The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Elsie” is a free-verse poem of sixty-six lines, divided into twenty-two stanzas of three lines each. The title indicates the person to whom the poem is addressed: Elsie, the poet’s housekeeper.

Elsie’s early life is sketched in a few lines: “reared by the state and/ sent out at fifteen to work in/ some hard-pressed/ house in the suburbs.” Not even the first mention of her name, “some Elsie,” dispels the aura of obscurity that surrounds her. Moreover, this introduction is delayed until the fourteenth stanza, well into the poem.

Before Elsie herself is acknowledged, the poet implies her benighted conception: Stanzas 3 through 9 report promiscuous encounters between “devil-may-care men” and “young slatterns.” Such coupling is brutish and violent in its carelessness: “succumbing without/ emotion/ save numbed terror.”

Issuing from such an act, this “desolate” girl expresses “with broken/ brain the truth about us.” She embodies the indictment that opens the poem: “The pure products of America/ go crazy.” Elsie’s body—her “ungainly” hips and “flopping” breasts—represent the perversity of a vulgar, ultimately sterile culture. Her attraction to “cheap/ jewelry” and “rich young men with fine eyes” suggests the roving, lustful acquisitiveness that causes Americans to treat the earth that bears and would nurture them as “excrement.” They live as “degraded prisoners/ destined/ to hunger” until they “eat filth.”

Although the poet envisions “isolate flecks” in which “something/ is given off”—illumination in glimpses—“No one” is there “to witness/ and adjust”; that is, to interpret the signs and institute reform. The poem concludes with the observation that there is “no one to drive the car.” America runs recklessly, devoid of vision or good judgment.