The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

“The Desert Music” is a relatively lengthy open-form poem. The title refers to the topic of the poem, a desert journey, as well as to the musical imagery present throughout the work. The poem is written primarily in the first person and appears to be drawn from the personal experiences of the author. The poet functions as a speaker of the poem as well as an observer within the poem. In describing his purpose, the speaker states that his goal is, when describing his desert journey, “—to tell/ what subsequently I saw and what heard.” When functioning as an observer, the speaker identifies himself by name (William Carlos Williams). He also mentions that the group with which he is traveling includes a total of seven members, and he specifically describes an incident involving one of his friends in particular (identified by the initial H.). In addition, as speaker, Williams refers to the actions of his wife, giving her name as Floss.

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The journey described in the poem is likened to a dance that begins and ends with the speaker’s observation of a figure located on the international bridge between the United States and Mexico:

—the dance begins: to end abouta form propped motionless—on the bridgebetween Juarez and El Paso—unrecognizablein the semi-dark.

Here the speaker establishes a specific setting for the events outlined in the poem. He describes a journey, taken with several friends, from California, through El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico.

The events in the poem are generally presented chronologically as the speaker travels from one location to the next. There are numerous references to the characteristics of the people that the speaker encounters while in each specific location. First he describes the figure on the bridge, then he describes the attributes of the Texans he meets throughout his travels. He asks, “What makes Texans so tall?” Later he describes the children who beg for pennies (expressing annoyance at their grasping fingers), the Indians at the market booths (who seem to be asleep but are actually alert), and a woman he observes while at a nightclub. Williams expresses his admiration for this woman, a striptease dancer, because she does not let her worn-out form prevent her from practicing the art of dancing. In general, the speaker’s descriptions are brief but vivid, and they focus on what is observable to the human eye. However, the speaker interjects his concerns as a poet regarding the best way to create a poem that will reflect the experiences of his journey without copying nature.

The closing of the poem is similar to its opening in that the speaker again refers to the figure by the side of the bridge. The events presented seem to have taken place over a period of several days, with much of the description focusing on incidents occurring during the evening hours. The return to a description of the unknown figure near the international boundary seems to mark, for the speaker, the beginning and end of his journey.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

Although a number of poetic devices, such as repetition and imagery, are present within the poem, in general, one of the interesting features associated with “The Desert Music” (as well as with many of Williams’s other poems) is the absence of conventional form and content. As previously noted, the poem is open in its form and therefore does not include the use of a specific rhyming pattern or a specific metrical construction. To establish a coherence and a cadence, Williams uses punctuation such as dashes, commas, and end marks to signify the ways in which the lines should be read. Williams was often recognized as a poet who experimented with various forms and techniques in his effort to imitate the sounds and scenes of life.

Williams is also noted for using language that is direct and succinct rather than language that ornaments or embellishes. “The Desert Music” uses the common vernacular, and Williams presents images in an economical fashion. As a result, some of the scenes depicted have almost a photographic quality. The market scene is particularly vivid in its presentation. Williams identifies the items sold in the market booths in a way that renders the “baked red-clay utensils, daubed/ with blue, silverware,/ dried peppers, onions, print goods, children’s/ clothing” visible and concrete.

While “The Desert Music” presents many vivid images and is somewhat reminiscent of Williams’s earlier poems that have been closely associated with the Imagist movement, this poem illustrates his move toward Objectivism. In this latter approach to poetry, the poem becomes an object, and in “The Desert Music” the poet struggles with the question, “How shall we get said what must be said?” To answer this question within the framework of “The Desert Music,” Williams repeatedly refers to music and dance.

The speaker first mentions music when he describes the figure on the bridge. In referring to the music of the desert in relationship to the figure, the speaker says, “A music/ supersedes his composure, hallooing to us/ across a great distance” Later, the speaker notes the presence of music as he and his friends drive through the desert. He describes the music as being the “music of survival, subdued, distant, half/ heard.” When describing the erotic dancer, he notes that “She fits/ the music,” suggesting that as a result she is able to transcend her audience and become virtuous through her art.

In addition to repeatedly referring to music and dance, the speaker repeats his concerns about producing a poem that does not copy nature but rather imitates it in a unique way. He also questions the purpose of writing poetry. In an implied conversation, the speaker responds to the question, “Why/ does one want to write a poem?” His response is direct and simple: “Because it is there to be written.” This question-and-response pattern is evident throughout the poem in a way that resembles a refrain in a musical composition, and Williams’s thoughts are interspersed with the descriptions of the desert journey.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 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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