbage.” Poetry should not divide the world but should, like an old painting of the biblical prophet Isaiah’s ideal, the lion and lamb lying down together in peace, cause one to see the unity of what otherwise seems opposed. People aim too narrowly, failing to see relatedness. An archer regards her ability as a route to prizes and a teaching job. Others exercise themselves in law courts to avoid intimate human relationships. Still others engage in business as a wedge that unnaturally divides their heads, creating oppositions within them. They buy nature instead of appreciating and living in it. With World War II raging, the speaker mentions a fighter plane that crashed. Even violent mechanical failure can, if the pilot falls into the sea, result in seawater salving his wounds. Gentleness and fierceness are linked, even as a wave rising and a wave turning into foam are one. That young pilot, a native of Seattle, would be able to return home alive. The speaker asks, Why separate astronomer Copernicus and musician Dmitri Shostakovich from what they accomplished; why separate the “occasion” from them? Such differences are like distinctions between halves of an apple. The wave that lifts and the wave that dashes down, death of one creature and provision of food for another, are parts of a unity. Caught up in only half their lives, people ignore the beauties of nature, “blind to/ the sun and moon, the brilliant/ moonlight leaves.”

Military violence and the “packed word,” encrusted with acquired connotations that shroud clarity, prevent humans from discovering relationships. They must understand through physical presence at opportune moments, presented in cleansed language. “Strength/ thrust upon weakness, the convulsive ecstasy,” images of sexual union, the thrusting male and soft receiving female, should be seen as evidence of the constructive union of apparent opposites, not as violent images of conquest. Neither violence nor gentleness is the “core” of being; both are—even as milkweed and an embankment, a plant “reaching up from sand and rubble” are—elements of a single reality.

The speaker refers to a thin, pregnant woman who is a forewoman at the ship foundry, a valuable worker during wartime. She has had three miscarriages, and her husband married her in order to produce sons. That slender pregnant woman is tough, impervious to pain—gentle enough to be a calming place for violence, to embody the unification of opposites as do the cylinder and thorny rose with which the poem began.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315

Readers do not know specifically whom the poem’s speaker is addressing. Perhaps they are simply overhearing a soliloquy, or perhaps the speaker is actively trying to persuade the reader. The poem takes a form appropriate to talk—paragraphs of free verse. The form and diction of much of Williams’s poetry, a selection of everyday words in an arrangement free from formal strictures, was sometimes called “anti-poetic,” but such a judgment is simplistic and misleading. The poem is shaped by an inner logic. The importance of “enduring,” for example, warrants a full line, the space of many words, because endurance is long-lasting, often despite adversity. The form responds to content. The thought of paragraph 1 is not quite done, so the paragraph that follows “enduring” is hemi-stitched to it, a subparagraph picturing the indissoluble union between flowers and a boiler, two objects of the first paragraph. Physical form in this kind of poetry both enhances and depends upon meaning. Significance determines its own formal embodiment. Thus the seemingly “free” verse is shaped by the content it conveys, the significant elements of the whole.

In Williams’s poetry, those significant elements are communicated through objects, events, and representations of people’s thoughts: wilting roses, a plumber’s tank, the misguided thoughts of opinionated people, the ambitions of an archer, the tribulations of a fighter pilot, the penetrating and receiving aspects of love and sexuality. The poems speak through “concrete” references, abiding by Williams’s dictum that truths should be sought “in things.” This commitment to inherent truth identifies Williams as a modernist. His wedding of truth in things to everyday words, allowing him to address a broad audience, identifies him as an inclusive modernist. His democratic values spring to life in both the content and the forms of his poetry, helping to shape the free, sinewy, and meticulously ordered poems in which he embodies his thoughts.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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Themes